By Zoe Jannuzi
During one of our sessions on Friday, Jerome Sigamani introduced us to the idea of carrying a story around with you to build peace. He shared the story that inspires him to continue working and told us that if we were to take only one thing away from his talk, it would be to find a story for ourselves. I was particularly interested in this advice as I had previously been contemplating the role that emotions and emotional stories should have in how we confront future situations as peacebuilders.
Last week, during one of our outings, we visited the Salinas police station and were able to speak with the chief of police, Adele Fresé, as well as some other officers. During our visit, the officers s a lot about the institutional culture of the police department. They classified themselves as type-A, unwilling to publicly show deep emotions, or accept help from others.
During dinner on Wednesday, somebody wondered aloud whether we, as peacebuilders, should have our own personality type or group identity. Earlier a group member had shared with us how their perspective on who’s cut out to be a peacebuilder has shifted. From what I understand, they have come to realize that there are people who are too quickly over-come with emotion to handle a life full of exposure to terrible, and often violent conflict. As researchers, we must act as so, responsible for pulling whatever knowledge and understanding we can from a situation, no matter how infuriating or upsetting it may be. On a basic level this might mean nodding in response to things regardless of how you feel on the statement. By giving the appearance of agreement, you put the speaker at ease, and can withdraw the most information. Under this logic, I would also feel compelled to restrain my emotions when hearing the story of a survivor of sexual violence. The general principle being that to continue to receive the most information possible, you cannot let your emotions overpower you and cause your body to shut down.
I don’t have a life of fieldwork behind me, so I can’t comment on whether a specific personality is really a prerequisite for a career as a peacebuilder, but I would like to push back on some theoretical pitfalls of creating an insider peacebuilder culture.
Should we work to develop a field identity? What would be the purpose of such an identity? Is there value in limiting ourselves? Who should be a peacebuilder? Who gets to be a peacebuilder? What is the purpose of hearing a terrible story if you numb yourself and can’t then use the knowledge on human emotion you have gained? What feelings are worth putting away? Do feelings get in the way of action? How do self-care and the ability to put on a brave face interact with peacebuilder culture?
I don’t believe that there should be one type of person in any profession. There may be those who are more suited for one job or another, but in general, I believe that everybody can participate in and make valuable contributions to whatever field they chose. I do, however, believe that institutional identities can serve some purpose. Selecting a common cause is one quick and strong way to unify a group of people. A shared identity can increase your resilience. But I also believe shared identity is limiting, both to the contributions we can make to our field, and also to our own personal growth.
At the police station, the officers spoke a lot about the hiring process, including background checks, investigations, interviews, and probationary periods. What interested me the most was what they said they were looking for. The offers all mentioned that they were looking to branch out in terms of officer personalities. They acknowledged that people with other personality types would bring more to the job then they themselves could provide.
In some ways I believe the job of a peacebuilder, and that of a police officer are very similar. In both professions, you are expected to be able to handle violence in a responsible manner. As a police officer, your job is more immediate and may require using force to counter violence. As a peacebuilder, you may not come as close to direct violence, (then again depending on your role you may) but you are still expected to act intelligently in the face of often heartbreakingly terrible situations. Workers in both professions often internalize some of the pain and suffering of the people they try to help. This is not only dangerous and damaging to the peacebuilder or police officer, but also, if it hinders the worker, extremely unhelpful for the community in need.
This is where a field identity might come in handy. In times of distress, it is often comforting to know that others in your situation experience similar feelings. However, with my understanding of actual police officer culture and the proposed peacebuilder culture, I see some pretty glaring opportunities for harm. Limiting acceptable emotional response to an event is one quite dangerous way to internalize feelings.
I take issue when people describe reactions to violent situations as calm or intelligent, but instead mean they are void of intense feeling. I do not necessarily view intense feeling as a significant impediment to action (although I am quite willing to hear arguments on this). In fact, I believe that when adequately reflected on, feelings may perhaps be one of our vast resources.
This is not to say that people shouldn’t make smart choices about what they can, and should subject themselves to every day. Just as it is unwise to become best friends with a person who abuses you each and every day, it is also unwise to choose a career that will subject you to intense pain or cause you to re-live trauma each day. As peacebuilders, we must not allow our job to become centered around our own emotional stability, but instead, we must recognize that to help others we must have full (as opposed to clouded) access to our thoughts and feelings. Rather than limiting potential peacebuilders by institutionalizing an appropriate level of emotional response, why not give peacebuilders the tools to transform overwhelming emotion into overwhelming action?
I’m interested in finding “my story to carry with me” as I continue my journey as a peacebuilder. I hope it is one filled with intense emotions and teaches me how to hold love and joy, but also sadness and anger.