I occasionally find it difficult to balance what I learn in my Politics major classes with what I learn in my Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies minor classes. Just try taking “Problems of National Security” after “War and Possibilities of Peace,” or “The Arts of Building Peace” alongside “Managing Ethnic Conflict” – all excellent courses taught by brilliant professors and experts in their fields – and you’ll understand the dilemma of simultaneously studying both peace and policy, of trying to understand both bottom-up grassroots movements and top-down government strategies. Although the on-the-ground approaches to conflict resolution and reconciliation in each field can and do often supplement each other, the relevant academic theories often contradict each other.
On March 23, Dr. Deborah Langstaff visited my PAX 250 course, and, in some remarkable way, touched upon all of these things that I’ve been thinking. After she read and sang her translations of poems by the German-Jewish poet Hilde Domin, and played original accompanying music, she answered questions. Somebody asked her to discuss her personal and professional journey.
Dr. Langstaff spoke of being young and wanting to change the world, and the thought process through which her idealism turned into realism. She also asked a question that I’ve often tried to answer, and that everyone involved in both politics and peacebuilding should at least consider: Why do you want to help?
Why do so many of us want to help, to develop, to intervene, to mediate, to negotiate? To shed our outsider stigma and become insiders to dangerous situations? Is it for those we are helping or for ourselves?
Dr. Langstaff also discussed the struggle to obtain funding for genuinely well-intentioned projects. All those of us struggling to choose between accepting unpaid internships with remarkable non-profits and pursing financial independence can relate. How many of us have ever wanted to scream, “Why is it so hard to help?!”
Finally, Dr. Langstaff spoke about our ability to leave a situation whenever we want, and that that’s what differentiates those who try to help from those who may or may not need help. Third parties can leave whenever they want and local citizens can’t. This reminded me of studying abroad in Beirut, and Lebanese citizens constantly reminding me that I only love Lebanon so much because I can move on whenever I want.
Back to balancing peacebuilding and politics. On April 1-3, I attended a workshop sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life’s Peacebuilding and the Arts Program. The workshop, entitled “Peacebuilding and the Arts: Core Concepts and Principles,” was designed for students, administrators, practitioners, and policymakers in the fields of the arts, cultural work, and conflict management. Although the workshop largely reiterated what students in the Arts of Building Peace course learn, I gained a great deal by talking to people who apply what I learn in class in their personal and professional lives. Interestingly, the week of the event, in my Managing Ethnic Conflict course, we discussed techniques for mitigating violent conflict. These included power-sharing, devolution, and partition – all political approaches. The workshop added to my understanding of community approaches to ending conflict, but also to healing and reconciliation after fighting has ended.
On April 12, the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program premiered its documentary, Acting Together on the World Stage. Extremely well researched and presented, the documentary tells of theater bringing people together and helping communities non-violently resist oppressive governments and heal after conflicts. It highlighted productions in various parts of the world, including Argentina, Australia, Cambodia, and Serbia. The documentary is unbelievably touching and inspirational, and I happened to watch it at the perfect time – right when my Politics classes were making me doubt that we can ever really ever end violent ethnic and religious conflict.
If the study of politics sometimes makes me pessimistic, the study of peacebuilding, whether through policy or community-based work, usually makes me optimistic. Turns out that partition – separating groups of people into enclaves through government policy, largely to counter the security dilemma – is not as effective as reconciliation through the arts – bring people into common spaces so they see that they have nothing to fear.
So my struggle will continue, as I lie somewhere in between wanting to create policies that address security and wanting to facilitate reconciliation that addresses relationships.