Getting To Know The Ethics Center

January 24th, 2014

What is the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life? Can you give a clear, comprehensive explanation about what the Ethics Center is? Prior to accepting a position on the Ethics Center Leadership Council last June, I sure couldn’t.


It’s easy to become involved with the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.  The Center is incredibly multifaceted in its programming and offers plentiful leadership opportunities for both students and professionals alike. On the other hand, however, it’s also really easy to involve one’s self with a specific program and forget to take advantage of the other areas the Center has to offer.


The Ethics Center is such a multifaceted organization that coming up with one, comprehensive explanation about the inner workings of the Center is really difficult.  The official mission of the Ethics Center is “to develop effective responses to conflict and injustice by offering innovative approaches to coexistence, strengthening the work of international courts, and encouraging ethical practice in civic and professional life.”


You can read all about the six guiding principles of the center, “an international focus,” “the public square,” “across the disciplines,” “a bridge between scholarship and practice,” “the perspective of the arts,” and “connections to communities” right here.


As a Politics major, the international justice programming acted as a catalyst that inspired me to become involved with the Ethics Center.  When I came to Brandeis as a midyear freshman last winter, I was immediately drawn to ‘DEIS Impact.  Judy and Eliza Dushku, who founded THRIVE Gulu—an nonprofit organization based in Gulu, Uganda that aids Ugandans in healing from various traumas by enhancing their self-sufficiency and self-esteem—gave the Keynote Address. Hearing their inspirational stories ignited a fire that ultimately led me to apply for the ECLC.


After learning more about the Ethics Center as an ECLC member, I became intrigued by Peacebuilding and the Arts and Campus Programming. As a Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies minor, promoting peace by means of creating art was really inspirational to learn about. And regarding campus programs, who doesn’t want a $4000 grant to carry out humanitarian work anywhere in the world?!


For me, the most rewarding part about being involved in the Ethics Center is having access to an incredible network of motivated students and faculty who are all working to promote justice and better the world. Whether it’s learning about student initiatives to promote peace by creating art, reading the work of international judges discussing contemporary issues in international justice, or speaking with Sorensen Fellows who just came back from a summer-long fully funded internship abroad, I am constantly in awe of the resources and programming offered through the Ethics Center.


Starting this February 1, the Ethics Center is sponsoring ‘DEIS Impact 2014, a weeklong festival of social justice. Rumor has it, Nelson Mandela’s grandsons will be speaking at the keynote address! Be sure to check out the schedule of events for a complete breakdown of the entire festival!


If you’d like to become involved in the Ethics Center, please check out our upcoming events. We’d love to see you there!


-Talia Lepson, ’16

The Politics Perspective on Peacebuilding

April 24th, 2011

Anna Khandros

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.

Responsible Music

April 6th, 2011

Yuan Yao

A recent discussion in my English class raised an interesting debate about the ethics of songs. Specifically, when it comes to songs, who is responsible for how melodies affect the body and mind—the artist, or the listener?

The origins of our discussion stemmed from an analysis of medieval texts on music and its effects on the body and soul. The medieval understanding of the body relied on a balance of the four classical humors and the assumption that the soul is an inseparable part of the body that lives in the heart. Music, sound, and voice were already understood to be vibrations in the air. Sound was thought to originate from a rhythmic striking of the soul upon the windpipe, thus producing vibrations in the air. It was believed that through music, a musician could translate the vibrations of her own soul to those of the listener. As the vibrations for the musician’s soul touched that of the listener, the listener’s soul would synchronize to the harmony produced by the musician’s soul.

Now, obviously we’ve come a long ways from a medieval understanding of the human body and soul. But if we take a look at how modern understanding of song, I don’t think we’ll find a clear difference. Perhaps we’ve abstracted the almost mechanical representation of emotional transformation predominant in medieval times, but we still hold to the basic tenet that a musician produces her work through an expression of her emotions. For a listener to give audience to a musician’s song requires the listener to relinquish his own reality to experience that of the musician’s. In this way, the musician extends control over the listener and dictates the emotions that the listener experiences.

I can think of multiple examples of how this is still true today. You would never try to put an agitate baby to bed by playing military marches or rock and roll. The obvious choice is a soft lullaby because we know the melodies in lullabies conducive to a calm emotional state. But even beyond that, music can affect our body as well. You will never hear a nightclub playing lullabies because they know that the best songs to get their patrons dancing are pop and electronic songs with an easily discernable beat. Even in our day and age, we cannot escape the medieval observation that music influences our mind and body.

Keeping these ideas in mind, how do we determine where the responsibility of music lies? With the power to influence countless listeners and a measure of control over song creation, should the responsibility fall to the musician? There has always been a debate about the violent and suggestive lyrics of modern hip-hop. How do we reconcile what we know about the power of music with the production of controversial songs? Perhaps the responsibility of music should fall to the listener; the musician is merely expressing her thoughts and emotions in song, shouldn’t the burden of interpretation fall to the listener in a way analogous to how a viewer would scrutinize over a piece of art in a museum gallery?

The “Art of Honesty”

March 16th, 2011

Anna Khandros

I have seen many speakers at Brandeis University, but one of the most interesting was Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, an Iranian theater director, filmmaker, and poet, who visited campus on February 16th. Having watched his documentary, “Dream Interrupted,” and heard about his Fullbright experiences in Israel, I looked forward to hearing him speak about censorship.

Background: In 1999, authorities in Iran shut down Karimi-Hakak’s about-to-open production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The documentary features interviews with the cast about their experiences with the making, and sudden termination, of the play.

Karimi-Hakak surprised me in that he talked little about his experiences with the closing of the play. Instead, he discussed technology and our world of less and less personal communication; of resistance versus violence; largely of his perspectives on the history of Iran; and, only when asked, about his most unique style of directing. The history part fascinated me most, but it was his passion that captivated me. Without any bitterness, and an almost-vulnerable honesty, Karimi-Hakak spoke of censorship through anecdotes. One of his friends is currently in jail for making a movie about the 2009 presidential election.

What got me thinking most was his approach to, and a subsequent question about the ethics of, opening people up in a closed society. Karimi-Hakak spoke about the “art of honesty” and the vulnerability of acting. It made some of us audience members wonder: is it wrong to encourage openness – sometimes outspokenness – in a country whose government does not tolerate any challenge or dissent?

My first thought is to scream “No, it’s not!” but I’m not sure how to fully explain my feelings that people should always stand up for what they believe in, especially with the arts as a medium for doing so. But I say this knowing that I do not have to deal with any of the consequences. I would love to hear what others think.

Art as a Form of Free Speech

March 8th, 2011

Yuan Yao

Unlike in the United States, many countries in Europe ban publication of extremely controversial statements—acts to incite violence. In other words, blasphemous or discriminatory expressions are prohibited. An example would be denying that the Holocaust occurred. The Danish Muslim community—a religious minority—wanted to classify images of Muhammad under this category. This would effectively ban all publication of images of Muhammad, which are forbidden in the Islamic tradition.

In September of 2005, there was a controversy over a dozen Danish editorial cartoons. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, including one version where he has a bomb stuck in his turban. The newspaper states it was an attempt to contribute to the debate and to make a political point regarding the Muslim organization’s attempts to censor images of Muhammad.

As a result of this publication, the Muslim world was outraged, and protests sprang up, some of which turned violent. Danish Embassies were burned and Danish flags destroyed in Gaza City.

Critics of the cartoons described the publication to be Islamaphobic and racist. They say it is a calculated move to provoke the Muslim community to react. As the Danish Muslim community is a minority, some also see the cartoons as intended to bully the religious minority.

Those who support the cartoons, including many groups in the Western world, said the cartoons are a form of free speech and should not be censored by any one group. To do so, they argue, would not only violate that form of free speech, but would also be religious oppression by the Muslim community, forcing others to conform to a specific rule from Islamic tradition.

How can we reconcile differences amongst people with different beliefs in our modern world of free speech and mixed religions? In this instance in history, art was used in an attempt to create peace and understanding; it obviously backfired, but why? Did the Danish newspaper take it too far in creating political cartoons of Muhammad? Or did the Muslim community over-react to the situation?

The Basics: How the Arts Relate to Peacebuilding

March 7th, 2011

Anna Khandros

What is the connection between the arts and peacebuilding?

In any art form – painting, sculpture, poetry, theater – there is the process and the effect, to which there are individual and collective responses. Art can inform us about injustice, inspire us to take action, provoke us to speak out, and restore our sense of inner peace. All of these are necessary components of peacebuilding, which in itself is a creative process.

Dijana Milošević writes of the role of theater in the former Yugoslavia (Acting Together on the World Stage, Chapter 2: Theatre as a Way of Knowing). As civil war raged, she explains, her theater company “realized that the only way to oppose destruction is to create.” Theater helped to create safe spaces for people to come together and express themselves, in a society silenced by destruction and denial, and to address their anger, fear, and pain. Theatrical performances also gave life to memories, and voices to the dead.

Milošević gives examples of performing in the main square in Belgrade, and of people thanking her for publicly stating what was officially silenced and taboo to talk about. Theater, in this case, served as an opposition to the regime, a protective force for the actors, and a meaningful and healing experience for the audience. Milosevic compares the experience to “mediation in motion,” and beauty in an ugly time.

Theater, and art in general as an approach to peacebuilding, “can be a place of truth-telling, testimony, taking responsibility.” Free from politics and propaganda, it can bring together individuals from opposing sides of any conflict, break down physical and mental barriers, help create empathy, and contribute to reconciliation.

This past week, a friend also told me of Doris Salcedo, a Colombian artist whose work is described as “memory sculpture.” Her pieces, largely made up of furniture, are an effort to spark inner dialogue and collective memory of the civil war. Salcedo says of her work, “The sculpture presents the experience as something present – a reality that resounds within the silence of each human being that gazes upon it.”

Art, in this and many other cases, also serves to capture the international attention to domestic conflicts. Its ripple effect begins at home, where it reminds, and extends abroad, where it educates.

Various other art forms have been used in the reconciliation process following countless conflicts. The Ethics Center will be hosting several events this semester that further explore the link between the arts and building peace.

The Moral Imagination

February 7th, 2011

Anna Khandros

I have written more than one personal essay that began, “I am sick of people telling me that I cannot change the world.”  I am, and I also don’t appreciate people calling me naïve when I tell them that I want to go into the conflict resolution/prevention field. I finally found a response in Cynthia Cohen’s The Arts of Building Peace class, which explores how cultural production and various art forms can contribute to nonviolent resistance and post-conflict reconciliation.

Last Wednesday, we discussed John Paul Lederach’s concept of the moral imagination. The moral imagination, simply defined, is the ability to be grounded in the real world but to be able to imagine a better world. I think this is something most, if not all, of us do.

Lederach says, “Some argue that we suffer from an exaggerated rhetoric coupled with an overly optimistic, and therefore unrealistic, understanding of how the world really works and how change can or cannot take place.” In other worlds, we’re not all cynics, but we’re not all completely pragmatic either, and peace and pragmatism can, in fact, complement each other in theory and in practice. The moral imagination allows us to explore this connection, not to look for a miraculous answer to all of the world’s problems, but to understand their nature and potential turning points. It further gives us the “capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”

According to this concept of the moral imagination, there are four essential elements for peacebuilding.

First, there is the centrality of relationships, the notion that we are all interdependent, and that change can be achieved through the recognition that the quality of our life is dependent on the quality of the life of others, including our enemies.

Second, there is paradoxical curiosity, which allows us to accept complexities, and tells us that truth lies beyond our initial perceptions and that we must look past what we do not immediately understand. Through paradoxical curiosity, people who display a moral imagination rise above dualistic pluralities – good and bad, right and wrong, winners and losers, black and white. They suspend judgments, and search for a greater truth.

Third, peacebuilding must provide space for the creative act, an art form perhaps, and the moral imagination takes form through this act or this art form. Lederach writes that “Art is what the human hand touches, shapes, and creates and in turn what touches our deeper sense of being our experience.” Art lets us create that which does not yet exist, and, along with creativity and imagination, gives birth to new possibilities.

Finally, there is the willingness to risk, to step into the unknown without guarantees of success or even safety. To work for something bigger than ourselves, a change in society, the end of violence, we have to allow ourselves to become vulnerable. We have to accept to risk of disappointment.

All of this made me think of so many of our not-so-secret dreams of making the world a better place. We’re not naïve, we just have strong moral imaginations.

The Cost of Art

January 21st, 2011

Yuan Yao

I am finishing my major in Biochemistry this semester and have a lot of heavy science classes on my schedule. But I didn’t want to end my four years at Brandeis without taking a few classes in the arts, given that I’ve always loved the arts. During the registration period this winter, I signed up for Life Paintings and was really looking forward to painting in oils on canvas, something I’ve never done before.

But what I wasn’t looking forward to was the near $250 bill that I ended up paying for all the supplies I needed before I even put the first smears of paint to canvas.

As I sat sulking over the proud fact that I didn’t have to pay nearly as much money for any of my science textbooks this semester, I thought: a college education is expensive enough—is it really worth it to be taking my art class and having to pay $250 out of pocket when I could have taken another science class and bought a much cheaper textbook from Amazon?

This brings me to the question of art’s position in education. I remember that in high school, we had one particularly rough year where our school’s needs outpaced our given budget. Like so many other school budget-cut stories, our arts and music department took the biggest hit.

I think in our time, when test taking and test scores are so heavily emphasized, it’s very easy to say, “okay, the math, science and English departments need the money because their subjects are tested on the state exam, so lets cut the arts department’s budget because we don’t have enough money for everyone.” But I wouldn’t agree with such a decision.

For me, the testable subjects are undoubtedly important; I believe everyone should come out of high school with a fundamental understanding of math so they can at least pay their bills, and sufficient proficiency in English for, well, communicating and interacting with their peers. But I also feel it’s important, perhaps more indirectly, to give students some exposure to the arts. Art has been with us for almost as long as we have walked this planet and far longer than math or language have been. Explore the oldest human caves and you’ll find drawings depicting notable events in the year of a caveman—epic hunting trips, births of children, deaths in the family. Art is a part of who we are and how we think. I know that my first language, Mandarin Chinese, relies on characters derived from early pictures that slowly evolved into the abstract form that it is today. In essence, art enriches our lives and allows us to use language, math and science in the ways that define us from the other creatures that roam our world.

For more information on this topic, check out the Ethics Center Inquiry on arts education at

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