As program director for Coexistence International, Jessica Berns provides programmatic leadership to the initiative. She is responsible for the conceptualization and design of CI’s programs, including identifying and developing strategic partnerships, and outreach to new issue areas and regions.
As a member of the staff of the Slifka Program in Intercommunal Coexistence and the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Berns participates in the strategy and implementation of cross-disciplinary events, on issues such as gender, human rights, and democracy.
Berns holds a master’s degree in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a B.A. in Spanish from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
John Moore and I arrived in Monrovia, Liberia (West Africa) late last Sunday night, after essentially traveling for 36 hours. Our itinerary took us from Boston to Chicago (don’t ask why we needed to fly east to fly west!), to Brussels, to Monrovia, via Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire. The trip was less grueling than we expected, although we were relieved to finally arrive in Monrovia, and to see that our bags arrived as well.
We are in Monrovia to co-host a workshop aimed at strengthening the coexistence capacities of participants so that their day-to-day work has a better chance at improving social inclusion in the country. After 14 years of war, and now 6 years of fragile peace, questions of coexistence are paramount to the future of the country. Workshop participants represent different Liberian NGOS from the fields of development, gender equity, human rights, and transitional justice. There will also be several local government representatives and some practitioners from other West African countries. The Club of Madrid, an international organization whose motto is “democracy the delivers” has also sent someone to join the workshop.
The flight from Brussels to Monrovia was full of people representing the spectrum of people we will encounter in Liberia: members of the Liberian Diaspora returning for a visit or for good, foreign entrepreneurs eager to build up business in Liberia, and international NGO or UN folks.
The passengers on the plane over shared stories and perspectives about Liberia: the Liberian woman traveling back to visit family after years in Europe, loaded down with gifts from the West; the flight attendant who praises the beautiful beaches of WA and sees the possibility of economic development in the region via tourism from the European market; the American business man who promises to build hospitals and schools along with the agriculture venture he plans to start up; the consultant for the US government who will get paid $95,000 for 4 months work training local government officials.
As we engage in the final preparations for our workshop, our anticipation is high. We are full of questions, ranging from the mundane (Where can we buy the toothpaste we forgot? Where can we eat without getting sick? Will our cell phone work?) to the significant (Will we have a good turnout at our workshop? Will participants expectations of our workshop be met? Will the workshop make a difference?)
This is our second trip to Liberia and we have learned a lot in the interim and continue to learn. As we arrive in Monrovia we ask ourselves what progress we will observe on this visit. Will more roads be paved? Will the Senatorial race taking place in the Monrovia-area be free and fair? Have any new foreign companies invested in Liberia? Will there finally be a working ATM in the city?
We arrived in Monrovia with a suitcase full of toys to deliver to the young daughter of a Liberian friend who lives in the US while her daughter stays in Monrovia with family. My own 6 year old oohed and awed over the Barbie dolls and Connect Four that I packed away in my suitcase, and then asked me why I was bringing all these gifts over. Didn’t they have dolls, games, and art supplies in Liberia? I explained that many bad things had happened in the country for many years, and that now its people needed help so that they could help themselves to make things beter. My daughter then asked me, “Is that why you are going there mama?” “Yes,” I replied, that is the idea.
Coexistence International is an initiative committed to strengthening the field of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, advocates, organizations and networks promoting coexistence at local, national and international levels. CI promotes a complementary approach to coexistence work through facilitating connections, learning, reflection, and strategic thinking between those in the coexistence field and those in related areas.
Brandeis offers many opportunities within coexistence, including a minor for undergraduates in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies for students who wish to understand the reasons for war and ways to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. Furthermore, there is also a Master’s program in Coexistence and Conflict, which is a graduate program for mid-career professionals who wish to develop greater professional expertise and creative leadership to meet the challenges posed by intercommunal conflicts.
To learn more about Jessica, please refer to her University profile. The International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life also provides more details and resources specifically pertaining to Coexistence.