“I am here because I want to change the world,” announced one of my students, Chantal, on the first day of the semester. She spoke for a swath of idealistic engaged young people who have traveled through my classes on peacemaking and conflict resolution over the years.
These students remain in touch with me from Suva, Kigali, Manila, Juba, Bogota, London, New York, Tokyo. They have worked with the Peace Corps in Burundi and Bulgaria and Mongolia. They have become teachers, professors, public defenders, social workers, business executives, artists and international NGO workers.
What keeps us tied together? It is more, surely, than the common experience of spending a semester together in Washington, DC. I’d like to think it has something to do with the fact that we are together absorbed, in spite of being far apart, in a life of world engagement.
In the 1990s I joined the ranks of academics teaching and practicing peacemaking and conflict resolution. I was attracted by that developing interdisciplinary field because it highlighted something unavoidably true about the world, namely that the inner life would have to be better understood and harnessed if humanity’s destructive tendencies were to be altered.
We have Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali to thank for the term peacebuilding, which refers to endeavors to rebuild a society after war, but in addition captures the vision of social justice in its global form. Peacebuilding is an interdisciplinary field, drawing on anthropology, social psychology, religion, geography, ecology and group dynamics, as well as politics and economics. It pulls insights about human character and motivation into the discussion about political tangles. It is intellectually rigorous, but requires academics to be practitioners and to develop their thinking based on experience on the ground.
As such, it is more than a political science venture. It is more like an experiment with a philosophy of life, where our engagement with political and social forces depends on our willingness to explore anything and everything that will enhance our tool box. The field invites us to break away from expected paths and taste the exhilaration of risktaking.
But this task now, undoubtedly, looks quite different to my former students than it did when they were setting out with newly-minted degrees and exploding excitement about how they were going to make a difference. Now, engaged in the day-to-day toil of the workplace, often balancing the pulls of family life and profession, struggling with the sluggishness with which the social environment embraces change, confronting shortage of funds and political barriers, I wonder how they feel about this world changing endeavor they have embarked upon?
I want to tell them that this is where it gets really interesting – this point where idealism and realism collide. I want to encourage them to think of their endeavors in larger terms than the day-to-day. Facebook tells them they are not alone. But there is a more profound way in which they are not alone – they are connected across the globe with others who have put their hand to a similar plow. In the midst of the practicalities, the moments of satisfaction and victory, or the days when it feels like one step forward and two steps back, their number one support should be coming from this global esprit de corps.
What are the touchstones of this life we have embarked on? What conundrums do we wrestle with in this peacemaking task we have undertaken? What gives us joy and energy and keeps us going? How do we deal with negative news that can push us to cynicism and pessimism? How do we sustain boldness and creativity? How do we define success? How have the core elements of conflict resolution – dialogue, advocacy, integrated solutions, teamwork – actually worked out in practice?
How do we preserve, in the pressures and busyness of our work, the space for experiences of growth, love and meaning, especially when we live so close to the pain of the world?
We are engaging with the world in a new time. Some say a new consciousness wants to be born. Certainly those of us who earned our degrees before the Cold War’s demise have seen our intellectual framework upended. But now the change is so rapid that even the young are tested in their capacity to keep pace.
This space is a place to discover more about the personal side and the professional side of the task of peacebuilding as it has developed in the last twenty years and continues to develop. I invite all those who visit it to respond with your experiences, insights and the ongoing questions that your work is forcing you to ask.