Tuesday, June 15, 2010
As another muggy June morning simmers into early afternoon, I shift around in my plastic chair, recrossing my legs under the small wooden desk attached, and tug my sweater more tightly around me in the icy chill of the air conditioned classroom. In front of me, a grey-haired professor with a wide smile and kind eyes energetically lists ideas and thoughts from the class with a thick black marker on giant sheets of newsprint that remind me of kindergarten.
I am surrounded by peace workers from around the world: a passionate gentleman from Liberia who was shot by a rebel militant in his town and came to learn how to help the situation, a tall, graceful woman from Kenya who came to learn more about solving conflict through development for the peace NGO she runs at home, a quiet giant hailing from Chad who works at an oil extraction company who wants to know the purpose of development in his own familiar conflict zone, two crisply dressed, friendly and efficient women who work at USAID and want to improve performance, a well-spoken, vibrant woman from Nigeria who has been working with women toward peace in her region for her entire career, an observant, meticulous intellectual from Pakistan, stationed in Ivory Coast on the payroll of World Food who came to learn the western perspective on much that he already knows, an ex-military guy with an MBA trying to switch gears, peaceful young practitioners from Search for Common Ground, a curious and restless student from Afghanistan just getting his start in the field.
They are all friends, colleagues, fellows in the search for peace and conflict resolution, advocates for the suffering, students learning from each other and our experiences, thinkers looking to make connections and find new approaches.
For the past three weeks I've been in workshops at the Peace-building and Development Institute at American University at the School of International Service (fondly, PDI) hammering out issues with my colleagues like inter-cultural dialogue in conflict zones, mediation and negotiation techniques, and program designs for development assistance in conflict sensitive areas. While at times I felt in way over my head, the experience was one of the most enriching of my life to date.
During the first week of workshop, our professor was incredibly skilled at facilitating intercultural dialogue and has done field work doing so in conflict areas. He is so in tune with the most fundamental human cultural biases that he managed to make us all feel at ease with each other while discussing our opinions of our own cultural superiority. Somehow, because of his leadership and calm instruction, we all felt closer together at the end of the week rather than farther apart.
Our professors the second week were equally impressive: an older gentleman who has published the seeming majority of models on how mediation works from the perspective of the third party to a conflict, and a younger, more vibrant New Yorker with a natural skill at negotiation that could likely convince a man to give up the clothing off of his own back. We ran detailed simulations in role-play for hours, trying to coax, convince, coerce or eventually embarrass each other into giving up our individual positions for the greater good.
During the third week, in which I sat in the room full of marker-covered newsprint, my two professors were characters. They were both quite friendly, open-minded, and practical. You could tell they were used to working with real people on the ground, easily most comfortable going with the flow of their surroundings, and it made for a comfortable but energetic learning environment. Two more genuine-hearted men I don't think I've met, and I learned a lot from them about teamwork and flexibility as we charted endless possibilities for causes of conflict and avenues for change through programming. I left the last week feeling unsure if I could design a successful development program in a conflict zone, but quite sure I'd know which questions to ask if I ever sat in a meeting while one was being designed.
There is no way to tell whether the workshops made me a better professional, but some experiences just make you a better person. I thought I was about as open-minded and accepting as they come, but I have my own subtle biases, and my triggers for anger just like the next person. I feel grateful to now have an idea of where my judgments lie, so that I can suspend them when necessary, and make it a practice in my everyday life.
Negotiation is just another exercise in self-control, since it mostly consists of beating your head against brick wall after brick wall, and program design in a conflict zone is a lot like swimming through the mud. But even through the most frustrating days, I was able to look around me and see other tired, but hopeful faces looking back, all of us taking comfort in the fact that we aren't fighting for peace alone.
It is my most solemn belief that everyone in this world has a desire for peace deep within them, human and animal alike. This most basic desire to live in harmony with the world around us gets shrouded and masked by desires for pride, glory, rage, revenge, perceived defense, need, hunger, fear, and most often by confusion and misperception, but it is there underneath. I believe that if we can shed the layers of mistrust and fear of each other, we can talk about what we really want and what we really need, and we'll find that we all want and need the same things. Then maybe, just maybe, we can help each other get them, and finally be at peace.