Wednesday, September 2, 2009


People of diifferent faiths often testify as to why they believe what they believe. This is my conflict resolution "testimonial". They say the personal is the political. Perhaps in the work we were "meant" to do, the personal is the professional as well. I invite you to share your testimony too!

Conflict is always about a relationship gone wrong. Conflict resolution is therefore more than a conglomerate of different social sciences. It draws on political science, international relations, sociology and psychology, yes, but from these ingredients something new emerges. I am an evangelist for conflict resolution because of this “something new”. If human beings are ever going to actually learn to transform conflicts so that they are productive and creative, rather than destructive, leaders and communities who have sometimes been through the worst of traumas must be helped to see possibilities they could not see before. Along with the traditional academic expertise IR , history and political science offer, conflict resolution is grounded in a set of values that are essential for a sustainable solution to conflicts. These values include peace, nonviolence, justice and equality. Students of conflict resolution emerge with an ability to imagine, problem solve collaboratively and communicate. They learn the dynamics and processes which both escalate and deescalate a conflict. Nothing is more empowering than knowledge about yourself, and so understanding what is happening both personally and sociologically when we’re involved in a conflict enables us to realize a number of crucial things that seem obvious when a community is not involved in especially a violent conflict but which are easily forgotten in the moment. 1. The rage that is often a part of especially violent ethno-political conflicts is also experienced by the other party. 2. There are in fact reasonably identifiable and predictable processes that communities/nations in conflict go through. 3. Nearly every act of violence in history has been justified as defensive. 4. Conflict specialists can actually identify physical and neurological effects of conflict on both individuals and communities. This means that, however slowly and painfully, great social traumas such as genocide can be healed. Without this healing—and it is all too often neglected by governments who can view conflict resolution as merely political settlement—the conflict will almost certainly become historical memory and emerge again. I believe that this cycle can be broken, but it must first be made visible and then understood. This is the essence of conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution can be transformative in a way that traditional disciplines are not (without detracting from them) because it connects individuals to policies, institutions and social groups. In more academic language, it links structure and agency and then also empowers students with the communication and collaborative problem solving skills needed to create a new solution. Students of conflict resolution learn to view themselves—and crucially, the “enemy”—differently. This is perhaps the most difficult and valuable knowledge. With this knowledge, the anger, fear and trauma can become more “faceable” and this opens new social and psychological and spiritual space for solutions never before attempted.

My project then is to use my gift of teaching in the service of those experiencing violent conflict, especially those most disempowered, as they seek to find a way to finally resolve it. We do not have nearly enough opportunities for interested students to learn how it is that conflicts work exactly—to discover what happens to them and their community when they are entrapped in a conflict that they likely understand is costly to them—and practice the skills needed to not just de-escalate but transform the social system which was at the root of the conflict to begin with. Equipped with the knowledge and values of conflict resolution, community, national and international leaders can generate not just a new solution to an intractable problem but a new way of viewing the conflict and those who have been involved in it. I am a global citizen who has known to her core since she first visited Moscow, capital of the “Evil Empire” at the age of 12, or picked up The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time at the age of 10, that it is possible for people to reach across seemingly vast divides. In fact, the more deadly our weapons become, the more urgent the need to equip leaders with the knowledge and values of conflict resolution. Some dismiss this as fantasy but this is where experiential learning—showing rather than telling—comes in. The best teaching leads the student to believe she has discovered the knowledge for herself, as if she has always known it. I have studied with, led development community programs with and taught middle school-through to-graduate students from former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Columbia, Mongolia, El Salvador, Zimbabwe and the “war-zone neighborhoods” of my own country such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. So when I say I know people can in fact reach across the most terrible of gulfs, this is not speculation. No responsible conflict resolution expert would suggest it is guaranteed or easy, but I believe in the liberation of knowing it is possible. From that social and spiritual space, conflict resolution helps equip students with the specifics of communication, problem solving, group identity formation and empathy needed to actually realize the possibility.