Person of the Week
Peace Builder, Founder of Catalyst for Peace, Co-Founder Fambul Tok, Film Producer
The greatest impact of war is at the level of ordinary people and the greatest potential for ending wars and building longer-term peace is at the level of ordinary people. Ordinary people have the capacity to do extraordinary things.
1. What led you to the mission of being a peace builder?
It was work that I was always motived to do. It comes down to a basic motivation: I feel like ordinary people have capacities to do extraordinary things. My passion has always been for international relations specifically as it relates to war and security issues.
I felt like most of the thinking and the work in the world about how to end wars and prevent them, and how to build peace, was focused at the level of national leaders – leaders of countries. What I feel is that the greatest impact of war is at the level of ordinary people and the greatest potential for ending wars and building longer-term peace is at the level of ordinary people. That is what has been missing from war and peace international aid. I have had this passion for helping, identifying, and mobilizing the potential of ordinary people to contribute to building peace and ending war in their communities and countries in the world. (See TEDxDirigo interview video. Click on this link.)
I used to be a political science professor. I loved engaging with students around these issues. However, I ultimately saw I was more oriented towards practice instead of scholarship. I decided to leave academia and start an organization to actually try to do this work in the world.
Instruction has come in a few different forms. Formally the training I got was graduate work at Tuffs University the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I studied conflict resolution and security studies there. Then when I was a professor, I found the courses that I taught on conflict resolution were supporting my learning. I learned by helping students.
Most of my learning has come through mentoring relationships with different individuals I’ve had the privilege of working with. I’ve had a series of amazing colleagues with whom I’ve been able to work. I find that the best learning comes from doing.
2. What does this mission mean to you?
At a simple level, it means helping to take that which is broken and make it whole again. From my perspective, I look at societies that have been plagued by war. Most of the international community looks at them and says, “They have nothing.” Not only are most of the countries poor, but once you’ve been engulfed in war – especially civil war – all the resources you’ve had have been physically destroyed. You also have the emotional and spiritual scars of the war. Most of the countries of the world look at the country and say, “They have nothing.”
I think exactly the opposite. I see that there are incredible resources still there. These cultures and communities have within them the answers they need to solve their own problems. For me, being a peace builder means seeing the resources that countries and cultures have – even after devastating war – and helping to identify and mobilize, and magnify these resources and capacities for peace and for healing. We can figure out how to build and mobilize those resources.
3. What was your best day as a peace builder?
In all honesty, I don’t think I can pick just one. I remember we had been working to get Fambul Tok, the program of community reconciliation started in Sierra Leone. We had been working months — intensively. We were working and we were filming as it was unfolding. After months of preparation and work, I was in Sierra Leone for a Fambul Tok forgiveness ceremony. It was in this little town in far eastern Sierra Leone. We were going to these very first bonfire ceremonies not knowing exactly what they would look like. We knew that we had heard from all these community members how they wanted to reconcile after the war. They were living next door to the people who had hurt them or their family members. They wanted to tell the truth of their stories and apologize and to forgive and to move forward.
This little village had organized this ceremony. There were people coming forward and telling their stories about the day the war happened, the day the rebels invaded “our” community. This one man with one arm came forward. He said, “The day the rebels came, I was captured and one soldier amputated my arm.” Someone asked, “Do you see him here?” He said, “Yah. Right over there.” The man came forward and said, “Yah, this is what happened. I didn’t want to, but I was ordered. I’m sorry.” They embraced. I remember thinking, “They must be dramatizing what could have happened.”
But then the next person came forward and it was a woman saying, “I was down by the river washing my laundry and with my baby. The rebels came along and said, ‘You’ve got to keep your baby quiet.’ I couldn’t keep my baby quiet and he took my baby and drowned her.” Someone asked, “Do you see him here?” She said, “Yah. I see him. He is over there.” He comes forward and says, “Yes this is what happened. I did that and I’m sorry.” I was listening to these stories and all of a sudden it’s dawning on me, “No they are not dramatizing what could have happened. They are telling their stories.”
It was all too much for me to believe that that’s actually what was going to happen that evening. They were telling their stories for the first time ever. They were acknowledging the truth for the first time and apologizing. They were embracing each other and dancing. They were celebrating it as a community. There were probably six or seven pairs that evening at that bonfire. The people came forward and told their stories, apologized, and forgave. I remember thinking that we can’t doubt that night at a place right outside the town.
I couldn’t fall asleep. Literally, I thought my heart was going to beat right outside of my body. I just felt overwhelmed by the goodness that I had just witnessed. There was a tragedy and the heart wrenching sadness was overwhelming. But then the good — these are communities dealing with the worst tragedies that you can ever imagine and they are finally having this peace to deal with things constructively. They were rising to the opportunity. To me it was the manifestation of the feeling, “My cup runneth over” — almost as if I thought I couldn’t contain it — that much goodness.
This was the beginning of a larger term process. I was able to play some role in helping in bringing it to being. The people came together as a community – not needing outside resources – just needing each other. With each other they can do extraordinary things – even heal from these awful wounds of war. (See the Fambul Tok movie. Click on this link.)
4. What was your worst day as a peace builder?
All of my present challenges have been not around the work itself, but around working relationships with close colleagues – when those relationships have disintegrated. Those are the most difficult challenges I’ve faced. Like when someone I have been working closely with has violated my trust personally or professionally. Often these situations have led to legal battles that have been not only complicated, but painful and heart wrenching.
I work in the field of forgiveness. Ironically those situations have really forced me or helped me to learn about forgiveness myself. I have to learn about it and put it into practice myself.
5. How did you survive your worst day?
It’s often a complicated combination of things including learning how to let myself cry. I’m very much a praying person. This always brings me to my knees in prayer. There is just no way I could make it through a lot of challenges without really turning to a higher power for guidance and sustenance.
I also turn to friends and colleagues. I’ve come to see how important it is having a few close colleagues that I can talk with and that can provide support — even if it is just to listen. This has been critical for me in making it through these challenges. It’s simply knowing that I am not alone as well as the concrete wisdom and guidance that come from people who have been pioneers in this journey before me and in whose footsteps I follow. I learn from their examples. It’s important to develop a community of support – both peers and spiritual support.
I have a huge heart so I want to help everybody or if I see a problem, I want to respond. Sometimes the bigger challenge for me is feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge of what I would like to do or what I would like to see happen or get done. I’ve had to let go of a false sense of personal responsibility for these things. To the degree that I can, that’s been extraordinarily helpful.
The idea that really helps me is realizing that I don’t have to do everything. All I have to do is just what is mine to do. That’s all I am responsible for. I don’t have to do what somebody else is responsible for. In fact to the degree that I think I have to do someone else’s work, I’m getting distracted from doing what is mine to do.
I just remind myself to have the humility to listen for only what I need to do – to trust that will be enough. Sometimes that’s what helps me figure out what the next step is – because that’s all I need to know. I can honestly listen for and take the next step. The next step always leads to the next, and the next, and the next step. I have to remind myself that that’s all I have to do at any one time – to take the next step. Being willing to make my own mission smaller and to be satisfied with that, actually and ironically deepens and expands my mission.
(Photo of Libby Hoffman by Henry Jacobson. Other pictures copyright by Sara Terry for Catalyst for Peace.)