written by Warren West, Partner Advisor to Peace Bridges
At MCC’s annual staff retreat this past May, our facilitator and long-time MCCer Max Ediger talked about-among other things-envisioning social change by talking about an image from his past work with MCC in war-torn Vietnam. In one of the camps for people who had been internally displaced, there was a family whose grass-roofed house had been partially destroyed and was starting to lean to one side. Rather than tearing down the house and starting to build a new one from scratch, the family had begun to build their new house around and within the old one. While they utilized the protection of the partially functioning roof and wall structure of the old house, a new house was slowly being built, literally in the midst of the old house. They simply planned to keep building the new house, little by little. Keep building until the old house-with its decaying parts-would become obsolete, unnatural, old news, out of place.
In a recent sweeping report covering the evolution of peace over the last 20 years since the end of outright civil war and UN control, Cambodia’s big independent development think tank argued that, overall,
“the peacebuilding approach in Cambodia did not negotiate with (or even take notice of) the ‘local’ and the need for less violence and a higher degree of peace being more thoroughly grounded among broad segments of the population and reflected in the day-to-day life…”
“As long as the ‘local’ is not included and ‘everyday peace’ is not a common feature,” the report argued, “there will inevitably be something virtual about the peace.”
The idea of MCC Cambodia putting on a Peace Conference for its partners has a lot to do with this. How can peace be mainstreamed into the organizations with which MCC Cambodia work with and serves? How can we all together work toward a more everyday peace?
In general, a big part of MCC Cambodia’s way of serving with partner organizations is working together to develop the sort of “hard” skills necessary for organizations to grow, learn, adapt, raise funds, and evaluate over the long term. MCC has National Staff, Service Workers, YAMENers, and SALTers doing that sort of work in many great organizations doing important work and looking to grow. Marketing skills for a fair trade organization. Monitoring and evaluation skills for a peacebuilding organization. Administrative assistance for an organization helping to integrate returnees from the United States. Proposal writing assistance for an organization working against domestic violence. Financial guidance for an organization bringing Cambodian and Vietnamese youth together to discuss their prejudices of the other. Advisors with canal projects, community forestry organizations, primary schools, and traditional dance programs.
MCC Cambodia does this because we believe that a flourishing Cambodia in the long term requires strong organizations as agents of change.
But strong organizations cannot be strong without also possessing the sets of everyday “soft” skills, attitudes, and behaviors that let them flourish with everyday peace. Flourishing with everyday peace in the day to day life among staff. Flourishing with everyday peace with the people that the organization seeks to serve. Flourishing with everyday peace when conflicts within the organization arise.
This year’s event, spread over 3 days and including a follow up get-together in a few months, focused specifically on the last one of these: how to nonviolently respond to and transform conflicts in the organizational context.
Because no matter where you are in the world, if you are an organization which sets out to bring about change, relationships are at the heart of things. Change is about relationships. Development is about relationships. And an organization anywhere that crosses all the “T”s in their financial reports, develops successful proposals, and is at the cutting edge of development innovation… but doesn’t have thriving relationships of everyday peace…is not going to be a positive change agent for social change in the long term. In Cambodia, people say such groups or people are like គីង្គក់លក់ថ្នាំស្រែង (“toads selling skin-beautifying medicine”). Selling a change they themselves do not embody.
What was most impressive about this year’s peace conference with leaders from the various partners was how engaged everyone was in participation and discussion about the different topics. Why how we deal with conflict is important. Why we need to analyze the ways in which we speak to one another. What other people have experienced as good approaches. In what ways we have gone wrong. In what ways we can build better relationships.
A lot of material that the facilitators used came from the Alternatives to Violence trainings that started way back in U.S. prisons. In one exercise, teams had to put various cut-up pieces of paper together without communicating. A discussion followed about how important clarity and communication were in trying to solve a problem. Another group-game emphasized the need for communication about plans, goals, working together, and understanding others.
In another game, a scarf was passed around the circle and everyone had to give an example of how they have used that type of scarf in the past. Shielding one’s face from the sun while working the rice fields. Carrying a child. A makeshift doll for bored nieces. Some talked about how we had to respect everyone’s experience of how they used the scarf. Others discussed how as mediators of conflict, you must respect the experiences and interpretations of others. When someone in the circle passed because they could not think of something on the spot, someone else mentioned how it was good for a leader not to try to have all the answers. Sometimes, he said, it was best to back away, give the situation space, think for a bit, and approach from a different angle.
In another role play exercise, everyone split up into two groups and acted out a situation in which an employee had submitted a report late to one’s director. Afterwards, everyone discussed how the two parties would have been feeling and what the best ways to be sensitive to that were.
Personal stories were told. Racism was discussed. Family problems were brought up as examples. Hierarchy was talked about. Situations in which attendees responded to problems in nonviolent ways were analyzed. Everyone had at least 10 good belly laughs a day. And some cried at times.
Throughout it all, it was impressive to see how personal it all was for people and how much people were encouraged by the facilitators to consider their own initiative and responsibility to bringing about change. Impressive with how much they seemed interested in “owning” the change.
It was impressive because so many of the people who attended deal daily with the ugly problems, doing their work right down in the dirt, in the belly of the beast. They see the racism. The corruption. The people who don’t care. The directors who are more concerned about power than change. The beautiful forests turning into bland plantations of the rich. The injustice of the courts………….
In many cases, it is not exaggeration to say that our partners and the people they seek to serve have been oppressed and treated with injustice. They have been excluded and cheated. And one could understand why they would ignore the planks in their own eyes and get the urge to do something rash and kick out “those people.” And conversely, I could understand how the people from our partner organizations could get sucked under, assimilate, and become just like “those people.”
The opposite seemed to be happening through their time together this year. They were looking inward. Self-evaluating. Analyzing. Talking about how to change. Getting the opinions of others. Talking about taking the initiative to change themselves at the same time as they also continued to work against evil in its various forms and bring about social change. Building something new.
The Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that
“the dominant values and practices can be transformed only if their hold on the hearts of those who suffer under them is broken. This is where repentance comes in. To repent means to resist the seductiveness of the sinful values and practices and to let the new order of God’s reign be established in one’s heart…Far from being a sign of acquiescence to the dominant order, repentance creates a haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old and so makes the transformation of the old possible.”
A haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old…. That sounds pretty dramatic and spiritual for a 3 day conference on conflict management….. and no one talked about the word repentance.
But that sounds a lot like what was going on. People were being creative and brave. Talking openly. They were talking about how to get more opinions from others during conflict. In an NGO atmosphere of position and power, they were talking about how staff under them may feel. Challenging the dominant values and practices of their own culture in order to find better ways to solve conflicts in their organizations.
Nobody who attended was a saint. None of us change overnight. The deep interwoven factors-in many cases reaching back into the horrors of war-that shape the way people behave with those around them are only unwoven in creative and gradual processes.
But that is exactly why this year’s peace conference, where people can come together to rest, to be creative, to talk with each other, to think about change, to challenge themselves and each other, and to apply lessons in order to make their organizations stronger over the long term, was a significant step. One step among many. A space to challenge. To analyze. To unweave. To reweave.
In the years to come, as it happens again, hopefully it is more of the same. Hopefully, the space can allow our partners to reflect, to challenge, and to apply. And to build. To gather the lumber and materials in order to keep building
the new house, little by little. Keep building as the old house-with its decaying parts-becomes more and more obsolete, unnatural, old news, out of place.
A haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old.
Making the transformation of the old possible.