Farewell to great leaders

Last weekend was not just marked by a farewell to Nelson Mandela in my circles, but also another great leader. When going up to Ballycastle to volunteer with a youth group in Corrymeela, I was told that there would be a farewell for our community leader, Inderjit. After two years of being the leader (CEO) of the community, Inderjit proposed new structural changes to the way the organisation was ran, and they were accepted. However, just as he said in his speech, Inderjit was the kind of person who was not there to hang on to power, but knew when to step down. Given that some of his suggestions were acknowledged, he mentioned he was not fired, he did not resign or retire, but was simply moving on.

This decision had a great impact on me. When I first arrived in Corrymeela I was coming from a very small organisation, a different culture, where I worked in a very small group. I knew everything from financial accounts, history, the lives of those who built the organisation who were and still are like my family, all their projects and visions for the future. When I arrived in Corrymeela I came into a very large organisation, a complex system, with so many people that it was hard to even get to remember the names of the volunteers I lived and worked with, not to mention staff, community members and associates. However, few days after I arrived I was in the queue to get lunch and an elderly man who looked of Indian origin had come to talk to me. He asked about my life, how I came there, how I was doing, and said it was a pleasure to have me there. When I said I was still adjusting he gave me a hug and said I was the kind of person that would do well in Corrymeela. When I sat down to have my lunch I asked who the man was, thinking he was a visitor, or a group member. I was told he was the leader of the Community. I was so surprised of how much attention this man had paid to me, and how he talked to me, considering I was just a volunteer for a few months there.  Also, waiting for everyone else to get lunch and staying at the back of the queue.

As I stayed on in Corrymeela, I realised Inderjit was a very wise man. I did adjust quickly, and I fit so well in Corrymeela that after a few years, I felt ready to become a community member and work alongside other dedicated members to work for social change in an active and passionate way.

Inderjit is what I call a great leader, perhaps more spiritual than technical. His warmth and positivity help you become more calm, and not stress so much about things. He is humble, and supportive. He knew the volunteers working on the ground, and cleaned dishes with us, gave us lifts to Corrymeela and back, supported us, regularly asked how we were feeling, and cared for us. There are so many community members I never met, or do not know, and yet the person at the very top was so concerned with our wellbeing and our thoughts and opinions. He supported me with my studies and my research. My sister always said that other than the markers, probably no one else will read your thesis, and she was right. Now, apart for those, I have two other people that read it for sure. One was my super friend Mylene who also took the time to proofread, and the other was Inderjit. His support for the volunteers could also be seen in the way his farewell card was written. There were a lot of messages in there, from so many people, however, those in the queue were complaining that the volunteers were writing “biographies”. We might have written more, and that was because we got so close to him and had so much to say.

I will miss Inderjit. His inspiring words, our long conversations, his humility; his calm and loving nature, his amazing hugs that energised me and made me feel at peace, his leadership style, kind nature, and so much more. Given that there is no spiritual leader at this point here, I can’t help but think a void will be created. For sure, his leadership and personality will be hard to replace, though as in any organisation, change is necessary, and in some cases vital. Inderjit was the first non-white leader of Corrymeela, to date all the permanent roles for the leader were filled by great people, though all white, male, protestants. I feel safe to say some of us, and me in particular, are waiting for the leadership of a woman.

In Corrymeela you are confronted with many challenges. Being there is a very hard process, though no matter what you go through, goodbyes are always the worst. They’re so heartbreaking that you’ll be shattered for months. This is why it is so hard for people to let go. By leaving, Inderjit made a powerful statement. We always say “Corrymeela begins when you leave”. So many people want to stay on though, and I feel sometimes that by doing that as volunteers, we take away this amazing opportunity from other people. There are also other examples of not letting go, and not making space for new people, and this should be a lesson we all should learn from. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for this community, our community, is to take a step back and leave space for new voices and new faces. I will admit that one reason why I wanted to stay in Northern Ireland so much was because I wanted to step up and be more involved in Corrymeela. However, last Sunday, and Inderjit, taught me that leaving the place will be heartbreaking though I must let Corrymeela begin. Then I will be able to help much more than I am now, and be able to contribute in a better way.

A theoretical analysis of liberal/international vs traditional/local approaches in CR

Peacebuilding and civil society in post conflict countries have been dominated by the idea of liberal peace. [1] The modern liberal ideas of human rights, liberal economy, and the rule of law have dominated both the practice and theory of peacebuilding. Since such initiatives have usually been accompanied by strong elements of statebuilding it led to the process being associated almost entirely with the idea of prioritising the state institutions. Building strong liberal institutions is seen as the best solution for sustaining peace, managing, and containing conflict, while other liberal peace practices have been marginalised. [2] The truth is, the record of successes that liberal peacebuilding initiatives of this kind have achieved is very limited. It is argued that half of the liberal peacebuilding interventions fail within the first five years. Once the foreign troops withdraw, the elites return to their traditional ways, under the umbrella of liberal terms for their actions, practices, and statuses. Given these records, the peacebuilding agenda has not yet changed to accommodate these challenges. The liberal way of building peace is seen as a technical fix, superficial, and suffering from a legitimacy problem. Liberal peacebuilding is said to provide the kind of peace that “it believes people should have rather than one they might seek for themselves if their stakeholder status meant more than just participation in someone else’s idea of peacebuilding.”[3]

 

The idea that it is the whole process of liberal peacebuilding that fails has led critics to dismiss it to a certain extent and look for alternatives. It is assumed that in theory it sounds extraordinary but in practice it fails. However, the fact is that this may not be a strong argument. The main issue is that it is not what is implemented that may not be the best idea, but how it is implemented. Rejecting the idea of liberal peacebuilding as a whole in a way can suggest that liberal practices are rejected as well. The problem is the standard operating procedure that has dominated international interventions, which acts in the name of liberalism. Conflict is not a virus that needs a vaccine. The issues are different in nature, and even if they are similar, their context will be different, cultures are different and so is the baggage of history. Therefore a post conflict society will need a procedure that can ensure the future of the country will be shaped by a human rights agenda, and supported by the international community, rather than the international community dictating solutions to problems as most “liberal peacebuilding”/western interventions have promoted in recent years, and are not fit to accommodate the differences among conflict situations.

As no critique of one method is sound without alternatives, many have turned towards supporting local initiatives for peacebuilding practices. These initiatives are led by locals with insights into the culture, and work on the ground to address the needs of the people in the aftermath of violence. This came as a result of local values, traditions, and institutions being dismissed in conflict contexts, and seen as a problem and cause of conflict rather than potential grounds for change and peace to be promoted.

As opposed to the international interventions that are said to be “liberal peacebuilding” and emphasise universality/standard procedures when it comes to peace practices, the local approach, also known as communitarian, stresses the importance of integrating tradition and context into the development of institutions, and ethnics. In the past, communitarian approaches, which are characterised by “buy-in” and legitimacy, have only been able to flourish in areas with little external intervention. This is where the concept of local ownership comes in place. It sits at the crossroads between the relationship of outsiders and insiders in peacebuilding contexts. [4]

Local ownership theory promotes traditional and indigenous practices when approaching peacebuilding, or developing civil society structures. It draws on long-held practice, rooted in the customs of a certain area. These approaches are locally inspired, as opposed to the standardised methods and processes used by most International Organisations. The priority for these international, standard methods means that local customs such as the alleviation of grievances through storytelling will be sidelined, particularly when it comes to the process of justice and reconciliation. In indigenous and traditional approaches, though they differ from one area to another, it is possible to identify common traits. For example, most of these practices rely on the moral authority of respected figures, such as elders, or other respectable figures in the community. Decision making processes are characterised by transparency and participation, such as meetings taking place in public, and accessible places. The practices are more relationship centred than narrowly looking for an agreement by all means necessary.  Most importantly the key advantage of traditional, locally inspired approaches is that they do not require a wealth of resources and expertise from outside, but rather rest on the public understanding and acceptance. [5]

The danger here is that promoting a sole local fix approach might lead to falling in an extreme as well. The local ownership is key to promoting legitimacy and getting to the roots of the conflict, but the question is, in the aftermath of violent conflict, with results such as trauma, division, and lack of trust, do these communities have the capacity to build up a peace process that is sustainable? The fragility of the situation can lead to nationalistic elites gaining more ground for perpetuating a conflict should there not be an international presence to monitor and make sure the parties respect the agreements they signed up to and facilitate the way to a pluralist society that will protect its citizens.

Based on literature, there seems to be growing contradiction between liberal peacebuilding approaches to civil society and traditional approaches implemented by local actors rather than the international community. The critique against liberal peacebuilding is based on heavy western intervention that deals with conflict issues on the ground in a technical way that leads to a superficial fix of the problem. Liberal peacebuilding as a general concept means no harm nor is it intended to be short lasting. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that there is a standard operational procedure which does not fit all cases and should be reconsidered. In general terms it seems that in the past the lack of sustainability can be blamed on lack of legitimacy of the process and the feeling of ownership of the peacebuilding process. In the case of Bosnia for example, the lack of local engagement led to the locals not buying into the process, and more importantly the heavily involved western community led to critiques of the process to go to the extent that the international community was blamed for neo-liberal colonialism. The critique of the liberal peacebuilding was then fought with arguments pro locally led initiatives and the theory of local ownership.

To conclude, in order for peacebuilding processes to be more sustainable there needs to be more local ownership, and the standard operational procedures have to be loosen to the extent that there is enough flexibility to take into account local customs and ways of dealing with conflict and justice. Leaving the locals alone to sort out their own problems in the aftermath of violent conflict might not be a sound competitor to liberal peacebuilding or intervention as in essence there is no guarantor to ensure that peace will be rebuilt. Also, considering the high levels of trauma and mistrust created by the conflict, there needs to be a neutral presence that will build up the capacity of the locals, and facilitate the peace process. Facilitation and capacity building are key words here, opposed to imposition and laissez-fair attitudes. Local ownership should be embedded into the process so that after the exit of the international community/guarantors, the locals would have trust into the process, and work for a peace process that will be able to stand without foreign mandates. In all, the attitude should not be one of “Do it like this!”, “Do it yourself!”, but “How can we help you rebuild your communities and pave the way to reconciliation?”.


[1] Oliver Richmond (2007),  The Problem of Peace: Understanding Liberal Peace, In Globalization and Challenges to Building Peace, eds Ashok Swain, Ramses Amer, Joakim Ojendal, Anthem Press, UK, pp 17-38

 

[2] Timothy Donais (2012), Peacebuilding and Local Ownership, Post-Conflict Consensus Building, Routledge, UK

[3] David Roberts, Saving Liberal Peacebuilding From Itself, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, (August 2012) Vol 24 (3), 366-373

[4] Timothy Donais, op cit.

[5]Roger Mac Ginty (2010), Gilding the Lily? International Support for Indigenous and Traditional Peacebuilding, In Palgrave Advances in Peacebuilding, ed Oliver P. Richmond, Palgrave, UK

Small Steps to Get Somewhere, Not Just Anywhere

Over the past 2 years, I have been writing about my work in Bosnia for the Center for Peacebuilding. I think that to a certain extent I have managed to document my work well enough to see a progression. This year I wrote my Mphil thesis about one of their main projects: From Pieces to Peace- Reuniting a Divided Bosnia. It’s been amazing to talk to the people who have been part of the programme, and to do evaluate the impact of the programme. On my blog I have talked about processes, I have shared stories, and this year, I have finally managed to do an ambitious academic study that combine these two with statistics and numbers.

After my visit to Sanski Most this summer, I have also become more eager to help CIM fund its projects. It was a combination of great insights, statistics, a sense of hospitality ,openness, and great need. This time though, based on my research results, I have compiled a case statement of why people should donate to the Center for Peacebuilding. Here are my thoughts:

 

What is the problem in Bosnia?

The signing of Bosnia’s peace agreement (the Dayton Accords), put an end to the violence, however eighteen years after that date, Bosnia still deals with its legacy. Two years after the agreement, refugees and displaced people had to return to their homes, but what they found back then, is no different than the Bosnian reality today: “two states under one country” with consociationalist politics, two schools under one roof educational system[1], and physically divided cities along ethnic and religious lines. More than what this implies for the practicalities of the living situations (separate transport, routs, police stations, water, sanitation, and education)[2], probably the most destructive legacy of the Dayton Accords is the divide in people’s hearts and minds. The ethnic segregation[3] facilitated by the peace agreement, also facilitated a society where people rarely have the chance to interact with “the others” and dangerous stereotypes, prejudices and fears are passed down from the old to the new generation, making it hard to advance a reconciliation agenda and maintaining a frozen conflict.

 

What is CIM and What do they do?

The Centre for Peacebuilding, or CIM (Centar za Izgradnju Mira), was founded in Sanski Most, in 2004. CIM has little funding from external bodies and organisations, and without much support they have managed to make a difference in the local community. Vahidin and Mevludin, the two founding members of the organisation are two inspirational people, who suffered greatly from the conflict. Whilst Vahidin spent his teenage years in a refugee camp in Slovenia, Mevludin was taken to a concentration camp at the age of 11, together with the other men of his family. While in their mid and early twenties respectively, they suffered a personal transformation, which turned the anger and desire for revenge into a life-long commitment to deal with the legacy of the conflict in Bosnia, and empower other young people to stand up to the nationalistic rhetoric and ethnic divides and be actors of change in their own communities. Although this vision has proved incredibly challenging, to date they have achieved a lot, and the results[4] can speak for themselves.

v  Since 2010 only, CIM has trained 91 local, young peacebuilders who have gone back to their home communities and each implemented at least 20 hours of workshops and presentations on reconciliation and peacebuilding. Following a 2013 study of the Peace Camp, 65% of participants interviewed mentioned that based on their evaluations, the activities they implemented had a ripple effect, and so a far bigger number of people have benefitted from CIM’s programme.

v  Between 2010 and 2012, CIM gave 135 trauma healing sessions to people from the local community. Be it direct trauma or secondary, PTSD is affecting everyone, with little expertise in the area to be able to consult

v  CIM’s club of local volunteers has increased from 100 members in 2010 to over 250 in 2013.

v  Over the past three years, CIM has implemented 132 Nonviolent Communication sessions in local schools.

v  CIM’s interreligious choir, which started in 2012 has so far performed 13 concerts.

v  CIM has held a significant number or interreligious dialogue meetings in the local community with  Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim religious leaders, as well as events for holidays associated with all the above traditions (Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, etc)

v  In the past three years CIM has hosted 17 international delegations of students who came to Sanski Most to learn about the theoretical and practical aspects of peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the legacy of the conflict.[5]

v  Since 2010 CIM has hosted 30 international volunteers who came to CIM to get work experience in the field and support the directors with managing programmes and administrative tasks.

v  In 2011, Vahidin won the Bremen Peace Award for the “Unknown Peace Worker” category.

Why donate?

Most local NGOs in BiH geared towards designing and implementing projects that met criteria set from abroad, and at times tensions can arise between these type of projects and the ones that more accurately respond to social needs. Local grassroots organisations struggled the most in this matter, as they have strong legitimacy but find it very difficult to find sponsors for their programmes. In general terms, the main problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been “projectomania” a term that describes the attitude and actions of NGOs to develop their programmes according to criteria set from abroad, and that have little political relevance or sustainability. [6]

Nowadays, the attention towards grassroots peacebuilding in Bosnia has largely been abandoned. On top of the donor fatigue, the failure of statebuilding strategy and the inefficiency of the top-down approach heavily impacted on the optimistic prospects that local, need based programmes might bring positive change in the peace process. Even at the beginning of the peace process when resources were allocated to grassroots peacebuilding the local initiatives failed to the lack of vision and empowerment for engagement through legitimacy. Due to the donor-oriented programmes, many NGOs found themselves failing to sustain after the funding started to diminish. Despite the fact that it will be very challenging to engage civil society in the process of peacebuilding in the fragmented state of the Bosnian society, we can now be more optimistic about grassroots peacebuilding than the elite-driven process.

In the past years, isolated cases of such local initiatives have emerged even in some very divided communities. These initiatives are generally underfunded and hardly known outside Bosnia, however, despite the challenges, they have managed to make progress and still manage to work on soothing ethnic divisions and building positive interethnic relationships. These initiatives strove because of a realisation that despite how much emphasis is placed on a negative difference they have much more in common than just ethnicity. The fact that there has been a continuous dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for change has also helped the process. [7]

CIM has little external funding, and having achieved all the results mentioned above with a limited budget, supporting the organisation means they have the potential to achieve a far greater impact. At the moment, none of the staff members at CIM have salaries, and the only way to explain why this work has and it still is possible is because of all the dedication, motivation, faith, and those who believe in them and the work they do.

* To make a donation go to: http://www.globalgiving.org/fundraisers/the-piggy-bank-challenge

* All donations are tax-deductible for donors in the United States, and all projects on GlobalGiving.org have been pre-qualified for 501(c)3 equivalency status. The GlobalGiving Foundation’s tax-exempt ID number is 30-0108263. GlobalGiving issues you a tax receipt immediately after making a donation.


[1] Bosnia: No End to Two Schools under One Roof, Balkan Insight, 18th February 2010, available at: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bosnia-no-end-to-two-schools-under-one-roof, [accessed on 10/09/2013]

[2] Julia Demichelis (1998), NGOs and Peacebuilding in Bosnia’s Ethnically Divided Cities, USIP, Washington DC

[3] Robert M. Kunovich and Randy Hodson, Ethnic Diversity, Segregation and Inequality: A structural Model for Ethnic Prejudice in Bosnia and Croatia,  The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 185-212

[4] Report for the Mennonite Committee (2013), by Melanie Dominski and Julia Dowling.

[5] To include: GYC (Global Youth Connect), SIT (School for International Training, Vermont), Keene State College, Sabancı University, Yale University.

[6] Martina Fischer (2007), Ten Years After Dayton, Peacebuilding and Civil Society in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Berghof Research Center for Conflict Management, Berlin

[7] Timothy Donais (2012), Peacebuilding and Local Ownership, Routledge, UK

* All donations are tax-deductible for donors in the United States, and all projects on GlobalGiving.org have been pre-qualified for 501(c)3 equivalency status. The GlobalGiving Foundation’s tax-exempt ID number is 30-0108263. GlobalGiving issues you a tax receipt immediately after making a donation.


 

Fundraising for Bosnia

Hello everyone,

For those who read this blog regularly, and for those who don’t, I have started a fundraising initiative in order to fund the field work for my research this summer. Instead of asking for donations though, I decided to sell the jewellery that I make as a hobby. I have set up an etsy account where you can buy it. I ship anywhere in the world. Also, please note that the postage fee is the standard I found on the Royal Mail website, and should it cost less to post your items, I will give you a partial refund through paypal.

https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/shadesofbluetc

From the description of my shop:

A bit about the jewellery: I am not a professional, though I like to make sure everything is polished nicely, and packed carefully. I try to avoid using acrylic beads, I focus more on natural beads such as semi-precious gemstones, sea glass, shell, wood, and a some glass beads. I don’t usually make the same thing twice. I tend to get bored easily, and repetition is not something I could do in a hobby. I don’t design things in my mind, or have a clear picture of the finished result, I just get supplies and go with the flow.

A bit about my background and research:
I am currently doing an Mphil degree in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, at Trinity Colloge Dublin (the Belfast campus).  Upon graduating I went to work for a small organisaton from North-Western Bosnia called the Centre for Peacebuilding (CIM). The time spent there helped me understand more about issues of identity, culture, and peacebulding practices.  I then went on to continue my gap year at a peace and reconciliation centre in Northern Ireland, called the Corrymeela Community. There I got the chance to learn even more about what it takes to deal with, and transform conflicts by doing hospitality for groups, washing dishes with participants from divided communities, as well as participating in, and giving workshops. While working in Corrymeela I was accepted to do the Mphil degree I am currently enrolled in.

This fundraising initiative is aimed at helping me do field research in Bosnia in the summer. I read a lot about capacity building through training local peacebuilders, however, most research focuses on the training itself, and not the impact that it can have. The topic was really intriguing for me, and since I am a curious person by nature I decided that, if there wasn’t sufficient information out there, I should go out and do it myself. I believe this particular peace practice can help a lot with building sustainable peace in conflict situations, however, training is often an end, and not a means, and I am very keen on finding out if indeed it can make a big difference, and in what situation. My research will have a great focus on aspects such as gender, culture, and context, to also identify if some lessons learnt can be transferable or not.

Should you buy my jewellery, you will help fund research that will help us find out more about sustainable peace practices. It will help a research area that is concerned with methods that will or will not be worth investing funding in. Lastly, it will help original research, which will give a good background into the current Bosnian situation on the grassroots, and from local, brave young people who are trying to make a difference and contribute towards social change.

Some of the items you’ll find in my shop:

IMG_8624 IMG_8621 IMG_8617 IMG_8593 IMG_8583

On Capacity, Conditions, and Clarity (Cx3)

I have been thinking about many things lately, as I’ve got a busy mind who likes to travel far and in different directions simultaneously. It’s not necessarily a good thing. I wish I had a button that could organise my mind in different sections and categories, but honestly I probably wouldn’t like that any way, as it is way to easy. I’d take complicated any time. See what I just did there? Started off in one direction and went off the track, and [almost] contradicted myself. Thank you, messy mind of mine!

I have been thinking about the past community weekend in Corrymeela and all the lessons I learnt from it. One of them was to accept my messy way of dealing with things. I was casually chatting to someone and asked if they read my report and what they thought about it. The answer was “It was full of you, full of passion and all over the place”.

That answer led me to stop and think about what it meant for a while. I have all these ideas for projects, change, improving systems, etc. The problem is I will never be able to do any of it unless I start small, one by one, but most importantly have the right conditions for them. I used to be upset at the lack of opportunities around, the lack of support, and many other factors. What I realised just now is that if I am capable of having all these ideas in my mind, risk-assessed, needs-assessed, and even with follow up plans for impact in place already, I might also be able to create the conditions to develop them. I will later on post a reflection on my M&E internship at Corrymeela, but for now I will stick to just one point. Something valuable which served as a great lesson was that plans, great ideas, and good intentions, will do no good unless they encounter enough capacity for them to develop in a healthy way.

It’s probably time I cleaned up this mess, and worked on these right conditions for my ideas to foster. One thing at a time, and hopefully this whole ideology won’t fail me [too much]. If it worked once, perhaps it could be reciprocated under other contexts/situations.

Short reflection on DPC (Dialogue for Peaceful Change)

I returned to Corrymeela once again, with my group (my classmates from ISE). I expected again to have to deal with a lot of frustration while trying to forget the fact that I was at home, and do my best to play the role of group member. However, for some reason, I ended up not doing that much. What I achieved I think was a good balance. Perhaps our group leader, Colin Craig really helped in making me feel more at ease. Since the beginning he actually embraced the fact that I knew where some things were, and how they were done. I particularly appreciated the fact that in the morning, when he came in, he told me I should not be doing much work, and enjoy my time. I was arranging a tea trolley, but I assume noticed that I really enjoyed doing it, and that what I was incredibly happy to make sure my classmates and friends got a warm welcome to the “bubble”.

That ease, and lack of too much trying “not to feel how I felt like about the place I was in”, really helped to enjoy my time there more this time. The module was absolutely fantastic, the atmosphere was great, and for some reason I felt so much closer to everyone in the group. This is something I cannot really explain, since I felt like I really bonded with everyone during the storytelling sessions in November. However, this experience really proved that it can get much better.

I was absolutely delighted to see some of the part time students again, and learn with them. I was also impressed by our ability to welcome the new part-timers (that at least I hadn’t met before) so soon, and so well. I felt a very close connexion with them from the very beginning and was absolutely filled to joy to have them around.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed was the opportunity to do exercises where we had to be very flexible and adapt easily. There was a very fine line between remembering negative experiences from our past and having someone say something that made us all laugh, and suddenly we were back on track.

There are so many amazing moments, that I will perhaps detail a bit later, but again I am so grateful to the Craig family (our trainers), who managed our group so well, and helped us learn so much, have a lot of fun, and although we were mediating in groups, the atmosphere made me feel like we were all part of a team, working together to learn more. Dialogue for Peaceful Change was an amazing programme, one of my best academic/practical experiences, where even when you did role play and were in a conflict with someone, you did it as part of an amazing team (you did your best to make the situation very complicated so that the people who were mediating could stop an figure our how to deal with such unforeseen circumstances).

I remember writing a post about Corrymeela, and saying that generally you put so much effort into building good relationships that at the end you cannot help but cry. I used to do this all the time at Corrymeela, until I realised I had to try not to, and take care more about my emotional being. The crying phase probably stopped in May for the groups I worked with, and haven’t experienced it until today. One reason for crying was the outcome of the conflict I mediated (so unprofessional-you learn from your mistakes!), but mostly I cried because I was saying good bye to my group, the group leaders, the volunteers, sharing the space and the learning together. Going back to Belfast has never been harder. I miss the view, the hospitality, the learning, and most of all, the people!

Us versus Them

Lately I have been drawn towards reading more about social identity theory. I long for being in a community again, for having people I have interests in common with around, for a sense of belonging, for people to understand me. In the past 4 years, I have been part of such groups, and now I feel like I am slowly falling outside of the process. Having a certain group identity gives one meaning, security, confidence, and support, so what’s not to like about it?

In my context, where I study about ethnic conflicts, divided societies, it is all about the negative aspect of social identity. This “us versus them” concept drags people into cycles of violence, that they cannot escape from. Today, I was at a conference with the theme “gender” where we touched on both issues of feminism and masculinities. Almost after every talk, the issue of the flags came up. What better example to illustrate that the construction of identity can result into violence? One does not have much choice being born and growing up in a certain environment. Had that 8-year old boy who was throwing petrol bombs at the police a few weeks ago, been born in a middle class family in Cambridge, be doing that now? Certainly not. He is deeply shaped by the Loyalist masculinities around him: he has to go out there and fight for his identity, his community, and make others proud. Other than the concepts of group formation, and the construction of identity, we also have Rene Girard’s mimetic theory which helps us get the grips on why such things happen, at a deeper level.

If we use social identity theory in my context, there is a lot to worry about. This us versus them thinking can lead to prejudices, scape-goating, superiority. As outlined in his theory Henri Tajfel emphasises that through the process of social categorisation we automatically divide the world into this us vs them system, and we are inclined to discriminate against them in order to enhance our self-image.

Going back to my need of belonging to a community, a group, I realise that both myself and the people around me conform to Tajfel’s theory. No matter how much we try to not be judgemental towards others, to be neutral and unbiased in our work, to be fair to everyone, we do categorise, and do all of the above. This “we were different” phrase is a very subtle way of saying “we were better”, just because we are not part of that group, because we feel a bit on the outside, because we are scared to embrace a new group, fearing that we would betray our own, the one that gave us the meaning we have now, and shaped us.

The social identity issue surrounds me so much these days, that I even found it in the novel I’m reading before bed:

“We students in the seminar developed a strong group identity. We were the students of the camps-that’s what the other students called us, and how we soon came to describe ourselves. What we were doing didn’t interest the others; it alienated many of them, literally repelled some. When I think about it now, I think that our eagerness to assimilate the horrors ad our desire to make everyone else aware of them was in fact repulsive. The more horrible the events about which we read and heard, the more certain we became of our responsibility to enlighten and accuse. Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly  Look at this!” The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

Re-thinking The Big Issue

There is no better way to start my day, any day, than by passing the local convenience store and getting a lovely smile and lovely wishes from the woman selling The Big Issue. She is probably Romanian/Roma and she is called Natalia. She has learnt phrases in English, just enough to be able to give thanks and wish people a nice day. Every time I see her, I give her some of my change for a few reasons:

  • because she gets really happy when someone notices her, her eyes light up (most people walk past vendors of the big issue as if they were invisible)
  • because she sits there in the cold all day trying to sell a magazine and earn some money.
  • because she tries her best, all the time and no one realises that these people should be encouraged rather than ignored.

I never knew what The Big Issue was, I thought it would probably be a crappy magazine since I never see anyone buying it. Most just give some money to the vendors as if they were begging with an accessory and a name tag.  While doing my own research in France, I came up what it was listed as one of the most innovative social enterprise ideas: The Big Issue- a magazine about entertainment and current affairs, written by professional journalists. All profits go to homeless people and the organisation, which are invested in the potential of these vendors. You can find more information about it here.

For 2013 I wish all of us will pay more attention to the people around us. Small gestures like helping someone who struggles with carrying something, smiling and saying hello to people, and acknowledging the ones who try, can mean a lot. Maybe, even buy the Big Issue if you can, should be interesting to read :)

Adeline's drafts, opinions, and experiences

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