Volume 18 Number 1
Peace Makers Must Walk the Talk
01 February 2005

Questioning one’s ability to stay neutral, not knowing exactly the right thing to do next, feeling powerless to change the way things are—who amongst us in the field of peacemaking and conflict resolution has not had similar thoughts and experiences?

As I write this, one of the largest demonstrations of participatory democracy in a century is unfolding in Ukraine. We do not know whether the country is on the brink of democracy or civil war. It is a tense, dangerous, extraordinary time, and could turn violent at any moment. Search for Common Ground’s country director in Ukraine asks, ‘What else can we do? Most of us have a feeling that more should be done, but it is hard to maintain neutrality (and sometimes even common sense) sitting in the centre of this situation.’

Questioning one’s ability to stay neutral, not knowing exactly the right thing to do next, feeling powerless to change the way things are—who amongst us in the field of peacemaking and conflict resolution has not had similar thoughts and experiences?

At Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a country director in Ukraine can ask for advice, and the next day receive a dozen deeply insightful and wise emails from SFCG colleagues spread throughout the world who are also working to transform conflict. In our work, asking the right questions may be more important than already having the answers.

Since 1982, Search for Common Ground, an international nongovernmental organization, has been working to transform the way the world deals with conflict: away from adversarial confrontation, towards cooperative solutions. Our mission is to understand the differences but act on the commonalities.
Because SFCG is engaged in a longterm process of incremental transformation, we make long-term commitments. We seek cross-cultural integration of indigenous and international concepts of conflict prevention, and we work with partners on the ground to strengthen local capacity to deal with conflict. We are currently working in Angola, Belgium, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Liberia, Macedonia, the Middle East (with offices in Jerusalem and Amman), Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ukraine and the USA. Our ‘toolbox’ includes media—radio, television, and journalism— mediation/facilitation, shuttle diplomacy, policy forums, training, sports, drama, music, and film.

Because we believe that peacemaking is a process, and not an event, we need to be skilled advocates for peace processes. If our work is about transformation, inspiration and hope, how does that influence how we live and work every day?

In a presentation to Northern Ireland peacemakers, Susan Collin Marks, SFCG Executive Vice-President, reflected on this question of starting with ourselves. She challenged those gathered to:
  • Receive perspectives different from their own, and treat them as valid.

  • Listen respectfully. Listening is an act of love and carries great power.

  • Give others the benefit of the doubt.

  • Let go of the past and the need to be right.

  • Have enough ego to believe we can make a difference, but not so much that it gets in the way of the process. ~ Seek the best in others by creating the space for them to be their best.

  • Walk the talk by having the courage to address concerns and differences directly with others; have the humility to acknowledge mistakes; appreciate other approaches because we are all needed to bring our special gifts.

  • Have the greatness to forgive, knowing that we are all doing the best we can. This involves forgiving ourselves as well as each other.

  • Following the national election in the US, our challenge was to remain outside the demonizing and hate that followed the long and divisive campaign. Our commitment as an organization is to focus on that which unites us rather than on that which divides us. We do this by starting with ourselves in our everyday lives, and by making the choice to be vigilant about stereotyping, demonizing and dehumanizing others, including those on the opposite political side. This means that we in the US have to live up to what we ask our colleagues and whole communities to do in the other countries where we work. In other words, we have to walk the talk.

    Personally, when I’m not sure if my actions and thoughts are in integrity, I question whether they are coming from love or fear. They produce very different results. When I’m in integrity and my actions are based in love, I am connecting with others and I know that I’m not separate and alone; I am open to everyone, including those I find it difficult to be with; I’m present in the moment and fully experiencing those I’m with; I take responsibility for my thoughts, words, and actions and know that I am the author of my own circumstances.

    However, consistently practising what we preach is difficult. I fall off the peace train frequently. During my 10 years with SFCG I’ve learned that making peace is moment to moment, conversation by conversation, and one of the hardest things to do in life. It isn’t for the weak of heart and spirit. It is a commitment and a choice. Now, after 10 years of doing this work, I cannot imagine any other way to live.

    A final thought. A sense of humour helps. Take the work seriously but not so seriously that you lose the essential joy of life and the hope that people and things can change.

    Susan Koscis is Director of Communications, and Director of the Common Ground Film Festival, at Search for Common Ground in Washington DC.

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