Nelson Mensah-Aborampah provides a very honest and personal reflection on what he has learned about dialogue and peacebuilding as a UofMosaic Fellow at Simon Fraser University.
Being part of the UofMosaic Fellowship Program has contributed to a radical shift in my perspective on peacebuilding. I feel that the only way this piece of writing will do justice to the change is if I begin with the conclusion.
It is quite easy and perhaps even reasonable to feel powerless in the face of the huge, unending and seemingly choreographed problems the world faces. People deal with this feeling of powerlessness in different ways. The easier way is usually in the form of constantly distancing oneself from all the problems. This path usually feels safer because it is built on the assumption that there is no risk of disillusionment and disappointment.
Other people choose to take a different path; they take it upon themselves to “solve” or make a contribution towards solving these problems. Many of these people eventually discover that the task of “solving the world’s problems” is a huge burden to carry. Some of them even realize that they have spent too much time addressing the symptoms of the problem instead of the root causes. As time passes, they recognize that it is easy to be blinded by the self-righteous feeling that at least they are not just standing idly by while people suffer due to disease, poverty and institutionalized oppression.
It is this self-righteous feeling that compels even the most critical people to use the same limited approach with the hope that they will ultimately get a different result. It took me a while to realize that I am one of these people. It also took me time to comprehend that this insight was in fact a useful tool. The last UofMosaic student dialogue I organized at Simon Fraser University was an imperfect attempt at embracing this new concept.
The student dialogue explored the question: “Are questions of identity relevant on university campuses”? Through the discussion we delved deeply into our own personal narratives, worldviews and identities, and discussed the extent to which identity politics plays out and becomes divisive in contemporary society, and on university campuses today.
Building up to the dialogue, I spent some time reflecting on how to find a balance between two extremes. On one hand I wanted the dialogue to scratch beyond the surface of pretense and political correctness. On the other hand, I hoped we could build a stream of meaningful exchange through a polite and thoughtful discussion.The dialogue involved trying to find a common ground – an equilibrium point at which people with different ideologies could somehow synchronize. Even before the dialogue began, I was aware of the grandeur of this hope.
The process of trying to get to a common ground was characterized by moments of laughter, awkward silence and even hints of sadness. Throughout this process, I was also fighting against a compulsive itch to intervene and stir the dialogue in the direction I thought was “more productive”. It was only in retrospect that I realized how that might have prematurely suffocated the honest and straightforward discussion that developed.
As we continued talking, the idea of “loss” or the fear of it seemed to be a recurring and shared experience. In fact, most people shared short stories of how losing someone close to them had influenced their identity. We used this common experience as the first step on the ladder.
This line of conversation led us to a discussion about the labels people attach to us and those we consciously or unconsciously attach to other people. This was perhaps the most volatile part of the dialogue because it involved opening up and as this is usually associated with some level of vulnerability. Most people (myself included) came into the dialogue with the perception that they were open minded and therefore immune to the impulse of grouping people into labels that seem “easy to deal with”. However, the discussions we had, allowed us to reflect on and challenge this notion.
Everyone took something from the discussion. My takeaway was the realization that any “peacebuilding” act should have self-reflection as a prerequisite. Without this initial process, we are bound to embody a self-righteousness that makes us miscalculate the effectiveness of even the noblest initiatives.