Program Officer for Outreach and Communication at The Coexistence Initiative
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: Starting Everywhere at Once. I just finished a project with a small organization called the Nairobi Peace Initiative. This project entailed going into universities to look at causes of conflict and assess the conflict management culture within those universities. And just to give you a background, the public universities in Kenya are plagued by violent conflict. The sources of conflict vary from institutional dysfunction, to political manipulation, to dysfunctional individual behavior. There's a crisis of leadership, both at the student level and also at the administrator level.
Q: The symptoms are violence, riots, that kind of thing?
A: Exactly. There's a lot of demonstrating, and there's also a lot of demonstrations that turn into riots. So there's also a lot of damage to property, and depending on where the university is - Kenya has six public universities - depending on the proximity of the university to an urban center, a lot of times innocent people get caught up in the violence. So for example at the University of Nairobi, whenever there is a riot, more often than not, passerby cars are stoned, and individuals may be attacked. So it spills over from the university community into the general population. Anyway, there's, as I mentioned, a wide range of causes of conflict, and as I carried out the research and talked to a lot of students, student leaders, and administrators, I realized the problem was more complex than everybody thought it was. There was a tendency to essentialize the conflict and to see one individual or one location for either a cause of conflict or a solution to a conflict.
Q: In other words, you would ask somebody, "Why is this happening?" and they would give you "the" reason.
A: Yes, and it would vary on who the person was. If it was an administrator, they were more than likely to lay blame on national infrastructure and inability of the government to allocate adequate resources to universities. If the person that I was talking to was a student leader, more often than not, they would blame the administrators. It's a culture that's plagued by scapegoating. There's a lot of underlying tones that aren't talked about. One of the things that came out for me was the realization that as peace practitioners, when we're faced with situations like this, going into institutions where there is intractable conflict, there's very much a tangible culture of conflict, it doesn't do us any good to focus on one solution or to focus on -- sometimes just thinking about conflict management is the only solution, we're doing a disservice to ourselves and the community. So I came up with the phrase, "Start Everywhere at Once" as a shorthand that we need to not only look within our field for tools that would be effective, but also look to partner with other organizations in other areas of potential development to ensure that issues are resolved, issues are dealt with in a comprehensive fashion. I think it bodes well for sustainability and also in terms of people taking us seriously.
Q: So what would that look like in Kenya, for example? In the university system? Hypothetically, I mean. Is the study over, are you still doing the study?
A: The study is - well the data has been collected. We're in the last stages of finalizing the report. I think a lot of it is a mindset where as practitioners who are called in to do this kind of work, we embrace the capacities of others. So in terms of writing proposals, in terms of even conducting the research, we seek alliances with individuals who may have strengths that we don't have. For example, one of the things I think would be particularly useful - in the context of the public university - is getting a roundtable of policy makers together to talk about the actual process of legislation and how to incorporate legislation that may support peace and management, proper conflict management in the universities. And that might not be within the docket of traditional peace organization, but it would place the onus on the peace organization to go out and forge these alliances. So it's very much an approach to partnerships and to collaboration that I think might be slightly difficult to embrace, given resources - scarce resources and all of that. But I think it's critical for actually making change, bringing about sustainable change.
Q: So I would imagine that while you were working with policy makers about possible legislation for the university, you would also be working with the students?
A: Yes, exactly. One of the interesting things about this particular context is that public opinion is not for the students. Students are kind of seen as wishy-washy spoiled brats who are trying to get more than they deserve. And I can tell you from my personal experiences, talking to both students and student leaders, that there are a bunch of people who are incredibly bright and politically sophisticated, I mean, at a level that surpasses many people much older than them. You can't exclude them from the process, you can't exclude their perspective, and you can't dismiss what may be seen as their radicalism. Because once you start to peel away at the issue, you realize that at the core of it, many of these students are being done harm. And in some cases it's not intentional harm, but it is harm. And without listening to them you're never going to find that out.
Q: But while you wouldn't exclude them, you might not include them in the policy dialogue, for example. You wouldn't have one intervention that includes everyone.
A: Exactly. Inclusion does not necessarily mean everybody in the room at the same time. That's not what I'm talking about. Inclusion is about getting different voices; getting the ?? voices, getting the perspectives of different voices, and sometimes it is effective to have policy makers and administrators and students in the same room, but other times it isn't. In fact, having students and administrators in the same room can be extremely destructive to any kind of dialogue, and I've actually seen that happen where it's just not the best idea. So when we talk about inclusion, just to be very clear, it's not about - it's not a spatial inclusion, it's an inclusion of ideas and solutions.