Sarah Peterson (with Angela Khaminwa)
Program Officer for Dialogue and Mainstreaming Coexistence, The Coexistence Initiative
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
- Founding the Coexistence Initiative
- Inspiration for Coexistence Work
- The Coexistence Spectrum
- Coexistence vs. Peacebuilding
- Coexistence Community Consultations in South Africa
- Developing Coexistence
- Social Reconstruction
- Structural Violence
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: Give me an overview of what Coexistence Initiative does?
S: Angela will start.
A: The Coexistence Initiative was founded as a networking and facilitating organization. The idea behind the organization was that there were a lot of NGOs and individuals trying to bring groups all over the world towards an environment of coexistence. These included peace builders, and people working on different issues such as immigration and refugees, security, E-T-C.
A: Et. cetera.
A: But there was no larger body that was coordinating these activities, so that was serving as a networking organization. TCI was founded not to kind of add more work to the thousands of other organizations but rather to help these organizations work together more effectively and to exchange information and function more efficiently. Over the years TCI's role in the peacebuilding world has changed to reflect shifts and trends. At the beginning of this year TCI started to focus more on strengthening the coexistence field and moving away from a broad perspective of peacebuilders with large to people working specifically on coexistence, that is, bringing together different groups to further understanding between the groups.
S: Initially TCI defined coexistence almost as a framework, a larger framework within which all of these other fields could thrive. It was an umbrella. It was also a baseline for human interaction. But because there were so many ways to interpret it, the term itself was fuzzy. Therefore part of the effort in January 2003, correct me if I am wrong Angela, was to truly hone that vision for what coexistence is what it means when you are actually promoting coexistence worldwide, and how do you effectively mainstream something like that. That was the essential driving force behind the program areas.
A: Right. Well, as part of networking, the idea was to really get the idea of coexistence out to a larger group of people, both at the community level, but also at the national level through policy. One of the analogies that has been made is the environmental movement. The founders of TCI very much wanted TCI to be a catalyst for a larger movement of coexistence for a different understanding of how people interact with each other in an effort to reduce violent conflict internationally. We kind of looked at the environmental movement for inspiration.
S: The projects that were started over the past few years tried to address this issue of how coexistence can catalyze a more peaceful way of living together and one of the projects was a coexistence index which would effectively gauge levels of coexistence in any given community around the world. This was something comparable to Transparency's corruption index, or Freedom House's Freedom Index. Angela was actually here at the time that this was all happening.
A: Yes , that was one of the major projects at the time. We saw the index as a useful tool for effective policy and that it would provide wonderful shorthand for governments to see how their countries were doing in relation to other countries in terms of promoting social inclusion.
S: But again that problem of defining coexistence came into play because can coexistence be defined in the same way in the United States as it is for instance in Argentina or in India or in Kenya. There are different ways perhaps that you can define coexistence and does coexistence need to be defined by one elite group or should it be defined by the communities themselves? Who is defining coexistence and how is it relevant to that specific area? These were the questions that came out of talking about creating an index, so we have put that on hold.
Q: So coexistence right now is not specific to regions or different from region to region, but the index is sort of universal right now?
S: Well the index as a project is nothing at the moment because there is the question of whether one defines coexistence in one way, with one definition or do you define it in accordance with the ways communities define coexistence? And maybe you can do it both ways depending upon how you do it that either gives credibility to the tool itself or it doesn't. So, TCI had to try carefully with regard to thinking about how it would create something of this kind. It hasn't necessarily given up hope on creating an index, but at this time we decided not to move forward with it until it is sort of examined what coexistence actually means, both in the peace building field and also at the community level, which brings us to the projects that we are working on right now.
Q: Okay. Great, I mean it sounds like the process for defining coexistence is still moving along, I mean roaring along, is there consensus right now to what the term means and what it's utility is within the office?
A: Yes, I think as an organization we have come to a point where we have defined it and I don't know that we have a standard definition. I will talk about the definition from my perspective. Coexistence is a term that is used to describe a state where more than one group of people are living together and resolving their conflicts without resorting to violence. It is a very minimalist statement because as you can tell it doesn't lend any weight to the quality of the relationship between the two groups. And because of that, coexistence can be seen as a spectrum where on the one hand you have what that definition gives us; two groups living together in a space without violence. It says absolutely nothing about whether or not the two groups are interdependent on each other or what their relationships are with each other.
On the other hand of the spectrum you have two groups living together without recourse to violence with stronger relationships. They may inter-marry. They may have political alliances and coalitions. They may be economically dependent on each other. And the utility of coexistence becomes clear once you understand the spectrum because what it allows us to do as people who are building peace is to use it in situations where the far right meaning, and I don't mean that ideologically, but the integrated, what I have been calling social cohesion part of coexistence, can not be applicable. For example, right after the genocide in Rwanda it would be seriously problematic to go in with a peace building or social practice concept that promoted the solid inter-dependence because it doesn't reflect the reality that people have just experienced.
However, you can talk about coexistence at this other end where you are saying well what we need to do now is stop the violence. And in your work move the communities away from this very minimalist point to this very proactive point where they're embracing their diversity and they are respecting their differences. I think that is the strongest part of coexistence as a term. And why I think it should be used more often is because it does have this amazing flexibility that is very pragmatic. You know, there are a lot of people who have derogatory terms for people who promote peace because it, you know, in promoting peace you can be, you can some how miss the reality of conflict because you miss the fact that there is a harshness to it and that people just can't put aside their differences and get along. Coexistence gives us this wonderful progression. As an organization we have located ourselves at the far end of the spectrum that says you know, we are not just for this cold, passive coexistence and we are not just for tolerance; we are promoting an active embrace of diversity.
Q: So you don't want Cyprus, you want Canada, maybe?
A: However, we recognize that this co-tolerance part of it does have a role to play because again in situations where you have had massive violence, you want people to get to this end of the spectrum but they are not going to get there immediately. It is a step by step process.
Q: Is coexistence distinct from the sort of larger notions of peace building that tend to encompass relationship building?
S: That is a good question. I mean the spectrum that Angela has described, one could argue that it actually mirrors the whole peace building process from post conflict humanitarian aid all the way to economic development and political reform. But what the coexistence framework allows for is this space within which two or more groups can coexist with one another in a way where they're not regressing. So that they can effectively move from the immediate post-conflict setting to the post-reconstruction to the actual development of a post-reconstruction of society.
Q: It almost sounds like an extra lens to be aware of when you're doing some kind of peace building process; to have in mind the coexistence factor even if you can't measure it concretely yet because you guys haven't come up with the index. But if the index does come out or even if it doesn't, just as sort of a idea to keep in mind of how are we doing on coexistence, how are we doing on economic integration, political integration, how's the coexistence factor coming along. Is that accurate?
A: I'm not sure. I think coexistence and peace building differ. Coexistence is about changing individual mindsets. Coexistence work is about changing the way individuals think about those who are different from them. Peace building has that aspect to it but it also has a structural aspect to it. Peace building is about creating infrastructure in a country that supports development, that supports peace, and that avoids conflict, violent conflict. Coexistence work as it has been discussed today has been located primarily at the individual level and at the community level.
So in many ways they kind of overlap in where they effect change because there is some coexistence work that is moving towards making institutional changes which is part of what our organization is trying to do. How do you move from changing the way individuals think to creating policies that promote some types of behavior? Peace building comes from a different angle. I see it as top-bottom and I see coexistence as bottom-up, in terms of the direction. You were going to say something?
S: I was going to agree with you but also that you can add, the ideas that you mainstreamed , the principles of coexistence, into the peace building process. So if you are creating policies, you have a society, it is a new society, it is going through some kind of political reform and it is forming new policies and new government. Implicit within that new government, ideally, you have the principles of coexistence present so that the policies accommodate all groups equally; you have equal representation in their social practice too.
You also have the sense of coexistence that the community is open to all groups no matter how diverse it is. That's sort of the ideal end; to actively embrace diversity and the spectrum that we've been talking about, but that coexistence, when you think about the spectrum, coexistence is most effective probably when it is accompanied by the peace building process. And the peace building process is most benefited when it is accompanied by the coexistence.
A: Exactly. There definitely should be links between the two.
Q: So can you guys think of a story for me, some kind of operational example of coexistence and then maybe we can contrast it with a glaring example of the absence of coexistence and ideally, I don't know if this exists, but if you can think of a story where the transition took place, where the continuum progressed from one side to the other?
S: I can think of an example for the way of a transition, if you want to tell a story about where there's an absence of coexistence and a presence of coexistence.
A: I will think about it.
S: I'll give my case study first. One of the projects that we are working on is called the Coexistence Community Consultations. Basically the idea is to bring two or more groups together that have formerly been in conflict and have on their own initiative, emerged into a state of coexistence, and that state of coexistence is how they define it. I mean that there is not a presence of violence between the two groups. Where there once was violence, it is no longer there. They've emerged into a state of coexistence. What we are asking them is, "how do you define coexistence, what does it mean to you, why is it important, how do you sustain it in your community, and how do you see coexistence actually helping you get to a better place together?"
We have these consultations as a pilot project in South Africa, and in one of the communities, it was called Nuden ??? , it was a farming community in South Africa and there was conflict, still is, over land reform between the Farmers Association, primarily of white farmers, and the community members which were primarily black farmers and community workers and also unemployed community members. There was a process of land reform where the land was redistributed to the black communities from the white farming communities. They went through a period of negotiations but prior to the negotiations there was a lot of violence. Somehow though they managed to take the initiative and form a mixed working committee where it was comprised of five of one side and five of the other.
Q: Locals negotiating on their own?
S: Exactly. Five members of the Farmers Association and five members of the local black community center came together and negotiated the process of land reform so that both sides felt that they were being represented in the process. It was a pretty amazing feat given the nature by which the conflict over land reform has created such deep rifts between the two sides and still does today in South Africa. They underwent this negotiation process and built a kind of coexistence out of conflict. We went in, they talked about how they went through that process but they also said that they face so many challenges today, that coexistence is very difficult if not impossible to sustain partly due to new challenges such as crime, economic problems, poverty, starvation, and so forth. Through these consultations they were able to talk about some of the ways they thought their relationship could be improved.
Basically, the ways that they could work toward coexistence together, meaning they need new schools that provide services to the black community, more opportunities to get together for town hall meetings so that both sides can interact with one another socially. The importance of social practice is immensely critical for sustaining coexistence. What does coexistence mean? They really captured it as a spectrum. For some of them, it was simply mutual respect, tolerance, not stepping on each other's toes, show respect for property rights, other kinds of human rights. At the other end it was also about unity and oneness and this whole South African principle of ubuntu ??? , which is mindedness, the fundamental interconnectedness of the human spirit and human beings.
Q: These were questions framed by?
S: TCI in cooperation with the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, which is ACCORD in South Africa, they partnered with TCI on this project. In one of these communities we used a methodology that we designed together to elicit community feedback on their understanding of coexistence. Now we're going to be releasing a publication in January of 2004 that will capture these portraits that were painted by community members of what coexistence means and how it can be sustained. But the interesting aspect of the consultations is that in describing the way coexistence is present in their community, and ways that coexistence can help them move forward together to a better place, they actually did, because once we left they made phone calls to one another and said, "We have to start working better together."
We know we haven't spoken with one another in a while and it is important that we continue to work toward this important goal of a more active embrace of diversity. It was a pretty amazing example of how coexistence can play a critical role in really catalyzing awareness of the importance of working together and learning to live together better.
Q: And in terms of lessons learned by the organization, people trying to foster coexistence, what kinds of things came out of that?
S: Lesson number one is that dialogue and communication is critical for coexistence and building a state for coexistence. Lesson number two is that there isn't one way you can define coexistence. To measure coexistence in one community is difficult because people see and understand coexistence in different ways. Coexistence when mainstreamed into social practice, when there are mixed shops, mixed schools, when there are public services open to both sides, then you have better relations, fewer antagonisms and animosities, and you have a greater appreciation for living in a diverse society.
Q: And obstacles?
S: That crime and political corruption and fear do tend to serve as obstacles to building an environment that is engaged in the active embrace of diversity.
Q: Those are pretty big ones.
S: I guess the idea is that if you start small as Angela was saying, if you start small but build up, there's a greater likelihood that you'll have a stronger foundation upon which to stand in combating these obstacles. Working together to fight crime, working together to address the issue of political corruption, working together to eradicate the fear of one another that so often impedes cooperation.
A: I think what is important about that story is that coexistence, in creating a stable society or changing individual beliefs, cannot stand on its own. It is interlinked with other things such as corruption and crime. Therefore it becomes a very strong part, or the mainstream of coexistence becomes a very strong part of other mechanisms either at the community level or the state level, such as anti-corruption measures or development, education. So that coexistence itself, that is, changing people's perspective on others and on difference, is part of a larger picture in creating sustainable peace and sustainable development.
Q: Working together, to use your phrase, is something that people who are just out of a conflict might not be willing to do very easily; hatred, mistrust, fear, like you said. How do you get there? I know there's no magic book. Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for the answer, but you know, generally speaking.
A: I think there is a lot of reconstruction required. We talk about post conflict reconstruction and we need to talk about that as much as social reconstruction. How do you rebuild trust in communities, how do you reconcile differences between individuals but also reconcile serious systemic issues, access to opportunity, equality. It's a very long journey and this is why coexistence becomes a very useful tool because it does recognize that it will take a very long time for a woman who has been brutally raped by someone from a different ethnic group, to trust anyone from that ethnic group, to start a shop with someone from that ethnic group, or to work in a store with someone from that ethnic group.
We also have to recognize that there are different layers of cooperation. There is a very superficial cooperation: if that woman needs a job, it is likely that she will take the job, but to what extent has she changed her attitude, not towards any individual in that group, but towards the issue of difference in general. So how can we work with different professional fields, how can we work with rehabilitation, how can we work with disarmament, with child psychologists, to really reconstruct relationships in communities and, to some extent, reconstruct individuals. That sounds a little bit formulaic, but there are some structural ways to really heal people. There are reconciliation commissions, which have been very powerful in the past in letting out what's happened. The power of information has shown to have a great effect on changing the way that people deal with trauma. Just knowing what happened can be a process in and of itself.
S: Some of the lessons we learned from the experiences in South Africa is that trust, reconciliation and a platform for negotiation are key to helping communities that have been divided for so long find a way to live better together. Those were pretty much the primary themes as well as economic interdependence. The extent to which one side needs the other for either employment or for work, to run a business, that is pretty important. In one case there was a boycott against the white businesses, they were owned by white business men, by the community at large and as a result of the boycott the businesses realized that they couldn't sustain their own livelihood without finding a way to get along better with the other side. So there are mechanisms that have been instituted that have sparked a better collaboration, at least within South Africa.
Q: Were you going to tell me a story Angela?
S: What is a non-coexistence story?
A: That is a difficult question and an easy question simultaneously, Julian. I think a situation of non-coexistence is easy to pick out given the rampant ethnic conflict over the past few decades. What are more interesting to me are the examples of coexistence and the stark differences in these examples. One example would be segregation.
Q: Perfect coexistence.
A: That is coexistence, separate but equal. Then you have the current state of the US right now where there have been institutional mechanisms put in place to promote tolerance to provide access to opportunity. For example: affirmative action. But you still see situations where the country's moving forward towards more proactive coexistence but there are always instances where it takes a couple of steps back. That just goes to show you how broad the concept of coexistence is and also how fluid it is. So a really big challenge for the people in the coexistence field is being very articulate about what they mean when they say coexistence because you can easily say segregation, apartheid; great examples. But they are coexistence if you use the standard definition but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about bringing communities further along. So that to some extent answers your question. A situation where there is full coexistence?
Q: Is it an end goal or is it a process?
A: It is not an event, it is a process.
S: That is peace, too.
Q: Right. That is what makes me think about it. Now you guys talked about coexistence from the bottom up but I have heard you talk about a dream of ministries of coexistence in governments?
S: Angela is working on a project that might give some sense about how we understand coexistence as part of national policy.
Q: You don't have to tell about it if you don't want but I think it is interesting institutionalizing coexistence somehow.
A: That is what I will take out of it. The idea of ministries of coexistence is an idea that one of the founders of TCI had and is a worthy idea I think. Alan Skiflon??? talks about it. I read an article recently I think it was in the Jerusalem Post, and Alan talks about wanting every kid to have a shot of coexistence, you know the same way they have inoculation, a vaccination when they are born. The idea of institutionalizing coexistence at the national level is something that has been on the minds of several governments over a significant period of time.
We have been working on a project; the shorthand for it here in the office is the "mapping exercise". And one of the things that came out of the mapping exercise was a survey of governments that had instituted policies to protect minority rights and to promote diversity and those ideas multiculturalism and tolerance, minority rights and diversity, are ideas that have very linked, almost enmeshed with the concept of coexistence. What we found in our initial survey, and I'll put a heavy emphasis on the term initial, when we looked at thirteen countries, was that all of them had some acknowledgement of difference within their borders and on different levels they had instituted policies that protected these minorities. Some of the countries had been very proactive in their language, for example, Australia. Actually Australia is a very interesting example because for about 60 years from 1900, Australia had what they called white Australia policy where they limited immigration to people coming from countries inhabited by white people, basically. They started in the 70s to think about the concept of multiculturalism and the role it could play given the massive amounts of immigration they had, but also in terms of their indigenous peoples.
This is an example of a country that from 1970-2003 has done a lot of work thinking about multiculturalism, thinking about the role that immigrants play within the political and economic machinery of the country and how it can take this diversity and make it into a strength for the country. That is part of our thinking when we talked about ministries of coexistence and institutionalizing coexistence, is how do you get governments to recognize the power and the strength of diversity, and to take minorities and provide them with as much access as the majority, as much as of a voice politically socially and economically as the majority, and that in fact reinforces any coexistence work or peace work happening at the grassroots level. I almost envision it as a circle. What you're doing is as a government you would be reinforcing the changes of behavior, changes of mindset, that are going on at the community level.
Q: If I am an Ethiopian ??? what is my incentive to coexist more proactively with an Aromo or something? It can be any situation basically but if I am in power and I am the one who is winning why should I bother coexisting with anyone else?
A: Susan Colin Marx has a wonderful sound byte, she says and I'm not sure if she originated it anyway, "If we don't coexist we all co-destruct." In situations where you have unequal power the person with the power is obviously going to say, "Well why should I?" There are security implications to not coexisting, and I think that's clear if you look at any conflict in the world right now.
S: Or coexisting in the way that TCI talks about, as the active embrace of diversity, because, again, during the apartheid period in South Africa, why would the apartheid government want to change things? They had everything exactly the way the wanted it. What was the incentive to actually dismantle the apartheid regime? It was for the very reasons that you talked about. Without having the active engagement of diversity you don't have human security intact.
Q: Great answer. Let's see here. What else, what else? We were going to talk about the- last question though. You and I talked yesterday about gaps in coexistence. What were you talking about?
A: Let me retrieve the memory. I believe we talked about the reality gap and the conceptual gap and that was actually a good note to end the interview on. When I first started talking about coexistence I was talking about the vacancy in the term, that it has a very weak relationship as a term to equality and these other concepts that serve to empower a minority, that create a symmetrical power relationship between groups and that's very problematic for people in this field. As you stated very clearly a few minutes ago there is very little incentive for those with power to embrace this concept and you were going to say something.
S: In the development field, I was talking about this last week, there's this term called structural isolation. In developing a post conflict society you can put in development infrastructure institutions because they're not coexistence-oriented or because they leave certain groups marginalized in the development process. You have structural isolation.
A: What I was going to say is that it is very easy for the term coexistence to be co-opted by people and again looking at the example of apartheid. We were actually in South Africa at the beginning of the year and the gentleman who was driving us said that people didn't understand what apartheid was, they don't understand that people have very different ways of living. So in his mind he has a very different concept of coexistence and a concept that actually works. So there's that kind of weird co-optation, fuzziness, which has to be struggled with using this term. So the other gap, just to reemphasize what Sarah said, is the structural issue. Because coexistence theory, so far, has seen it mostly as focused on the individual, it ignores systemic issues. So how do you create systemic change if in the work you're not addressing it?
S: In the process of building peace there needs to be a process of recognizing the value of equity.
A: Of structural violence, that's what it is. Coexistence, to some extent, does not recognize structural violence and that is what Sarah is talking about when she talks about marginalization and that is how communities become marginalized and that is because they don't have access to infrastructure that helps them move along. We have this wonderful concept that is very pragmatic and helps us to function in many different contexts but it is also disabling us, to some extent, from looking at structural violence.
Q: Last question. I promise. Do you think that you could flip coexistence around and use it almost as an early warning indicator to help out if lower, lower, or at least, decreasing index of coexistence means look out?
A: I think that would be a very practical use of coexistence, basically of examining relationships and seeing if there is a deteriorating of relationships. How is that an indicator of what's coming?
S: And many have ??? coexistence index, its one of its main values, for early warning signs it could serve that purpose of monitoring that.
Q: Great well thank you very much. (Thank you.) What other projects is TCI working on?
A: TCI has worked on a number of different projects. The first three years of its existence in New York, I should say the first two years of its existence in New York TCI was very much serving as a convener and facilitator and networker. The organization had compiled, always publishing publications for dissemination among our network that is over 1100 people all over the world. This was purely information that people were interested in, like jobs and upcoming conferences and new publications, because there was a real need for this kind of concise and timely information. TCI also focused its information dissemination/gathering work by bringing people together to network and share information. We had several roundtable discussion series here in New York. We cosponsored events in Africa, in Guinea in early 2002.
Q: That was for the networking and coordinating collaborating ideas?
A: We collaborated with ??? and we brought together a group of peacebuilders in West Africa to talk about the Mano River union ??? We brought together a group of peacebuilders in Uganda in 2001 to talk about coexistence in the Ugandan context given its historical background. We also worked with the Collaborative For Development action in March 2002 on their reflecting peace practice workshop. A very big part of the way we work is collaborating with other organizations and adding the networking and information gathering aspect to these events
Q: What is the value of that? Why should people be talking about what they are working on?
A: People should be talking about what they are working on because there is a lot of work going on out there and often times people don't have the opportunity to learn, not just who is doing what, but how are they doing it and how is it going to impact the work that they are doing. We recently wrapped up a series that we did on dialogue. We brought dialogue practitioners together to talk about their practice and changes in methodology since 9/11. One of the fabulous and exciting things about that series was that we brought together about 30 people each time. We held this workshop in New York, San Francisco and Denver. They were all doing dialogue work and half of them didn't know the other half. They didn't know each other, who was doing what, which resources they could access in their communities. The value in getting people together to talk is to build and strengthen capacity, which is what we need.
S: Reflecting Peace Practice's report is a good example of how bringing all these great minds and great experience together can really provide a structure or framework for helping to enhance the effectiveness of peace and coexistence practice for that matter in post-conflict societies.
Q: Thanks again.