David Smith: Peace is My Day Job

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Newsletter 84 — February 16, 2023


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This post is a bit different from most of the other posts in this blog, but David wrote us awhile ago, asking if we would be interested in a post that seeks to get new people into the field. We answered "of course!" as getting many, many new people into the field is key to making the changes we need to make at the societal level to reduce hyper-polarization, strengthen democracy, and meet our many current challenges. So thanks to David for sharing this! -- Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


by David J. Smith

February 13, 2023

The title of this article might suggest that the work of peace is something that we do afterhours in the evenings, or on the weekends.   Be it volunteering for social movements, being active in campaigns for nonviolent change, or occasional gig work helping  a cause we feel strongly about, peacebuilding and social justice work is often seen as something that is pursued after our “real” job is done.

This presents an unfortunate predicament for those who want to make their formal careers advancing positive social and political change.   We all have financial obligations: paying our rent or mortgage, putting food on the table, seeing to the needs of our family, and maybe even saving for our retirement.   What peace work that is out there tends to be low paying or difficult to obtain because of the requirements of experience and education.  Few mediators can make a living solely by mediating, and it’s a long road to becoming a diplomat.   Part of the challenge might be the conception of what exactly is a “peace job.”  If we expand what peace work looks like, we might see the road as less daunting and the possibilities more achievable. In my book Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace I suggest that nearly every job or career can focus on peace in some way.  We are only limited by our imagination.  

My first encounter with professional peacebuilders was when I worked at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, DC.   There, my colleagues were highly educated social scientists with specializations in specific aspects of peacemaking applicable in the global sector.   They had PhDs in political science, anthropology, or specific area studies such as the Middle East.  A few  had completed graduate degrees in conflict resolution or peace studies.   Many of their backgrounds before coming to USIP had been in diplomatic fields such as the U.S. Foreign Service or with the UN.  Still others had worked in the development or humanitarian fields overseas. Others came from NGOs, think tanks, or academia.  Because of the nature of USIP’s work, it seemed reasonable that my colleagues would bring extensive knowledge of global affairs and regional conflict.   But besides the colleagues who implemented programs, USIP was also staffed by those with publishing backgrounds with degrees in journalism.  Because USIP hosted groups and dignitaries, some associates were experienced in public relations.  And with the launching of PeaceTech Lab in 2008 (which in turn became its own not for profit in 2014), the importance of those with technology backgrounds working for peace became clear.

At USIP, I often hosted youth groups.  High school and college students would engage in peacebuilding activities, after which we would discuss how to apply the work as professionals.  Students would enthusiastically indicate an interest in working for peace but would be hard pressed to identify specific careers.  And in responding I often felt the careers I was talking about with them were the ones that required much education, the right connections, or opportunities beyond the reach of many marginalized young people. I came to realize that as a field we suffered from myopia in terms of career possibilities.   If we had  peace techies and journalists working at USIP, why not elsewhere?  And why not artists, and business entrepreneurs, and engineers, and teachers working for peace.  And how about those occupations where the level of formal education needed is less extensive.  If you don’t go to college and rather opt for a focused trade program or apprenticeship, is there a peace job for you?  If you decide to attend a community college – where 44% of undergraduates are found in the U.S. – is there a path to peace work?

The nature of peace work is constantly in flux today.  Technology, globalization, community and regional violence, climate change, and population displacement, have led to the need for professionals to respond to human needs in new, creative, and often more nuanced ways. A social worker finding placement for migrants in the U.S., a teacher engaging in a lesson with a multicultural classroom, and a webmaster supporting an organization that is responding to social movements and change, are all at the forefront of peacebuilding.   Similarly, a construction worker, a restaurant chef, or a retail sales professional can apply their skills sets to support those impacted by conflict and war.   I think about Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen serving meals in Ukraine  in the midst of its war with Russia.   His staff, who might not have college degrees,  are no less peace professionals than my former colleagues at USIP who graduated from Harvard and Yale.  

So, what advice can we offer to those seeking a peacebuilding career who are seeking opportunities where higher education might not be needed?   What meaningful work can one aspire to that will allow them to promote core notions  of social justice, serve human needs, and alleviate violence? And accomplish all of this in a “day job.”

I would offer these 5 suggestions to consider.

  1. Consider your interests and talents first, not education or training.  In considering a career start or career change, don’t immediately seek training or education you think you might need.  Often you are educated or trained enough.   The notion that everyone needs a degree in conflict resolution or peacebuilding often runs counter to the realities of the field.  Many people who would identify themselves as peace workers don’t have a degree in peace, or any degree at all.  You likely have the experience or training that gives you sufficient entry into many types of work. Focus rather on what you are interested in.  Where do you want to make a difference?  Start there. Look for opportunities to volunteer, shadow, and engage in ways that will show your interest, willingness to learn, and commitment. 
  2. Consider the most pressing issues you are following or interested in as your exploration starting point.  If you are struggling on “what” job to seek, consider the causes or issues you are following.  Don’t look for the job, look for the cause.  For instance, if social justice issues and in particular police relations with Black and Brown communities is an interest, read and listen to all that is going in that area: podcasts, social media, and, print articles.   In that process, you will come across professionals doing the types of things you’d like to do.  Say you are following humanitarian work – for instance due to the recent earthquakes in Turkey -  and come across Doctors Without Borders often known by their French name Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF. What about their work interests you?  What skills might you bring to that group?  Consider that most MSF volunteers and workers do not have medical backgrounds but are skilled in logistics. 
  3. Talk with those who are doing the work you are interested in.  Having focused conversations with individuals engaged in the work you are interested in should be a priority.  These conversations – sometimes referred to as informational interviews – need not be formal.  If you walk by an organization in your community doing great work, just stopping in and talking with someone about their work could be very beneficial.   Engage in web-based research to find people you would be interested in learning more about.  In identifying who to talk with, consider someone who is doing the work you are interested in. This is rarely the CEO or president.   Leadership might not have time and will delegate your inquiry to someone else.   A person lower in the chain of command has more time.  And you can get their attention by looking for “connective tissue.” In finding the right person (and websites often have some information about staff), seek those who have similar backgrounds as yours: raised in the same city, attended the same schools, have the same interests,  or traveled to the same countries.   We want to help those who are like us in some way.  If you can set up an informational interview, make sure to come with questions about their work, professional experience, and the advice you are seeking.  Make sure to be appreciative of their time and inquire about anyone else they might connect you with.
  4. Attend events and engage.  Never underestimate the value of being in the right place at the right time.   Opportunities can appear anywhere, but they are more likely when you intentionally seek out places where the work you are looking for is being done, talked about, or developed.   As such, going to events where experts are talking about their work or where you can volunteer to help on a project can often expose you to people and groups engaging in the work you are interested in.   This will require you to get out of your shell a bit.  You will need to actively find out what is going on in your community and commit to attending, which might also be done virtually in some cases.  And when you attend, you need to engage: ask questions, introduce yourself, and be prepared to share your interests and background.  This can lead to volunteer opportunities which in turn can lead to paid positions.   Consider scheduling informational interviews with people you meet at events.
  5. Consider what you are lacking in experience, education, or training, Only after engaging in the first four steps, can you now think about needed education or training.  You might be surprised to learn that the amount of additional education or training you might need will be minimal and can be obtained on the job.   You need just enough to do the work: tailor your training to the needs of the job.   And where you get it, might not be traditional.  Rather than applying to college or graduate school, short term training in project management skills can be obtained online or at a local community college.   Regarding experience, consider the various ways you might gain what you need including virtually.   Volunteering remotely for a group and offering your time to support administrative tasks can help you build credibility and allow you to get to know an organization which might be willing to take you on for a paid position later. 

You are now at the starting gate in your journey.  These steps will prepare for the race to follow.   Once you’ve done this preliminary work, you will need to focus on matters including developing a strong resume (often revising it for a specific applications) and online presence (including LinkedIn), building you interview skills, finding appropriate positions to apply for both online and through networking, and cultivating colleagues who will be supportive of your career path.   In this way, you will find the “day job” that fulfills your need to work for peace.

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