Participants from around world gather at SIT in Brattleboro for intensive workshop
Among 60 participants from 25 countries are gathered for the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program are, furthest left, Abraham Wang, the first from the People's Republic of China to take part in the 17th session, and Algerian dentist Lamia Lehrech, fifth from left. To her right is Paula Green of Leverett, founding director of the program at the School for International Training. - Contributed photo.
Three-week CONTACT proigram in conflict transformation has been been held in Brattleboro each year since 1997. - Submitted photo.
BRATTLEBORO — They come from Algeria and Tibet, from Bangladesh and Myanmar, from Kosovo and Palestine. And also from around the United States.
Each of these students, ages 25 to 75, is learning about “conflict transformation” skills they hope to bring back home, in many cases to war-torn, repressive or fractious societies to shape a peaceful future.
Since 1997, the School for International Training’s three-week “peacebuilding” program has gathered teachers, lawyers, workers for nongovernment organizations and other realms in 125 countries over six continents. On the Brattleboro campus, participants in the CONTACT program — Conflict Transformation Across Cultures — meet people from other countries, cultures and religions, some of which may have been branded the enemy by their own tribes or governments.
And they meet themselves.
“We’re trying to build a container for transformation here,” says Paula Green of Leverett, who originated the program 17 years ago and is its director.
Green, who also teaches SIT’s master’s-level peace and conflict course and was founding director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst, had been traveling from one global conflict to another to mediate peaceful solutions.
“I found myself telling people in one country what peace efforts were being made in another country,” she recalls, “so I felt like I was a bird carrying messages of strategies for development of peace and justice. I had a vision of finding a way for people from zones of conflict to speak together, to help inspire people to build solidarity, to find common ground.”
This summer, for the first time, there’s a participant from the People’s Republic of China, plus one from Tibet and a Tibetan refugee living in India. There are also Indians and Pakistanis, and in other years, there have been Israelis with Palestinians, as well as participants from different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia and in the Caucus region.
“They can’t meet each other until they get here because they can’t cross the borders,” Green says of this year’s two Indian and four Pakistani participants. “They’re together all the time here, and they’re loving it.”
Abraham Wang, a resident of China’s Anhui province who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania master’s program in teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages, said this has been his first chance to meet Tibetans.
“This affects me enormously,” Wang says, “because the government propaganda I have received is all about the amazing work the Chinese government has done for the Tibetan people, how it’s played the role of rescuer saving people from slavery, how the international community is unreasonable on this issue ... The opportunity in this program to talk to people from the other side, face to face, is really eye-opening. Certainly it has broadened my perspective. At the end of the day it’s about peace, about people living their lives peacefully.”
“Peace” isn’t just another word for these participants, who one morning heard a presentation about the Global Peace Index, an annual ranking of the peacefulness of 158 nations according to 23 criteria from Kevin Clements of the University of Otago in New Zealand. They learned how their own countries were ranked in 2012 (Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand topped the list; Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan ranked last, with the United States at number 88) and discussed the underpinnings of most peaceful nations (well functioning government, sound business environment, equitable resource distribution, low corruption, free information flow, high education levels, acceptance of others’ rights, good neighbor relations.)
Their assignment, for which they broke into small work groups, was to develop policies and specific strategies for encouraging those characteristics in their home countries.
Guest speakers that evening were Colrain peace activist Randy Kehler and Tim Bullock of Leverett who participated in a trek retracing the journey of slave ships to this country.
‘A big divide’
In addition to round-the-clock, informal interactions, the three-week program is marked by the participants’ own presentations about conditions in their countries, as well as special dialogues among people from countries in conflict with one another and inter-religious conversations, since all of the world’s major religions are represented.
“That’s really a big divide in the world,” says Green, with a focus on the core teachings of peacefulness that often are misunderstood or practiced incorrectly.
There are discussions about women in Islam, about political corruption, about the effects of social media and reactions against it by governments. Pointing to current public protests in Turkey, Green repeated Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement that Twitter was “the worst menace to society.”
Green reflected on how much the rise of the social media has contributed to participants’ sense of personal efficacy.
“In 1997, we were barely using computers, and there was almost no Internet, so we were sending out brochures in a way that seems very primitive now,” she recalls. “Everything’s on Facebook now, so the minute it’s posted and they have all these materials to take back with them and use and disseminate. It’s wonderful for them. They’re communicating 24-7 with everybody back home, but also with each other.”
Green, who in 2009 was presented an award by the Dalai Lama as an “unsung hero of compassion” for her own peacebuilding work, says, “I’m really interested in the transformation of our own attitudes and behaviors as well as the transformation of the unjust institutions that undermine societies, that lock us into certain ways of being, and create the injustices that keep fomenting conflicts.”
CONTACT has a counterpart each October in Nepal, set up after visa restrictions following the September 11 attacks for Afghan, Pakistani and other south Asian participants to focus on conflicts there. The stand-alone workshops can also expand upon by participants for a certificate program or a longer master’s degree in conflict transformation. That two-year master’s, along with graduate programs in international education, TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), sustainable development and intercultural service, are taught at the Brattleboro institute, where there are also foreign-exchange programs for university and high school students.
Daniel Yalowitz of Greenfield, dean of SIT’s graduate programs, says that after traveling extensively, “This is an opportunity to really live my own personal mission as a change agent and activist supporting people who traditionally have not had a voice and have struggled.”
CONTACT’s international participants, who Green says “come with a real sense of urgency, because there’s so much suffering,” can get scholarships to offset a $2,000 tuition, and may find family home stays, but the cost of travel can equal a month’s salary. Another frequent barrier can be difficulty obtaining a visa.
But often arriving with a sense of powerless, Green says, “Here they get inspired to build networks in and beyond their own country to advocate for social change. ... They get the sense these problems are interconnected and interdependent, and that both causes and solutions lie in great massive change.”
Participants also get a view of an America that few have imagined, visiting the surrounding area. They also come to see they are not alone in their suffering.
‘Many, many difficulties’
Medard Kakombe, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo now living in Mozambique, where he cries because his wife and his three children have never met the parents he left behind, says, “The first week I spent here, it was like I was behind a closed door; now it is like someone opened the door. It is a blessing for me, because I am learning from other people who are here. I have come to a point of seeing I’m not alone, learning how other people are facing and managing the conflict they are in.”
Pierre-Celestin Bakunda, an emigre from Rwanda now teaching at a French university, says, “I want to find a way to reconcile my people, my compatriots. “These two ethnic groups (Hutus and Tutsis) are fighting for power for ages. I blame both of them. ... The legacy of this hate is not good for our future generations. We should sit around the negotiation table so we can find a solution, so we can follow the example of South Africa and Northern Ireland.”
Bakunda, who lost 18 family members in Rwandan fighting that intensified just before he left in 1995, says, “There are so many, many difficulties, because a group has held power and they don’t want to share power... Economically, people are so marginalized and poor. We want a fair state where people can co-exist peacefully and encourage this kind of democracy.”
Another Rwandan, Jean-Luc Dushime, who now lives in Burlington and works as a photographer, writer and storyteller, recalls walking for six months to escape genocide in his country, to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then escaping to the Republic of the Congo, where he lived for seven years before arriving here in 2004.
“That was when all the pain and suffering hit,” he says, “when I was in a peaceful place, when I had enough time to reflect on what happened to me. I became an artist, to express my frustration and my hopes. Then I realized how much I’ve changed in terms of identity.”
Dushime, who lost many family members and childhood friends in Rwanda as well as friends in the Congo because of the civil war there, returned to his native country this spring for the first time in 18 years. “I went back home as a new person, and it was an interesting perspective, meeting a new country. That’s when I realized I needed more tools to find solutions in a peaceful way, because I am sick of war. I feel I really want to be part of a solution . How do we share this country and move forward? My biggest goal is to bring Hutus and Tutsis to the table and help them listen to each other, because we’ve suffered so much that we dismiss each other’s pain.”
Lamia Lahrech, one of five women participants from Algeria, says the diverse CONTACT group is learning nonviolent ways to bring about improvements to the health care, education, economic and social systems in their countries while discovering ways they can begin working together.
“For me,” says Lahrech, a dentist, “it’s just trying to find a common humanity in all of us … and stop thinking about the differences.”
On the Web: www.sit.edu/graduate/contact-program.cfm
You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269