Creating a Culture of Peace

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Creating Safe Space

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Mahatma Gandhi envisioned the shanti sena, a trained corps of Peacekeepers. They would be able to intervene as an impartial third party in areas of violent conflict. This Peacekeeping would create Safe Space for adversaries to engage nonviolently and fashion for themselves new relationships in a more just and peaceful culture. It would provide a foundation on which both Peacemaking (negotiation and the creation of solutions) and Peacebuilding (constructing alternatives) might proceed. Today we recognize that Peacekeeping can be effective in countries and communities, in organizations and homes.

Creating a Safe Space in the United States: In the early 1990's, eight gangs were at war defending their turf in East Los Angeles. Every day they killed or injured someone, making it unsafe to walk outside. As a result, people hurried in and out of buildings but mostly stayed in their homes. Neighborhood mothers, who met regularly at the Dolores Mission Catholic Church to read scriptures, prayed about the problem. During a particularly violent period, they read a story in the scriptures about followers of Jesus who were huddled in a boat trying to ride out a terrible storm. According to the story, when Jesus approached, apparently walking on the water, his followers were terrified and did not believe it was Jesus, even when he told them not to be afraid. Peter, who was very skeptical, wanted proof. He asked Jesus to make it possible for him to walk on the water also. According to the story, Jesus agreed, so Peter climbed out of the boat, walked a little way on the water, then became frightened and began to sink. Then Jesus stretched out his hand to save him and admonished, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

During their discussion of the story, one of the women became very excited about what it meant for their own situation. She said they had been hiding and huddling together in fear like Jesus' followers, as though they would be safe from the storm of violence. But they knew people had been shot accidentally just walking to the market or sitting at home. What we need to do, she said, is to get out of our boat! Initially, the other women found her words confusing; they held a lengthy discussion. Later that evening, as the gangs were preparing for battle, seventy of the women walked from one gang turf to another to another, carrying with them salsa, chips, soda and a guitar. They offered the gang members food, prayers, traditional Mexican songs and conversation. These actions were very disorienting and disarming; they broke the rules of war. Violence was interrupted. These mothers formed a peace committee and made what they called "love walks" every night for one week. The gang-related violence dropped significantly as gang members and women began to see the humanity of each other and began to talk and listen to the concerns of each other. Their relationships were transformed. Then women worked with gang members to develop a tortilla factory, a bakery, a child care center, and a school, offering job training and conflict resolution classes. Eventually, the women shifted from a neighborhood watch group to monitoring and reporting abusive police behavior. Their creative interventions had liberated individuals from their old roles and created a Safe Space for peace to grow. (Based on a story by Ken Butigan, From Violence to Wholeness)

Creating Safe Space Internationally: In 1999, as internal conflicts raged in countries around the world, thousands of peace workers gathered at the Hague Appeal for Peace. David Hartsough and Mel Duncan met there for the first time, began to share a vision for Gandhi's shanti sena, and found themselves challenging each other to make it a reality. They agreed on time-tested methods for a peacekeeping intervention:

  • protective accompaniment for human rights and other leaders
  • a presence among the people
  • witnessing and reporting to an international audience with the power to sanction
  • interpositioning.

Over the course of three years, David and Mel made preparations for an international Nonviolent Peaceforce, publicized, raised funds, hired staff, set up offices, and traveled extensively to gather information and sponsors. They conducted research to identify best practices, building on the extraordinary efforts of groups who have been conducting smaller nonviolent interventions successfully for several years, like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Peace Brigades International, and Witness for Peace. They selected trainers to develop a curriculum to prepare Peaceworkers. Using political analysis, on-site meetings, and partner consultations, they considered various conflict areas for a pilot site, trying to determine where intervention would be effective.

In November 2002, I attended the convening event near Delhi, India, with delegates from 47 countries and 50 non-governmental organizations to dialogue and officially establish the new organization. We chose an international governing council, adopted by-laws, and selected the first pilot site: Sri Lanka. The standing force would grow from 200 to 2000 fulltime, salaried personnel who enlist for two years. It would cost $30,000 annually to cover expenses and compensation for each Peaceworker, in addition to the expenses of international and regional offices with support staff. Fundraising strategies would include offering $10 Peace Bonds, which would be affordable so that many people could participate. (For more detailed information:

Peacekeeping, or creating Safe Space, is not the same as occupation. In stark contrast, it requires an invitation from the adversaries who are in violent conflict, total nonalignment, respect for the adversaries' abilities and resources, and confidence that they can craft their own solutions. Where occupation breeds fear; nonviolent Peacekeeping diminishes fear and sows the seeds of hope. Its approach to creating safe space is consistent with the basic principles of active nonviolence:

  • being willing to risk
  • engaging the conflict
  • remaining vulnerable and willing to suffer
  • seeking the well-being of all
  • respecting every person and affirming that each holds a piece of the truth
  • promoting experimentation in the search for solutions
  • transforming relationships
  • helping others find their own power to reach solutions
  • ensuring that the means and the ends agree throughout the struggle

3/09 revision of Sep/Oct 2003 Fellowship article


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