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Peace Advocacy and Peace Debates: Framing Conflict Resolution in the Future

This piece was originally published on Medium on 20 November 2017.

The motto of Rotary International is “service above self,” and this manifests for different clubs all over the world through local, regional, and global goals. While some goals are tangibly expressed, such as working to eradicate polio and increasing access to clean water for communities, other goals, like working to increase dialogues surrounding peace and conflict resolution in both global and local contexts are harder to measure and evaluate. There are so many things that we talk about when we talk about the concept of peace, that sometimes it seems as though there is an idealism without a clear definition of what peace is, much less how it might be practically achieved. As we look at the world, and everything that is happening in our contemporary space and time, it can also be hard to see how and where idealism can meet with practicality to find tangible solutions. Though my own transition to starting my PhD has been full of both excitement and challenges, I’ve been so honored to be supported by an organization that is taking small steps to move forward towards a more peaceful future in two tangible ways: Peace Advocacy training and Peace Debates.

The Peace Debates were something I had the chance to experience my first week in Cambridge. The Rotary Club of Cambridge-South hosts and organizes a debate between the sixth-form colleges in the area, where students have the chance to debate each other on topical issues that most of us are struggling to find answers for as adults. This year, the topics ranged from Brexit to internet trolls, and it was refreshing to hear the takes of the next generation. This was not only because they proved that yes, the kids are going to be alright (if we can stop being stupid long enough to pass the world into their care – I’m no longer certain of this), but also because it showed that for all the handwringing about the state of education and disruption of the social fabric by the internet and mass media, it is still possible to teach younger members of our society to think critically, and think big, and take on the reality of hard questions head-on. In my work as a facilitator, I have seen the ways in which we infantilize the ability of adolescents and teens to think about themselves in relation to their peers, their society, and to the world at large. I think, if we want to start really affecting positive change, we need to start having cross-generational conversations with younger generations, because given the chance, they do have quite a lot to say. I really hope that I can bring a model of this program home, maybe encourage debates across Interact clubs, or local schools, or otherwise help with the growth of this model here. After all, the best advocates for peace in this world are the voices who will be on this earth after our own are silenced. They should be fostered now; that is the meaning behind the proverb about planting gardens and trees we ourselves will never sit in the shade of.

A part of the work being done on that front, too, is through the Rotary Peace Advocate training done through the Rotary Peace Project. Founded by Jean Best of the Rotary Club of Kirkcudbright, Scotland, who addressed the UN General Assembly about the project during Rotary International Day on Nov. 11 2017, the project seeks to train participants in how to recognize sources of conflict in their daily lives and the tools they need to resolve conflict more peaceably, or even before it starts. Pat Webb, who is one of the Assistant Governors of Rotary District 1080 led training in this program for Global Grant Scholars in November, where we were also joined by another student in the Education Faculty at the University of Cambridge. During the training which consisted of identifying different kinds of conflict that students encounter, and how to both intervene in and empower students to intervene in such conflicts, Pat also shared with us some of her experiences teaching these things with students in East Anglia, and some of the exercises she uses to encourage them to discuss different problems and identify what kind of learners they are, and strategies to figure out how they can build successful paths through life for themselves. One of my favorite activities was partnering up and sitting back to back, with one person having drawn a simple picture, and then having to tell the other person exactly how to draw it, too. While I am familiar with communication games, it is always a lot of fun to see how other people do things, and how they alter them to fit their specific communities. This is something else that I would hope would be expanded globally, but at the very least hope to take home with me as well, and pass on to others.

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Pat Webb and her peace-advocates-in-training. It was a wonderful discussion that planted many seeds for the future (I remain terrible at being the one in charge of taking the selfie).

Raymond Chandler once wrote an essay titled “What do we talk about when we talk about love?;” I think perhaps a more prudent question for Rotarians to ask themselves is, “what do we talk about when we talk about peace?” It’s a very easy word to throw around and consider vaguely in a global sense. No war? Sure. No famine? Clean water for all? These too sounds like components of a world with less conflict. But when we think about what peace looks like in our own communities, we need to work a little harder to imagine what implementing a more peaceful future would look like. However, programs like the Peace Project and the Peace Debates do show us that at the very least, including the voices of future generations is definitely part of the solution.

Local journalism might be the only thing keeping me sane

This piece was originally published on Medium on 26 August 2017.

Working in any media field is a little bit like being bludgeoned with worst case scenarios 24/7 and then some lately. If its not worrying about being discarded in a “pivot to video” it’s being bombarded by the never-ending news cycle, trying to keep pace with everything that seems to be falling apart. And if it is not that, there is the expectation from some employers that you work on call at whatever their hours are, and then the eternal struggle of wondering, will they actually pay me? When it comes to my writing, I constantly feel like I am always behind and spinning my wheels in the sands of writer’s block. It is where I am actually writing this from tonight while trying to finish a couple pieces for the local weekly I write for. I’m frustratingly drained, I’m anxious, I have too many loose ends to wrap up before a big life change coming in the next few months. I’m short on time and temper. Exhaustion and stress have hit my immune system hard all summer. I cover three towns; many of the people in them have my personal cell phone number and don’t hesitate to use it. And I swing between feeling like I’m pulling teeth on stories to having too much to juggle, all the time. As frustrating as this all is, while I’m staring blankly at 15 tabs worth of town commission minutes, I know that in a week, I’m going to feel absolutely lost. Because as bad as a place as I keep teetering on the edge of right now, I know that this is the thing that is helping me keep away the doom and gloom in the face of an ineffably crueler world than I want to believe in.

I joke that I work in Stars Hollow – and a part of me still demands a t-shirt reading #stillabetterjournalistthanRoryGilmore.

Seriously, she’s a terrible journalist. Who falls asleep conducting an interview? On a street? In NYC?

Though this is far from the whole picture, I have been lucky to work for a year in three towns where the good, the hope, and the dedication to community far outweigh anything else. I never meant to be a journalist, it is something I fell into and found that, parts of it at least, I truly enjoy. For about 20 hours a week (usually more) I get to ignore the national scene, ignore the international scene, disengage with the proverbial garbage fire that seems to be spreading in every direction, and dig in to a place where even when they disagree on how it should be taken care of, there is pride in citizenship and celebration of a place by the people who live within it, and in many ways strive to take care of each other.

I have learned to be invested in local politics at a level I’ve never engaged with before; I see the dedication it takes to keep small New England towns running and now believe more than ever that politics needs to be a service to others, not a platform for an individual. I’ve met so many people, learned about their pasts and their passions, their roots and the directions they want to grow in. I’ve talked to scouts about their service projects, middle schoolers who want to ban neonicotinoids, veterans who are reaching out to provide a lifeline to others struggling with the same mental battles they faced with no help post-Vietnam. I’ve learned why community theatre is important especially in small communities, why fife and drum endures and should continue to do so, the challenges of keeping people in these communities, and why people can’t help but return when they do leave. I get to watch small partnerships be woven together, and residents who see what is happening outside of what feels like a haven, and choose to take a stand though the ugliness doesn’t touch them. I meet people who dedicate their lives to not only preserving local histories, but uncovering the darker sides of the stories that haven’t been told. I get to listen to all the ways that people try to bring the global context into the local word, and I get to hear about how our local shines outwards into the global from international exchange students. Yes, there are budget troubles and anxieties. Yes, there are very real problems to be faced and there have been and will be moments when this community will have to make very real choices about who they are, who is welcome, and who they want to become. And yes, there could always be more people at the regular town meetings and commission meetings and all the other little things that fill a town government calendar. But even with the problems, even with a voicemail that is never empty and emails that become distracting and questions that I can’t answer because, no, I cannot investigate why your neighbor seems weird and whistles in his backyard all the time, I cover these towns, and I get the chance to breathe.

I don’t have many chances to breathe in my life. The more it feels like I can’t catch up and the closer my life crawls to a major life change, the more I am grateful for those moments where I can dig my way into stories that will never be a blip on a national, or even a regional level, but for the people I have grown to care about and the communities I have grown to love, they are defining stories. And I am grateful for the people I work with; writers and editors who know that sometimes the local soccer game is more important than the world cup, and the importance of digging into the minutiae of town governance – and they take both equally seriously, because both, in some way, will impact the lives of the people who read the local paper. At a certain level, though it might have been my job to be interested in them and invest in what happens at the hyperlocal level, not a single one of them ever needed to become invested in me. And yet they did. If I stayed plugged into only my own life, only national and international news, I would have a much darker view on the world. But watching the level of investment of people who genuinely care about local life, who want to do their jobs well and take care of other people and their community to the best of their ability in whatever role they work in, helps bring some light back to my world.

So now, it is too early on a Saturday morning. I have too many countdown clocks running towards change, I’m behind deadline, and I’m writing through my writer’s block because in the face of the last few days, I can’t thing of anything else to do. But I’m staring at meeting minutes about a new restaurant, and notes about a miniature horse demonstration, and somehow, everything is going to be okay, because these moments are part of the record of life just as much as the storms hitting the national news cycle right now. And I’m the lucky one who gets to write these down, and remind people that there is still something positive in the world, still things being made and not destroyed, just like the people who are doing these things remind me every day and through every interview.

Making Rotarian Connections in Cambridge

This piece was originally published on Medium on 14 October 2017.

Coming to Cambridge for my PhD has been a slightly harder transition than when I left for Edinburgh for my Masters four years ago. When I left for Scotland I was experiencing a sense of intellectual wanderlust; I loved where I had grown up but I also felt that I had outgrown it. This time, however, I’ve left my home for a longer time after learning to grow into the gifts that my community had to offer. It’s one thing to grow up knowing abstractly that you come from a good place, it is quite another to see that place for what it is, to understand it’s intricacies and the care and time that individuals give to make it what it is; not flawless, but striving. Not perfect, but genuinely caring. Not a simple idyllic, but with depths to plumb and more to offer than can be scratched from the surface of a postcard-picturesque sunset. Suddenly, when you not only know what you’ve left behind, but understand why it is so much a part of you, it becomes hard to remember why you left no matter what the bright opportunity you are meant to be running towards might be.

But what has made the transition easier – both times actually – is finding an integral part of my community elsewhere, through Rotarians in both Scotland and England. When you are moving somewhere new, it is nice to know that there are people there with a genuine interest in taking care of you – and that it isn’t lip service either. Even before I landed, my host club, the Rotary Club of Cambridge-South had gone above and beyond to help me navigate the university’s convoluted bureaucracy and make sure that I would actually have a place to live when I arrived. And after months of hearing, “this is not our problem” from other places, it was such a relief, though certainly not a surprise. My home club, the Rotary Club of Madison, CT and my home District, RI District 7980, have shown me time and again that people are willing to do whatever it takes to someone, not because of what they will receive, but because of what they can do for someone else, simply because they can. I am so grateful to have been made a part of this community, twice now, and know first-hand how my life has been shaped because someone in Rotary thought I was worth supporting. And if it feels rare to be so embraced and so supported by a community when you are a stranger and an outsider, I hope that whatever little I do in this world, I can share that feeling of being accepted and worth helping, when I have to the chance to do so, for someone else. Helping is one of the most genuine forms of showing care that there is; how lucky am I to be so cared for.

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Rotary District 1080 Global Scholars Welcome Dinner 2017, Westminster College Cambridge, 11 Oct. 2017

A global community dedicated to service in this world seems like an abstract dream. Can people genuinely just want to help others to the best of their abilities anymore? In my experience, yes. And the Scholars Welcome Dinner held by Rotary International District 1080 served to confirm that experience, across generations. Eleven scholars from five countries, all working on different topics but with the same goal in mind were able to come together and further show that diverse people with diverse experiences can learn from each other to push towards a common end. I am very excited to see what this cohort can do — even from just preliminary plans to coordinate Rotary Peace Project training locally, and take those skills back to our own communities. It doesn’t take a lot to make it happen either. Just a little bit of time, a little bit of connecting the threads. It is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle with no key in some respects. Not a single one of us has the answer, or even a full grasp of the picture. But we can each do a part, and benefit from the others’ perspectives.

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