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A Most Tangled Bridge – Bringing Together Civil Society, Policy, & Academia

When I was in high school, I never would have imagined myself taking a class inside a maximum-security prison in Oregon alongside twelve peers from my college campus and our incarcerated classmates. When that did happen, it didn’t take long to realize that I would find this class more engaging, productive, and eye opening than almost any other life experience I’ve had. Then, throughout college, I never imagined that my first job – the Scoville Fellowship – would have me keeping up with fast-paced and out-of-control nuclear rhetoric, so close to the periphery of DC’s national security community – next door to the same expert who had visited my junior year nuclear politics class in Oregon to lecture about the Iran nuclear deal. And, until recently, I never would have thought that the lessons I learned in the prison would relate and overlap time and again with the skills I am learning each day through my Fellowship.

With a classmate in Morocco, outside
the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca

I graduated a few months ago from the University of Oregon. The previous four years held for me experiences and opportunities that narrowed my interest and strengthened my resolve to address issues of peace and security in my career. My involvement in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, the class I took on Israel-Palestine, my brief visit to Northern Ireland, and my research process in Morocco all introduced me to topics that were vastly different in almost every way – from the geography of their “classrooms” to the communities they impact in the real world. Each of these separate experiences, however, consistently complemented the others under the surface. Each has let me witness in different contexts the importance of including silenced narratives in policy and law and has reinforced that it is essential to approach issues of conflict resolution and prevention from multiple angles at once.

With Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala and fellow Carnegie
 Global Oregon students at the 2015 PeaceJam conference

These slowly broadening perspectives I gained through college came parallel to a more rapidly growing sense of frustration. Policies that seem so far away impact people so personally every day, often doing more harm than good. I wondered how the trend could be reversed – how the voices of grassroots activists could be lifted to reach decision-makers just as effectively as their decisions reach us. After all, some of the world’s most influential change-makers–Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Leymah Gbowee, Angela Davis, to name a few–started out as participants in their communities’ bottom-up movements. I was living in Eugene, Oregon, a community filled with engaged activists, and saw every day how people came together to address issues of inequality, locally as well as globally.

Mural seen on the Falls Road, Belfast,
during Namratha’s Northern Ireland Visit

While I worked with others in my community in Eugene to bring attention to some issues of urgency, I was simultaneously fascinated by the outlook one could gain through the slow-moving process of research. I experimented with how to narrow the gap between activism and academia. How could we allow issues of such urgency to be addressed in a timely manner, but with long-term goals in mind? How could we raise public awareness and sustain the public’s attention – without obscuring a message with details but also without losing the important nuances? As I narrowed my focus of study to Peace and Conflict Resolution, I learned more about regional conflicts and their resolution processes. The more I learned, the more complicated and nebulous the situations became; the more complicated I realized they were, the more at a loss I was for any potential solutions. 

That’s a good thing – in this field, I’d be one hundred percent wrong if I ever thought I’d come to an answer. Building peace and security is a process, but the process requires small, concrete steps to take shape. I became increasingly interested in learning how those steps could be built, and along the way, how they could be used to form a bridge between the grassroots, academic, and policy-making communities.

ReThink Media acts as such a bridge, forming some of the steps to close this ironic gap. By working toward the same goal with different strategies, different sides of our society inadvertently close one another out, and prevent important points of view from being heard. Navigating the media in its evolving, complex, and overlapping forms, ReThink helps grassroots activists, academics, and analysts access their audiences through some of the same platforms, thereby bringing the sectors together piece by piece.

The process can get messy. My fellowship at ReThink is guiding me through the main issue that my college experiences first exposed me to – lack of diverse perspective in law, policy, and public discourse. Each day since I moved to D.C. I have been exposed to different innovative methods and have been able to witness collaboration between civil society and policy makers on some of the most pressing and complicated issues our country is dealing with. I’m hoping one day to help achieve positive change from such collaboration, in the form of tiny, tangible steps like the ones I mentioned before.

Namratha Somayajula is a Fall 2017 Scoville Fellow at the ReThink Media.