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Charity Begins at Home; So Too Must Addressing Racism

While August bookended a summer of racial uprisings and rising numbers of coronavirus cases, I was beginning my fellowship with Peace Direct. By my third day, I was helping facilitate an online consultation on racial justice in the United States. While Peace Direct’s mission revolves around the idea that local peacebuilders are best equipped to address the root causes of violence, this consultation was one of their first attempts to gather together U.S.-based peacebuilders. The conversation revolved around much of the same topics that had dominated the headlines for the months prior. As standard as it might seem, the consultation’s focus was indicative of Peace Direct’s and, to a lesser degree, the wider sector’s desire to break down the silo between international and domestic peacebuilding. If the ongoing racial conflicts here in the U.S. are not acknowledged, the legitimacy of the country’s peacebuilding efforts internationally will be called into question.

If the U.S. is truly to be an ally and facilitator of peacebuilding efforts, we need to grapple with the fact that the field is steeped in salient colonial mentalities. There continues to be a focus on Western methodology and markers of success, representatives from the Global North continue to hold the majority of positions of international leadership, and funding relationships mirror previous colonial power/colonized country power dynamics. This past summer, the peacebuilding world faced a racial reckoning as employees from various organizations and a number of local actors came forward and publicly shared their experiences of racism and discrimination. Just as the U.S. has been forced to grapple with the long-present racial tensions, so too did the peacebuilding world.

Kibera, Kenya–The final day of Paige’s Davis Project for Peace six-week literacy and empowerment program.

During the week of the U.S. elections, between glancing at my phone to track electoral map updates, I was once again facilitating an online consultation, though this one was global and focused on “De-colonising Aid and Peacebuilding.” The atmosphere in the country was one of uncertainty and, in many ways, that was reflected in the consultation. Conversations that name racism and the presence of ongoing colonial tensions are difficult, especially when they occur publicly. Many participants felt more comfortable listening to others than sharing their own testimonies of witnessing or experiencing discrimination in their work. The goal was to begin talking about the flaws and failures of the current system and to imagine alternative structures for the aid and humanitarian sector.

I spent the better part of the month having in-depth conversations about the applicability of terms such as ‘structural racism’ and ‘soft colonialism’ in non-Western, non-anglophone contexts. I carefully composed a number of introductory texts and questions to help guide the discussion. I am currently in the process of intellectualizing some of the testimonies, applying critical lenses through which to reframe them in a report.

Sundarbans, India–A group of girls had created an anti-early marriage club and Paige was there to help them develop their programming on waiting until 18.

I admit to sometimes feeling uncomfortable myself, bearing witness to and facilitating these types of conversations. As a Black woman who is new to the field, various Scoville Fellows had generously given me advice on how to navigate D.C. culture. Instead of the expected old-fashioned boys’ club, I found myself entering a sector in the midst of a dramatic shift. The timing of my entrance into the field meant that my positionality afforded me a unique cachet and opportunities such as being invited to speak at the closing ceremony of +Peace’s Peace Week.

As honored and fortunate as I have felt to be asked to share my thoughts as a Black woman on a variety of topics pertaining to race and the field, I wonder whether this interest in the perspectives of marginalized communities will last. Like I said, these conversations are uncomfortable and for true change to occur, there needs to be a lot more of them. Dismantling pre-established frameworks rooted in racist stereotypes and narratives of Western superiority will demand that the restructuring of the entire peacebuilding sector. It will require doing what the field has long since claimed to want to: trusting local actors but in a domestic setting

I have met some incredibly passionate people since entering this sector. They are kind, intelligent, and dedicated to helping build a more peaceful world. They are also mostly White. As the peacebuilding world continues to address the tensions and bias in its own self- conceptualization, I caution persistently asking non-White and marginalized actors, both here and abroad, to share their experiences. Discussions of discrimination are not an intellectual exercise for the victimized. I too, am guilty of over-intellectualizing testimonies about race and discrimination. I want to push back against that urge to rationalize what is an emotional experience.

Amman, Jordan–This photo of the Amman Citadel is one of the first photos Paige took when she arrived in Amman.

In fact, I think allowing for the fluidity of emotions around discrimination is part of dismantling the frameworks that are failing to adequately serve and assist those living in conflict-affected contexts. Part of addressing racism is examining biases against behaviors and beliefs that are less common in the West. It also means involving local actors in every step of a project; from planning to writing the report, even when that means slowing the process down or creating a new system entirely. There are bound to be growing pains as the peacebuilding field undergoes this transformation. There are many structures that are so well-established that the idea of changing them to truly be participatory and inclusive seems like a daunting task. It might well be. Nevertheless, I believe dismantling the racism, discrimination, and imperialism embedded in peacebuilding is one of the most important things the field needs to do.

Admitting that the U.S. experiences conflict is a step in the right direction, helping to shatter the illusion that the West has solved the precursors to conflict and is therefore best suited to resolving it elsewhere. Only then can U.S.-based peacebuilders receive the support and recognition they deserve. Only then can we admit the existence of limiting prejudices against certain races and countries. Only then can the field of peacebuilding stop replicating colonial power dynamics and actually work alongside communities to build sustainable peace- here and abroad.

Shannon Paige is a Fall 2020 Scoville Fellow with Peace Direct.