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Diving Headfirst into Peacebuilding

On Sunday, August 15, following a rapid advance that took much of the world by surprise, Taliban forces entered Kabul virtually uncontested and effectively cemented their control over Afghanistan. The following day I began my Scoville Fellowship serving the Global and Affairs Partnerships team at Search for Common Ground. My first few days were filled with standard onboarding activities – overviews of Search’s organizational structure and programming, introductions to key staff, assorted online training courses, etc. However, owing to the urgency of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and the need for all hands to be on deck, I quickly found myself being assigned responsibilities related to Search’s advocacy surrounding and efforts to respond to the evolving crisis in the country. I was asked, effectively, to jump right into the deep end just as I was learning how to swim, and I am deeply grateful to my colleagues at Search for the unique, revelatory experience that doing so has provided.

Studying conflict and peace in an academic setting introduces you to the immense challenges that come along with trying to avert or transform conflict from the outside. You likely learn about the intractable complexity of dealing with a mix of local, national, and international political, social, and cultural dynamics, many of which you as someone not party to the conflict in question will have a limited understanding of. You probably learn lessons about iconic successes and failures in efforts to build peace and develop an understanding of how you can draw valuable takeaways from these case studies. At the end of it all, ideally you come away with a nuanced picture of both how difficult and how important it is to make an effort to build peace, or at least something closer to peace. A deep interest in these challenges, the questions that arise from them, and a belief that it is critical for young people to take a hand in addressing them is precisely what drew me to the peacebuilding field in the first place.

That said, for all critical knowledge, skills, and tools that you can equip yourself with by studying peace and conflict, I am increasingly aware that there are challenges that an education in peacebuilding simply cannot prepare you for. No class will give you first-hand experience confronting the seemingly contradictory experience of responding to the sometimes dizzyingly rapid and at other times, frustrating slow evolution of crisis situations. No series of lectures will really allow you to grasp what it feels like to think that how you word the text of a letter or an email could lead to a delay in action which will have a direct impact on the lives and wellbeing of vulnerable people. A seminar is unlikely to prepare you for the odd experience of reading a grim headline, and, on top of the sympathetic and empathetic feeling that you normally would have felt, thinking to yourself “Well, this is something that I’m going to have to deal with tomorrow.” My first few weeks at Search for Common Ground have been a very real lesson in confronting these, in my experience, novel feelings and thoughts.

Ojo and the Search Global Affairs and Partnerships team.

This is not to be melodramatic, to downplay the immense privilege inherent in peacebuilding from the safety of an office in Washington rather than from within a conflict-zone where doing so may present an immediate threat to one’s security, or to frame my time as Scoville fellow as anything other than positive. I have had the opportunity to engage in important, edifying work, much of it dealing with geographical contexts outside of Afghanistan, I have learned an incredible amount about the conflicts which Search works to address, the inner machinations of NGOs and the policy-making process, I have had wonderful experiences and met a truly staggering number of fantastic, talented people, and I have had the opportunity to participate in projects which may have had a direct impact on policy for the better, something which is, for me, unique. All that said, learning to deal with the new, personally challenging feelings which my work has evoked has been to date one of the most surprising and valuable takeaways from my time as a Scoville Fellow.

I have, up to this point in my life, been lucky enough to be able to have an interest and investment in violent conflict and its remedies while being largely unaffected by it. Even when it comes to issues surrounding racial and political conflict in the United States, which have been and remain a significant driver in my desire engage in peacebuilding, I am operating from a place of privilege as a person who has not seen my own safety or the safety of loved ones directly impacted by the systemic violence endemic in our country. My experience as a Scoville Fellow personalized my interaction with peace and conflict in a manner in which I did not expect it to. It has added a weight of responsibility and gravity, and form of investment to my efforts to address threats to human safety and security that were in many ways absent from my previous political action or activism, in which it often felt like, though I was making a difference, it was largely as a part of a much greater collective force than as an individually meaningful actor.

This newfound, or at least newly perceived, ability to make a direct impact is, as I discussed, in many ways intimidating, but it is also deeply empowering. We all have the ability to make a difference and to invest our time and making meaningful, positive contributions to the lives of others and the world more broadly, and the Scoville Fellowship and my work with Search for Common Ground have both helped me cement that reality in my mind and given me the opportunity to act on it to a degree which I previously did not feel was possible. With all that I have learned and been able to do in the past six weeks I am immensely excited to see what more I am able to grasp about myself, the world, my role in it, and what I can do to change all of them for the better.

Nathan Ojo is a Fall 2021 Scoville Fellow with Search for Common Ground.