In this article, the author reflects on her experience as a member of the 2015-2016 Peace Teachers Program cohort. Learn more about the USIP Peace Teachers Program.

Most of my work is pretty depressing. As the teacher of a Holocaust and Human Behavior course, I spend hours upon hours of planning time skimming through accounts of Einsatzgruppen actions, the testimony of survivors of various oppressive regimes, and analytical essays about the repeated failures of the international community to end violent conflicts. As my students move through the course, they, too, begin to struggle with the wealth of evidence about how, even though humans are clearly wired for compassion and empathy for members of our human family, the world community as a whole has not yet developed effective structures for protecting us from the worst demons of our own nature.  

This year, due to my work with USIP/ Global Peacebuilding Center, I have started to think about my curriculum differently. I see that my overall emphasis on identifying and analyzing sources of conflict and identifying patterns in conflict really only leads students to one conclusion: there is a lot of conflict, and it sucks. Even though my students find it fascinating and enlightening to study social psychology, genocidal impulses, and the ways in which extremist leaders inspire violence as a means to achieving utopian visions, if my end goal is really to empower students to be active in resolving the conflicts, they must spend much more time with examples and models of successful peacebuilding.

So, yesterday was a bright spot. My HHB seniors wrapped up small group projects and presented their findings to their peers: the goal of this project was to find examples of ways in which the international community has been successful at resolving conflict or building peace, particularly in cases of humanitarian crises, and to come up with a list of “take-away” recommendations for success in peacebuilding.

I did not know ahead of time what the outcome of these presentations were going to be; I didn’t even really know if they would find many examples at all. But as they presented their case studies, it became clear that there were indeed many success stories out there. They found out about Carl Wilkins’ endeavors during the Rwandan genocide, and the UN’s humanitarian responses to the earthquake in Haiti. They observed that NATO’s airstrikes in Bosnia effectively ended the conflict on the ground (though it did nothing to build peace in the long run). They found many examples of successful small NGOs and youth groups, such as STAND, who helped build political will and action against the genocide in Sudan. They also found many examples of grassroots, individual actions that had large-scale positive impacts, such as the #illridewithyou movement in Australia, where, in the wake of Islamophobic attacks, Australians banded together to provide security for Muslims on public transportation. 

Amanda Terwillegar helps her students prepare for a simulation during a workshop at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Amanda Terwillegar helps her students prepare for a simulation during a workshop at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

In the end, students said the hardest part of the project was actually finding the case studies --examples of peacebuilding or upstanding citizens often don’t make the news, and are much harder to dig up on the internet. As students talked about this, they came to the conclusion that a major perception shift would be one of the biggest factors in allowing more peaceful conflict resolution to blossom internationally: since we don’t see (or recognize) as much of it throughout the normal course of a day, we don’t believe it exists, and we can’t easily envision ourselves in that role.  

To tie things up, as a class we created a list (below) of keys for successful peacebuilding efforts for the international community. As I move forward in planning next semester and next year’s curriculum for all of the courses I teach, I will definitely be shifting more towards helping students identify, understand and practice the positive outcomes. Without this modeling, students cannot envision a world full of peacebuilders.

  • A multilateral approach is almost always necessary
  • Compassion and moral imperative must drive agendas
  • Political will really can follow the passion of the people; but the passion of the people must indicate a desired end result (not just be an expression of anger)
  • “Intervention” must be done WITH communities, not TO them
  • Intervention or conflict resolution must ALWAYS include long-term solutions to maintain peace; the absence of conflict does not necessarily lead to peace.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Learn more about USIP’s resources for educators and students.