Conflict transformation in Mexico – Reflections on Year 2

A massive oak tree stands in the Ixtlan de Juarez cloud forest that the indigenous community tells us is over 300 years old. They call her the Abuela (grandmother), and she is so big that she has created an oasis of moss and gnarled roots under her immense trunk and branches. John and I, our colleagues from OB Mexico, and the 10 peacebuilders that participated in the 2nd Experiential Peacebuilding Training camped under the Abuela last week. The peak moment for the group was an extraordinary set of thunderstorms that rolled over the mountain after sunset and kept us, and our companions from the Ixtlan community, in lightening drill position (and certainly outside our comfort zones) for more than 40 minutes. And so this crew named themselves the Rayos (lightening bolts).

The Rayos included participants from Brazil and Colombia and across Mexico. Carlos is based in his home city of Acapulco, Mexico’s most violent city, working with victims of violence and city leaders on a program to expand secure public areas. In the final circle of the training, he expressed to us how he feels transformed and re-energized by the program, and is committed to using and teaching experiential peacebuilding approaches in his work. Fabi is a lead instructor for Outward Bound Brazil, an OBS which sees itself as an organization deeply connected in the work of social & environmental activism. Brazil experienced a dramatic rise in violence over the past two years, and Fabi is determined to bring an Experiential Peacebuilding Training to the country. Naty, a human rights lawyer from Colombia and an alum of OBCP’s 2016 PEP program, works for Colombia’s Memory Center, which is collecting the documentation and testimonies of the conflict for the Colombian Truth Commission established under the recently signed peace agreement. Naty describes her PEP experience as an awakening to her own role as a peacebuilder in her life and her country, and a way to strengthen her connection to others doing this work in the world. She was keen to follow up with the Experiential Peacebuilding training in order to understand better the methodology and bring this approach back to Colombia. They are leaders, influencers, and connectors – accelerated on their path by their OB experience.

And so, how do I reflect on the value of our Education & Training programs, and in particular our second Experiential Peacebuilding Training in Mexico?

First, we are unique in offering a one-of-a-kind approach to those living and working on violence in their communities. Experiential Peacebuilding integrates experiential education with peacebuilding skills and practice to empower local peacebuilders, deepen their resilience, and expand the set of tools they have available to achieve their own goals in their own communities. Key to this is the highly adaptable language of our 4 frames: self, self-other, self-community, and self-environment.

Second, situating our work in inspiring wilderness environments, and leaning into the 75+years of Outward Bound tradition, ritual and standards, allows us to hold space that is a respite and an awakening for our participants. People living and working in situations defined by violence and division exist in constant states of high stress and “fight or flight” mode. Evidence is mounting that violence impedes creativity – and so we are showing that a structured experience in nature enables the “creative act of peacebuilding” as championed by John Paul Lederach: Because new ways of thinking may pose a threat to the status quo, it is important to provide space for the creative act to emerge…creativity opens us to avenues of inquiry and provides us with new ways to think about social change. (The Moral Imagination, JPL)

Third, we connect peacebuilders to other peacebuilders – we launch locally situated communities. Peacebuilders often work in isolation, in danger, and in the face of extreme cynicism. Relating and sharing with people facing similar challenges broadens their networks, creating opportunities for productive exchange and support that are all too scarce in their home communities. This is the work of Outward Bound Peacebuilding, to bring people in divided communities together in the unique environment of an expedition, create opportunities for them to find all that connects them, and to inspire them to expand the space for peacebuilding when they return home. It’s an arc and each time it unfolds we continue to learn and plan for the next one.

In the final exercise of the Training this year, the group planted a young tree in an area of the forest that the Ixtlan community designated as a nursery. Planting a tree became a metaphor for the long-term thinking necessary for peacebuilding and the roots that we are establishing as an experiential peacebuilding community that stretches further every year.

And of course, the tree was named El Rayo.