Ana Cutter Patel BS ’90 strives to bring divided communities together as executive director of Outward Bound Peacebuilding.
BY DAN SADOWSKY | Lewis & Clark’s Chronicle Magazine
Gidon Bromberg lifts his paddle, dips it in the fast-flowing waters of the Colorado River, and raises it again, watching his partner in front of him intently. Cold water occasionally splashes his face as the sun’s rays creep over the tall river bluffs. A first-time kayaker, Bromberg struggles to match his partner’s rhythm in the tight confines of the two-person craft. But over the course of their 10-day journey, their oars increasingly rise and fall in sync. Bromberg’s confidence grows as he learns to trust in his partner’s ability to help him navigate the twists and turns of the Southwest’s mightiest river.
Bromberg is the Israeli codirector of EcoPeace Middle East, a nonprofit that seeks to bring together communities from Palestine, Israel, and Jordan based on the shared nature of their environment and the self-interest at stake in protecting and managing scarce water resources. Back in 2009, he was one of a dozen social entrepreneurs from Israel and Palestine who attended the very first Outward Bound Peacebuilding program on the Colorado River.
“You’re disconnected from your home environment, and you’re spending intense time together, night and day, in pressure situations,” says Bromberg. “You’re dependent on each other. You quickly see you want to work with those who are capable. Nationality has nothing to do with it.”
Ana Cutter Patel BS ’90 champions such outcomes. She is executive director of Outward Bound Peacebuilding, one of nearly 40 schools licensed by the prominent experiential wilderness organization, but the only one organized around a theme rather than a location.
“Our goal,” says Patel, “is 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 inspire them to expand the space for peacebuilding when they return home.”
As a child, home for Patel was Waterford, Virginia, a small village nestled in the hills and farmland of Loudoun County, about 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. After graduating from high school, she fled small-town life and attended Boston University, home to 30,000 students. “It was a big school, and I had maybe too much fun,” she says. “I definitely needed a break from that scene.”
Patel transferred to Lewis & Clark as a junior, and initially felt like a “misplaced East Coaster.” After her first semester, she departed for a three-month field study program unaffiliated with the college, where she learned about marine resources in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
When she returned to Lewis & Clark, Patel found her niche among like-minded students and professors, notably Jean Ward, now professor emerita of Rhetoric and Media Studies and former director of the Gender Studies Program.
Ward says Patel stood out as engaging, enthusiastic, and intellectually curious. She selected Patel to chair the annual Gender Studies Symposium, one of the first students in that role, and still recalls the subjects of her papers and presentations.
“Ana’s work really was top-notch,” Ward recalls. “She was very strong in her commitment to social and political justice and how it related to international studies, gender, and environmental studies. All three were important to Ana.”
For her part, Patel says Ward “believed in me at a time when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself as a student or a leader, or have any idea what I was going to do next. My experience at Lewis & Clark gave me a push in the right direction.”
After earning her BS in communication, Patel spent two and a half years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, overseeing construction of a new gravity-fed water system and immersing herself in Caribbean culture. Afterward, she landed an entry-level communications job with the Andean Development Bank in Caracas. Her job responsibilities included making several visits to neighboring Colombia, where the bank was helping the indigenous Wayuu turn their traditional weaving into a livelihood in textiles.
At the time, the intensity of Colombia’s longstanding internal conflict was picking up, and access to the Wayuu, who reside in the farthest reaches of the country’s Caribbean coast, was increasingly difficult.
“That’s when the big connection was made for me,” says Patel. “You can do all the development work in the world, and then one person decides to use violence, and it’s all gone. It gave me a passion for working with societies to find other ways to deal with conflict.”
Patel returned to the United States and earned a master’s degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, then worked at various nonprofit groups and foundations researching, writing, and proposing policy. She became an expert in issues of transitional justice, studying countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone to devise recommendations on how countries coming out of civil war can best address past human rights violations.
For several years, she taught classes on preventative diplomacy and other topics at Columbia’s graduate school. And she coedited Disarming the Past, which was later adopted by the U.N. as the template for managing demobilization and reintegration programs for former combatants.
In late 2009, Patel left a research job and began consulting for a new Outward Bound school launched by a former student at Columbia. That advisory role with Outward Bound Peacebuilding quickly led to her appointment as the organization’s first official executive director.
“I love research and policy,” she explains, “but I also believe that for careers in this area of international affairs, you can get too far away from the day-to-day challenges of doing this work on the ground.”
Experiential peacebuilding focuses on four types of relationships: with the self, between the self and others, between the self and the community, and between the self and the environment. These are what Patel calls “the entry points to peace.”
Outward Bound Peacebuilding courses are designed to capitalize on these entry points and build camaraderie. By the end of the second day of an expedition, Patel says, the group is largely self-directed. “They’re making decisions, drawing maps, learning the hard skills of leading an expedition and being a part of the group.”
Many activities are done in pairs. Each day, two different people are chosen to share decision-making authority for that day. Exercises teach methods of building consensus, creating group norms, delivering constructive feedback, and practicing active listening. Participants engage in meditation, journaling, and “lots of debriefing,” Patel says. Paddling in double kayaks, holding someone’s rope during a climb, and other paired wilderness activities put the teachings into practice.
Since 2009, more than 1,000 people have participated in Outward Bound Peacebuilding programs, representing 25 countries and six continents. More than 70 percent of the alumni are women, and four out of five live or work in countries in the lower half of the Global Peace Index, an indicator of security and conflict published by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
Patel says the outdoor-adventure angle is not only a draw for many, but also a factor in the program’s success. “I believe all peacebuilding and leadership development has to include an understanding of our responsibility to the environment and to our role in the ecosystem,” she says. “We bring an environmental lens to places where, culturally, it’s not appreciated. I think that perspective is critical for our world.”
Increasingly, the organization is advancing its philosophy of “experiential peacebuilding” by training Outward Bound schools and other wilderness-learning organizations how to incorporate peacebuilding into their programs.
In May, Patel led a six-day Experiential Peacebuilding Training in Mexico’s Ixtlán de Juárez cloud forest for Outward Bound Mexico staff and social activists from Latin America, including a Colombian human rights lawyer, a public safety advocate in Acapulco, and a lead instructor for Outward Bound Brazil.
Hector Tello Mabarak, executive director of Outward Bound Mexico, was one of the participants. As in many parts of the globe, competition for natural resources is a major source of conflict in Mexico. Drug traffickers are controlling land for drug routes; mining companies are polluting rivers; and cola makers are buying up tracts of land for sugarcane production. Mabarak wants to incorporate the Outward Bound Peacebuilding philosophy into his programs “to reconnect people with the environment and with their roots.”
Mabarak described the Outward Bound Peacebuilding sessions as a mix of presentations about building peace, group activities to reinforce learning, and solitary time for reflection. “It’s a way of looking at peacebuilding in a really hands-on way, examining how everybody’s actions, intentions, and way of living play into it,” he says. “And Ana’s passion for experiential learning and making it really tangible for everybody is inspiring.”
After Gidon Bromberg completed his Colorado River adventure and returned home to Israel, he was so inspired by his experience that he decided to pursue a similar idea for his own nonprofit, EcoPeace Middle East. Today, he’s partnering with Outward Bound Peacebuilding to develop part of an existing 667-acre park into an “adventure experience” worthy of an Outward Bound school. EcoPeace plans to offer the program to community leaders in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine so that they can work together more effectively to protect the environment. “My Outward Bound experience showed me that it’s possible to create deep relationships in a very short amount of time,” says Bromberg. “And when relations are built that go beyond self-interest, you can do remarkable things.”
Patel agrees. “The program works for different people in very different ways,” she says. “That’s the magic of Outward Bound and experiential peacebuilding: to watch what each person does with the experience and to allow ourselves, as facilitators, to step back and let the transformation unfold.”
Since 2009, more than 1,000 people have participated in Outward Bound Peacebuilding programs, representing 25 countries and six continents.
Big Bend National Park, Texas (David J. Owen) Big Bend National Park, Texas (David J. Owen)
Ixtlán de Juárez, MexicoNorthern Velebit National Park, Croatia