A Discussion with Dianne (Dee) Aker, Deputy Director, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, University of San Diego
Background: This discussion (on June 30, 2010) focuses on the Women PeaceMakers Program at the University of San Diego, which Dr. Aker created and directs. It involves intensive efforts to document and share the work of women from all world regions who are practitioners working for peace. While religion is not an explicit element of the program, Aker observes that very different world religions often provide a common unifying thread among the women and many cite the personal inspiration of their faith as a foundation for their peace work.. Many peacemakers they work with are deeply engaged in their faith traditions but also have strongly ecumenical views and are open to all faiths. Most, she observes, do not have formal roles in their religious institutions. The program at times identifies and invites women who use the essence of their spirituality and beliefs to bring people together across great and often violent barriers and histories. The program promotes network building among the women, regionally and online. IPJ works actively to support global policies that bring women into policy circles and a range of country programs where women are actively working to bring peace. Aker's multidisciplinary and multicultural approaches, with years devoted to communications challenges and bringing women's stories to light, are highlights.
Interview Conducted on June 30, 2010
You have a remarkably varied and interesting career path. How did you arrive at where you are today?
It has been a wonderful journey! It began with an opportunity that took me to Colombia with the Peace Corps, in its very early days (1963). I found myself in a remote area, high in the Andes Mountains. Suddenly I had a chance to get a look at the world from a very different place; the experience completely inspired me and transformed my sense of how intimately connected we all are. It taught me about being linked to the planet and to a fine indigenous community scattered over the mountainsides far from the Mississippi River.
I was born in Kankakee, Illinois, but mostly grew up in Hannibal, Missouri. I had some thoughts then of being a missionary, but was not really engaged in any one faith, so that was a problem! The Peace Corps gave me the chance to be of service and explore. In Colombia I was teaching nutrition, raising rabbits and working with little schools and families. Like all volunteers I learned more than I taught. It was a continuous learning process in how things work and making things work. The region, Silvia Cauca, was tough for farming; potatoes and onions were the mainstays. The terrain was such that I went most places by horseback, on occasion finding cows that had fallen out of their steep pastures; people there shared food when they had almost none and once a child died in my arms - it was a transformative experience.
When I came back, I had a restive sense, perhaps. After research in a neuropsychiatric institute outside Princeton for several years, the next stop was an Israeli kibbutz for a year, followed by four years as a social worker for LA County with Spanish speaking elderly and disabled. After a number of years spent on my advanced degrees and living in India for a year, studying in Indonesia, I had the privilege to be director of United States International University in Kenya for five years. Next while working for USIU Stateside, I created and hosted a television program for six years about women around the world who were pioneers and survivors. For the last 20 years my work has taken me around the world quite a few times, most frequently going to Uganda and Nepal; but home is here in San Diego.
Along the way I stayed in a Zen monastery in Japan, studying sumie under a Zen master, as I tried to absorb some of the teachings of Buddhism; quite a different bit of learning came from my work as a group facilitator at both Esalen and Soledad Prison. It was always the people I met along the way that transformed me. I did not take the straight path, but one that took several routes and I often say, in a sense I lived a Forrest Gump sort of life. Over this period, in various professions, from research to psychologist to education to conflict resolution facilitation there have been encounters with such fascinating folks as Timothy Leary, President Arias, Carl Rogers, President Museveni, Prachandra, and now the most amazing and important women whose names may not make the headlines, but whose work changes lives forever.
My doctorate in psychology and anthropology was an early form of interdisciplinary studies and both reflected and encouraged my seriously informative route to working in conflict resolution. I concluded that I was not sufficiently dealing with the problems I was seeing. As social worker or a psychologist I tackled one issue at time; teaching and journalist endeavors allowed me to go a little broader on problems, but again the paths were constrained. My collaboration with Carl Rogers and our work in Poland as the Solidarity Movement was beginning and on the Nicaragua crisis gave me the greatest sense that my responsibility is to simply create the environments that enable people to create change for themselves.
And during the 1980s, the gender dimension came more into focus for me. From my travels it was clear that women do most of the work, everywhere, with the least power or acceptance; and the work they do is what continually saves every society after conflict destroys it. They put families, communities, and inclusive societies together again. So here I am, on this crooked road, using the kindnesses and wisdoms gathered along the way to try to enhance or assure the capacities that allow women to do this work are recognized and supported and recorded. The same desire to show what women were doing inspired the creation of that television program that highlighted some 240 women over six years, and now inspires the WPM program that focuses on documenting in much more detail the true peacemakers, the spirits of hope in these times.
What took you to the Kroc Institute at San Diego?
The opportunity came when the Institute for Peace & Justice was created, in the year 2000. I had known Joan Kroc since the 80s when she anonymously supported the work of Carl Rogers on Nicaragua. She was an amazing woman, and I had a good sense of what she hoped her gift would establish.
So I was part of the Institute literally from the time the IPJ was built. With a small team, I helped to create and shape the peace and justice programs, of which the Women PeaceMakers Program is one. The University of San Diego was ready to move in the direction that Joan Kroc had wished, making peace, not just talking about it.’ Joyce Neu, our founding director, had the vision and I was fortunate to be her deputy focusing on program development. I had been at USD starting up the WorldLink ~ Connecting Youth to Global Affairs program and it became the first IPJ project. WorldLink, now run by Karla Alvarez, began by linking Mexican and United States high school students and asking them to look at global challenges we need to face. While I have been the interim director of the IPJ several times, I prefer to put my focus on programs.
How does the Women PeaceMakers Program work?
We select four remarkable Women PeaceMakers each year. They spend two months at the Institute in San Diego, and we document their stories of peacemaking and peacebuilding. Each peacemaker has a peace writer who captures her peacemaker’s life as well as best practices. All of this is set in a timeline/background of her peacemaker’s conflict effected situation. Most of the people we select are unlikely to be well known outside their local region, and their stories have not been documented in any systematic way.
We believe that storytelling and documentation are vital, and our team does this well and thoroughly. Each peacemaker and her writer have two months together and the writers themselves come before and extend beyond the peacemakers to work on these materials. On several occasions we have worked with a film team (Sun and Moon Vision Productions) to bring the story to life. We try to make sure that we get a real sense of what can be done for peace, and how the practices that the women use fit into their culture and may be shared in others. We have had 28 women from 26 different countries thus far. (Map at http://www.sandiego.edu/peacestudies/ipj/programs/women_peace_makers/WPMMap.php). This will be the eighth year and bring in four new women.
What role does religion play, both in your selection and in the way the peacemakers present themselves?
The women come from many religious backgrounds; 14 of the peacemakers have been Christians, ten Muslims, one Buddhist, one indigenous woman, one Jewish, and one who says she is an atheist. Most of those who are identified with a religious tradition are committed to making the spiritual dimensions of their work manifest and often credit their beliefs. However, they are not proselytizing and the vast majority do not play formal roles in their religious institutions. They are ecumenical and open to all faiths. There are two exceptions in terms of explicit integration into their religion, two Catholic women. One, Christiana Thorpe from Sierra Leone, was a nun but, with the permission of the Pope, left her order to do her work. She concluded that she could not do the work she needed to do, working with and protecting young girls on the street at night, given the restrictions that had been placed on her as a mother superior and needing to be in by 6:00 at night. Sister Pauline Acayo from Uganda is a nun happily working within her order. The Women PeaceMakers are very much at ease in talking about the role of religion, and make it clear how they act out their faith and what role it plays in their lives and choices.
How does the selection process work?
It is exciting and challenging. We are currently in the interview stage for four Fall 2010 peacemakers, and as we speak we have identified finalists whom we are interviewing from India, Liberia, Iraq, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Israel, Philippines, Uganda and Sri Lanka.
The process begins with an application that goes out in April to various groups that we have worked with, like UNIFEM, Caritas, Pax Christi, AWID, and others. We send the notice to UN agencies, religious groups and NGOs worldwide. It is online for two months. The applications that we receive include the person’s history and peacemaking story, and recommendations from several supporters who know of their work. For those in the final group, we check those recommendations extensively and talk to the women by phone.
How many are in the pool? How do you winnow them down to the finalists?
This year we have 160 fully completed applications, and they are an amazing group of women. In our review, we look for those who have truly worked in their community & even if they have been in exile & created their own programs to help the situation, stood for human rights or been engaged in peacemaking. What kind of peacebuilding or human rights work have they done? The nature of the work varies widely. Some have been involved directly in negotiations, and have signed peace agreements. Others are more involved in working on ending root causes to conflict and creating opportunities for people.
The winnowing down is trying. We have a team that reads the stories, headed by our program officer Jennifer Freeman. We work closely with our editors Emiko Noma and Kaitlin Barker, who bring all the stories online, and those who have done the filming of peacemakers in the field and thus know the challenges well. They know how hard the work to capture the stories truly is. They spend their fall with the women and have to deal with everything from getting them here to struggles with vicarious trauma that the writers can develop. The applications from and selections of the right writers for each peacemaker also occurs this time of year. The processing is all done in house. It involves a matching process, as we need to be sure that the people we select are people we can work with, writers we can work with, and peacemakers who will find this both a respite from difficult lives and a chance to share their wisdom.
Peacemakers are residents here in the beautiful Casa de la Paz which is part of the IPJ at the USD. The four women from totally different worlds, conflicts, live together in double apartments looking out on Mission Bay and over the IPJ garden.
What do they do while they are on campus?
First, they spend three hours a day being interviewed by their writers; they often present in classes, but do not teach courses. There are public interactions with San Diego humanitarian agencies and the community at large, and each has a public conversation in the IPJ theatre and together they give an evening panel. This year (and every other year) we are organizing a major international conference. “Precarious Progress: UN Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security” will be September 29-October 1 and is organized with UNIFEM, the UN NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, IANSA, and Initiatives for Gender Justice from the Hague. This year we will be bringing back a number of previous peacemakers to participate in the conference, too.
Where did the idea for the program come from?
Well, I had seen the need and tried, as noted above, to give voice to women in the past in my work in media. But a lot of people have had a hand in creating this and helping it evolve and reach out ever further, including every writer, peacemaker and staff who have come to us. Joyce Neu, our first director who came here from the Carter Center, was very supportive. The continuing support of our main donor, the Fred J. Hansen Foundation, which has been the financial backbone from the beginning, has made this all possible.
And how do you work with the network of peacemakers that has developed over the eight years?
We are very active with the network. All the peacemakers are connected online, and get an update once a month from the program officer, Jennifer Freeman, on all the activities and support systems out there that might be of use. We inform them specifically of anything that is related to their efforts, such as grant opportunities and people who may be going to their area who they could meet. We have seen they are also very supportive of each other and contact one another.
We are currently working to create regional networks, starting with Asia, so the groups can create credibility locally and call on one another for support. There are now 11 peacemakers from Asia, and we are beginning with four of these women who have especially strong NGO programs or presence and access to their governments, calling on them to be the core organizing advisory group. We hope that not only will they come together, but also that they will model and empower more women in Asia. We believe they will create a strong community of women who can muster some influence or give voice to gender justice in each other’s countries when called on. The points of contact can be about political concerns, gender equity, or the need for inclusive democratic actions. In general, they will be joining together to move forward in handling their own affairs.
One past criticism of the United Nations, as it tries to implement the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, is that there is no list of women that they can call on to speak out, take a lead in negotiations, etc. We are hoping through our network activities to help expand this list. We are reaching out to women who have been involved in many areas, negotiating ceasefires, being present at peace tables, and so on. In Indonesia, one of our peacemakers has been central in helping to address ethnic and religious tensions in Papua, while another in Mindanao in the Philippines has worked on tri-party peace negotiations.
We also arrange visits, bringing Women PeaceMakers from one region to another, where we are doing peacebuilding work. For example, I have several times taken Women PeaceMakers to our project in Nepal & women coming from Uganda, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. The conflict-affected women in Nepal learn a great deal from seeing other projects in action and learning that other people face senseless violence and conflict and how it might be mitigated. Regional networks could expand that kind of sharing.
What is the nature of the Nepal project you describe? And how do field projects fit within the program structure?
Short or on-going peacebuilding field projects are at the heart of the IPJ, and Nepal was one of the first projects or responses we made. I had been visiting there early in 2001, meeting with survivors who were returning to Nepal after being trafficked to India, and saw the escalation of the internal conflict with Maoists while there. The IPJ was preparing a conference in which we examined the peacebuilding challenges in a continuum of stages of conflict, from just starting, to wavering on the edge of major conflict, to full-blown conflict, to post-conflict without issues/human rights having been addressed. The conference included conflict resolution specialists from around the world, including President Carter. Nepal, fitting the first category, was invited to send leaders and human rights activities from civil society. Interestingly, the country has gone through all phases now but we continue to work with leaders and civil society.
At that time the situation was clearly getting worse in Nepal. Macedonia was a second case we chose, as it was teetering on the edge, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the third country selected, was in full-blown conflict. And Guatemala was in a post-conflict situation but with no real grounding of human rights. We brought together people from all over, and worked to model what we do in the Institute.
What is distinctive about the IPJ is we do not just facilitate negotiation at the highest level. We also work with civil society seeking a voice in the events so impacting their lives. That means people from civil society, from the grassroots who are seeking to be engaged and getting into or being prepared to engage in peacebuilding. Joyce Neu had come from the Carter Center where she had worked with the former president at the top levels of getting people to the table and working on agreements. The focus of those is often, as one of our peacemakers says, about getting those folks with the guns to the table, rather than the victims of the violence. Our aspirations at the IPJ include working with both civil society and the leader and getting voices heard at a process of peacebuilding is attempted.
In the case of Nepal, we brought in three major parties to the conflict. We could not deal directly with the Maoists at that time, so we brought in a journalist who had covered them for a long time and knew them well. We also brought in the two main political parties, the Human Rights Commission, and others from civil society. While they were here, they all worked together in and out of the conference site. That allowed them to work outside their normal framework, where, with an active press, everything leaked immediately and a culture had emerged whereby every tiny action was immediately amplified and no trust was created. In San Diego the Nepalis were able to work together in a different spirit and we were invited to come and offer some support in Nepal. They shared negotiation training, facilitated discussions, and other work at all levels and we made sure that women were included in any programs we offered. Throughout the last eight years, women have been given skills and opportunities to be involved. Just last month we had another session with women from new political parties. The older parties know how to work together, but the peace agreement requires that women be engaged in all parties for the constituent assembly assigned to create a new constitution. We are working with police and military representatives working to integrate former Maoist combatants into the army, with police and communities needing to establish trust and support of one another. We are working to address the extreme abuse and fear in various parts of the country, and thus to help in the goal of creating a “whole” community. People need to be able to risk listening to something else, someone else, something that will give them to space to come to better solutions together.
In the Nepal Initiative, women are absolutely essential. When the King took over the country in February 2005 and ended belief in a constitutional monarchy, Nepal essentially disappeared off the world screen. All communications were cut off for 10 days. The following year changed the future as literally thousands and thousands of people took to the streets in non-violent protest as they had done once in the late 1980s to secure a more democratic government. And in this process, it was the women who were the bravest and took many risks. They went straight up to the soldiers, saying, you are my son, why are you behaving this way? Many of the people we had been working with were arrested. Because none of the parties had included women in their leadership, some of the missing voices came from the women on the streets. Overall the women continued to be instrumental in trying to get that voice that could lead to a more just peace, one that could deal with the fractious caste and class divisions that excluded so much of the population and left root causes of conflict unaddressed. They helped to break the barriers and bring in the voices of the survivors from outside Katmandu into the power center.
How much are these country projects part of your program?
They are integral to the work and were conceived as part of the Institute for Peace & Justice from the beginning. From the first $25 million that created the building, the Institute itself and a master’s program at the College of Arts and Sciences at USD, to the final gift when Mrs. Kroc passed, we have tried to be faithful to what she wanted & making peace as well as teaching it. When Mrs. Kroc died, she left $10 million for the Institute and $40 million to build the School of Peace Studies. The challenge has been to find ways for us to work together and give students access to the world of practitioners. The Institute came before the School of Peace Studies, so we have a great deal to offer the academic community of the master’s program as well as the University of San Diego at large.
As to country initiatives, we continue to work in places where we have been invited. It gives us a chance to work with and see peace in action, and also to work with women. I have coordinated many of our country initiatives and looked for ways to weave in our Women PeaceMakers Program and youth program. We are currently working in several countries and conflict situations including Nepal, Mindanao, West Africa, Guatemala, and Colombia. We have a new director who is working actively to bring leaders together who are dealing with issues of genocide and femicide and human rights. Our newest program officer, Dustin Sharp, who came to us from Human Rights Watch, is doing human rights advocacy training in West Africa, specifically Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea.
How does religion come into the picture of Women PeaceMakers?
From the beginning, it has been the central understanding of the program that religion is an inseparable part of many of the Women PeaceMakers. Each year women who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim or another tradition come and live and share together from their values, faiths and experiences. Among feminist women, there are not many who do not come from religious base, although they may not choose to identify with a religion itself. Others may wholly see their religion as themselves. Aung San Su Kyi, for example, notes she was raised a Buddhist and she lives as a Buddhist, and her Buddhist approach and sensitivity comes through in her approach to peacebuilding. We find very much the same thing with indigenous women, who bring a strong spiritual dimension to the way they approach their understanding of peace and mediation.
One example that comes to mind is Bae Liza Llesis Saway, from Mindanao. We have had two peacebuilders from Mindanao who have worked together on occasion, and they are totally, culturally, religiously different. Liza is remarkable in the way she actually got her whole community engaged in recovering the indigenous values and ensuring they are lived values. She was able to revive forgotten traditions of music and art, and created a village center where women elders and youth dance and old and young talk and learn from one another. This Peace Mother, as she is called there, now has other women working to mediate conflict not only locally but in the larger areas where Muslims and settler Catholics live. From a community that was falling apart with the worst of globalization and drugs and other ills, you now find a community where doors are open, and there is music from amazing instruments and art work galore. You can feel the peace in this setting; it is alive. And throughout Liza has used her indigenous religion as a basis for her activities. She has also been part of a tripartite community of women and men peacemakers, who have brought together Muslims, the Catholic settler community, and the indigenous peoples. Through their work, she was able to identify Moros who were able to bring about peace. Her skill comes in her capacity to deal with different kinds of groups.
Other women in the program bring a strong and very personal spiritual sense. And I have been struck by the degree to which they are prepared to share it publicly.
What do you intend to do with the rich lode of materials you have assembled in these stories?
We use them in many ways, and we hope that others will do so also. All the material is online, and we will send movies and other materials to whoever asks, though funding is a constraint.
The films and stories are already being used in the classroom and in the field, for example in training peacemakers. There is one that is an hour long; it shows women discovering their own power, building their own lives in spite of horrendous situations. We show it in the field. Just seeing the women standing up and facing problems from sexual violence to dealing with a gun culture, how they work with other groups, and how they other problems, can be inspirational. Women very often feel very alone and isolated. They are not aware that they are not the only ones caught in seemingly impossible situations.
How do you work with other networks?
In our general work we are part of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and an affiliate of the UN Economic and Social Council. We are in touch with many women’s networks; they help identify potential candidates for Women PeaceMakers. We do have a small staff so there is great value in networking.
What kinds of issues do you see as priorities for our discussion?
Our biggest problem is that women can be caught in the crossfire when religion is invoked to stop them from doing their work. There are times when it becomes politically hard for women who are religious; the more fundamentalist the state, the less voice for women generally. But there are also positive examples, though they are rarely exposed.
As an example, Muslim women in some places are taking on roles, a bit invisible, in educating imams who cannot read the Koran. Thus, the women are using religion and their education to teach others who do not have control over their lives a more faithful version of their religion, so they can become safer.
What we are dealing with is the fundamentally conservative nature of those in power in many religions, and they are mostly male. Christiana Thorpe, the former nun from Sierra Leone, had to make the choice not to be a nun to do the work she felt expressed her very deep convictions; she is truly and completely Catholic, but faced tough restrictions from an outside authority had to make changes. We need to find ways to model and show how to live religion in positive, perhaps less constrained, ways, because just now religion can too often be invoked to stop action that could lead to peace.
Another example came two months ago when I was going to Pakistan to participate in a conference by one of our peacemakers there; she happens to be a Christian Pakistani but works with people of various faiths. At the last minute I was contacted and advised not to come. My mere presence could have put our peacemaker and many of the Muslims and Christians she has working with in danger, because reactionary Muslims said the Muslim faith does not allow women, much less Christian women, to lead such activities.
Women often lead with and model the values of their faith, but they need to feel the support of their religious institutions, so their beliefs and conviction may be freely displayed without fear.
What are your recommendations for policy action and change? Do you have any hobby horses?
We are very focused on the upcoming conference (29 September to 1 October), which is organized around UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Our conviction is that the key next step to getting women into more peacemaking and peacebuilding settings must come soon; much of the civility that is needed to make our world safer is disappearing, and women of faith must join men of faith equally to change the underlying fears and resentments and self-centeredness that bring such great havoc. We need plans of action based on the Platform for Action from 1995 and on UNSCR 1325 from 2000, and resolution 1820 from 2008 and resolutions 1888 and 1889 from last year. Protection, participation and gender justice are needed at much greater levels to end trafficking, rape, and all of the challenges we face. We need more of the religious to focus on policies that could go beyond intent to real action. When the nuns supported the US health bill, some bishops disagreed. But others said yes to action and hope for people without healthcare.