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What inspired you to pursue a career in the field of peace and conflict studies?
Yaliwe: In my late teens, I was involved in work to support Zambian women through local advocacy campaigns on women’s rights. This was an empowering experience for me and gave me insight into what it means to overcome adversity and exclusion.
Jason: As a student of Middle Eastern languages and culture in the early 1990s, I spent a summer teaching English to Palestinian children. Many of these young people shared personal experiences of political violence that were shocking to hear. Yet, I was also deeply inspired by their strength and determination. This sparked an interest to learn more about how young people engage with the challenges of living amidst conflict. As time went on, I also became keen to understand how humanitarian organizations think about the impact of war on the young and how they seek to promote peace with and through them.
In what capacity are you currently involved in the field?
Jason: I am a researcher, writer and teacher, and also act as an adviser to humanitarian organizations.
Yaliwe: I am currently working on my PhD research, which entails a feminist analysis of peace by drawing on narratives of women who formed peace groups during the war in northern Uganda. Additionally, I conduct conflict resolution training workshops.
related article Symposiums on Ikeda’s 2014 Peace Proposal Held in India On September 9, Bharat Soka Gakkai (BSG) organized a symposium on SGI President Ikeda’s 2014 peace proposal at the Chinmaya Mission auditorium in New Delhi. What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job?
Jason: I’ve learned over time that the biggest challenge always lies in winning over myself—becoming “the master of one’s mind,” as the 13th-century Buddhist priest Nichiren explained it. That often means using my Buddhist practice to ensure that anger is transformed into a force for inclusive and creative change. This is a battle that I don’t always win! However, when I do and when I see the positive results in terms of the empowerment of others, it is immensely rewarding.
Yaliwe: The most challenging aspect of my work is remaining positive and optimistic despite hearing people’s experiences of pain, anxiety or anger. The most rewarding part of my work is holding deep dialogue with a wide range of people. I recently began life coaching sessions that entail reflecting on one’s mission or life purpose. During these conversations, I am able to stay connected to people’s dreams, including my own.
Being constantly exposed to the harsh realities of conflict and violence must be difficult. Where, amidst this, do you find inspiration?
Jason: Nichiren and the first three presidents of the Soka Gakkai have given countless illustrations of how extreme hardship, when challenged head-on, can cause an individual to draw out incredible strength. Witnessing this principle in action—in the lives of young people living amidst the worst of circumstances—is truly inspiring. I have a treasure chest of memories of courageous and creative youth in various war zones that I share with my students in the hope of inspiring them in turn.
Yaliwe: I realize that in situations of conflict or violence, one can easily be drawn into focusing on experiences of pain, anger or cruelty. It takes courage and a sense of possibility to focus on people’s creative responses to adversity. During my PhD research, I listened to women who were abducted by militia groups, stories of forced marriage and rape. I also listened to women who embraced those who were abducted, those who killed and those who bore children during their time as militia fighters. I listened to women who fed, bathed and cared for people who were forced into fighting against their own communities. This is what continues to inspire my work.
SGI President Daisaku Ikeda refers to the value of people working together to resolve issues. He discusses what resilience is and points out that “if we are to realize the rich possibilities inherent in the concept of resilience, we will need to expand and recast our understanding of what it means.” I have found that my research and conflict resolution work is inspired by people’s ability to imagine an alternative positive future, no matter how adverse the circumstances.
What do you aim to achieve through your involvement in this field; what are your future ambitions?
related article “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons by Sabra Williams, USA Sabra Williams is a Soka Gakkai member and a successful film and television actor, whose career includes credits in Mission Impossible III and recurring roles in ABC’s Injustice and CBS’s Three Rivers. After making her mark as an actress and TV presenter in the UK, Sabra moved to the US in 2002, where she created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs highly physical theatrical techniques based on the emotive 16th-century Italian “people’s theater” culture of commedia dell’arte. The work has proved transformative for inmates of the California prison system and has significantly reduced recidivism rates. Sabra was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. Yaliwe: My plans are to contribute to international efforts to foster peace, especially in Africa. I am keen on working for mediation teams at the United Nations and/or the African Union. I believe that African women’s experiences of transforming adverse situations can offer creative alternative approaches to peace and security policies that are put in place by governments. Once I finish my PhD, I plan to work with women’s groups in East Africa and link their efforts with those of international bodies such as the United Nations and the African Union.
Jason: My immediate aim is to influence the thinking and practice of organizations that support young people living in settings of armed conflict by assisting them to become more attuned to the situation of war-affected youth. In my experience, justice is often vitally important to young people. Yet it is an aspiration that is often poorly understood and addressed by humanitarians.
Seeing brutal injustice at close quarters has shaped my long-term goal of raising greater awareness and concern across society. I seek to do this through all aspects of my work as a researcher, writer and teacher. I’m especially passionate about working with students to help them develop a critical, inquiring outlook, and the ambition to work for a more just world.
How has your Buddhist practice influenced your approach to work?
Jason: My practice enables me to access resources of hope, courage and determination. Sometimes, I have to dig very deep in order to achieve this, but over nearly three decades of practice and study, I have had the immense good fortune to overcome each situation that might otherwise lead to despair.
Yaliwe: When I worked for the Centre for Conflict Resolution, I began to draw more consciously on Buddhist principles to prepare for and run conflict resolution workshops across the continent. I have found that my Buddhist practice enables me to stay positive and spiritually focused on resilience and creativity—that which makes peacebuilding possible. In facilitating dialogue sessions or conflict resolution workshops, I draw on a central Buddhist principle of peace that emphasizes the transformation of one’s own heart over that of external factors. As stated by President Ikeda, in order to transform one’s heart, one needs to keep an open mind so that all contributions can really be heard. This is the only way to have genuine dialogue. My Buddhist practice also helps me consciously suspend my own judgment so that I can authentically hear people’s concerns and be able to respond.
What can we do as individuals in our daily lives to create a more peaceful and conflict-free society?
Yaliwe: We can listen to one another and become more aware of and seek to change our assumptions about ourselves and others, which may be contributing to the creation or escalation of conflict or violence.
Jason: It is tempting to charge headlong into efforts for peace on the national or global stage. However, it is vital to base such endeavors firmly on efforts to transform ourselves. I constantly return to President Ikeda’s words: “A great revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.” Most importantly, we cannot afford to write off the humanity of another individual or group of people.
Courtesy July 2015 issue of the SGI Quarterly.