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Peacebuilder Dr. John Paul Lederach receives Gittler Prize

Dr. John Paul Lederach understood early on that listening to those who suffer in conflicts is key to ending the imperial pattern of U.S.-led peacebuilding. He had to “unlearn” overtly imperial peacebuilding methods—methods that don’t encourage listening to or respecting locals, nor do they offer permanent solutions.

Lederach was awarded the Gittler Prize, which strives to “recognize outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations,” with a $25,000 prize and a medal, according to the Brandeis website, on Wednesday, Oct. 30. 

He gave a lecture following the award presentation, which was hosted by Provost Lisa Lynch and Dr. Cynthia Cohen, the director of Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis’ International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Lederach is lauded for developing culturally appropriate approaches to conflict transformation and designing and implementing integrative and strategic approaches to peacebuilding, said Lynch in her opening remarks. He has made a practice of reflecting on the challenging work that is transforming violent conflict while it occurs, according to Cohen, and is one of the first people in the international peacebuilding community to emphasize respect of local people and customs.

In Lederach’s own words, he “unlearns” the peacebuilding techniques common to the peacebuilding community. These techniques, which hinge upon the neutrality method for international conflict intervention, may, at best, put a Band-Aid on a conflict. At worst, and despite best efforts, traditional techniques can add to the violence people experience in conflict regions. 

The bottom line is that these methods are insufficient to not only end conflict, but to also reverse the underlying reasons for the conflict, said Lederach. As a result, the systemic pattern of international conflict is allowed to repeat itself, over and over again, in different parts of the world.

Lederach discussed several key “dispatches” to international conflicts early on in his life which formed the basis for his current thinking on peacebuilding.

He traveled to Guatemala during the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980s, and led his first workshop, including a guide to mediation. Lederach was taught a three-part method as a professional mediator. First, he was taught to describe the mediation process to workshop participants. Next, he was taught to demonstrate the process. And, lastly, he was taught to have people practice. Lederach thought he was doing everything right. Until he asked the audience members what they thought of the roleplays. 

“Complete, dead silence,” said Lederach, recounting that moment. “I waited, until finally a hand went up. It was a good friend from Honduras, who knew everyone in the room quite well, and who said only five words. And they were five words that changed my life, and changed my Ph.D. dissertation. He said, talking to his two colleagues but not to me, ‘you two look like gringos.’” “Gringos” is a disparaging word used to describe foreigners, usually from North America, according to an NPR article

He added that everything in his and his colleagues’ process—the roleplay, the participants, the language—was from Central America. “The only things not from the region were me, and my process,” according to Lederach.

Lederach realized he fell into the “long repeated pattern of an imperial project.” It was at this point that Lederach knew he needed to unlearn the ineffective, even harmful, methods he was taught, even though colleagues in his field were not doing so.

“Unlearning understands that being human is being human in relationships, and peacebuilding is a relationship.” Lederach says. “Thus, we must not forget the importance of forming relationships in peacebuilding.” 

This is where the “neutral,” “third-party” principle falters. It is very difficult to remain a neutral party when trying to build a relationship with another person. But it is the mutual trust and respect in those relationships which will ultimately provide real peacebuilding to take place.

Lederach wrapped up his speech by talking about the word “unlearning.” The antonym for “unlearning” is “not learning,” or, in other words, arrogance. Arrogant is something peacebuilders do not want to be, said Lederach. 

Lederach is professor emeritus of international peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a senior fellow at Humanity United. His practices in conciliation have taken him across the globe, and, especially, to parts of Latin America, Africa and Southeast and Central Asia. He helped to form the recent Truth Commission in Colombia, and served as the director of the Peace Accord Matrix research initiative at the Kroc Institute. He has written and edited 24 books and manuals about the peacebuilding process.

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