The Peacebuilding Podcast : From Conflict To Common Ground

Ep 49: Peter Coleman - Hurdles and Hope: Reflections on the Role of Gender

October 5, 2021

Such a delight to re-connect to my colleague from many moons ago – Peter Coleman – who, just for the record, is not my relative.

Our paths crossed beginning sometime around 1995, at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, the “ICCCR” at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, where we worked together on many cool initiatives until I left around 2003.

My partner Ellen Raider, with whom I had been delivering intercultural negotiation programs around the world, brought me into the Center after connecting with Mort Deutsch – who is often referred to as a grandfather of conflict resolution, and perhaps the grandfather of conflict resolution in the west.

At the Center, Ellen and I created the first certificate program in conflict resolution at Teacher’s College – which included collaborative negotiation, mediation and then a growing list of related and interesting skill sets like using large group processes to resolve conflict and create systemic culture change.

At the time of my arrival, Peter was a graduate student, Mort Deutsche’s protégé – and I watched him rise to where he is today as head of the center and now a well respected social psychologist and researcher in the field of conflict resolution and sustainable peace -- probably best known for his work on intractable conflict.

Prompted by the publication of his new book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, I asked Peter to join me on the podcast for a conversation -- and draw from his book, his work, his life (anything that he felt was most relevant) to address the role of gender, gender equality, gender transformation, and its connection to building a more peaceful, democratic and sustainable world. 

He agreed and we had a great conversation which we bring to you now.

As those of you who have followed me on this podcast know I -- along with many --believe that getting gender “right”, the role of gender, moving beyond outdated patriarchal structures, is THE foundational challenge to building a much more peaceful, sustainable and pleasurable planet for humanity and other living creatures

By way of example, allow me to repeat the poignant and on target words of Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who is the co-founder and president of a School of Leadership for women in Afghanistan who said recently in the Washington Post:

"Educated girls grow to become educated women, and educated women will not allow their children to become terrorists. The secret to a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is no secret at all: It is educated girls."

That statement makes me want to cry. What a tragic but accurate comment after the countless lives lost, the total pain for so many Afghans now, and the trillions my country just wasted in our two decades of war in Afghanistan the costs of which were so intelligently tracked by The Costs of War project who we had on this podcast a while back.

Using military or policing force is not generally the best solution to conflict – genuinely meeting people’s needs is.

It’s not that complicated.

But moving beyond the money that drives the choice of using force is complicated, and we need to figure this out like, yesterday.

So, here are some of what I call my “favorite frames” from Peter’s and my conversation:

  • Reminiscing about our early years at the ICCCR – and a moment when we had a room filled with teachers, guidance counselors, principals from all the approximately 188 New York City schools – the largest school system in the country and perhaps the world, convened to learn critical negotiation and conflict resolution skills. It was awesome;

  • The seeds that were planted in Peter to do a life’s work in the field of peace and conflict – his reflections on himself as a 7-year-old, the influence of being raised by women, turbulent times in Chicago, the presence of Martin Luther King, the “macro-worry” that began to build in his young awareness of social justice issues and the related conflict about them;

  • A conference he convened to change the conversation from ‘negative’ peace – like addressing violence prevention and atrocity mitigation to ‘positive peace’ – like creating communities that will foster harmonious relations in which destructive conflict is far less likely to erupt. Similar to why I moved from doing more traditional mediation to more “upstream” organizational mediation, using organization development methodologies, or getting conflicting parties to focus on the positive thing they are trying to create v. the negative thing they are trying to avoid or, like in the health field, focusing on what creates health and allows humans to flourish rather than having a disease orientation. An energy follows where we place our attention kind of idea — which is super important.

    Anyway, Peter’s conclusion was that the conference was a huge failure because no one wanted to talk about positive peace with the exception of Doug P. Fry, who we also recently interviewed on this podcast.

  • And, another frame, how at that same conference he had invited Abby Disney – the creator of the amazing film series Women War and Peace, who kept raising her hand and saying, I don’t want to be the gadfly but – how can we talk about the mitigation of violence without talking about gender and men and their role in this?

  • Peter and I shared our appreciation of Sebastian Junger’s 2016 book, Tribe, where he reported a profound observation of how early American settlers that had been captured by native tribes, when given the opportunity to return to the European colonies did not want to go back, without exception, because they preferred their lives among native communities;

  • And the frame that most stands out to me, and unfortunately is a discouraging one. Peter tells the tale of working with the amazing Leymah Gbowee, who I have mentioned many times on this podcast, to create a Women Peace and Security program at Columbia, that would provide technical and financial resources to some amazing younger women I think mostly from Africa who have been doing peacebuilding work. Like the badass Riya Yuyada who I interviewed a while back on this podcast. In spite of the huge need for the program and the thousands of applications to it, the program sadly is closing this year. And that’s in spite of the fact that Leymah is Leymah, an amazing woman, a Nobel Laureate, and if you don’t know who I’m talking about, watch Pray the Devil Back to Hell a documentary created by Abbie Disney about how Leymah and other women, a way that only women could pull off, brought an end to the Liberian civil war.

    The program was not able to raise the $25,000,000 needed to keep the program open in perpetuity, a paltry sum given the amount of money that is flying around on this planet. And this was in spite of the fact that you couldn’t have a more compelling person spearheading the program – the poster child of the Melinda Gates foundation of Oprah.

    And that’s not because of any shortcomings on Leymah’s part but much more about where our level of consciousness about what’s going to create a world that we all want to live in for the next number of centuries. It’s a fact that reinforces my belief that we women really need to get our ovaries together when it comes to money and how it’s spent. As I mentioned in my episode about women money and power with Barbara Stanny Huson, women, at least in the US and maybe even globally are coming into huge financial resources, some say will have the majority of the financial resources in the 21st century. This is undoubtedly mostly white women in the US, sitting on so much dough that if we chose to actually use it in powerful ways we could really make a big diff to the world our kids are inheriting. As Barbara said, and I say now, Women’s issues with using and taking charge of the resources we have little to do with our capacity and a lot to do with our ambivalence about power. So many of us still want men to take care of money for us and we have to stop doing this.

Anyway, there are many more great frames from this conversation with Peter including insights about women and negotiation, social constructs about “the masculine”, “the feminine” and war, whether or not getting rid of binary gender pronouns is a peace movement, and --what it’s been like for him -- as a white, tall, good looking dude working in a cauldron of conversation around conflict, peace, social justice and identity.

So thank you Peter, and hope you all enjoy this rich episode.

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App