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Exploratiory Paper: Building Bridges across Divides in Communities 

May 2011

Elizabeth Mc Donnell

Key terms: healing, resilience, hope, opportunity, possibility, change, collaboration, learning

1. Conflict, violence and war

Conflict is often equated with war but conflict is a natural process that results from any meeting of difference and struggle for resources and/ or power.  It is when conflicts are not resolved that they may become violent. Conflicts at a regional / state level may result from a struggle for power, access to resources or over land ownership.  If within one country they are termed civil wars. During the Cold War era and in the years since its end, the number of civil wars has increased sharply.

Civil wars take place between particular groupings within a country and/ or between certain factions and the government of that country.  Such wars are complex and messy and are characterized by particular brutality and ferocity. Fighting is between families, neighbours and co-workers within a country/ nation state – it becomes necessary to dehumanize and to demonise the ‘enemy’ so that horrible actions can be taken against the ‘evil’ other. Civilians bear the brunt of the damage (deaths, injuries, loss of resources).  Rules of war such as those defined by the Geneva convention do not apply. The impact of such violent conflict on the country is usually traumatic and long-lasting, the divisions, hatred and loss of trust can last for generations.

The root causes of the descent into civil war can be many and varied but frequently involve what is termed a ‘weak’ state’ whereby the government/ those is power cannot or do not provide for the needs of  the governed / people of the country.  The institutions of the state (security, education, welfare, justice) may be inadequate.  Particular groups within the country may be marginalized and disadvantaged, corruption and criminality may be pervasive and power struggles ongoing. 

2. Divides in communities

Divides between groupings in society may have origin in identity (e.g. ethnic, cultural), intergenerational, power differentials, past happenings and combinations thereof.  Such divides may be characterised by a lack of interaction, communication and understanding between different groupings.  The divides are not necessarily problematical but have the potential to give rise to social tensions, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty.  Where difference in status and power exist, the situation may give rise to discrimination against the less powerful groups with resulting inequality and disadvantage, and may even become an accepted norm in a society (e.g caste system in Nepal, past discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland). Such divides may become institutionalised and ingrained in the fabric of society, giving rise to segregation e.g. the educational system in Vukovar, Croatia.

3. The advantages to division

Keeping apart from another group can help retain a sense of identity, of difference, even of superiority.  It also is a means of avoidance – of dealing with conflict, or with difficult interactions. In the case where a history of past violence exists between the groups, segregation provides a third space, a means of separation from dealing with past pain, distress and hatred.  It enables people to get on with life and results in the existence of a negative peace.

4. The disadvantages of division

Division, lack of interaction and alienation between groups create the potential for misunderstanding, suspicion and fear.  In times of stress or threat, it is convenient to project onto an outside group, to engage in identifying its members as ‘other’, different, threatening and inferior to members of one’s own group. Where there is a history of abuse or violence between groups, separation does not allow for any healing or reconciliation and stores up problems for the future. There is a danger of trans-generational transmission of prejudice, hatred and trauma and of susceptibility to manipulation by influential leaders.

5. Changing the situation – opportunities and barriers

As with any living system, communities are complex, dynamic entities always in a state of flux, due to the diverse interactions and relationships that exist and the ongoing cycle of life and death.  No social system is an island and external influences will impact upon them – this is becoming more true in our globalised world.  So even if everything seems stuck in a rigid place with no room for manoeuvre, sooner or later something will move and change – witness the upheavals spreading through countries in North Africa at present.  The challenge is knowing if, when and how to intervene to ensure change takes a positive course.

Barriers to social change may be rooted in the prevailing power dynamics – those who have something to gain from the existing situation will resist change.  This may include political leaders, rulers, the wealthy or some particular identity groups.  The ways of working and interrelating may be ingrained in the social system and have become part of the social norm – ‘this is the way things are done here’.  On the other hand, the population may have experienced great trauma and loss as a result of violence and war, changes leading to loss of employment, community resources and connections, or natural disasters.  The capacity of a community to respond will depend on many factors but a temporary or lasting loss of hope, feelings of despair and disbelief, unresolved pain, fear and anger may be prevalent.  In addition, there may be transmission of trauma and unresolved emotions to younger people and transmission through the generations. 

Ironically, the very elements that create barriers to change may also provide opportunities for change.  A community may grow weary of the status quo and long for something better, so open up to hope and new possibilities. Young people have energy, are likely to be open to new perspectives and it is in the very nature of growing to adulthood for the young to rebel and seek to stamp their own identity. External influence such as social networking can open their eyes to other ways of life.  The pent-up emotions may be triggered to release an unstoppable force for change, despite the dangers (North Africa again).  Social inequality, lack of freedom and injustice eventually can drive a hunger for change and a better way of living for those affected.

6. Who intervenes?

It is essential that the drive for change comes from within, and that it involves internal players of all identities and from all societal levels e.g. community leaders and influencers, young people, women, decision-makers, policy-makers.  The role of external players needs consideration and clarity. For instance, they can provide inspiration, hope, resources, and demonstrate other ways of addressing issues.  The interactions need to equitable and a2-way..

7. An approach to addressing divides in communities: 1-2-3

The approach has 3 explicit elements but these should not be considered as being linear in execution i.e. it is not essential to first do 1, then 2, then 3.  The needs of the participants are paramount i.e. ‘where they are at’, will identify the most appropriate process or mix of processes.  So it may make sense to start at 2, or to move between 1 and 2, or touch on 3 and move to 2 and so on.

1. Interactions and building relationships – creating safe spaces, inspiring, giving hope,

2. Working separately with each group, dealing with issues, building capacity

3. Bringing together of groups to deal with difficult issues, building capacity to heal, learn from the past and towards a shared future;

(1) Creating opportunities for interaction

Groups and individuals may not be able to deal productively with the issues that divide them e.g. if difference, suspicion, fear, past history, hatred exists and is too divisive and threatening.  Thus there exists a need to create opportunities for interaction and working together in which each can feel safe and does not take the participants out of their comfort zones too early in the process. Even if this it not the case, initial meeting between groups benefit from spending time getting to know each other.   Such approaches should be enjoyable and engaging, create a sense of fun and allow for learning and exploration. 

Example: Consol Croatia is developing innovative approaches that draw on academic methodology in enable interaction and in building relationships.  Additionally, the process supports the development of skills in communication, conflict management and collaboration. The use of simple scientific experiments provides a way of engaging participants in learning and in working together that draws on those human attributes of a sense of wonder, curiosity and creativity, as well as developing skills in critical inquiry.

Contact of this kind does not address directly divisive and contentious issues, or stereotyping and prejudice.   However there is concern that re-examining the past can re-traumatize those impacted by it.  Healing takes many forms.  Engagement in learning and creative activities creates a different space and way of being, and may support moving on without the need for explicit examination of the past.  Such interactions build capacity for tolerance and acceptance and for considering new and other perspectives on a familiar situation, particularly where issues arise due to trans-generational transmission of trauma, prejudice or hatred.

(2)  Working separately with each group, dealing with issues, building capacity

There may be challenges in inspiring, motivating and engaging people in interacting with another group and it may be desirable to work separately with the groups for a time.  If there exists a high level of conflict between groups and/ or they have engaged in past violence towards each other, neither party may be ready or willing to meet the other.

There is then a need to explore creative ways of drawing in learners and of helping them to participate in new experiences in non-threatening and engaging ways. Engagement with such experiences helps participants to overcome their fears, builds self-confidence and opens up new possibilities in personal and social development.   This approach builds developmental capacity, allow issues to be aired safely and give time for reflection and reconsideration.

(3)  Bringing together of groups to deal with difficult issues

This involves building participants’ capacity to heal, to learn from the past and to collaborate in working towards a shared future.  It entails a complex tension between assimilation and integration, tolerance and intolerance, and developing separate and shared identities.

8. Arising Questions

  • What kinds of activity motivate and inspire people to engage in learning and to become involved in community initiatives?
  • What methods do we use to provoke curiosity, willingness to experiment and to innovate?  What can be gained from using interdisciplinary methods?
  • How key are young people in influencing and bringing about change in their communities?
  • Which approaches do we use to maintain our own resilience and energy when the going gets tough?
  • What tools and techniques can help the partners to work best with each other taking into account differences in language, culture, discipline and background?
  • What ethical and moral dilemmas do partners meet in their work of empowering individuals and communities?