Training peacebuilding leaders: challenges faced and lessons learned

Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website. This article consist of five reflections which will be posted separately.

As peacebuilding has grown and flourished as an academic field and a practical discipline over the past several decades, MCC has collaborated with Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren colleges, universities and seminaries in the United States and Canada in equipping church and community leaders from around the world with peacebuilding skills and knowledge. Through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Canadian Mennonite University, Conrad Grebel University College, Eastern Mennonite University and Fresno Pacific University, MCC has sponsored hundreds of students for short-term peacebuilding training as well as academic degrees in peacebuilding over the past three decades (with a significant majority of those trainees studying at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and its predecessors). During the past quarter century, MCC has also worked closely with groups of committed peacebuilders who sought to organize contextualized peacebuilding training opportunities in their parts of the world. Over the following pages, peacebuilders in African and Asian contexts reflect on the challenges they have faced, the successes they have enjoyed and the lessons they have learned from organizing peacebuilding trainings in their regional contexts.—The editors.

Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI)

The Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute has its ironic beginnings in the service of its director, Jae Young Lee, with the military of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) in the early 1990s, when he first become interested in peace. Jae Young had been a marine for 26 months of mandatory military service at the age of 22, service required of all young Korean men. He was stationed along the border between ROK and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), tasked with watching the North Korean side of the border through a telescope at the western edge of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). When the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, the fate of the entire Korean Peninsula was suddenly thrust into uncertainty, including the prospect of potential war. Jae Young had to spend an entire week in a trench with heavy weapons along with thousands of soldiers at the border to carry out the mission of shooting anybody attempting to cross it. During that week, he began to realize that true peace could only be possible through non-military approaches. No one can achieve peace by pointing a gun at another’s head.

After completing his military service, Jae Young went on to study at Canadian Mennonite Bible College and the conflict transformation program at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Virginia, completing a master’s degree at the latter. After struggling to understand the concept of Christian pacifism, Jae Young eventually came to agree with the Mennonite belief in the gospel of peace. As a result of his military experiences and peacebuilding training, Jae Young developed a firm conviction that peacebuilding training is a more practical way to make peace than investments in the military. In 2001, Jae Young became one of three founding members of the Korea Anabaptist Center (KAC), serving as its peace program coordinator. After witnessing the fragile peace maintained by North and South Korea at reciprocal gunpoint, and realizing that many of the peacebuilding organizations in northeast Asia were ill-equipped in conflict resolution and peacemaking skills, Jae Young wrote a working paper in 2006 outlining his vision for a peacebuilding training program for community leaders from across northeast Asia.

The bottom-up approach of peacebuilding education is slow, but it is also the path for sustainable change.

After a couple of years of discussion with MCC, KAC received a grant in 2009 to pilot this vision. Jae Young traveled to Japan, mainland China and Taiwan to meet people who shared a similar vision: to start a regional peacebuilding institute in northeast Asia. Representatives of several civil society peace groups from all over the region met together for the first time in 2009 to brainstorm what this regional peacebuilding project would look like. These efforts eventually coalesced in the formation of the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI), with NARPI holding its first Summer Peacebuilding Training in Seoul and Inje in August 2011. NARPI has organized annual summer peacebuilding trainings in each of the subsequent years, moving the location of the training around northeast Asia. NARPI participants have come primarily from South Korea, Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

The NARPI Summer Peacebuilding Training is a 14-day program. Participants divide into three or four courses for five days, from morning to early evening. For the next three days, all participants spend time together on field trips. We have traveled together to a DMZ observatory, to peace memorials and museums, a ger (a traditional Mongolia dwelling in the form of a tent covered in skin and felt), sites of historical massacres and sites of hope. Following the field trips, there is a second week of training, also five days, during which participants continue to learn, divided into three or four courses, before departing for their homes.

Many peacebuilding institutes in the world are located in areas with current or recent direct conflict. While northeast Asia has not experienced intense direct conflict since the Korean War, the unresolved historical conflict (both the Asia-Pacific War and the Cold War) and the structural violence in the region affect people’s daily lives. Through NARPI, we have learned that people want safe spaces to talk about sensitive issues and to share their own perspectives and experiences.

From left, Yur-Shyuan Chang (Angela), Shiori Honzaki and Hirona Yaguchi stand in a circle
talking during an activity in the Conflict and Peace Framework course for participants in the
August 2018 Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI), held in Republic of Korea (South Korea). MCC funds scholarships for under-resourced participants. MCC and NARPI have partnered together since 2011 to provide training in peacebuilding, conflict transformation, restorative justice and mediation through the summer peacebuilding institutes. (Photo courtesy of NAPRI)

NARPI’s approach to peacebuilding assumes that durable peacebuilding starts at the community level. The bottom-up peacebuilding education approach is slow, but it is also the path for sustainable change. NARPI courses equip participants with both theory and practical skills to implement in their home communities. The field trips are also a powerful part of the training experience. People who have been taught different histories, written to increase nationalism and distrust of neighboring countries, come together to learn history first-hand, often from the voices of the victims of war. We have also witnessed that a new understanding of regional identity can grow from relationship building. Strengthening international relations is not just a matter for governments: it also needs to happen at the people-to-people level.

A simple goal that we have for NARPI is that this regional project will survive for ten years. This year, 2020, marks ten years, so we are nearly there! Survival may seem like quite a low bar to set, but it is also significant, since NARPI is the first regional peacebuilding institute in Northeast Asia, a region where the field of peacebuilding is still quite new.

We have witnessed how NARPI Summer Peacebuilding Trainings have had an individual impact on the participants. Many people apply their learning from NARPI to their work, family and community lives. Some decide to join local peacebuilding efforts or peace studies programs after their NARPI experience. The relationship-building aspect of NARPI has been powerful for participants, serving as the basis from which they start to form a new sense of regional identity. As NARPI grows, the number of returning participants also increases, a sign that this is a valuable time of learning, sharing and networking for people who are seeking to build an alternative future in their communities and in this region.

We have witnessed that a new understanding of regional identity can grow from relationship building. Strengthening international relations is not just a matter for governments: it also needs to happen at the people-to-people level.

Several of NARPI’s challenges resemble challenges faced by other peacebuilding organizations. Most years we face a funding challenge. Although a program fee is required from NARPI participants, these funds do not cover all training expenses. We have chosen to keep the program fee relatively low so that NARPI trainings can be accessible to people from all parts of the region. MCC offers scholarship funds each year to provide partial support for individuals who would otherwise not be able to join NARPI.

One unique challenge to NARPI, as a mobile peacebuilding institute, is that the planning each year is shared between the local host and the NARPI administrative team. Distance and language barriers make the planning work more complicated, but we are grateful for lessons learned as we work together to overcome these challenges.

The greatest challenges for NARPI, though, do not come from funding or from technical planning aspects, but from ongoing political tensions in Northeast Asia. We aim to provide safe space for all people who gather at NARPI, but in reality it is impossible to create a completely safe space for everyone. We therefore work to provide the most positive space possible within the realities of our region.

We continue to work toward a dream that one day there will be more peacebuilding institutes than military academies in Northeast Asia. In 2019, Nobuya Fukuda, who hosted the 2017 NARPI Summer Peacebuilding Training in Okinawa, Japan, and has also joined NARPI several years as a participant, opened the Okinawa Bridge Builders Institute (OBI) to offer educational opportunities to explore how to build peace in the colonized and militarized context of Okinawa. We see OBI as one of the fruits of NARPI, and we hope that peacebuilding efforts in northeast Asia will multiply.

Jae Young Lee directs the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute. Karen Spicher is NARPI’s communications coordinator.

Canadian School of Peacebuilding at Canadian Mennonite University.

Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.

Center for Peacemaking at Fresno Pacific University.

Great Lakes Initiative.

Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute.

Northeast Asia Peacebuilding Institute.

Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College.

Theology and Peace Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

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