"Maybe you were made for a time like this," Mordechai, in the book of Esther, appeals to Esther, the Jewish queen who would save her people from genocide. Maybe we are all.
I am a black international peacemaker living in southern Oregon – the "Bible Belt" of one of the whitest states in the United States. I was born here, a black biracial child of a single mother. I was raised by a loving white family, attended a white school, and a white church in a white city. But back then it wasn't called "white" – it was called "American".
This identity is proud. For me it meant strong and free. "America is the largest country in the world," I heard so often. And I believed it with all my heart. At the time, the slogan didn't feel like a supremacy – it felt like consideration, the type of person you feel when someone in your family, a parent, or even a child does something spectacular and you can claim it through closeness. It is a protective pride.
At the same time, the world saw me as black and I felt that there was something bad about it. My mother got more contemptuous looks than normally reserved for single mothers. It was only when I was older that I realized how hard I was trying to fit into "white America" - to be the best in everything, to prove that I belong. I learned pieces of history that were not considered in my history class, including Black Codes, Redlining, Lynchmorde, and Jim Crow.
Finally, the dissonance between my values and an identity that was always close to my heart forced a development – a painful, full of resistance and mistakes, but a necessary one.
The United States now has its own identity crisis. In the closets of every room in the American home are skeletons – every aspect of the country's history, culture, governance, prosperity, education, and power. The problem is system-wide, but to speak of racism in the "system" means to let individuals off the hook. The system is made up of people, individuals, who make decisions based on their values and feelings – who they believe to be.
This question of identity – both personal and cultural – is not unique to the United States.
For the past seven years, I've worked for Search for Common Ground, the world's largest peacebuilding organization. Your local peacemakers deal with everything from reconciliation after the genocide to combating violent extremism to preventing mass atrocities. It is Zechariah's idea that has been put into practice: "Because they will sow in peace: the vine will bear its fruit, the land will deliver its products, the sky will deliver its dew."
Peacebuilding is about the process of dealing with conflicts – about attacking the problem instead of the person and enabling opposing groups to focus on common goals and interests rather than on their separate positions. The first thing that people do in conflict is to demonize the “other”. First of all, we help each side to identify each other's common humanity. To this end, storytelling and strategic messaging training has been invaluable when traveling to Armenia, Burundi, Colombia, Indonesia, Jordan, Myanmar, Nigeria and Thailand to change people's attitudes and behaviors.
Over the years I have developed a method for this training which I call the "tattoo method". It is about revealing the identity of your audience. Instead of branding – which takes place from top to bottom and in which the brand writes an identity to the recipient – communication about social changes is more like tattooing. The recipient sees something with which he identifies and claims it as his own. The tattooist doesn't sit down and says, "I'll give you a pigeon today." It is a collaborative process with the artist and the customer. Then the customer shows friends and family "my tattoo". You own it. It represents them. And so we should make powerful messages and stories on social issues.
To that end, I walked the streets of Yangon, Myanmar in 2016, looking at makeshift houses carved out of a dilapidated colonial building. The country had just ended its military rule five years ago, and its citizens felt optimistically free.
For the first time they could choose who they wanted to be – but it's not that easy. Myanmar has 135 different ethnic groups. Who belongs? Who does not? It's not a trivial question, as the ongoing Rohingya genocide shows. Being rejected by a society based on your identity can mean life or death.
The Search Myanmar office launched a TV soap opera, The Team, about a soccer team with players of all ethnicities, including the first Muslim figure that was positively portrayed in a national broadcast. The staff kept talking about the importance of social cohesion. But people don't watch soap operas to learn about “social cohesion” – they're there for the drama. Instead, we came up with slogans like, "It's their last chance at size. Will they put their differences aside or will it destroy them?" And "There is more than one game at stake." We needed the audience to do that Feeling that this was their show.
A few years later I was in Colombia doing tattoo training for some government officials, media and community organizers. I was there to help them with the process of reconciliation. They tried to sell "reconciliation" to the population, just as some Americans try to sell "racial justice" and fix "systemic racism".
People didn't buy it. After five decades of violent conflict, they were promised a say in the final peace deal with Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces in the form of a referendum on the deal. To the surprise of President Juan Manuel Santos at the time, the vote was not passed. The government made some changes to the agreement and unilaterally adopted it in 2016. Many in public refused, which led to renewed tension.
I conducted an exercise with the group to prevent them from using the words "reconciliation" and "peace", which were politicized at the time. They created and interviewed imaginary – but realistic – citizens. A profile called "Mercy" was a single Afro-Colombian mother aged 18 who was working on a fruit stall. I asked the officials what interested Mercy the most. After some careful thought and discussion, they agreed that it was power; Mercy felt very powerless in her situation. I then asked her what "power" means for mercy. They discussed and tossed symbols like money and cars around until someone said, “I think eye contact means power for mercy. She goes through her days and feels invisible. Nobody looks her in the eye. "
They had their campaign: "Mirame a los ojos" or "Look me in the eye." Eye contact was a symbol of respect in Colombian culture. But after years of conflict, everyday interactions were missing. This campaign has neither accused nor shamed. it was a call for dignity.
The campaign spoke for a common Colombian cultural identity. It spoke about what reconciliation would really mean – rebuilding trust and being seen.
I can understand that. I think most of us can.
Fast forward to 2020, and I'm trying to apply my peace-building experience to an innovative project to enable American youth to manage conflicts constructively.
I'm back in my very white hometown with my black husband and black children when George Floyd is killed.
For the first few days, I only felt my own sadness and anger. I didn't feel peaceful. I grieved like many in the Black Community. I had known for a long time that reconciliation requires the recognition of pain and wrongdoing. But now I felt it.
We – I, the black community, America – cannot move forward until slavery oppression is recognized, until our colleagues can say that the lives of blacks are as important as those of others. To give credit where credit is due, so many people across the country have done just that. But why does it seem so difficult for other Americans to do the same?
It depends on the identity.
What you hear is inconsistent with the America you know, with which you are so closely connected. All of these attacks on the "racist system", the "white privilege", the "white power" and the police, which are to be respected, feel personal.
In the past few weeks I have met white conservatives in my city. I know some well; I don't know some of them. But I share a common value with them: my faith. This is how I was made for it. I am a girl from south Oregon, I go to church and I am black.
When I sit opposite them, my goal is not to discuss or defeat them. I need her to see me. To see my family and what my children see when things don't change. I need her as an ally, and if I attack her identity, I won't get there. There are beautiful parts of their identity and an understanding of Christian teaching “to do justice to the poor and orphans; respect the rights of the oppressed. “I'm leaning on that. For the Navy, it was a desire to protect others. For the elder in the church, it was the belief that we are all children of God. It was maternal love for the mother.
All information in the world may not change your mind and behavior. But new experiences and connections to those they once believed might be too different from them. Of course, I can't drink coffee with everyone, so I'm doing an interactive story game where young people can practice what to do in conflict situations. It is supposed to create trust and redefine them as heroes in the narrative – someone who stands up for others and attacks the problem, not the person.
The United States needs heroes. Heroes who see themselves as protectors and advocates of the vulnerable and unrepresented. Less zero-sum games and more win-win strategies, more cooperation and a constructive dialogue are needed. In other words, more peace-building.
The United States can still be the land of the free and brave. Freedom is the opportunity to find out what is right instead of knowing what to believe. Bravery works for the oppressed, even if it puts a goal on your back. The United States of the Free and the Brave can be our America, and we can be proud of the values that bind us.