On September 1, 2012, I gave a TEDx talk about “Peace Possibilities of the Poetry Classroom”. The overall theme of the day was “The Road Less Traveled,” and they had initially asked if I would give a talk on “the ups and downs of a writer’s life.” There’s no way I’d ever give a talk on a topic like that, but when I was told I could choose my own topic, I decided to work on pulling together different strands of my life… on exploring where my different selves meet. And so, I set about exploring where conflict transformation theories (especially my favorite book in the field, The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach) meet my poetry pedagogy. The 18 minute limit did make the whole thing feel rather simplistic, but at least I felt I’d been able to articulate some of those connections.
5 months on, my TEDx talk is finally online, but with some terrible editing. Not only is my voice following the video with a significant lag, the recording only starts 5 minutes into the talk. Lederach, who is so much a part of my framework for the whole talk, is practically absent in their recording. Either they had some massive camera failure or they really wanted me to just be a poet, not someone who has also studied conflict transformation and is trying to marry complex and “unrelated” fields!
But this is the joy of the internet — I get to put out my own version too. So, the video is embedded below, but before you watch it, do take the time to read this rough approximation of the part of the talk that preceded where the video starts… it isn’t perfect, but it’s the best I can do 5 months on.
So, you know how every time you meet someone new, the first question they ask you is “what do you do?” That’s the only time I really envy people who can say engineer, stock broker, or even “I sell ball bearings.” End of that conversation, right? My answer: “how much time do you have?”
Briefly, I’m a writer — a poet. I am an educator. And I am passionately involved in peace work — specifically in youth development and education for peace.
SLIDE <Jessica’s email: What do you think the function of poetry is?>
A good friend of mine — also a poet — recently sent me this email. This is a question that has been with me for a long time — what is the function of poetry?
I’ve always loved words. Even as a kid, I loved words so much that my Mom gave me a thesaurus for my seventh birthday! But as I grew up, I also learned to doubt words. Somewhere in between working with women affected by leprosy, building rainwater harvesting tanks and ecological stoves with indigenous farmers, and working with young people who live amidst incredible levels of violence and ethnic strife… somewhere in the middle of all that, I learned to doubt poetry — learned to push poetry away and focus on more practical concerns.
But poetry kept coming back to me, and when I couldn’t push it away any longer, I decided to embrace it and make it matter. Today, I want to share what I’ve been discovering over the last 5 years about poetry and peacebuilding.
SLIDE <Lederach quote about overemphasis>
This is a quote from John Paul Lederach, one of the major scholars in the field of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. At the time of writing this, he had spent about two decades working with communities torn apart by civil war, ethnic strife, and developing lots of wonderful tools for analysis and systems for building peace. And then he turns around to say:
“We have overemphasized the technical aspects and political content [of peacebuilding] to the detriment of the art of giving birth to and keeping a process creatively alive. In so doing we have missed the core of what creates and sustains constructive social change.”
In another place, he writes:
Poets have cataract-peeled eyes. They notice things. They strip rough reality bare while giving us unexpected life… they rail against forgetting. And all of this they share with peacebuilders
So, I’ve been trying to figure this out — to make the most of the connections between poetry and peacebuilding, both as a poet and as en educator.
SLIDE Schirch’s Components of Peacebuilding>
Lisa Schirch, another important peacebuilding scholar, lays out these processes as the cycle of peacebuilding. You need all of them to build and sustain peace, and I locate myself in these two: building capacities for peace and transforming relationships… that’s where I come in, that’s where poetry comes in.
Let me just clarify here that peacebuilding shouldn’t be seen as just war and peace. We live in a world where violence — physical, psychological, sexual, structural (things like poverty and discrimination) — is an everyday experience. We’ve all experienced violence at some point, and many of us experience it on a regular basis. Violence is all around us, and peacebuilding needs to be as well.
So what can we teach our young people in the process of teaching them poetry?
OK, now go watch the video