Shared Learning, Creativity, and Collaboration in Peace Practice

May 22, 2019
Sustainable Peace Cafe
The RPP hosted three Sustainable Peace Cafés during the 2018-19 academic year. / Photo: Laura Krueger

This feature was written by Tajay Bongsa, Odalis Garcia, Nicole Morris, Nicholas J. Scrimenti, Kayla J. Smith, and Hope Williams of the Religions and the Practice of Peace team.

It started with a song, "Celebrate Good Times." Everyone got up on their feet and stood in parallel lines clapping to the beat—in their own way—and sharing their unique dance moves as they walked down the center of the aisle. Kayla J. Smith, master of divinity (MDiv) candidate at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) led a Soul Train-inspired opening dance as an introduction to what sustainable peace could be—joy through dance.

This was followed by a story that had participants on the edge of their seats as MDiv candidate Kinga Tshering spoke of how the measure for Gross National Happiness was developed in his home country of Bhutan—and all of the possibilities it holds on a global scale. Song, dance, and storytelling uplifted the energy in the room as the first Sustainable Peace Café held by RPP began.

The Sustainable Peace Cafés are the primary events through which the goals of the Sustainable Peace Initiative (SPI), launched by Religions and the Practice of Peace at HDS, were explored in the academic year of 2018-19. These sessions were designed and led by RPP staff and student assistants.

The first Café on October 4, 2018, focused on Sharing Inspiration and Wisdom for Peace Across Traditions. The second Café on November 15 centered on Creativity and Collaboration for Sustainable Peace, and the third on November 29 was about Tools for Dialogue across Differences in a World of Injustice. At each session, the RPP team opened and closed with inspirational texts, stories, poems, dancing, and musical performances.

An integral part of the vision for the Sustainable Peace Cafés is sharing insights and practices from spiritual and cultural traditions and life experiences. These insights and practices come in the forms of stories told by parents and grandparents, fables that people grow up learning or hearing, poems in a particular language, or witnessing someone embodying these insights and practices.

Centered around that aspect of sharing, the RPP team designed the first session on Sharing Inspiration and Wisdom for Peace Across Traditions, where participants were invited to share stories in smaller circles of five to six people. Stories from childhoods, stories from workplaces, stories from travels, stories from countries far and near, stories across time, place, and cultures—as much as there was personal touch and generosity in sharing, there was attention and care in listening. Murmurs, whispers, and mmm-s filled the room with warmth on that cold October evening.

Peace practice is both a creative and collaborative endeavor. This understanding is central to the Sustainable Peace Cafés and to RPP as a whole. Creativity and Collaboration for Sustainable Peace as the theme for the second Café was based on that understanding. Participants were encouraged to come prepared to speak briefly about a piece of art, poetry, music, or film that inspires them. As an introductory activity, participants were handed puzzle pieces to draw or write whatever they felt inspired by. These pieces were collected and put together to form a collective puzzle that functioned as communal artwork symbolic of how varying visions of peace come together.

Sustainable Peace Café
Participants in conversation at the first Sustainable Peace Café in October 2018, titled “Sharing Inspiration and Wisdom for Peace Across Traditions.” / Photo: Laura Krueger

Peace practice requires an understanding of where people are coming from, a willingness to listen to one another’s stories, and a willingness to learn and grow. This practice invites people to be in dialogue with one another. These insights informed the RPP team for the third Sustainable Peace Café on Tools for Dialogue across Differences in a World of Injustice, where the group explored compassionate listening as a tool of dialogue. Master of theological studies candidate Jonathan Makransky, who co-led the Sustainable Peace Cafés series in the fall, guided participants through a meditation session on compassionate listening. Abena Oworae, a Harvard College senior who also co-led the series, took the group through some tools for dialogue that she learned from being part of peer counseling groups at the College.

The RPP team ushered in the spring 2019 semester with a Sustainable Peace Café on Nourishment for the Body and Soul. Food sustains us. Some dishes that remind us of home bring us closer to our identities and communities and allow us to celebrate our bonds. The RPP team set the tone of this Café with personal stories about dishes that were catered for everyone to enjoy in a café environment.

One participant said of their experience:

>“Wonderful creation of space and eliciting of diverse group of people’s food stories in their own terms from their varied backgrounds. Very organic heart-connection, sharing, and learning about one another as friends/companions.”

Perhaps what is beyond “yummy” to these food stories lies in how exquisitely tied food is to our past, histories, and cultures. Another participant said:

“It was a time of realization about the importance of food in our lives—its connection to our past, our histories, our connections, spirituality, gratitude, comfort and much more.”

One of the artifacts from the Café was a menu, in which participants brought together some of the stories shared, spiced with participants’ cultural backgrounds and family recipes.

The Sustainable Peace Cafés were braided with the creativity, efforts, and passion of the diverse and talented RPP team; the authenticity, bravery, and generosity of the participants in bringing their varied cultural and spiritual backgrounds, while also making effort to hold the space for one another; and the threads of personal sharing and deep listening interwoven into each Café.

The group endeavored to craft homes, forge connections and companionships across traditions and differences, and build community and ripples of reciprocity. Inspirational texts, contemplative moments, poetry recitations, and musical performances—these elements seasoned RPP’s events and peace practice work with creativity, play, and dance of hearts and minds.

Religions and the Practice of Peace, founded by Dean David N. Hempton of Harvard Divinity School in 2014, serves as a hub at Harvard University to advance cross-disciplinary engagement, scholarship, and practice focusing on how individuals and communities around the world, past and present, have drawn on religious, spiritual, and cultural resources to cultivate positive relationships, well-being, justice, and peace across differences; how such efforts can inform contemporary conflict transformation, peacebuilding, and leadership; and how spiritual and human values, positive engagement across religions and cultures, and nonviolent approaches can help humanity solve shared problems and create sustainable peace for all.

Additional information about RPP, the Sustainable Peace Initiative, the Sustainable Peace Cafés, and more can be found on the RPP website.