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“It is the most surreal feeling to be back in Laie at the McKay Center. The last time I was here, my life was filled with a blur of final projects, job applications, good-byes, last lunches at Fiji Market, and a sense of impending doom. I felt like I was about to jump off a giant cliff so steep that I couldn’t tell if there was water at the bottom or just a bunch of rocks.

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When I sat in that icebox of a classroom, getting ready to graduate, I tried to look forwards, beyond the McKay Center and I really struggled.

There were some alumni that I knew were doing cool things, but I didn’t really see myself in them. I was unsure where my feet would take me. We talked about Martin Luther King, we talked about Ghandi, we talked about Mandela…was I not just as capable and committed and passionate as them?

But you see, when we talk about them we don’t talk about Ruby Bridges, Dorothy Height and all the African American women who came BEFORE MLK and paved the way for his success. We don’t talk about Dolores Huerta who founded and led the successful nonviolent movement for migrant labor rights in the US and coined the phrase “Si se puede!” We don’t talk about Rigoberta Menchu Tum, an indigenous peacebuilder from Guatemala, who, like Mandela, influenced immensely significant social change in her nation and worked tirelessly to bring about reconciliation. We don’t talk about Leymah Gbowee who used non-violent resistance tactics to stop a Liberian civil war in its tracks, overthrew a corrupt president, and brought about a fair election process in her nation.

But most of all, we don’t talk enough about the fact that peace is never peace where sexism, racism, poverty, neocolonialism and heteronormativity still prevail. Mediations, negotiations, signed talks & treaties, even new and better relationships are empty shells if any of these forms of oppression are allowed to continue alive and well in our homes, communities, religions, and power structures.

When I left the privileged safety of air-conditioned classrooms, flag circles, and inspiring lectures, I was overwhelmed by the needs of the people on the ground. I worked as a mediator, conflict resolution and nonviolent resistance workshop facilitator, a restorative justice case manager, a mediation trainer, a funeral speaker, an empowerment self-defense instructor, and a community refugee coordinator. Most of the work I did was in Southern California, but some occurred in Utah and Costa Rica.  What I found essential to my work was recognizing who I was in the space and land I was on. Was my presence contributing to more violence? Was I invited there and by whom? In what ways could I use my power and privilege to make things right?

I heard countless stories of gender-based violence, of racism killing innocent Latinx community members and tossing their youth down a school-to-prison pipeline, of migrant workers facing unjust deportation, of families being torn apart at borders, of suicide committed by radiant LGBTQIA+ humans, of universities dedicated to “peace” but sitting on unrightfully taken indigenous land…I heard these stories among countless others and they left me raw.

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I mediated for families and their estranged teenager-but what happened when they went home and the father continued to beat the mother? I taught workshops to youth about resolving conflict through nonviolent means- but what happened when they went home to find a parent deported on the way back from work? I sat in a graduate school classroom and talked about peace work-but what happened when I went home to my apartment with a full fridge while my indigenous neighbor stared at her hungry children with empty hands? I taught about radical love and leadership-but what happened when a participant went home to find their daughter dead because living in a society where their religion did not accept them was too much to bear?

Audre Lorde says this:

I am a lesbian woman of Color whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with the woman of Color whose children do not eat because she cannot find work; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing to not only each of their oppressions but also my own…I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is any one of you.

She brilliantly illustrates what I learned through my work in the field and during my graduate studies in Gender and Peacebuilding at the University for Peace. We are faces of each other. To do this work is to open our hearts to the pain so many experience as a result of the violence that eats its way into our homes and societies.  Staying awake to the lived realities of other human beings calls us to feel with them, hurt with them and be present with them. It requires us to let them tell us what they need and how they need it. When we honor the self-determined needs of others and use all that we have to change the systems that violate those needs, we engage together in the art of breaking chains.

We are all connected- but we are also all different. My path in the field of peacebuilding will look different from yours. You might create peace through healing the land. You might create peace through healing families. You might create peace through leading protests. You might create peace through education. Your voice, your experiences, your passion, and your love matter. Let them guide you. Always ask yourself the hard questions. And then jump.

*there’s water at the bottom, I promise!”

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Written by Shemaina Maeve