George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Program on Urban Peacebuilding

The program in Urban Peacebuilding will leverage interdisciplinary research and practice to support efforts to prevent and respond to violence in urban areas and to bolster innovative approaches to peacebuilding. Connecting community members, academics, policymakers and practitioners from various fields, the program will focus on creating cutting-edge, community-based learning experiences that support communities in building on their knowledge and creative potential to more effectively influence social change. The program on Urban Peacebuilding will work to lay the groundwork for more integrated and dynamic city-wide peacebuilding models.

The Need

According to the United Nations, in 2018, approximately 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the figure is projected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050.  At their best, cities offer complex social spaces that amplify the creative and cultural capital of residents and serve as crossroads for people from a wide array of backgrounds.  In the rapidly urbanized world, vibrant cities are at the core of ensuring the health and wellbeing of people.  

While cities can be places of connection, collaboration and exchange, they can be deeply divided along economic, racial, ethnic, religious and other lines of social difference. As highlighted by the UN Habitat report in 2016, 75 percent of the world’s cities have higher levels of income inequalities than two decades ago.  The promises of mobility, creativity, and innovation are not shared by all residents in cities, and deep divisions in cities breed pervasive and systematic exclusion and intensify violent social dynamics in urban areas. 

In part, as a result of these dynamics, millions of people living in cities globally experience the far-reaching impacts of persistent violence. Additionally, some of the world’s highest homicide rates occur not in countries that are experiencing war but instead, nations with elevated rates of inequality and violence taking place primarily in urban communities.  There is a pressing need to better understand and respond to these challenges which are growing both in scope and complexity.

While a dearth of research on the underlying complex dynamics of crime, deviance and violence in cities exist, the majority of these studies focus narrowly on public policy concerns about crime in poor urban communities (Akom, Ginwright, and Camma, 2008). When it comes to young people in the city, policy makers too often explain youth crime, delinquency, and violence as individual pathological behavior. There is a growing body of research that explores social bonds, prosocial behavior, networks and a host of other key areas that can be more effectively leveraged to shift the dynamics of violence in cities and highlight the key role that communities are playing in working to make a lasting changes. 

The Opportunity: Strengthening Peacebuilding Communities of Practice in Cities

Globally, cities provide an excellent space in which to understand how emerging peacemaking practices can be used in complex social environments to prevent violence and generate more equitable and thriving communities. Given that cities are crossroads from people of many different backgrounds, they provide an opportunity to understand how peacemaking can be adapted to the local context and “go viral” within regional and global networks interested in influencing social change. Cities provide a hub where local peacebuilding practitioners network, connect across lines of difference, innovate and communicate more broadly with other networks of concerned stakeholders. 

What we will do

Education and Training for Urban Peacebuilding

Our education and training programs focus on linking theory and practice in urban peacebuilding. We build on the knowledge and experiences of everyday urban peacebuilders and connect that knowledge with existing research on effective approaches to peacebuilding. We identify urban peacebuilders and their allies and support their work in the violence affected communities where they live and work. Drawing on experiential education, educational theater, simulations and other cutting-edge approaches, these programs draw on emerging research about the most effective ways to learn about and respond to destructive conflict. In addition to advancing knowledge about urban peacebuilding and the skills needed to respond to these challenges, these educational programs provide opportunities to convene a broad array of stakeholders and further develop peacebuilding networks within and across cities.

Research

Our goal is to conduct cutting-edge research with diverse array of partners and to make that research accessible and widely available. Our approach is focused on understanding, amplifying and bridging knowledge across epistemic communities in the city and we utilize complexity theory, network theory, systems theory and other interdisciplinary theoretical frameworks that allow for better understanding the generation, diffusion and uptake of knowledge about peacemaking in urban environments. Equally importantly, we leverage research to provide technical assistance (TA) to communities of practice. TA involves the development of tools and resources for practitioners and policymakers in order to improve a specific set of practices. This includes using data to assist practitioners and policymakers in exploring new approaches to key challenges, articulating and refining their theory of change as well as developing approaches for implementing specific policies or procedures. Our strengths in this area are grounded in our expertise in bridging theory and practice at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution over 25 years and our network of scholars and practitioners with specific expertise in cities.  

While the past several decades of research on violence prevention clearly demonstrates that violence in cities is the result of multiple overlapping risk factors and deeper underlying cycles that produce the conditions whereby deprivation, anti-social behavior and violence are all too likely, there are still too few studies that examine approaches that foster pro-social behavior, resilience, collective-efficacy, creative resistance to injustice and other community-driven processes of change. We draw on an interdisciplinary approach to engaged scholarship that is grounded in the co-production of knowledge, bringing together stakeholders from various backgrounds, formal and informal actors, and academics to develop models that link theory and practice.  The Program will seek to make this knowledge accessible and useful outside the academy through partnerships with grassroots organizations, dialogue with policymakers as well as creative projects exploring themes with key grassroots influencers. We also aim disseminate this knowledge within the academy, highlighting the need for more research on unban peacebuilding through conferences focused on these themes while generating outstanding academic publications that ground us as an academic center for excellence in engage research. 

Ongoing Projects

Restorative Justice and Conflict Transformation in Urban Schools

Schools are centers of social life for many communities and can play a vital role in advancing knowledge about peacemaking practices. Emerging research on restorative justice (RJ) highlights that RJ can lessen practices of exclusion that push minority students out of school and into high risk situations where they are more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. The goal is to continue to work with schools to develop models that take seriously their complexity, harnessing their potential as hubs for learning about productively engaging with conflict and building a more equitable community. This includes the integration of racial and social justice frameworks in restorative justice training and the integration of trauma-informed practices.

Police De-escalation and Conflict Resolution Training and Law Enforcement Professional Development

The Program on Urban Peacemaking focuses on developing experiential approaches to police de-escalation and pre-escalation training that include methods and techniques for preventing situationsfrom escalating to a point where the threat of violence is imminent. This includes introductory programs in police academies, professional development with a focus on reflective practice for law enforcement leadership and the development of simulations, experiential activities, participatory learning and virtual reality and augmented reality training tools. This includes the integration of frameworks for understanding the historical causes of conflicts, race and gender dynamics and the integration of trauma-informed practices.

Shared and Participatory Governance 

This program explores innovative ways that citizens and civil society organizations are engaging in urban governance and pays particular attention to the role and implications of increasingly hybrid forms of governance. This is an exciting time in cities where civil society actors are exploring local models to engage with issues of handled by the state such as issues of justice, through local truthtelling, restorative justice and reparations work, new nonviolent approaches to security, increased engagement in criminal justice reform, the development of local food systems and wide range of other issues that are central to urban conflict transformation.            

Building Bridges Across Lines of Difference in the City

The Program engages with groups that are well positioned to influence peacebuilding processes by assisting with organizational development, coalition-building, dialogue work, network facilitation and mediation across civil society groups. The goal of these activities is both to support organizations in increasing their effectiveness and to build more dynamic urban networks with concrete processes for collaboration, information sharing, cross-sector learning and action. These groups include grassroots activists, policymakers, law enforcement, educators, medical and mental health professionals that are engaged with or interested in violence prevention and peacebuilding.

Conversations for Common Ground – Building Urban-Rural Connections for a Peaceful Future

As cities are faced with growing inequality, urban-rural divides are rapidly widening.  Many in rural areas are deprived of cultural, social and economic opportunities. Globally, about 70 per cent of the extreme poor live in rural areas (2011, UN).  Even in countries such as U.S., rural poverty is alarming with a nearly quarter of children growing up in rural areas were poor in 2016, compared to slightly more than 20 percent in urban areas (Save the Children). Many young people in rural areas are vulnerable to sensational and opportunistic political narratives which incite violence and hostility to others and pit them against people in the cities.  The Program on Urban Peacemaking will bring young people in economically challenged rural and urban communities together for creative activities that help them engage in dialogue to identify common challenges and solutions to the problems they face.  Through experimental educational methods, combined with activities leveraging urban areas’ creative resources – hip hop artists, musicians from various genres, writers, or actors – the program attempts to offer a space where young people in communities can find common issues, and undertake shared activities that can strengthen their solidarity in search for inclusive and peaceful communities.  

Centers and Publications