George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Melanie Greenberg gives keynote address at S-CAR's degree celebration

May 18, 2018

Photo of Melanie Greenberg at Degree Celebration

Remarks by Melanie Greenberg, President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding

Dean Avruch, Faculty, Students, Parents, Friends of S-CAR and Supporters of PEACE: thank you for the invitation to speak today. It is such a great honor to be here with you, and it gives me tremendous hope to see you -- the newest generation of practitioners and scholars -- beginning your peacebuilding journeys in an increasingly turbulent world. 

When Dean Avruch first asked me to speak with you today, I burst into tears.  While those of you who know me know that this is not an uncommon occurrence, it is an indicator of the deep admiration I hold for S-CAR.  

In the course of this talk, I will honor a particular generation of S-CAR leaders, but I was struck, as I looked back over almost thirty years as a peacebuilder, at how deeply S-CAR faculty and graduates have influenced my thinking and my practice, in the most impactful and joyful ways, on an almost daily basis. The list is too long to read here, but every one of you has lived and taught the most powerful peacebuilding values.  You weave intellectual brilliance together with creativity, honesty, passion, and deep commitment to nurturing new generations of peacebuilders. As I look at what you have built – moving from the Townhouse in Fairfax to a full-fledged School – or should I dare say EMPIRE – within George Mason University -- I am deeply moved, and grateful. 

You – the students graduating today – are the pioneers of peace, facing a world of increasing violence, polarization, and people fleeing their homes in heartbreaking numbers.  You are also facing the breakdown of the liberal order in which my generation grew up, and which kept a highly militarized peace throughout the Cold War and the post-Cold War period.  But I am full of hope, since you will bring fresh tools and perspectives to these wicked problems and will shape the world in your image. 

While I do not know all of you, I can predict one element that brought you here today.  I am absolutely convinced that peacebuilding is not just a field of work or study, but is a CALLING.  Even as the field has become more technical, every single peacebuilder I have met sparkles with a certain passion and optimism that reaches far beyond simply a professional interest. 

I would like to tell you a story today of how I responded to that calling, and how a six month window of time when I was close to your ages profoundly shaped who I am today, and revealed the truths I hold most dear about peace. 

Thirty years ago, I was a very unhappy law student.  I had come from a blissfully happy undergraduate focus on comparative literature and was thrust into a what was for me a completely strange and alien world of complicated legal procedure, and an adversarial approach to resolving conflict. This was not helped by a civil procedure professor who taught procedure using metaphors from opera and football. To this day I remain confused about what a summary judgment motion has to do with the Flight of the Valkyries. During my first summer of law school, I decided to work with death row prisoners in Georgia, since I felt deeply conflicted about the death penalty, and wanted to see for myself how law operated in the most dire contexts.   I worked for a group called “Team Defense,” and my first case involved an inmate named Joseph Thomas, a young African American man of about twenty-one, who had already been on death row for three years. Joseph and a friend, living in rural Georgia, had robbed and knocked unconscious the insurance agent who came door to door to sell funeral insurance to families.  The young men panicked and hit the salesman over the head with a shovel, and then buried him, still barely alive, in a shallow grave.  Yes, this was a tragic and stupid crime, and there was no question as to the guilt of the young men.  And at the same time, it was also true that Joseph was assigned a completely incapable defense attorney, who botched the trial in ways that were obvious even to my opera and football oriented legal eye.  I worked for several weeks on the legal elements of the case: drafting petitions for habeas corpus, writing motions for a new trial, and highlighting evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel.

And then my life changed. Millard Farmer, who ran Team Defense asked me to do two things. One was to read a book called “Getting to Yes,” and to draft for him a presentation on negotiation.  The other was to drive down to the Georgia/Florida border to gather mitigating evidence from Joseph’s family and friends that could possibly be used in a new trial. 

Getting to Yes was a revelation – the book put into words concepts I had been fascinated by ever since I was a child – and revealed elements I was seeing even in the complicated dance between the prosecution and defense in Joseph’s case.  But this is secondary to the real story.  What changed me most – and opened me up to the call of peacebuilding -- was the time I spent with Joseph and his family.   There were no cell phones in those days, so I would call family members and friends from a pay phone in a Wendy’s parking lot. Directions would be something like, “take the third dirt road, and we are in the clearing by the tree with the bottom branch hanging down.”  When I talked with Joseph’s siblings, I heard the story of all ten children sharing two beds and grabbing clothes from a communal box in the middle of the living room. I saw first-hand the chaos that poverty creates and saw Joseph as a lost soul whose very basic needs were never met. Yes, he was a killer, but he was also a victim of terrible childhood trauma, and a legal system rigged against poor black defendants like him.  I was also struck by the warm welcome that Joseph’s family gave me – a white, northern woman nosing around his most private life, probing a deeply dysfunctional childhood. I am not sure I could have done the same if the tables were turned. 

When I was done with two or three trips to the area where Joseph was raised, I visited him in prison for the first time. I can attest to the panic I felt when the metal doors closed behind me, and I was sitting in a room alone with a death row inmate.  Yet I was not prepared for a gentle man, with large eyes, and a soft voice, who nodded his head and smiled when I told him about the people I had visited from his home.  We had a good rapport, and I visited several times over the course of the summer, as we built mitigating evidence for his case.  I returned to law school before his case was heard – but I can tell you that, eventually, Joseph was taken off death row and sent to the general prison population for a life sentence.  I was still deeply troubled but fascinated by this case.  How could I square the murder with this gentle man – knowing both to be true – and how could I understand the links between the societal and personal factors leading to the murder? And was there a role for redemption, or was I being a cliché of an urban intellectual who was blind to the hard, criminal facts because of my need to find social justice?  

Coincidentally, or perhaps providentially, when I returned to law school, Stanford had just become one of several theory centers funded by the Hewlett Foundation to build the intellectual underpinnings for a more powerful conflict resolution field.  Stanford’s center focused on the barriers to conflict resolution, from the perspectives of law, business, economics, and psychology. I became a fellow of the center and knew that I had found my life’s work (with a slight side venture as a bankruptcy lawyer, but that is another story). The idea that peace was multifaceted, and multidisciplinary – and getting to learn from legends such as Amos Tversky, Robert Mnookin, and Kenneth Arrow who led the Center – profoundly shaped my vision for how to make peace in the world.  

George Mason’s ICAR was also a theory center. I will never forget that I was assigned to drive Dennis Sandole – whose death we are mourning this month – wherever he wanted to go while visiting Stanford.  As we drove around the foothills, Dennis regaled me with stories about his work connecting the theory and practice of conflict resolution, both within the US and internationally, and I was entranced.  During the Cold War, it was almost unheard of for civilians to reach out at a purely non-governmental level to other civilians to make peace.  When Dennis spoke, I felt like the clouds parted and a new future was revealed to me – where I could be a part of RESOLVING conflict rather than instigating it.  This led to my work over the next three decades, nurturing the field of peacebuilding, and facilitating civil-society level peace processes in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Northern Ireland, and in a series of what we now call fragile states. 

Soon after my fateful drive with Dennis, at a Hewlett theory center conference held in Washington, I also met Sara Cobb, newly arrived at ICAR in her Sara-mobile – who showed me that narrative was not relegated to literature but was a founding principle of peacebuilding. I also met Sandy Cheldelin, one of the most joyful people I have ever known, and then Chris Mitchell, Wallace Warfield, Kevin Avruch, and Richard Rubenstein – every one of whom seemed like a giant to me, and who demonstrated the intellectual curiosity and passion for peace that were destined to change the world. So, you see how S-CAR was so much a part of my own calling toward peacebuilding. 

Now, I want to show you something. About four months after I returned back to law school, at about the time I was meeting S-CAR leaders, this sweater arrived in the mail.  Joseph Thomas knitted this for me.  At the time, I was overwhelmed by the gift, and all the paradoxes it represented. I have spent the past thirty years seeking answers.   The lessons that I learned that summer about building peace in the shadow of the law, about social and racial inequality, violence, justice, anger, corruption, redemption, and complex dynamics behind criminal acts forever colored my view of peacebuilding. 

Photo of sweater

Here are a few of the lessons I would like to share with you, which started to emerge at the time Joseph Thomas was knitting this sweater, and which have guided my life in peacebuilding since then. 

First, recognize DIGNITY as the DNA of peacebuilding.  Donna Hicks has written beautifully on this subject.  One of the first signs of deadly conflict is a dehumanization of the “other” and a growing sense of contempt for those who do not share your views.  Only when you recognize the dignity of the enemy, even if you disagree profoundly, can peace take hold. 
Second, you must learn how to handle anger and Shakespearean levels of emotion: people you are working with are going through the most profound and traumatic experiences possible in life.  Even around the most polished peace tables, emotions surge.  Learn to recognize your own, and to absorb those whirling around you. 

Third, no matter what part of the peacebuilding field you may consider your professional home, make it your life’s work to understand forgiveness – and how it works differently in every society.  One of the most powerful examples I have ever seen was in Colombia last year, where a policeman blinded by a FARC firebomb coincidentally met the FARC leader who ordered the attack when both attended a workshop led by the Foundation for Reconciliation and Forgiveness.  After the initial anger and shock of their meeting, both recognized that they were victims of the conflict in different ways, and they forged a friendship – including introductions to each other’s families.  Forgiveness can happen – but it is not automatic, and in our own culture, we tend to forgive far too easily. “Oops, sorry” is not enough.  When I worked on conflict in the Caucasus, an anthropologist from Armenia described the symbolic forgiveness process that could end blood feuds in the region.  A young man from one clan involved in the feud would need to run into the encampment or home of the enemy, find the matriarch, lift her blouse, and embrace her as a child would embrace his mother.  If the young man survived running past all of the armed guards and embracing the matriarch, a blood feud could be considered to have ended.  I honestly don’t know how to what extent this story was apocryphal or overly symbolic – but it did resonate with me when I heard a group of Armenians demand from a group of Azerbaijanis an apology for the genocide carried out by the Turks a century before. 

Fourth, you must be a social engineer -- like the warp and weave of this sweater, we need to combine an understanding of process, with deep knowledge of the structures and institutions that societies need to build resilience to violent conflict. John Paul Lederach wrote nearly thirty years ago about a “process-structure” gap in peacebuilding – which you, as new peacebuilders, must always try to bridge.  Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals is just one manifestation of the links between process and structure, and I feel this gap is one of the great challenges still facing the peacebuilding field.

Fifth, you must understand the brain – one of the newest frontiers in peacebuilding. With the explosion in neuroscience over the past decade, we are gaining new understanding of the effects of violence and trauma on the brain, and also ways to rewire the brain for peace.  We have even learned that trauma is passed along epigenetically – not just metaphorically – across generations. All of you will need to design programs that are neurosensitive, with a strong understanding of our hard wired response to social norms and values, in group and out group dynamics, and our powers of altruism and compassion. Note that in psychological and neuroscientific studies of a range of social activists, peacebuilders had a stronger capability than most people of keeping two realities, or competing sets of facts, alive in their brains at the same time. 

Sixth, recognize humor in even the most difficult settings. In one of my first peacebuilding processes, we held a dialogue of top Israeli and Palestinian civil society leaders in a beautiful conference setting in Santa Cruz, California. The participants were expected to wear slippers to save the wood floors, and to help with the dining chores.  I will never forget washing dishes with one Israeli, and one Palestinian leader – who had spent the day in passionate conversation about the injustices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They stood arm to arm, washing and drying dishes, wearing slippers in the shape of bears and sheep.  Both laughed and said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell our wives that we were washing dishes!”

Finally, do not shrink from the understanding the roots of violence in war and peace. Peacebuilders are some of the most joyful and optimistic people I know, yet they understand how to look darkness in the face. As much as you need to learn about peace, you also need to understand violence, and must recognize that, paradoxically, it is often the very perpetrators of violence who become the most powerful champions of peace. 

Now, over the years, I have had any number of scholars raise a supercilious eyebrow and say, peacebuilding is a theory of everything.  And I say, “DAMNED STRAIGHT!” – and that is as it should be. Because we need peacebuilding EVERYWHERE.  We need your skills EVERYWHERE – not just at wonderful organizations like Search for Common Ground or the Holocaust Museum.  In every path of life – home, school, family, business, the skills you have mastered are central to the safety, security, and dignity of all citizens in a turbulent world.  We need to mainstream peace, and make sure that peace loses any whiff of Birkenstocks and love beads.  Peace represents serious, powerful security for all levels of life, and every child needs to learn the basics of conflict resolution as part of becoming citizens of the world.  

Finally, I would like to make a plea to all of you, to focus at least some attention on making peace here in the US.  We need your vision, your creativity, and your laser-focused application of conflict analysis to help overcome the polarization, pain and corrosiveness that is eating deep fissures into the fabric of our society. 

I want to thank S-CAR again for this invitation, and also to thank my husband, Lawrence, who is here in the audience, and who has supported my peacebuilding quest with all of his heart.  As you graduate today, I have deep faith in all of you, and I wish you joy, strength and perseverance as you move into the world as peacebuilders. 

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