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Network for Peace through Dialogue

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January 16, 2014

Women as Peacebuilders Series - Session 7

Guest: Janet Gerson

In the Network's peacebuilders series of living room dialogues, a guest is asked to reflect on what influences led them to make the choices they have made in their lives.  Current events, people met along the way, and new learnings usually play a part in determining what direction a person will take along the road.

Janet Gerson, guest at a January dialogue, began by saying that first and always she is a dancer and choreographer.  For her life at its best is a dance.  When people work and dance together, they work cooperatively.   Everyone sees what everyone else is doing and people learn from one another.  Movement improvisation makes things happen; something new and dynamic is created.  All people involved in a dance production - dancers, musicians, directors, crew -  bring their full attention and best willing selves to the event at hand.  This is the model she brings to the work she has done as a peacebuilder.

As a dancer, you work very hard, usually for the love of it.   Almost nobody pays you to do it.  An early experience of peacebuilding while dancing for the sheer love of it was presenting dance performances in a public park.  This effort developed into a community-building process where children and adults living in the neighborhood of the park were inspired to interact with the dancers and become part of the productions.  The performances became quite noteworthy and were televised locally.

Through this dance work, Janet was invited to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing in 1995.  This eye-opening event led her to enter a peace studies program at Columbia Teachers' College, which eventually led to teaching conflict resolution skills at Educators for Responsibility (now the Morningside Center) for a time, and for the last XX years the executive director of the annual International Institute on Peace Education.  The dance goes on.

A recently completed effort has been writing a Ph.D. dissertation about the World Tribunal on Iraq, a civil society project that in 2003 examined U.S. war crimes in Iraq.  How did that fit into the dance model?  Like this:  People from all over the world collaborated and learned together, resulting in a transformational process during which they created something no one person could make alone.

After Janet's talk, Virginia Dorgan invited participants in the dialogue to say what elements of Janet's experience resonated for them.  Some comments during the discussion were:

 

  • The day after the US invaded Iraq, I was in London where a huge, silent march over the London Bridge came together spontaneously to express grief at the "Shock and Awe" bombardment of Baghdad.
  • Mediation has elements of choreography. People take turns listening, re-stating and re-forming "positions" on the issue at hand, introducing different perspectives. New understandings can result.
  • I went to an elementary school where all classes were regularly encouraged to create a story or dramatize a feeling. These were sometimes worked into performances in which music was incorporated. Another teacher read epic poetry that the children acted out. As I was dyslexic and had difficulty with reading, these were areas where I could excel.
  • For one man, team sports were an area where he valued an opportunity to coach. He also has participated in folk dance classes and memoir writing groups. From these experiences, he noted that it is important for the members of a group to be working for a common goal.
  • Growing up in the Bronx before TV became commonplace, my friends and I were free to play in the street every day, finding hiding places, using a broomstick as a baseball bat, creating games on our own. This was the golden age of childhood!
  • I was brought up to think of life as a competition, right vs. wrong. Now I see that life depends on cooperation. I try to use language that promotes that.
  • The conversation turned to various methods of encouraging dialogue in discussions of political and civic matters. One participant helped facilitate discussions at one of Mayor DeBlasio's transition town hall meetings before his inauguration.  The non-profit organization America Speaks had installed  technology so that the input of hundreds of people could be brought together and synthesized.  Another participant noted that, regrettably, since then America Speaks had lost its funding. 

    Participants spoke about bringing dialogue methods to forums such as community boards where they could insist on the importance of hearing all voices in order to make discussions alive and real.  All too often decisions are made before the public knows what is happening.

    At the beginning of the meeting, Virginia Dorgan presented some guidelines for dialogue on a little card.  It was suggested that if these cards were circulated at public meetings there would be better outcomes.  The guidelines were: 

    Listen for understanding - listen with equal respect for each person.

    Speak from your heart as well as from you mind - speak when you are moved to make a contribution from your own experience.


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