Bridging peacebuilding and tech in San Francisco

By Fatima Faisal Khan and Nicolas Chehade

In February, we traveled to San Francisco to attend the conference “Designing Tech for Social Cohesion.” This three-day event was the first of its kind as it created a space for the peacebuilding community to interact with the tech sector and find ways where the two sectors can work together. Organized by Prof. Lisa Schirch, the Center for Humane Technology, and Search for Common Ground, the event brought together an eclectic group of leaders, innovators, and concerned stakeholders with the vision to create a space for collaboration, and to find a shared language by which these two otherwise disparate sectors can converse with one another.

The conference focused on addressing the increasing polarization, algorithmic bias, misinformation, and disinformation that pose a threat to social cohesion today. Exceptional panelists offered insightful ideas, drawing on their experiences in dealing with issues that pose a challenge to peacebuilding in the ever-evolving technological landscape. In particular, the opening event on Thursday generated a discussion on the ways that peacebuilding organizations such as Search for Common Ground, the Center for Humane Technology, and the UN Office of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs can collaborate with tech companies such as, Remesh, and the Integrity Institute.

The presence of key stakeholders from both tech and peacebuilding allowed for fruitful discussions not only in the event halls, but in the breakout sessions and during networking breaks, where we saw people get together based on shared interests and find ways to collaborate. Given that this is exactly what Prof. Schirch had envisioned with this conference, we were happy to see this space be constituted successfully.

One of the key challenges discussed on Day 2 was the lack of standardized indicators and metrics for measuring social cohesion, both online and offline. While some international organizations like the Council of Europe and OECD have made public commitments to social cohesion, there is still a need for more comprehensive frameworks that can effectively measure individual attitudes, emotions, and perceptions towards other groups. Several existing tools and indices, such as the UN Development Program’s SCORE, and the Ipsos Social Cohesion Index, measure social cohesion through surveys on life satisfaction, trust between groups, and civic engagement.

To address the challenge of measuring social cohesion, the conference discussions proposed a framework that focuses on user behaviors rather than perceptions or assertions. The framework identifies individual agency as a critical metric for measuring social cohesion online. This metric measures the willingness of individuals to participate in digital discussions and considers the ratio of engaged vs observing individuals.

Participation inequality is a common phenomenon in digital platforms, where a small percentage of users create content while the majority only consumes it. Another important suggestion from the conference is measuring individual agency, which could be refined by conducting more research on digital lurkers, participation inequality, and the link between digital use and political participation.

For us, what set this conference apart was its very practical aim to devise a strategic plan of action on the last day of proceedings. As students from Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Keough School of Global Affairs, we continue to learn about the importance of conflict and stakeholder mapping, assessment and planning in setting realistic and tangible goals. To see a room full of experienced leaders come together and make a well-thought out and insightful plan on how to keep this movement alive was a great learning experience for us. The conference highlighted the need for ongoing collaboration and research to design technology that promotes social cohesion and builds bridges across diverse groups. 

As much as we enjoyed listening to all the wonderful speakers share their important insights, this opportunity also allowed us to have hands-on experience with planning and executing a large-scale event successfully. We are indebted to Prof. Schirch and the team at Search for Common Ground for trusting us with this important work, and would like to thank our peers Emma Jackson, Eunhye Lee, Saadat Musabaeva, Nik Swift, Grace Connors and Miriam Bethencourt, Prithvi Iyer, and Wesley Hedden for their relentless hard work throughout the conference.

We are so glad we got to share this experience with a brilliant group of future changemakers! We believe that the discussions and ideas generated during the conference will lead us towards a more peaceful and cohesive society. The challenges we face today are daunting, but the conference gave us hope that we can work together to overcome them. It is imperative that we continue these conversations and collaborations beyond the conference room; and to make all concerned individuals a part of this movement. You can become a part of this very important conversation by joining the Council of the Technology and Social Cohesion’s mailing list for updates.

Photos by Saadat Musabaeva.

Frontline protesters aren’t the only ones making a difference on climate change

By: Audrey Thill

It takes four types of people to change the world–rebels, organizers, helpers, and advocates–at least according to scholar activists George Lakey and Bill Moyer. When applied to the climate movement, you might readily think of the rebels and organizers. These are people marching or  blocking bulldozers, children boycotting school to demand more action, and frontline communities mobilizing to defend their land, forests, water, and lives.

When I tell people I’m studying global affairs at the Keough School of Global Affairs, they think I’m training to be a mediator who brokers major peace deals. While there may be some among my inspiring classmates who do just that, I identify more as an analyst-advocate hybrid. I prefer to work behind the scenes, analyzing issues and identifying points of connection between parties. I tend also to focus on conflicts that involve Earth, climate change, and environmental justice. Thanks to the flexibility of the Master of Global Affairs program, I’ve been able to tailor my classes, projects, and now my internship to focus on my interests.

Currently, I’m based in Washington, DC, working as a climate intern for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). EIA is a nonprofit organization that engages in strategic, alliance-based campaigning to protect forests, wildlife, and the climate. They conduct undercover investigations, support local environmental groups, and advocate for greater transparency from governments and corporate actors. I love the diversity of approaches they use to tackle these complex issues. For example, sometimes they release hard-hitting reports, while other times they collaborate with partners behind the scenes to advance their climate campaign goals.

EIA’s climate team focuses on hydrochlorofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, and  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Say that ten times fast. In simpler terms, these are chemicals used in HVAC, refrigeration, and manufacturing of goods, for example, non-stick frying pans. Many of them are also super-potent greenhouse gases. Currently, the climate team is monitoring US implementation of its commitments to phase down ozone-depleting substances and other fluorinated gases that contribute to climate change. 

So far in my role at EIA, I’ve conducted research to inform undercover investigations, edited and fact-checked policy reports, and drafted a blog on the intersections of climate change, chemical emissions, and environmental justice. I’ve also enjoyed observing how this small team contributes to state and national climate policy issues, from curbing the illegal trade of refrigerants to raising the alarm about the global uptick in uncontrolled chemical emissions that are driving climate change and contaminating water and soil. Most exciting of all was to see more than ten years of their work pay off in a bi-partisan congressional vote to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that aims to rid the world of climate-polluting HFCs. It was a promising summer for US climate policy, but there is much more to be done.

If you’ve never thought about fluorinated chemicals, you’re not alone. This is an obscure topic for the average person despite the fact that our supermarkets and industries are leaking gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. With effects this serious, use and regulation of fluorinated chemicals really should be everyone’s business. 

Which brings me back to my point about the four types of people to change the world–it is undeniable that protests are an effective tool to build collective power and demand change from power holders. After street protests wane, however, we need actors like EIA who dive into the details and work in the background, ensuring that those same power holders stick to their promises. I’m thankful for this opportunity to learn from EIA and their long-term commitment to translate technical topics into policy solutions and engage the public in the process.

As extreme climate events become increasingly common and impactful, those of us who have added the most carbon to the atmosphere have an even greater imperative to take action. This reality has motivated me to pursue my interests at the intersection of peacebuilding and environmental studies. As I anticipate graduating in the spring, I am confident that my experience at the Keough School will serve me well in building my policy-relevant environmental justice career.

Discarded Data, Lasting Impact: Lessons from Angela’s House

By: Elise Verdooner

It is a humbling experience, visiting the houses of incremental builders. A narrow alleyway leads us through a winding maze between dwellings. Behind the cleanly painted and constructed facades the pathway is rocky, covered with rebar and sprinkled with decomposing trash and unused belongings. Houses, for lack of a better word, are pushed up against one another, collectively using structural elements such as beams or random poles to hang hammocks or lean shelves and belongings.

Walls are shared here, as people secure roofs and tarps to anything they can find. We pass a group of boys swinging from hammocks with a large radio perched between broken concrete blocks, looking over a half brick wall into an open kitchen with partial roof covering. A petite, stoic woman stands atop two steps in a doorway leading into one of the few enclosed structures around. This is our destination.  

Seeing directly into and through people’s living areas, the question in my mind is: how do we, as academics and practitioners, define a house? My MGA Integration Lab team, partnering with Habitat for Humanity International’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, is conducting research in Peru and the Philippines to better understand low-income incremental builders: how they define value during the construction process and how the market best supports this segment to be more resilient in the face of natural disasters. To understand people’s experiences of building their homes incrementally over many years, we visited Angela’s* house.

Entryway of an incremental builder’s home where we left our shoes to sit for an interview. 

Passing a doorway with no door and a kitchen with no ceiling, we approach the raised wooden bedroom and living room area. Taking off our shoes and climbing the three narrow steps into the home, our facilitator takes one step inside and immediately breaks through one of the old wooden floorboards covered by a fading and peeling plastic tarp floor covering. What would this permanent damage to the living room floor cost this family? The loaf of bread and food items we provide in compensation for their time certainly won’t cover the cost to repair the broken board, much less the rest of the floor, which looks like it needs it. I feel like we are walking on a trampoline with all the spring in the boards, and I’m careful in every footstep, recognizing the literal and metaphorical weight of our visit.

The overhead fan does little to circulate the hot air in the room, and there is no breeze coming through the open windows and doors. We sit along a hard wooden bench, sharing the space with a dusty flat screen television, a large speaker system, a small religious altar atop a shelf, and Angela’s bed. The house is 55 years old and has had no major repairs in that time. It feels every year of its age, and I am surprised it has lasted this long. As our facilitator begins the interview, I gaze at the underside of the corrugated tin roof discolored by age and weather, peeking through sparse wooden boards. I look around without judgment, merely observing, knowing in each of these observations there rests an insight into what this family needs: an opportunity to understand their priorities and help facilitate more sustainable and resilient construction practices.

These observations are cut short when ten minutes into our conversation we decide to discontinue the interview. Angela’s family does not fall into our target audience of incremental builders: they are not building or renovating their home and have no plans to do so in the immediate future. Given our limited time, we have to focus on low income households which nonetheless have enough money to incrementally build. We thank her for her time, and begin to step outside, but I pause for one more glance around the room: the decorative touches along the walls, the perfectly made bed and cleanly swept floors, and the way she talks about raising a family here, about owning her home, and about passing it on to her sons. Angela is proud of her home and the life she has created here. 

We sometimes get so caught up in our research agenda, we miss the moment in front of us. It is easy to get swept up in the project—getting into the field, conducting interviews, analyzing data, meeting with stakeholders, presenting findings—and at times I forget to be fully present. 

Before I can gather my thoughts, I’m on the flight back home, flipping through field notes, attempting to make sense of my quickly fading memories of sitting with Angela and others I met in the Philippines. As I look out the window, the landscape fades below me, and I am acutely aware of the importance of remaining fully present to learn, observe, and reflect so that my understanding of the on-the-ground realities are further enhanced.

A view of the Philippines from the clouds.

While our visit to Angela’s house did not reveal new information about how incremental builders make decisions around construction processes, it laid an important foundation in our research. The decision to renovate and build a house is about more than household economics; it’s about creating a home. And a home is more than timber and steel; it is an intergenerational investment in which people take pride. The transcripts from Angela’s interview will never show up in our analysis, but her story has left a lasting impression upon our team. During our short visit, Angela remains stoic; she is not the smiling type. But, as she looks across the room to her son, leaning against a wall, she describes with pride that it is her favorite part of the house–because her husband built this section of the wall by hand, with the support of her children.  

* All names and identifying information have been changed to protect confidentiality. 

5 Ways to Effectively Shape Policy

By: Cynthia Mene

Before coming to Notre Dame, I enjoyed a successful career in social entrepreneurship in Nigeria. Shaping policy was not on my radar until two years ago when I encountered the Nigerian “EndSARS” movement and protest: an outburst of discontent due to social inequality, poverty, unemployment, and bad governance. As my career as a social entrepreneur has begun to evolve, I was inspired to shape policies and become an all-around leader—someone not just informed by basic social innovation concepts, but also driven by a sense of purpose to reduce inequality of access and opportunity around the world.

Thanks to a DC Immersion and Policy course made possible by the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and taught by Professor Maura Policelli, I participated in a semester-long, top-notch training course. The highlight of this international development policy course was my visit to Washington, DC, over spring break to engage with policy experts and key actors in government agencies, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and Capitol Hill offices. I’d like to share 5 main takeaways from my experience in this course. 

March 8, 2022; (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

 Five (5) things I learnt about how to effectively shape policies:

  1. What issue are you trying to solve?

Clarify the policy topic you wish to address and conduct research on the policy issue, theme, or system you wish to reform. As much as we care about solving so many global problems, the key to attaining success, as an entrepreneur would, is to zero in on a specific and unambiguous issue. For me, I was perplexed by the unfair distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This life-saving vaccination must be distributed equitably for nations to have safe reintegration into economic and social activities. 

  1. Know your audience

Identify who has the power to enact a policy change. A person who can influence your target audience directly or indirectly, such as an advisor, a respected commentator, a media outlet, or a renowned academic. Know the routes to the people or organizations you need to influence and build relationships with them.  In preparation for my policy issue, I drew up a stakeholder map and reached out to a number of important stakeholders and organizations via email and LinkedIn. In particular circumstances, an interlocutor (a person with a connection to the person you intend to contact and who introduces you on your behalf) facilitates the introductions. Professor Policelli acted as my interlocutor by connecting me to key people in the Washington, DC area and proactively supporting me in enhancing the quality of my messages and connection emails. I was able to meet with individuals such as Mr. Robert Nabors, Director of North America at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington and former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama. During our conversation, I gained additional insight into how to approach my policy topic.

  1. Build Relationships and Networks

Be deliberate in building relationships and networking. People are more willing to help you than you imagine, so be bold in your networking efforts. Policymaking is intricate and dynamic,  involving a lot of different people and moving parts. Policy formulation nonetheless has its own formal and informal rhythms. From my understanding and experience, relationships make things work. I have actively engaged in not only building relationships and networks but also actively keeping track using a spreadsheet template I obtained from Erik Oswald (Keough School Career Consultant) and intentionally following up as necessary. You will increase your impact if you collaborate with people, build trust, and develop a joint plan.

  1. Policy Advocacy

First, the three pillars of effective policy advocacy consist of the ask, the target, and the message. Your ask should be very clear and concise, avoiding the use of technical language. Next, consider the types of activities and platforms your audience will engage with most effectively, such as conferences, press releases, and/or social media challenges. Lastly, a successful campaign demands an abundance of creativity and innovation in its messaging. You must therefore surround yourself with the right individuals and invest in your campaign’s messaging and outreach. Know the space and the influencers. Participating in a mentorship session with Subject Matter experts exposed me to some of the most effective policy advocacy and lobbying strategies.

  1. Shaping Policy Takes Time. Be Patient

There is no one right path. Plan with an open mind and be adaptable, because influencing policy requires time and effort. Deconstruct your plan and be realistic about what you can do. Frequently, it can be a lengthy process with no immediate impact. But persevere with it. Don’t forget to record and acknowledge the tiny victories. In addition, maintain engagement with your target audience and stay current on the decision-making process.

Taking this course and exploring policymaking processes has equipped me with a solid understanding of global issues, as well as pertinent solutions and expert knowledge in critical areas for reducing inequality and fostering sustainable growth. In this regard, the Keough School of Global Affairs has equipped me to continue my evolution from a successful social entrepreneur to a leader in shaping global policy

Great Expectations and Shifting Perspectives

By: Nicolas Chehade

The realization that the US economy has such deep and purposefully overlooked roots in the caregiving workforce, relying heavily on the labor of BIPOC and migrant communities, is an important one. With this issue in mind, our team of four Integration Lab (i-Lab) students embarked on our global partner experience with Oxfam America: to assess federal-level policies regarding human resources in the workforce and the transformative impact of these policies on the unpaid and underpaid workers in the care sector in the US. 

As MGA students, our first year of academic training at the Keough School prepared us to take on this challenge, helping us examine the overlap between human rights and the workforce. First, our Macroeconomics course helped us understand the economic drivers, challenges and tools that governments use to stoke the growth of their economies. The underlying factor of such growth, and one of the main resources needed for increased production, is human labor, a source of finite supply which is supported behind the scenes by essential care workers. 

In addition, discussions in our International Human Rights course helped us connect the dots between the practical aspects of human rights, the day-to-day functions of those rights, and the different tools used to uphold or abuse them, the guarantor of those rights, and the multilateral cooperation needed to create an environment that enables human rights. Further, research methodology courses such as Policy Evaluation helped us tackle the problem in a pragmatic, evidence-based approach. We learned to identify validity issues and implement robustness checks to ensure we accurately capture whatever we intend to measure.

The opportunity to bridge our academic learning and environment with our partner’s practical approach has provided us with so many enriching discussions: we consulted with esteemed researchers in the Keough School on methodological approaches, challenges and potential solutions, and strategies for proper and accurate data collection. We also participated in discussions with prominent organizations, professionals, and partners of Oxfam America to discuss project implementation and strategies to mitigate potential problems in data collection and expert interviews. We are seeing the fruit of an academic-practice collaboration: informed programmatic implementation; applying theoretical frameworks to real-life issues. 

The completed reports from this project will shed light on the underlying (and mostly unresolved) challenges that US care workers face, from a shortage of budgetary allocations to certain federal programs and policies like social security, health care and adequate pay, to the inaccessibility of such programs and policies by different demographic groups, the most underrepresented groups being BIPOC and migrant communities. Our eight-week field implementation and two weeks of remote work will yield a final report detailing the effect of major US federal policies on the unpaid and underpaid care sector, as well as highlighting some states’ brilliant implementation of impressive care-related policies. The report will also include an analysis based on the interviews regarding challenges in implementing policies, in universal accessibility, and in the disparity of access for the most underrepresented. 

One preliminary finding I want to share from our fieldwork and research is that a shift in perception of care work is needed: what was once taken for granted as a low-skilled job of care needs to be seen as a highly-skilled job requiring experienced and knowledgeable care workers. A shift in perception, and therefore in biases towards care work, would have positive implications for the well-being of those who have been historically ostracized and undervalued. Hopefully, our report will also serve as an advocacy tool for human rights advocates and organizations such as Oxfam to continue their fight for care workers’ rights, for the most underrepresented of communities to have a voice and have the recognition they need.

Going into this project, I expected that it would be fairly straightforward. First we go to Washington, DC; we review legislation and score them; then we do interviews. The first week out quickly changed that initial idea like a slap in the face. The scorecard took much longer than expected, as it required reading through hundreds of pages of legislation to even begin to develop a scoring tool. Our palpable excitement at the start was clouded by this stark reality, and we had to dramatically adjust our expectations. To deal with the time constraints and still complete our project, we needed to adapt. We met with partners, with experts, and with researchers, and we adapted. One of the main lessons that I took away from this experience is that a project never ceases to evolve, adapt, change; it is a living, breathing mechanism that requires constant and vigilant attention from those implementing it.

Nicolas Chehade (center) at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden with Anna Lande MGA ’22 (left), and Lenai Johnson MGA ’22 (right).

 I remember that the first week of orientation in the MGA program, we were told that these human connections and experiences we would have in our field work are what will be engraved in us, not only our academic development—and they were right. As much we strove to deliver a quality outcome for our project, the journey in itself holds as much importance to me. The day-to-day life, navigating a new city, living with colleagues, exploring the area, tasting the food, making new friends and connections, roaming around and taking in all this newness that comes with adventure–this is what we take with us personally. I expected to have a valuable experience to further my professional development, and I did. I am proud of the work that we accomplished on this project. But a year from now, or a decade from now, I will treasure most the lived human experiences and connections I gained from this i-Lab field project. 

Top photo: Fireworks on the 4th of July, as seen from the National Mall, behind the Washington Monument.

Learning from Neighbors: What Germany’s Ruhr Valley and the American Midwest Have in Common

By: Jody Oetzel

The trees here remind me of home. Surrounded by a lush green forest dotted with yellow wildflowers in northern Germany, I can easily imagine myself in my hometown in Wisconsin or a county park near South Bend. Just a few blocks behind me, an abandoned steel factory echoes the post-industrial narrative of many cities in the American Midwest. Aside from the staccato punctuation of German commuter trains beside me, I could be in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, or numerous other places in the midwestern United States. 

The forests of North Rhine-Westphalia, a western German state, remind me of home in the Midwest.

Urban innovation

These similarities across borders brought me to Germany in the first place. This summer, my i-Lab team is exploring models of urban innovation around the world for the National League of Cities (NLC). City governments face similar problems the world over. Analogous challenges of housing, mobility, inequality, citizen engagement, and sustainability exist in Cascais, Portugal; Bristol, United Kingdom; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

“In a country as large and diverse as the United States, cities may have more in common with international counterparts than American peers.”

These thorny challenges resist tidy division into governmental departments and demand new approaches to solve them. Innovation is one tool for local governments to tackle these problems. The narratives of innovation collected this summer through various case studies in Europe and North America, while not universal, may provide salient lessons for other city leaders. The goal of this i-Lab project is to understand what lessons from highly innovative cities can be applied to American cities to increase their innovation capacity.

Common challenges

Although national-level politics can highlight some glaring differences between countries, municipal politics can appear surprisingly similar across borders. As one interviewee quipped: “every city has to take out the trash.” Additionally, national-level politics can blur regional and local differences—in a country as large and diverse as the United States, cities may find that they have more in common with international counterparts than American peers across the country. After all, it is not only the forests that the Ruhr Valley of Germany and the American Midwest have in common. 

The city of Dortmund was once a hub for the steel and coal industries, which dominated the region’s economy as recently as the 1980s.  Following the closure of several mines and factories beginning in the 1960s, the jobs dried up. According to one city official, the decline of the steel and coal industries cost the city over fifty thousand jobs. Dortmund desperately needed “Strukturwandel”—structural change.  

The transition from a steel-based local economy was enabled by a city government that was forward-thinking and willing to take risks. The city established innovation hubs and incubators that encouraged entrepreneurship and innovation—including in the burgeoning field of nanotechnologies.  Today, the new jobs following this structural change have more than replaced the number of jobs lost just forty years ago, and Dortmund is a world leader in nanotechnologies.  

“I am encouraged by the wisdom shared in city halls in Dortmund, Rotterdam, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and South Bend.”

 This mix of industrial past and modern entrepreneurism is prominent in the cityscape of Dortmund as well. A new industrial park, home to start-ups and cutting-edge technology firms, stands in the shadow of the old Phoenix West blast furnace. An old steel factory site was flooded in 2009 to create Phoenix Lake, now a center for housing and commerce. Perhaps most satisfyingly, the region’s industrial museum celebrates and remembers its industrial history in a converted coal plant in nearby Gelsenkirchen.  

A train line carries freight and commuters alongside a walking trail in Dortmund, Germany.

There is no single pathway to innovation. What proved successful for Dortmund in the late 20th century cannot necessarily be transposed straight to the American Midwest—Janesville, Wisconsin, for example, has unique challenges in the wake of the General Motors factory closure or to Pittsburgh following the shuttering of several steel factories. Even so, I am encouraged by the echoed wisdom shared in city halls in Dortmund, Rotterdam, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and South Bend.  

In a world where polarization dominates the narrative and where war in Ukraine is a painful reminder of violence on a national level, I find consonance and continuity in the local. Across national borders, city leaders are finding ways to break through political noise and continue to deliver invaluable, invisible services that I can no longer take for granted.

Top photo: An unused steel mill blast furnace lies empty in Dortmund, Germany.

How I Learned to Appreciate Religion’s Role in Building Peace

By: Prithvi Iyer

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a place I had ever pictured myself visiting. This small country in the Balkans had quite simply never captured my imagination. Its allure was less obvious to me, unlike that of western European countries such as France and Switzerland that are often romanticized in globalized pop culture. 

But thanks to a student trip made possible by the University of Notre Dame and Peace Catalyst International, I recently visited the country—not as a tourist, but as a student of peacebuilding who gained a new appreciation for the role of religion in peace processes and reconciliation. 

In preparation for this trip, I spent time acquainting myself with the dynamics of the conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. While this preparation was key, no number of readings could have prepared me for what I felt and learned by immersing myself in the world of the locals and their myriad experiences. 

New encounters challenge old perspectives 

Coming from India, I was not oblivious to anti-Muslim discrimination and its violent implications. In fact, my background provided me with an interesting comparative lens to process what local peacebuilders and students shared about the nature of violence taking place in Bosnia, especially during the war of 1992. I always thought that South Asia’s experience of discrimination and the relative ambivalence of the international community was exacerbated because the region’s population is non-white. But as a local aptly explained to me, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, being a Muslim in Bosnia has meant facing prejudice and oppression—a reality that white skin or blue eyes cannot protect against. The sobering inference I drew was that anti-Muslim prejudice can exist independently of racism. 

The trip also provided me with experiences that challenged my worldview. For one, visiting Srebrenica, the site of a historically significant massacre, and seeing the detailed ways in which each life lost was documented and memorialized was unlike anything I have ever seen. Despite experiencing wars and losing many lives to conflict, India does not have similar memorials that document violence by providing it with a physical and tangible manifestation. This prompted me to wonder how narratives around victimhood in my own country may be obscured by the lack of efforts to memorialize these tragic events. 

Sarajevo’s city cemetery is pictured.

Upon contemplating how Bosnians grapple with memories of wars and the existence of memorials, I found the ways cemeteries were constructed in the middle of the city of Sarajevo to be especially fascinating. Rather than hiding these sites from view or constructing them on the outskirts of the city, planners ensured cemeteries in Sarajevo served as an integral part of the overall landscape. Our Bosnian guide told us that this was to encourage Bosnians to confront and celebrate lives lost rather than shy away from it. Children play in these cemeteries and are not scared to run through the acres of green grass that occupy these traumatic spaces. By integrating memorial sites into the visual spectacle of Sarajevo, the city’s residents ensure they will never forget the lives that have been lost. At the same time, they do not view death with something to repress, but rather something that should be confronted and normalized; to me, that is a beautiful sentiment. 

My experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina also made me introspect and critically examine the ways in which I think about religion. Most of the students in this trip had religious affiliations and the conflict in the country necessitated an understanding of religion and how they shape narratives of victimhood. Meeting local imams, priests and visiting key religious places in the country was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that despite not having a religious affiliation, I still must empathize and put myself in spaces that constructively engage with the idea of faith. Conversations with my roommate (a devout Muslim from Pakistan) and local Bosnian students taught me that religiosity is not necessarily a deterrent to peacebuilding and often, is a crucial component of reconciliation work. 

I returned from this trip not converted by religion, but having formed a deep appreciation for the place of religion and faith in healing societies fractured by identity conflicts. 

Letting go of my own biases regarding institutionalized religion and delineating the oppressive potential of religion from its peaceful dimensions (which provide a bulwark against systemic injustices) had a profound impact in reshaping my own belief systems. I learned about how different denominations in the church can have varying approaches to inter-faith dialogue and peacebuilding. Meeting a Franciscan priest who spoke about how he has many atheist friends challenged my own stereotypes about religious people being closed-minded. I returned from this trip not converted by religion, but having formed a deep appreciation for the place of religion and faith in healing societies fractured by identity conflicts. 

Learning from others’ stories

I would be remiss to not mention the people I met and the value of the interpersonal connections I formed on this trip. Exploring the rich cultural history of Sarajevo with local students who quickly felt like good friends was deeply enriching. Beyond conversations around the conflict we were learning about, I was intimately familiarized with daily life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the ways beauty can be found amid divisions and violence. Seeing people marred by conflict still live life with unbridled optimism taught me that societies can respond to historical cycles of violence with calls towards peace and reconciliation. 

One anecdote that captures this beauty is my conversation with Mirela, a local Bosnian peacebuilder working with us on this trip. She spoke of how her childhood was snatched from her because of the genocide during the Bosnian War. But rather than letting that traumatic experience characterize who she is, Mirela still exudes a sense of humor and zest for life that is deeply inspiring. She told me how being a young mother now is her way of re-living her childhood. This ability to find avenues for fulfillment despite a history of trauma challenged my perception around what living with trauma should or can feel like. Conversations with amazing women like Mirela and with college students showed me how people are spearheading a push towards normalizing relations and looking beyond differences. 

As I return to the United States and continue my education in hopes of aiding peacebuilding efforts, I am aware that these reflections and lessons can quickly evaporate as I get consumed in my next project or the next context in which I work. While I can’t predict the future, this trip, and the transformation it has forged have not been merely academic. My learning has been personal and affective, and has had spiritual dimensions. I eagerly hope this is the first of many visits I can make there, and I hope more people at the Keough School and beyond get to experience the richness Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer.

Top Photo: Prithvi Iyer enjoys a hike during a recent student trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The View from Vichy: Gaining Insights on France’s Contested Holocaust History

By: Emma Jackson

The name “Vichy” carries a lot of baggage. Some think of the expensive skin care brand or the historic thermal spa city frequented by Emperor Napoleon. Others immediately think of the pro-Nazi collaborationist “Regime de Vichy” and “État Français” that existed from 1940 to 1944.

Vichy is a small city in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France. It was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the category of Great Spa Towns of Europe. So naturally, at the time of my recent three-week stay during a university break, this element of Vichy’s identity was prominently marketed. 

Vichy, France

Supported by an Advance Language Training grant from the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, my time in Vichy helped me improve my French language skills and dig deeper into the city’s complex history.

Some historical background

After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, France and Germany signed an armistice that effectively split the country into two zones: the German military occupation zone and the so-called “unoccupied” or “zone libre” (free zone). Following the armistice, a puppet government was quickly formed within the zone libre in Vichy from an agreement between Hitler and French Great War hero Marshal Phillipe Petain.

A memorial in Vichy to Jewish victims of the Holocaust who were deported from Vichy, France during the Second World War.

While there is still some disagreement in France over the role of the Vichy Regime in the persecution of European Jews, recently declassified documents confirm that rather than acting out of self-preservation, the Vichy collaborationist government was a willing participant in the Holocaust. The Vichy government initiated anti-Semitic policies, such as removing Jews from the civil service and seizing property, even before the Nazis demanded their cooperation. It also willingly carried out large-scale arrests and deportations: some 77,000 Jewish French citizens and refugees were sent to death camps.

While researching this history, I found that France remains divided over the role of the Vichy government and there are multiple interpretations of the level of collaboration and the severity of the government’s crimes. In Vichy, there stands a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, but even this epigraph displays lower deportation numbers than official estimates. It also only mentions “Juif étrangers” (foreign Jews), brushing over the fact that Vichy France also arrested and deported Jewish French citizens.

Town Hall in Vichy, France

In recent news

A far-right candidate for the recent 2022 French elections, Eric Zemmour, a French Jew, has made some controversial statements about the Vichy government. For example, he claims that by first deporting foreign Jews to Germany’s death camps, Petain helped “save” French Jews. Zemmour was recently convicted and fined for racist hate speech against unaccompanied child migrants, describing them as “thieves, rapists, and murderers,” and is known for his incendiary remarks and staunch anti-immigration, anti-Islam rhetoric. 

Zemmour and other right-wing politicians favor protectionist policies and are generally “Eurosceptics” (that is, critical of the European Union). There are some interesting similarities with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany—founded by Eurosceptic former members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—which is now regarded as Germany’s anti-immigration party. 

While this visit was my first time in France, I quickly realized that far-right political parties in France promote similar agendas to far-right parties in Germany.

During the weeks I was in France, the country had taken over the European Union’s rotating presidency for six months starting in January 2022. One day after France’s presidency began, the government removed an EU flag that had been attached to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and had attracted criticism and protests from right-wing politicians. Marine Le Pen claimed that “replacing the French flag at the monument was an attack on the country’s identity,” and Zemmour called it an “outrage.” Before my flight to return to the US, I stayed in Paris and walked by the Arc de Triomphe and other major attractions. Interestingly, while the flag was removed, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel, the Notre-Dame de Paris, and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) were all lit up with the EU flag’s distinctive blue and its gold stars.

From the outset, I was interested in studying the French language in Vichy because of the Régime de Vichy’s complicated and dark history from 1940 to 1944. Living in a city with this historical memory of the Holocaust and its dark legacy of faith-based discrimination and anti-Semitic policies informed my research on right-wing nationalism, Islamophobia, secularism, and the development of xenophobic policies in Europe. The recent news regarding the right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour, the widespread protests over vaccine mandates, and reactions to the EU presidency certainly made the experience more memorable and helpful for my academic research.

Emma Jackson is a master of global affairs student in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. During Notre Dame’s winter break, she undertook immersive French language training at CAVILAM Alliance Française in Vichy, France. 

Top photo: Emma Jackson in front of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, which is lit with the blue background and yellow stars of the European Union flag.

Originally published by Emma Jackson at on June 03, 2022.

Peace Through the Eyes of Refugee Youth

By: Sophia Dianne C. Garcia

What does peace mean to you?

This question, though simple, can be one of the hardest to answer. I have learned in my classes and professional experiences that peace can be defined in many ways. It is shaped by multiple factors: experiences, culture, gender, and home country. Each person has their own perception of peace. 

Have you ever wondered what peace means for young people who had to leave their home countries to seek refuge and safety? Let me share with you my experience as an intern of Owl & Panther (O&P), a US-based organization in Tucson, Arizona. O&P offers opportunities for refugee survivors of torture and their families to find community, recreation, and solace through the power of expressive arts. The organization has three key main direct service programs:

  • Expressive arts
  • Community building
  • Engaging with nature

Currently, 76 individuals participate in O&P programs. On Thursdays from January to April 2022, the organization facilitated art activities and delivered donations for hundreds of Afghan parolees—Afghan Nationals who have been granted temporary entry into the United States through Humanitarian Parole.)

I am blessed to be involved in all O&P’s programs. One of the most memorable experiences I had was a peace essay-writing contest we organized. In February, I developed the contest for five O&P youth participants ages 16 to 19 years old. I mentored three of the youth in writing their essay. Each of them had unique perspectives and it was a meaningful learning experience. 

This internship is my first time working with refugees. Being a mentor took a lot of patience and perseverance. I worked hard to ensure participants enjoyed the process of writing their essays as much as or more than the final product. This is one of the main philosophies of O&P: process over product.

The poster for the Peace Essay contest
Andi Hammonds, program director of Owl & Panther delivering opening remarks during the Peace Essay Awarding Ceremony. Also pictured here is one of the youth participants and his mom.

Returning to the question at the beginning of this blog post, here are excerpts from the essays of all five participants on what peace means to them:

“. . . peace means the part where there is freedom. A kind of peace where there is no war; a place where there is no hate and aggression. Peace is needed wherever you are.”

“Peace is the path we take for bringing growth and prosperity to society . . . Peace is not the absence of chaos and problems, but it is the art to stay calm, focused, and united even in the middle of those.”

“I believe that providing education and eliminating poverty, inequality, and exclusions are the areas to work on to achieve peace both within and outside; from personal to interpersonal. And that can’t be done without a complete understanding and acceptance of ourselves and others. That is what peace is for me. It has many layers which are all interconnected. Where one cannot exist without the other.”

“Peace is about reaching our full potential as individuals, strengthening our faith and spirituality, and living in harmony with others. I am hopeful that one day, peace will reign in the world we live in. It is indeed the greatest thing in human life and the journey to peace begins with you and me.”

“From a very young age, I learned that it is essential to think about what peace means. Not only was it important for me to think about what peace meant on a more personal level, but what it meant on a global scale, because of the differences in experience for each person. With all the time I have spent contemplating what peace means, I have determined that peace is equality and is achievable through people striving to be accepting, humble, empathetic, and honest.”

This essay-writing contest gave me an opportunity to get to know these youth better. It became a window for me to have a glimpse of their experiences and their perception of peace. Truly, it has many levels. 

It has been five months since I arrived here in Tucson for my six-month internship as part of my Masters of Global Affairs program. I have learned so much about refugees, their experiences, and how O&P empowers them through its programs. It has deepened my understanding of peace as a process and there are many ways we can build it, including the use of arts. 

As the O&P youth reflected in their essays, being at peace with oneself, doing activities to stay calm and focused, taking part in raising awareness on issues that threaten peace, building genuine relationships with people, and the power of community are all essential in the journey to sustainable peace.

Donations for O&P programming participants

You may ask, what does peace mean to me? 

For me, peace is not just the absence of war, it is also the presence of justice and well-being. 

How about you? What does peace mean to you? It’s worth considering.

Standing in front of the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix during a 
Refugee Education Day event led by We Are All America, 
a refugee support organization.

Top photo: Art activity session with Afghan kids who arrived at Tucson in November 2021

At the UN, Aiming for a Development That Benefits All

By: Angelina Soriano Nuncio

I am a lawyer by training. I studied law after being inspired by the Model United Nations at my high school in Monterrey, Mexico. In Model UN I discovered the international stage where countries contribute to a joint aim: peace and development. I dreamed of understanding and influencing international systems in order to improve them. 

For that reason, I pursued an unconventional path for a lawyer: a focus on social justice and development issues from the perspective of integral human development, which prioritizes human dignity. Thanks to my experience as a master of global affairs student at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, this dream has come true.

The Right to Development

I have been working with Prof. Diane Desierto and Ijeoma Oti, a Notre Dame law student, in the preparation of the United Nations’ Draft Convention of the Right to Development. The right to development demands human-centered policies and participatory development processes that enable adequate living standards and full enjoyment of human rights. This convention in particular provides a framework for states to pursue broader development beyond economic growth, as self-determined by their people.

MGA student Angelina Soriano  and Notre Dame Law Student Ijeoma Otti outside the United Nations Office in Geneva.
MGA student Angelina Soriano and Notre Dame Law Student Ijeoma Otti outside the United Nations Office in Geneva.

In March 2021 we attended a meeting with the Expert Group of the Right to Development at the United Nations Office in Geneva, where the draft convention was finalized. We arrived on a sunny Sunday and walked through the city before our full schedule of meetings. Every time I visit a developed country and experience its quiet stability, walk on good-quality roads, and admire its apparently perfect infrastructure, I feel uncomfortable. I cannot stop thinking about the challenges I have seen in other less developed countries, including my native Mexico. My mind often grapples with the complexity behind the world’s inequalities. 

And yet, as much as Geneva seemed close to perfect, I saw a sign on a city bus encouraging people to report gender-based violence—an indicator that violence and oppression are present even in developed countries. The sign also served as a reminder that the work I do, along with my classmates and professors, to overcome disparities is worthwhile. The next day, I saw how our utopian dream could become a reality.

Inviting Diverse Voices

We met with the Expert Group of the Right to Development in one of the buildings of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was fascinating to listen to discussions as experts knitted together the concepts and ideas proposed by member states, civil society, and UN agencies. What I enjoyed most was seeing the impact of integrating diverse voices and experiences in decision-making. Diverse backgrounds and regions were represented in the expert group, including proposals from indigenous people. This inclusiveness affirmed my commitment to becoming a development professional who always considers the needs and interests of historically underrepresented populations and brings their voices to decision-making spaces.

A meeting with the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development
MGA student Angelina Soriano and Notre Dame law student Ijeoma Otti with profesor Diane Desierto during a meeting with the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development.

Promoting Human Dignity

The focus of my research and practice has been how development policies and programs uphold human dignity. Through my work with Prof. Desierto on the Convention to the Right to Development, I am learning how international treaties provide a framework for national policies and systems that foster human-centered development. Such development corrects the imbalances of power between elite institutions and the people, especially those living in the most vulnerable conditions. 

But we all know that having an international treaty is not enough. It is important that human rights and integral human development are researched and taught beyond the fields of international development and law. What if professionals in business, social sciences, engineering, and design were taught the principles of human rights? What if professionals from diverse disciplines took responsibility to transform the systems that sustain inequalities and hinder the full development of all people? 

Members of the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development
Members of the UN Expert Group of the Right to Development with Ambassador Zamir Akram (third from right), chair-rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the Right to Development.

On the same day we were in Geneva, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. I could see how this event posed new diplomatic, humanitarian, and development challenges to the international community. The ominous consequences of this situation—along with parallel situations in Afghanistan and Yemen, among other countries—filled our work with urgency, as the very right to development of millions is hindered every day. 

For now, I am hopeful that next May, UN member states will vote in favor of this convention, which provides a new legal framework that urges governments to ensure adequate standards of living for all. 

Angelina Soriano Nuncio is a master of global affairs student in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from Mexico, she holds a bachelor’s degree in law with a concentration in leadership for social development.

Top photo: Master of global affairs student Angelina Soriano Nuncio outside the United Nations Office in Geneva, housed at the historic Palais des Nations.