Turning conflict and violence into hope and empowerment. A trans:form:ed conversation with Dr. Molly Melin

Photo courtesy: dr. molly melin, loyola university chicago

Photo courtesy: dr. molly melin, loyola university chicago

We recently had a chance to interview Dr. Molly Melin, who is Associate Professor of International Relations at Loyola University Chicago. The focus of Dr. Melin’s research is conflict resolution, and she is particularly interested in the role that businesses play in contributing to the creation of peaceful societies. After having traveled to Colombia on a family vacation a few years ago, last Summer she, her husband and their two children decided to pick a place they had already visited, and that they would all want to go back to. They unanimously chose Colombia.

Coincidentally for her and her research, this was around the time that the Colombian government was getting close to signing a peace deal with the FARC – the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, with which it had been at war for over 50 years. During her second family trip, she noticed that Colombian businesses were playing a very active role in supporting the peace deal. This sparked the idea of planning a study abroad trip with students from Loyola University Chicago, which finally came to life in May 2018.

At first the idea of taking students to Colombia raised a few eyebrows at the university, as Colombia was one of the countries in the US Department of State’s watch list at the time. But a picture of Molly’s daughter, who was 3 years old at the time, running around the streets of Colombia was a contributing factor to ease the concerns of people in the university who thought of Colombia as the violent place depicted in the series “Narcos.” Around the same time, another Jesuit university in the US had run a program in Colombia, further emphasizing the fact that Colombia is a place that is more than ready to welcome visitors from other countries. Once the program was approved and posted, Dr. Melin was surprised by the number of people who contacted her to learn more about the program and explore ways to collaborate. The news of the program also led to a number of Colombians reaching out and offering to help in different ways, like making contacts with people who were somewhat affected by the decades-long conflict in Colombia and with people who were actively working to make a difference after the peace accord had been signed. “Once we said ‘this is what we’re doing,’ people wanted to be part of it. Especially Colombians, they have such a strong culture and really went out of their way to engage with us.”

The program was focused on the peace process and approaches taken towards conflict resolution. For the students, ages 19 to 21, the experience was tough at times. Many of them were traveling out of the US on their own for the first time, and here they were meeting people who had very real firsthand experiences with conflict. For example, one of the women they met had been shunned by her family and forced to leave her hometown after being raped by guerrilla members. Today she is a speaker for women’s rights. Her message is that rape is a crime, and that women who are raped are victims, not instigators. They also visited a neighborhood that used to be a focal point of violence, where they talked with residents about life during the height of the gang wars. The students finished the program in an eco-lodge outside of Bogotá, where they had the chance to decompress and process the very intense experiences they had. Here are some of their take away’s:

Women are actively shaping the future of the country

Although the program wasn’t intended for women, the students, the teaching assistant and the professor were all female. As a result, their partner at Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá helped shape the program with this in mind. By interacting with female speakers and thought leaders, they were able to understand the conflict through the eyes of wonderful women. What they heard was a hopeful story, particularly from women who had suffered horrible experiences, yet no longer saw themselves as victims. A valuable lesson from these conversations was that just because something happens to you, it shouldn’t define who you are or put you in a box that you don’t want to be in.

Change starts with individuals

Another lesson they learned is the significant difference that an individual or a community can make. As they saw, not every change requires government intervention or a long roadmap before anything happens. Instead, the students learned that individuals really have the choice to take action that can lead to real impact. They met several people who decided to change the way in which the future would shape up for their children, rather than leave it up to chance. This wasn’t planned as an objective of the program, but examples of self-empowered individuals kept popping up in unexpected places.

For profit businesses play an important role in the post-conflict narrative

Coming back to the subject of Dr. Melin’s research on the role that businesses play in conflict resolution, she talked to us about a campaign that the Bogota Chamber of Commerce ran in partnership with 100 businesses, called “Soy capaz” (I’m capable). What got her attention from this campaign is the many ways in which companies showed their support for the peace process, from placing peace signs on beer caps to launching cosmetics in colors that promoted peace and serenity. It felt like the whole society was coming forward to promote peaceful interaction and say, “this doesn’t have to be a massive deal signed by heads of state in another country. It can be about how I interact with other people, like the store clerk when I’m buying nail polish. It is about the day to day interactions, and how that shapes the way that people interact with each other in a society.”

In addition to the role of businesses, they noticed that every government department they visited had a banner in the front door stating that they were part of the peace process. These banners also listed the specific programs funded by that department and that related to the peace process in some way, which created shared commitment and meaning towards very tangible outcomes. To the students, it felt like the country was admitting to its challenges from the past while moving towards the future it wanted to create. Regardless of whether or not people liked all the details of the deal, they were ready to move forward in a harmonious way. To the group, this was a striking contrast to the current political landscape in the US, which is fundamentally driven by partisan antagonism.

In her program, Dr. Melin created an opportunity for students to do much more than learn more about a subject or see the application of some framework for conflict resolution in practice. It was a deep, meaningful immersion in the topic of conflict through firsthand interactions with people who have experienced it themselves. This allowed the students to challenge their own conventions and think about conflict resolution and their role as individuals in new ways.

The goal of trans:form:ed Bogotá 2019 is to create opportunities for learning, personal reflection, and the creation of insights and exploration of opportunities through peer-to-peer interactions in unique and deeply experiential settings.