Interfaith Conflict Resolution. Member Spotlight: Geoffrey White

Geoffrey White is an Australian mediator who has many years of experience practicing peacebuilding around the world, and in his local community. Since he was a child, Geoffrey has been fascinated by non-violence and conflict resolution. After pursuing many different jobs, volunteering in multiple countries throughout the Middle East, Africa, and the Subcontinent, and teaching about these issues for a decade at the University of Queensland, Geoffrey started his own business, Andante Mediation. Geoffrey’s passion and highly-detailed knowledge of inter-faith mediation, as well as mediation for disabled people, has allowed him to have an invaluable and unique impact on those he works with. Today, Geoffrey continues consulting with Andante mediation, and likely planning for his next trip abroad, where he will continue to spread positivity and love everywhere he goes.

From New South Wales to Northern Ireland

Growing up in a small town in New South Wales, Australia, Geoffrey White had two deep passions: music, and what he now recognizes as conflict resolution, non-violence, and mediation. When he was very little, Geoffrey’s parents took him to see the Gandhi movie and Geoffrey absolutely fell in love with Gandhi and his story. He got his hands on any Gandhi books he could at the local library, and was quickly asking for far more than the library even had, let alone when he started asking about Mandela, Biko and other famous peacebuilders.

Geoffrey’s experience with religion also shaped him growing up. He was raised Christian, but by very open-minded parents who were always talking to him about the similarities between what he was learning in church, and teachings of other religions. He angled himself towards a study of religion in high-school, and remained deeply interested in issues such as South Africa and prominent peacebuilding figures. His passion only grew over the years, and throughout high school he saved money for a one-way ticket to truly go see the issues he was studying. The first such place he went to was Northern Ireland, where he began to talk to people and get an understanding of what was really going on. One of the things that struck him most was that causal relationships between animosity, violence, and the distinctions of socio-religious groupings were far more nuanced and less simply overt than is often assumed or portrayed. Northern Ireland was commonly understood as a ‘religious conflict’. However, no Catholic/Protestant would say that they were fighting because of, for example, the emphasis on Mary (or lack thereof) etc. Rather, they would explain that they were fighting because their family member had been killed, or their livelihood destroyed, or some other real-and/or-perceived injustice perpetrated, etc. Geoffrey’s experience showed him the messy, complicated, human side of conflict, and deepened his passion for inter-faith understanding.

Becoming an Expert on Inter-Faith Conflict Resolution

His experiences abroad spurred Geoffrey to continue diving deeply into the study of inter-faith issues, and to constantly think about whether there could be better ways to address and solve issues. Geoffrey came to realize that once a conflict can be distilled into an “inter-cultural” or an “inter-religious” situation, observers often feel licensed to ignore all other layers of the conflict.

“As soon as observers says that a conflict is inter-cultural or inter-religious, that’s how it’s dealt with… and all of the complex human nuances are pushed aside.”

 After Northern Ireland, Geoffrey traveled to Eastern Europe, during-and-following the socio-political upheavals of the early 1990s, where he felt both devastated and

blessed to again see that conflicts are so much more multi-faceted than what is presumed or portrayed. The overwhelming feelings and acts of vengeance and rage that he witnessed were so staggering to him that he was further reaffirmed in his path both to seek nuance and humanity in conflict, and to think deeply about ways to address and prevent it. When Geoffrey got back to Australia after his travels, he decided to become a Buddhist monk and to live at a monastery. Here, the inter-religious fascination was able to grow, deepen, and develop in a way that was more profound than Geoffrey had ever expected. At that time in his life, he was very angry with Christianity, and resentful for all the harm he perceived it to have caused in the world. He was enamored by Buddhism, and was so intrigued in his new life at the monastery. However, in a fascinating twist of fate, Geoffrey came across a Buddhist monk at the monastery that was as enraged by Buddhism as much as Geoffrey was with Christianity, and was as infatuated with Christianity as Geoffrey was in Buddhism. From all of his conversations with this monk, Geoffrey realized that he had been over-simplistically reductive in his perceptions of both Buddhism and Christianity. This realization sent him on the path of looking for both the darkness and the light in each different religion and philosophy.

Geoffrey went on to do a wide array of different jobs, continued to seek out any book or article on different religions that he could get his hands on. After hitting a difficult period in his life, Geoffrey was pulled through it by the realization that many of the works that he was reading were coming out of the same place: two departments at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. He went to the University as a fan to seek out these authors and thinkers, and really hear from them. It was here that he learned he really could study these issues, and soon after, he received a Bachelor of Arts in Peace and Conflict with Inter-Religious studies, and subsequently his Masters and other postgraduate qualifications.

Andante Mediation

During his studies, Geoffrey had also decided to study Arabic as a second language. Because of his very specific expertise, he was called to work in the Middle East as the upheavals and conflicts known as the ‘Arab Spring’ (though Geoffrey is uncomfortable with that term) were breaking out; initially in the then-fledgling Syrian camps in Jordan. That led to his profound connection with some small grassroots organizations in the Middle East and North Africa. Back in Australia, Geoffrey was hired at the University of Queensland in teaching and student support work, and he used the free summers to go back to the Middle East, North Africa and the Subcontinent and continue supporting organizations there as a volunteer.

Since then, he started his own business, Andante Mediation, and decided to leave the teaching world. At Andante Mediation, he offers services that specialize in inter-cultural and inter-faith mediation, as well as mediation for people with disabilities. Clients initially came directly from the University where he had taught, where people were by now very familiar with his skills and deep knowledge in the field. However, he began getting called in to work on “secondary-mediation”, in which he would advise mediators on their active cases to help them understand the nuances and complexities of underlying religious or cultural issues.

“Inter-faith mediation is like translating… I provide the knowledge of what the Quran says about this, or why that Bible quote means so much to someone, etc…”

However, after COVID, he was no longer able to do his first-hand work internationally, and clients could no longer afford to have a secondary mediator advising them. So, Geoffrey stumbled upon a completely novel form of mediation, that has proved to be both niche and revolutionary. Geoffrey met the mother of a woman with profound disabilities (although Geoffrey prefers the term ‘diverse-abilities’), who is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve her daughter’s life. Unknowingly creating a whole new subsection of mediation, this woman looked over Geoffrey’s resume and skillset, and asked Geoffrey to try using some of his mediation abilities to help her daughter, Kara. The mother had realized that there is a fundamental gap in understanding between the world, and those with ability challenges, and ever since Geoffrey sat with Kara for the first time, this work has bloomed into a four-year relationship and the conceptualization of “inter-normative” mediation. Geoffrey started to receive calls for many other disability-sector clients, but instead of just waiting for moments of crisis, he found a way to mediate for them by learning the way that they function and view the world, and translating between those around them.

Volunteer Work and Post-Genocide Peacemaking

Aside from Andante Mediation, Geoffrey is an active MBBI member. After attending the MBBI Peace Congress in Nairobi, Geoffrey set out to do volunteer work in both Kenya and Rwanda. In Kenya, Geoffrey worked with a grassroots organization that goes into the slums of Nairobi to take food and support to young people and to engage with their support networks. He also has a long-standing relationship with a certain order of nuns, and in Nairobi he worked with them in a residential disability care center. In Rwanda, he worked for the same sisters to care for impoverished and disabled women and their children. On top of this, he was able to work with an organization, and group of people, who he had long considered personal heroes.

“It was an enormous joy. If you take how wonderful I hoped my Africa trip would be and times it by about, a million, that’s how it was.”

At the Peace Congress in Nairobi, one of the courses he was able to take was in Trauma Aware Peacebuilding, and in Rwanda he very much found relevance in the course. He worked with a highly respected local non-profit called the Gisimba Memorial Center, which used to be an orphanage. During the Rwandan genocide Gisimba was responsible for saving the lives of many hundreds of Rwandans by hiding them under the floorboards and in the ceilings. It became famous for the bravery and selflessness of the staff. After the genocide Gisimba transitioned into trauma work and supporting the next generation of Rwandans out of the conflict. Geoffrey was thrilled and honored by the opportunity to volunteer with them in any capacity. His job was to work alongside their awesome case workers with children and families, including helping them to spot and bring meditative skills to dealing with repressed trauma. This is highly important, for as Geoffrey notes, though there is no longer any hot-conflict or even visible tension between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the genocide was only 30 years ago. Therefore, anyone over 30 experienced the extreme trauma of the genocide, and anyone younger is vulnerable to the trauma second-hand. Despite how challenging and emotional it was, Geoffrey could not have imagined a more enriching experience. He was fascinated by the fact that despite the recency and wide-reaching horror of the genocide, the same two tribes seem to coexist in Rwanda largely in peace. He notes that the details and reasons for this are complex, not utopian, yet he believes that something incredible is happening in Rwandan society for this to be possible, and organizations like Gisimba surely play a key role in it.

“It is such a wonderful gift to oneself to be able to work with organizations like these. It’s an extraordinary blessing.”

Filling a Critical Gap in Peacebuilding

From his broad experience volunteering abroad, speaking with people in active and inter-generational conflicts, and studying conflict resolution extensively, Geoffrey believes that the peacebuilding field today can still find a critical way to improve. Geoffrey notes that in the established conflict resolution world, religion is something that people are often either deep within, or cynically critical of. While there will always be a political expert, an economics expert, or advisors for each of the religious groups in the room, there is virtually never outside religious experts in conflict resolution processes. Geoffrey sees the fact that almost nobody knows what to do with religion as a massive gap in the peacebuilding world.

“Even the best conflict resolution worker, who does all they can to not let their biases affect their work, is often at best coming in without having a clue about the intricacies of each person’s belief systems.”

For the field to move forward, Geoffrey believes that it is key for inter-religious expertise be taken more seriously in all conflict resolution processes. He believes that there needs to be far more organizational space and engagement with inter-cultural experts, and more trainings on the matter done by “etic” experts, or those who look at religions or cultures from the outside. Geoffrey also has always spent many years thinking about the power of Love, and has a great belief that it should be taken out of the “hippie” context, and viewed as a true mode to create empathy, understanding, and caring between people. When people act out of Love, they are able to find unity and pursue interventions to conflict that are driven by compassion. Today, Geoffrey believes that we have the infrastructure and level of interconnectedness in the world for non-violent resistance to any conflict, if wide-spread enough, to be a more powerful weapon than any military. Each action based on love has the ability to change the dynamic around it, and slowly but steadily change the conflict response entirely. 

Though Geoffrey often refers to his areas of specialty as a “quirky niche”, it’s clear that for his clients in both inter-faith and inter-normative mediation, he has been able to fundamentally change the way that they interact with the world. The refined details and specialized knowledge that he has spent his life studying make him incredibly important to those he works with, but also challenge the field of peacebuilding to expand and fill overlooked gaps. Geoffrey seeks to spread love, understanding, empathy, and kindness wherever he goes, and whether it’s volunteering in Rwanda, inspiring students at a University, or mediating for disabled people, he has been able to make a unique and profoundly valuable contribution to the world of peacebuilding.

Article by Elise Webster, MBBI Writer