Elahe Amani (EA), Director of IT- Student Technology Services at California State University, Fullerton, was interviewed by Emma Bohman-Bryant (EBB), MBBI Writer, on 25 August 2017. Responses have been edited for brevity.
EBB: How did you first get involved in peacebuilding?
EA: I was born and raised in a family of educators in Iran who encouraged me to always question inequality and injustice. I was engaged in the social justice movement at Tehran University, the hub of student activism, and continued to be involved when I moved to the US to pursue further education.
However, it was after the revolution in Iran – when the rights held by women were taken away and women were pushed from the public to the private sphere – that I became more conscious of gender relations, the division of labour and the public/private dichotomy. This led me from my days of student activism to a lifelong interest in gender issues. Visiting Iran during the heat of revolution also embedded my interest in peacemaking. I saw that the different opposition groups were in such an unhealthy relationship with one-another and began to consider why dialogue does not resolve conflict and why these unhealthy relationships sometimes lead to violence. I began to ask how we could reach a stage in social and political transformation that would allow us to reach our goals through non-violence, civility and dialogue.
EBB: When did you originally become involved with MBBI and what drew you to the organization?
EA: After I returned from Iran to the US, I began working at California State University at Long Beach. Through this, I completed a certificate program at CSU Fullerton— where I currently work on managing a multi-cultural workforce. One segment of this course was on conflict resolution, and I engaged in a role-playing exercise where I took on the role of mediator. Afterwards, an individual who was in the group called and asked if I was a trained mediator. Though I knew of the concept of mediation, I did not know that one could go through training. In retrospect, I realized that I was exposed to mediation from an early age, without realizing it. Growing up, many of the conflicts in the community – ranging from relationship troubles to money issues – would come to our home and my father would act as an informal mediator. As a curious individual from an early age, I would watch and learn from this, giving me my first exposure to informal mediation.
Inspired by this experience, I completed my mediation training at Pepperdine University, and joined the LA Mediation Association. After, I was always eager to participate in further seminars and attended a one-day course on mediation in the arts and entertainment industry. Dorit Cypis, one of the original founders of MBBI, was leading the seminar and she subsequently invited me to a meeting of the LA chapter of MBBI.
EBB: You recently served as moderator on a panel on immigration and community dialogue in LA, how does this issue fit within your other peacebuilding work?
EA: On many issues, including social, racial, and immigration issues, the United States is currently very divided. One of the ways that I believe in counteracting this is for civil society actors to come together and engage in dialogue. An understanding of both sides of the issue and some empathizing is necessary to facilitate resolution.
The MBBI-LA project was originally focused on Syrian refugees in Orange County and how to resolve community friction and encourage the acceptance of refugees. However, in the process of developing the project, we realized that this related to a broader immigration issue for many immigrant communities within the Greater Los Angeles region.
I enjoyed participating in the project immensely and believe that it went a long way to show that an international organization such as MBBI can overcome the local/global dichotomy and bring value to local communities.
EBB: How has your interest in gender issues aligned with your involvement in peacebuilding?
EA: I have strived to bring these two interests, peacebuilding and gender issues, together. I attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, which brought 40,000 people together, where I gave a talk on the conciliation of women’s human rights and Islam. Subsequently, my interests became more targeted, with a strong interest in women in Iranian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrant communities in Southern California.
I became co-chair of the Coalition of Women from Asia and the Middle East (CWAME), which did a lot of work on domestic violence in the immigrant communities. I also became connected to the Women Intercultural Network, established in 1994, and was a board member and chairwoman for two terms. In my position in the Women’s Intercultural Network, we developed the idea that bridges needed to be built with women in other parts of the world. This has been referred to as the ‘circle’ and there are currently connections with women from Afghanistan, Japan, Uganda and Iran.
Bringing these two interests together has been a continuous lifetime effort.
EBB: What other projects are you involved with MBBI?
EA: On the local level, at MBBI-LA, there are currently conversations on future collaborations with Rotary International (RI). RI is interested in the international work of MBBI, but there are also opportunities on a local level. I recently participated in an amazing project of the Institute of Nonviolence in Los Angeles and Days of Dialogue, that many MBBI members participated in, facilitating community dialogue on the future of policing. This was a dialogue between law enforcement and local communities, particularly African American communities, between which a lot of tension existed. This is the type of project where you are involved on the ground with real people, facilitating empathy between both sides. In my view, while structural changes are needed to resolve some societal issues, creating a safe environment for dialogue is a step forward to resolving conflicts in a civil manner.
Additionally, I am looking forward to attending the Peace Table at MBBI’s 10th anniversary celebration at the Peace Palace.
EBB: How has your involvement with MBBI contributed to your work as a peacebuilder?
EA: MBBI has contributed significantly to my work as a peacebuilder. It presents an opportunity to be involved in an organization with a strong collective voice—which is something that I truly believe in. It is important on both the global and local level. In addition, involvement with MBBI provides a forum in which to interact with other individuals in the field—promoting dialogue between trained mediators and others working towards a more peace-able world. For example, after the US elections, a group of members came together to explore the role MBBI can possibly play in reconciliatory dialogue.
EBB: What has been the most meaningful experience you have had in your work as a peacebuilder?
EA: Internationally, the most meaningful experience I have had was through my involvement with an MBBI Internationa Training Institute in Turkey—which was the first time that MBBI brought a group of women leaders from the MENA region together. There were women from Palestine and Israel, as well as Turkey and Armenia, sitting across the table from each other—seeing the potential of these women from conflict zones to engage in dialogue was inspiring. A woman from Armenia, when asked what she left behind to come to the conference, responded that she left behind a community that did not understand why she was coming to Turkey. She, and the woman from Turkey, continued to build projects and work together after the conference. It was an experience in my life of activism that I will never forget, and that keeps me moving forward.
EBB: Peacebuilding inherently addresses difficult questions, what has been your most difficult experience and how did you overcome this?
EA: One of my most difficult experiences working with MBBI was having to select only 25 women to be involved in the training program in Turkey from a pool of hundreds of highly qualified applicants. I wish we had the resources to bring many more women, but projects such as these require funding, which is not always easy to come by. However, I think Prabha Sankaranarayan, the current president and CEO of MBBI, is a visionary leader with an excellent team and is doing the best work possible in this regard.
EBB: What kind of institutional difficulties can one face in peace building and how can they be overcome?
EA: Peacebuilding is a multi-layer, multi track effort and difficulties are found on every level. On one hand you have structural barriers and a lack of institutional effectiveness, from the local to global level. On the other hand, there is a lack of awareness and education on the grassroots level about the capacity of the collective power and voice of civil society organizations to hold governments accountable. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security (UNSCR 1325) in a prime example that of these challenges.
UNSCR 1325 was signed on 31 October 2000. This Resolution urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. Yet women have a long way to go to be represented at the peace tables! UN Security Resolution 1325 is a wonderful tool, however its implementation has lagged. This is partly due to institutional barriers, but also due to the fact that local, grassroots projects are not aware of the ways in which it can be utilized. Educating the grassroots and empowering them to understand the tools available to hold their governments accountable is a necessary precondition for effective usage of such tools.
MBBI has consultative status with the United Nations (UN) and we have been playing a greater role at UN meetings. However, there are times that I wish the UN had more enforcement power. Additionally, there are times that I wish the politics of big power would be less involved in UN politics, however this is unfortunately just the reality and we have no better alternative with which to replace the UN.
EBB: What characteristics do you view as important for success in peacebuilding?
EA: I think peacebuilding is a very complex process. We need to believe that we can be an agent of change and develop skills to be successful in peacebuilding. At the moment, in the US, there are many younger people who are not as engaged in the movement as previous generations, as they have had different experiences. However, as history has shown, when there is injustice, conflict and atrocities, there will be resistance. Younger people should be inspired and believe in their power as citizens that their collective power can make change possible.
Unless you hold policymakers accountable, they are free to do as they please, which is why it is so important to build movements through a collective voice and engage on the grassroots level. If individual and communal rights to peace, safety and security and are taken for granted, when those rights are being taken away, there will not be a resistance. Therefore, the key is awareness and engagement in movement building for peace acknowledgement and understanding of the lesson learned by those before us and finally as Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
EBB: Has the perception and reception of peacebuilding changed over the years, especially given the changing sentiment in much of the political sphere? What do you see for the future of peacebuilding?
EA: We are going through a very difficult time, particularly in the US. Many young people are disappointed—even with all of the efforts on working towards peace. However, I tend to ask what would happen if there were no efforts towards peacebuilding at all.
There is no choice but persistence and resistance. More than ever it is important to engage from the bottom up, promoting dialogue on local as well as global levels. People on the ground have the obligation to do everything within their power to bring communities together and not dehumanize people on the other side of an argument or conflict.
For this, education is a hugely important factor. I believe that dialogue is undermined by a lack of information. Now is a prime time to build a culture of peace and a culture of dialogue. I hope that in the future, MBBI can do more to bring the two sides of the dialogue on a whole host of issues together at local level.
EBB: Who do you think should join MBBI and why?
EA: I think people who are interested, whether at a global or local level, in: peacebuilding and dialogue, bolstering civil society, learning the tools for resolving conflicts, or those want to be an agent for change, should join MBBI.
I think that mediation and conflict resolution are life skills that should be taught from an early age and throughout all levels of education. MBBI offers an opportunity to develop these skills for people from all walks of life.