How to sustain a democracy: An interview with Prabha Sankaranarayan

Prabha Sankaranarayan, a conflict resolution practitioner.

Prabha Sankaranarayan,
a conflict resolution practitioner.

Photo courtesy of
Mediators Beyond Borders International.

Prabha Sankaranarayan is president and CEO of Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI), which partners with more than 130 organizations around the world to facilitate an end to violent conflicts and help people develop the skills to peacefully navigate difference.

Sankaranarayan spoke to the Urban Institute about building functional national communities from the ground up, why the United States needs a Department of Peace, and the debate over the preemptive use of political violence.

“Conflict is not the problem. It’s how we resolve it that matters.”

Prabha Sankaranarayan

Could you describe what a mediation process looks like?

I live in Pittsburgh. About 10 years ago, there was an influx of the Somali Bantu population. Most of them came from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Our refugee and immigration policies that were welcoming to refugees from all over the world brought about 200 families to this part of Pittsburgh, which is great, except when you drop 200 to 300 people in the middle of an established community with its own norms and practices without any preparation or consideration of what it will take for those communities to safely integrate, it can create problems. The families experienced challenges. Among other things, children were verbally attacked and beaten up at bus stops, and there were problems in the schools. People in the community said things like, “You look different. You smell different. Go back where you came from.”

The schools that tried to address these issues called me and asked for help. So we started what ended up being called the “Third Side Project” and worked with a variety of groups, including the leaders of the Somali Bantu community, a local mediation center and its volunteers, a University of Pittsburgh volunteer group that was very engaged in mentoring the children in the homes of families, the police, the municipality, the business community, and refugee resettlement organizations. Over 18 months, we had meetings with the various groups and community members in every ward and district. Together, we created a safe space to increase positive interactions and cross-cultural learning, and, in the process, decrease tension.

MBBI has the word “international” in its title but focuses most of its work on local communities? Why is that?

More than 10 years ago, there was this idea a small group of people had that the world would be a better place if, instead of dropping bombs into conflict zones, we had people working at preventing, resolving, and transforming conflicts.

When the founders started MBBI, the world was making a shift from a powerful-nations model of peacebuilding to a people-centered model. It was largely governments represented by their respective heads of state that addressed major conflicts through peace processes, treaties, and agreements. But over the past 30 years, space for civil society has grown. That’s incredibly important, because in that time, research on peace processes has shown that when people at the ground level are engaged, those processes are much more effective. Peacebuilding is not about somebody flying in from some other country to say, “Here’s what you all need to do to end your violence,” but rather ensuring that the people impacted by violent conflict are at the center of the peacebuilding process.

Most of us grow up with the idea that conflict is bad. In fact, it gets referred to in the same way as violence. But as conflict resolution practitioners, we believe that conflict is not the problem. Conflicts can be transformative. It’s how we resolve them that matters.

You’re describing very intimate and personal interactions. Do you have to have warmer personal relationships to reach a lasting resolution? Do the parties in conflict have to become friends?

The commercial mediators of the world will tell you that you don’t, that you just need to reach an agreement. The experience of peacebuilders is that we cannot prevent violence if we cannot prevent people from dehumanizing each other.

If I see any element of my own identity in the other person, it’s much harder to dehumanize them. The peace process is really about connecting. The literature on resilience in communities tells us that connected communities are safer communities. If you do an ecomap of a community, when there are more lines between the social institutions—the justice system, the faith-based organizations, civil society, the educational system—the more connected lines you have between them, the stronger the connective tissue in that community and the lower the crime rate. So for me, it is about connecting people and communities to decrease violence and increase the capacity to thrive.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Democracy is one of the biggest challenges of our times. I don’t think it comes naturally.

You don’t think democracy comes naturally?

I think it takes a lot of deliberate work. In many ways, many countries have undermined what it takes to sustain democracy.

We have enjoyed what we have seen in well-functioning democracies. But what we’ve seen globally is when there is insecurity—this is what’s happened in the last three or four years—there is a decline in trust in democracy. People seem to be willing to give up the underpinnings of democracy for security and economic betterment. Yet what we know is all of those things can disappear if the underpinnings of democracy, like freedom of speech, the idea of a humane and just society, and the public square, disappear.

What I would love to see is a well-funded Department of Peace. We have departments of defense. Why don’t we have departments of peace that study and implement what we have learned about building community cohesion and sustainable societies?

In the last 40 years, we’ve learned far more about how to wage peace. It’s not simple, but we know far more about how to do that than we ever did in the history of mankind. You can find thousands of books on war. It’s only in the last 30 or so years that you can find books, research, and scholarly articles on peacebuilding.

Some people on the left argue that the threat posed by white supremacist groups on the far right justifies preemptive use of force. There’s a debate over why people should or shouldn’t “punch a Nazi.” How would you respond to that?

I wonder if some of the people advocating punching Nazis might be the same people who say you should not bring people whose ideas we disagree with onto our college campuses. It doesn’t solve anything.

I’ll give you the example of my local ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] leader. About 20 years ago, we learned that the Ku Klux Klan wanted a permit for a rally in Pittsburgh. There were people who said, “No, they shouldn’t be given the permit. That’s nonsense, we can’t allow them here.” Vic Walczak, who was executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and a man who clearly understood the importance of the First Amendment, had a different perspective. His parents grew up in Poland, and through his travels there, he saw the impact of their political history and was deeply moved. His concern was, if we shut down the Klan today, who will be shut down tomorrow? The Klan got their permit. But Walczak said, “Okay. That’s not the end of it. We don’t shut down dissidents. What we do is come out in greater numbers on the other side.” The Klan ended up with about 200 people, and about 2,000 people showed up to clearly communicate the message that “we don’t believe in what you do.”

I truly believe that there are more people on the side of peace, so for me, it’s about using everything we can to build that group of people. Critical thinking and dialogue are important tools in a democracy. How do you get people engaged, is the question. How do we communicate the immediacy, the urgency of everyone needing to speak up? Speak up by exercising their right to vote and ensuring voting rights are not limited; speak up by participating in community dialogues about the important issues that affect all of us and our values as a community. Silence is complicit. By their silence, half the people in this country are complicit. You cannot support a democracy if half the people in a country stay silent or if their voices are suppressed.