Stories of the Unseen
a compilation of moments from Build Peace 2022 by Rita Costa Cots
What do you do when Build Peace is over? This was the first time that I attended a Build Peace conference in-person. When it was over, I found myself lost in between a head full of questions and the difficulty of answering them all by myself. We had been sharing a space for three days and I suddenly found myself alone in my inspiration, in my reflection. And then the team made a proposal: to put these reflections down in writing while collating some of the things that came up for us during the conference.
This blogpost is our attempt to continue the reflection, to continue thinking together. It’s a space where we attempt to see Build Peace not only as an event but as a continuum. In looking at what we learned in our exploration of the unseen, we can think ahead to where we go from here, building on what inspired us and made us want to find new ways of doing things. This post is a compilation of our stories, a compilation of moments where the three sub-themes of Build Peace 2022 made us learn, inspired us or pushed us forward.
Living at a turning point
One of the conference’s sub-themes was turning points. We wanted to question and explore how we as individuals and society process profound social, economic or technological shifts. We wanted to investigate how we respond to transitions, and what happens either before, during or after them. Similarly, we wanted to highlight the fact that always, after a turning point, there are narratives that remain invisible, unseen, and we wanted to find ways to bring them to the surface.
During the opening remarks, Helena presented us with the notion that we might be living at a turning point today. They said that there is a lot that still remains visible about how digital spaces shape and influence us today, either in ourselves, or between each other in our relationships. In that sense, does it mean that now it is the time to hope, the time to ask, the time to be creative? Is it perhaps during the moments of transition itself that we have potential to re-imagine change? I wonder if in this way Build Peace 2022 acted then as either the beginning or the “during” of a turning point, a space where we reimagined, where we tried to shift, where we created, unlearned and re-created what it means to build peace together.
In the keynote conversation between Götz Lehman and Ellada Evangelou on turning points, they said “it’s more about the moment, because the moment is fascinating”. This made me think about what we mean by “the moment”, about what we refer to when we say a “turning point”. It got me wondering if an event needs to have a certain length and magnitude to be considered a turning point as well as how do we decide when to divide them into before / during / after phases. Can we? Let’s say that we can, that there are some events that fundamentally transform, that have a clear before and after. Let’s say we find ourselves in a moment like those today, driven by an intersectional socio-economic technological shift.
Turning towards peace
As we become aware of the fact that we inhabit a turning point, we are also faced with the need to decide how to move forward. I believe we have power collectively. Build Peace was a space to begin to orchestrate this action; how do we move forward together? During the keynote we asked ourselves how future generations will look like socially and questioned the ways in which we hold and respond to things in community with other people. Götz and Ellada tried to answer what is needed, aside from large political turning points to bring change and social transformation forward. This question, articulated by Anooj, stays in our minds: what are our methods to build social movements in face of / next to these larger turning points?
Perhaps this is tied to another more overarching question: What does it mean to build peace? It is important from time to time to stop and think about how we do peacebuilding, about the possibilities that exist to do it differently, about what it means to “have” peace, at the same time that we think about what it means to “fight” a turning point. Could we learn to move with them instead? Friction and flow are both important: how do we dance with change?
Finally, thinking about the conference as a turning point of sorts brings up the question of how do we hold each other to make sure that we continue exploring the unseen. Perhaps by doing things like this, by continuing to share, reflect and move together.
What happens when you see supremacy and polarization up close?
On the second day of the conference, one of us attended a workshop where someone asked: “is polarization in itself really that bad”? The workshop was a panel discussion on polarization. One of the workshop organizers answered that polarization in itself is almost unavoidable, but that toxic polarization is not. Toxic polarization would be the inability to interact with the other pole, with the usage of any form of violence towards them, with the creation of a simple and singular “other”.
Having Build Peace 2022 in Chemnitz allowed us to see and examine these tensions closely. Tensions induced and / or stemming from supremacy and polarization are everywhere. Supremacy is structural, oppression is too. But in Chemnitz, the crack is perceived differently, it is more visible. During the conference, other voices of Chemnitz that are often not as loud as those we hear in the media, talked. They questioned, they asked. We learned from them. Meghan, who was at one of the workshops with the focus on white supremacy in Chemnitz said that a lot of questions emerged about when to speak. When do we defend / when do we resist / when do we fight? In a polarized society it tends to be hard to know when to act, when to break the silence, when to depolarize or engage in creating gray areas to de-dichotomize binaries, to not be complicit and join in solidarity. And yet, just as importantly is the question about how; how do we go about all this / how do we build momentum and a community of care? When we were talking about this, I thought that these questions are not to be asked solely in a classroom marked as interesting by a few, but that these questions need to break out; that they are questions for the everyday.
Within this sub-theme there is a collaboration that went through unseen, as it did not happen in the conference’s main venue, but in the grounds of the Montessori school in Chemnitz. This was the drone beginner workshop co-organized by the school and the Flying Labs network. In this workshop, children and Build Peace participants learned about remote piloting skills by the hand of representatives from Flying Labs coming from Bolivia, Cameroon, Uganda and Spain. This was quite a unique interaction, as it united people beyond national/cultural/generational boundaries, leaving behind not only theoretical and practical learnings around drone usage but also on exposure, communication and diversity.
The second sub-theme of the conference aimed to examine the unseen dynamics of supremacy and how they impact the way humans are able to connect within and between societal groups. Perhaps we were left with questions as answers to questions, but I believe that that in itself is also moving forward in a process of creation and re-imagining, unlearning and therefore more in-depth understanding.
More than a conference, a space to connect
Our description of the third conference sub-theme began with the question: “Where do we come together as individuals to shape a peaceful society — where we do not just meet each other, but build lasting trust and responsibility towards one another?” Reading through this after the conference I found myself answering: “Build Peace!”. When recollecting moments, and as I am sorting them now together to write this post, I realize that most of us are sharing moments where we felt connected, where we feel like we were meaningfully connecting either to a question, to a topic, to a struggle, to a person, or when we witnessed a moment like that.
Build Peace acted both as a container of connecting spaces, hosting a multiplicity of them at the same time, and as a connecting space in itself. We will now illustrate some tales of connection.
Let me tell you about Reem and Lizzie, and the connecting oasis of art they created together. Approaching their table installation during the conference was for me a moment some would call “disconnecting”, but to me was a moment of full reconnection with the purpose of what it means to build peace and social transformation. Reem was a Build Up Peace Innovation fellow in 2017, whom we put in touch with Lizzie Wilson at Peace Village. Since then, they have been collaborating, reflecting and organizing things together. And I would go beyond to say that they have become friends. They even created a video (see below) of the Build Peace 2022 bottle traveling from Chemnitz to Damascus, illustrating their friendship and journey together. Before I knew about their story I thought they had been working together for longer. I was so grateful to know that those kinds of connections happened before / during / after Build Peace.
Claudia brought forward another tale of connection; that of Ellada from Cyprus and Peter from Chemnitz. Despite the fact that they could not speak any of the languages of the other, they organized a Chemnitz city walk together to show participants around the physical and spatial history of the place. And all that exchange was possible not only thanks to the beautiful google exchange from German to Greek but also the willingness “to do”, the willingness to cooperate and collaborate with each other.
Moreover, one of us said that yes, Build Peace is a connecting space but also a re-connecting one. Build Peace allows connections to be built amongst participants over time, creating a community that extends beyond the three short days when we are all physically together. The conference becomes a space to see friends you had not seen in a long time, to reconnect with your practice, with the meaning for what we do.
The idea of Build Peace being a community and a space of re-connection is also visible in the story of Quratulain Fatima, the founder of Women for PeaceTech and Build Peace fellow, which we briefly mentioned in this Twitter thread, and you can see the original project we supported here.
Similarly, Build Peace brought people together that otherwise would not have met in person. Krystel told me the friendship story between Data Value People, our partners in co-creating Phoenix, and K24, one of our local partners in Kurdistan that collaborated together on a project related to Digital MAPS, but only met physically in Chemnitz. This makes me think about how Build Peace is a space where individuals from around the world are weaved together in communities of support.
Another example of how Build Peace is a space where new collaborations can emerge is the workshop that the Saxon Justice Ministry held alongside the one that was already planned for the conference. The planned workshop was to get an international perspective on public commemoration and memorial work, specially around victims of right-wing extremism terror and crime, in order to learn approaches and formats for the documentation center that the State of Saxony is developing in the National Social Underground complex. Different people talked about examples of public commemoration in their countries, and the local and international perspectives learned from each other. Afterwards, to follow up and deepen the conversation, the Ministry held a closed door workshop around the same topic with actors from civil society, members of academia and officials from different cities and states where the NSU is active.
This last example shows how Build Peace is a space to connect, at the same time, with the international and the local. This example is particularly interesting because it illustrates how Build Peace connected to the territory that held it, and how it made a small contribution to the already existing process of social transformation in Chemnitz and its region.
Hold each other in the unseen
Build Peace gives you the chance to stop, to somehow slow down. By providing the time and space it allows us to stop what we are doing and try to do otherwise, to rethink, reimagine, re-create and re-connect. When reflecting about this year’s Build Peace edition, and what it means to build peace, Anooj said “and here’s the thing about this kind of labor… you can’t really learn it from books, or theories, or methodologies of emerging technologies… you learn it from being asked to sit in community with each other, and to be responsible for each other.” I believe that because Build Peace was a connecting space where we sat together, held each other and cared for each other, we were able to share and learn. And how much we learned in just three days!
And we not only learned, but we danced, and we sang. I have always loved the way that music and dance can connect individuals and communities. In this conference, singing created unexpected connections. On the first evening of the conference we traveled to Thalheim, a town situated in a mining area in the periphery of Chemnitz, to be welcomed by the town’s brass band and choir. Amongst the Build Peace participants, there was Sadraki, a man who developed a GPS-based system to mitigate conflict between artisanal miners and mining companies in Burkina Faso. That evening, two very different contexts were brought together across continental, cultural and language barriers through the singing of a traditional German miners song.
It is hard to find an end to writing this, as there are so many stories, moments and takeaways we would like to share. In this blogpost I tried to encapsulate some of them in order to surface the unseen reflections that are going through the minds of the team, and especially mine — a first timer to the Build Peace experience. But more of us have reflected on this year’s conference too! For example, Prince from the The Tattaaunawa Roundtable Initiative and the participants from Humanity United. Take a look at their narratives and reflect and share yours with us too. Let’s keep this connection vibrating, let us move in these transitions together and let us never stop questioning, reflecting and exploring the Unseen. Thank you.