A reflection following the Build Peace conference in Chemnitz
Build Peace 2022 took place in Chemnitz, a city in Eastern Germany marked by a recent history of racial violence, a longer history of collective trauma from political and economic neglect after the fall of the Berlin Wall — and a broad variety of activists addressing both. This blogpost by the Build Peace organizing team is an invitation into a conversation about the (seen and unseen) risks of showing up in Chemnitz and of engaging in peacebuilding in Europe, and how those risks impact people differently.
Navigating risk in Chemnitz became a topic of conversation and concern for many at the conference, beyond the explicit themes of turning points, supremacy & polarization, and connecting spaces that we had set out to explore. (If you want to read about the inspiring offers from the Build Peace community for each of these themes, you can read this blogpost.)
Build Peace intentionally takes place in spaces of conflict to connect with, inspire and be inspired by local efforts to transform societal tensions. In 2015, the conference took place in Cyprus, inviting people from all parts of the island by holding it across the divides of the capital city, Nicosia. In 2017 we were in Bogotá to hold a conversation on how to make the recent peace agreement count for all citizens. In 2018 we traveled to Belfast, bringing international peacebuilders into a context that struggled with openly recognizing the frozen conflict. And in 2019, conference participants crossed the border between San Diego and Tijuana as a way to physically experience the borderlands which the conference theme explored as a space of both division and connection.
At that conference on borderlands, an activist from Chemnitz gave a short talk on overcoming social divides in Eastern Germany through festivalization and arts-based narrative transformation. That talk described the work of ASA-FF, who have over the past ten years shifted the public debate about the far-right terrorist group NSU from the perpetrators of the serial murders to the untold stories of survivors, and who work to address the institutional and societal drivers of supremacy. Their work, and their understanding of the need for transformation and peacebuilding work in a European context, inspired the collaboration to bring Build Peace to Chemnitz, and the conference was eventually co-organized by Build Up and ASA-FF.
As conference organizers, inviting the Build Peace community into a conflict context means that care and safety are as central as the substance of the discussions. That has been true of our organizing ethos since 2015, and makes us acutely aware of the risks that local peacebuilders take in hosting the event and the risks that participants coming into the context take in attending the event. In Chemnitz, these risks were more visible to more participants than in previous conferences, and have offered us an opportunity to reflect on what we already do, and what we need to do more of.
Access to the Walled World
As part of the Schengen area, Germany is already difficult to access for people of many nationalities — especially those where people of color hold the majority. We put a strong emphasis on accompanying people of color through the process of obtaining visas, for example by making sure invitations came from state institutions. There was much to celebrate about the diversity of participants at the conference, but not all the speakers received a visa. If a city in Europe is inviting peacebuilders, it is hard to understand why a written accusation that the invitation was falsified is the first response of Embassy staff — when the verification of the same documents was just a phone call away.
We are grateful to the city authorities of Chemnitz for challenging rejections with us. The recordings of the non-interactive sessions are available online here for those who were kept from joining Build Peace in person. The burden of discrimination and harassment through borders that people of color carried, however, did not stop at the visa process. Speakers with valid visas still had to produce additional documents on arrival, making the racism of the border system evident.
This experience also raises a more general question. One key takeaway from our Build Peace session about peacebuilding in Europe was the recognition that peacebuilders from places like Colombia, Iraq or Burundi with a rich history of conflict transformation have much to offer to those addressing societal tension in Europe. Yet, how can such deep learning on conflict transformation be enabled, if the barriers to in-person exchange are so high?
Safety in Contexts of Racial Violence for People of Color…
Inviting a diverse group of global peacebuilders into a White majority context with a history of racist violence required that we carefully develop a safety and care approach. In a series of pre-conference sessions, we invited speakers and participants to connect ahead of time to understand the context of Chemnitz and continue strengthening the Build Peace community. You can read Anooj’s reflections about that process in this blogpost. In addition, we relied on a broad local network to continuously understand how the presence of our diverse conference participants was received locally. Based on solid information that there was no danger of physical harm, our approach focused on safety through community and emotional wellbeing support, with location information provided by Chemnitz peacebuilders and resources available to support movement around the city.
For all the care and attention that went into these plans, we had blindspots. We paid particular attention to staying in communication with peacebuilders of color who were new to White majority spaces — knowing that they were likely to face racism for the first time along the way and in Chemnitz. In hindsight, we realize we should have paid as much attention to the effect the context had on the emotional wellbeing of people of color who were already used to White majority spaces, and others who might be read as not belonging to Chemnitz. We underestimated the burden that comes from carrying that personal history of violence into the Chemnitz context.
We cherish the resilience of peacebuilders, and understand that resilience requires agency — the choice to take an informed risk is not the same as confronting a risk based on general information about a place. A lesson for peacebuilding in Europe is that conflict dynamics might be as violent and complex as in other parts of the world, but that this is not the expectation of people from the outside. This means that dynamics need to be communicated clearly and early on to make them visible — especially when, as in the Chemnitz context, those invited into a space are part and parcel of how the local conflict dynamics materialize.
… and for Local Peacebuilders.
Following the backlash against racial violence in 2018, White supremacist actors in Chemnitz exercise some restraint towards people of color to avoid undermining their cause with public attention. Instead, their aggression has turned towards anti-racist, anti-fascist civil society actors. This most drastically manifests in physical intimidation attempts against those who stand against political agendas undermining social cohesion. During the conference, for example, hateful comments on social media were directed at Chemnitzers organizing the conference, not at conference participants. As anywhere else in the world, local peacebuilders thus tend to carry the brunt of the risk.
The co-organizers and many contributors and participants from Chemnitz knowingly took these risks to enable, exchange, learn from, and celebrate alongside the diverse Build Peace community. While the organizing team was aware of the risks they were taking and the emotional labor going into holding space for others, we did not communicate this effectively to other conference participants. The overwhelm of continuing to engage in this work in a precarious funding environment also meant that a lot of the conflict transformation work happening in Chemnitz remained invisible to Build Peace participants, which in turn reinforced the feeling of insecurity for some.
Build Peace 2022 is history, but the work continues. Locally, peacebuilders in Chemnitz are transforming the momentum of the conference into concrete ways to improve their city’s ability to hold safe spaces in a tense context. Their work and the unseen risks they take are an inspiration for the peacebuilding we know is needed in Europe. Globally, we invite you all to continue the dialogue with us about the seen and unseen risks of transforming conflict anywhere, and how we can continue to hold each other in this work.