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A Peacebuilder by Calling: An Interview with Jayne Docherty

Jayne is professor of conflict studies at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. She is author of Learning Lessons from Waco: When the Parties Bring Their Gods to the Negotiation Table and The Little Book of Strategic Negotiation: Negotiating During Turbulent Times and articles on negotiation and conflict transformation. She has worked with numerous partner organizations to help communities strengthen their capacity to harness the positive energy and minimize the negative consequences of conflict. She is particularly interested in the challenges facing communities and organizations experiencing sudden changes that demand rapid adaptation to new realities, such as a changing population, economic restructuring, changes in laws or regulations, or the losses associated with natural disasters or catastrophic events.


A Personal Career Path

Gini: Good morning, Jayne. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us. What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

Jayne: Like most people, I entered this field because of personal life experience. I was raised in an Air Force family, and my father went to Viet Nam in 1967 and returned home in 1968 only to discover that I was opposed to the war. Needless to say, my teen years were not quiet and peaceful. I was a passionate supporter of justice and a fervent opponent of many U.S. policies around the world. My justice work was always rooted in Catholic social teaching, and that forced me to consider issues of violence and nonviolence. It was easy to think that violence used in the cause of justice was acceptable, and it was tempting to make Che Guevara my hero. But my church’s teachings and my personal observation of the results of violent revolutions – i.e., they mostly just seemed to reverse the roles between oppressors and oppressed – led me to reconsider this assumption. Besides, I was just as frustrated with the anti-war movement as I was with the government. They unfairly demonized members of the military; they were more focused on ending one war than on ending war per se; and they didn’t sustain their efforts to build a more just and peaceful world.

Gini: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

Jayne: Yes, of course. This is a calling and my identity, not just a career. I am a teacher by passion and a peacebuilder by conviction, and therefore it is logical for me to be teaching in this field.

Gini: What is the best advice you have been given, and what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

Jayne: The best advice I was given had to do with finishing my dissertation – “Get it done. It is your hunting license, not your magnum opus.”

My Advice:

Most people in our line of work won’t be in “the field” of professional conflict resolution or conflict transformation at all. They will have other jobs and be in other professions where they mainstream our practices into their work, and this is a good thing. We want as many people as possible to know the basics of harnessing the positive energy of conflict and minimizing its negative consequences. Only then will we have created a culture of peace. And only then will people turn to professional peacebuilders and conflict transformation professionals when they find themselves in a situation where they can’t handle things. If we make this a rigidly defined profession rather than a set of skills accessible to everyone, then we will never change the cultural tendency for people in conflict to hire proxy fighters (lawyers, military personnel, hit men, etc.) to carry out their battles. When considering a career in this field, you should ask yourself whether you want to be one of the professionals working on conflict resolution full time or whether you want to have a different profession and do the work in that profession with conflict sensitivity. The latter path is probably more stable and less financially risky. The former path is for “conflict junkies” – folks who really groove on working in the trenches helping people with conflict every single day.

Conflict Resolution Heroes

Gini: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

Jayne: I actually have a problem with this whole hero thing. I think we do a very poor job of training conflict transformation professionals to see themselves as leaders, and part of the problem is that we set up heroes and make them seem like they are somehow “not like us” or they are “better than us.” There are individuals I admire in the field. Some of them are famous – Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter – but many of them are not. Most of them are my colleagues and friends who work at this on a daily basis; they are my students who go back to war torn countries and situations of terrible oppression and still carry on working for peace and nonviolence and justice.

The Biggest Questions

Gini: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

Jayne: Broad Questions:

Will we be able to get over this narrow thinking about how we are a profession or not a profession? Will we embrace the challenge of changing the larger culture? Can we stretch ourselves to encompass and address hard issues of human security and justice?

Questions specific to my area of the field:

How will we coordinate the work of multiple actors (from different levels of social organization and from different societal sectors) to learn to effectively manage sustained processes for building peace? There are lots and lots of sub-questions embedded in this question, and I won’t try to lay them all out here.

Can we survive (with our values, vision, and mission intact) the sudden influx of money from large donors who have suddenly recognized the need for peace-building without really understanding what it is?

When are we going to seriously tackle the economic driving forces behind violent conflict in the world today?

Gini: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

Jayne: There are many ethical issues and they vary depending on what part of the field you are working in, but I think many of them are tied to a central problem: How do we do our work in a manner that respects cultural diversity and empowers individuals and groups to find their own solutions to problems? The specific problems of that will appear one way in court ordered mediation in a culturally diverse community in the U.S. and another way when we are talking about stabilizing a war-torn country so that development and recovery are real options.

Thrills and Spills

Gini: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist?

Jayne: When it works. When I feel like my efforts have helped others find new ways of being in relationship and working toward justice and a non-violent future. Teaching – it is a legal drug and I get high on it all the time.

Gini: What was your biggest mistake?

Jayne: Saying that we would never see the day when we would open the newspaper and find ads for conflict management, conflict resolution, or conflict transformation specialists!

Gini: Any regrets?

Jayne: What a question… you can’t be 51 and not have regrets in life! I regret that I never learned how to effectively use my skills in my marriage and we ended up divorcing after 23 years. I regret that we did not know enough about negotiating worldview differences to be of help with the Waco negotiations in 1993 and that we had to use that tragedy to learn negotiation lessons. I regret that I probably have not done enough to get those lessons incorporated into law enforcement and security organizations.

Gini: Thank you, Jayne.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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