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Nurturing the Peacebuilders and Conflict Resolvers of Tomorrow

As practitioners, we focus on providing services and support for those dealing with conflict and differences. For many of us, it’s our livelihood. As such, it’s at times difficult to find space to promote our field in other ways such as by volunteering our skills (possibly at a community mediation center) or consulting pro bono (for a local group in need of strategies for dealing with conflict).

One area where it is important that we offer our time and experience is in inspiring and mentoring youth. Besides the occasional bringing dad or mom to career day at our child’s middle school, many of us have limited opportunity to engage in a direct way with youth. This is unfortunate, in that as professionals engaged in efforts that have direct impact on future generations, we have a duty to making sure that young people, particularly those in high school and college, recognize the important role of peacebuilders and conflict resolvers. It is critical that there are those who will follow in our footsteps and be able to apply our craft to serve the greater good in meeting the important difficulties and challenges our society will face when we are gone.

Over my career of 30 years, I have been fortunate to spend most of my professional time with would be peacebuilders: high schoolers, college and university undergraduates, and graduate students. During that time, I have often been faced with a question that many of us have been asked: “How do I get a job working for peace?” This question has variations, of course, where students might more specifically be interested in your work as a mediator, ombuds, social activist, or peace educator. Though I have had experience as a lawyer, a family and community mediator, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and overseas as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar teaching ADR and peace studies, I’ve often struggled with my answers. This is particularly the case with younger students who have gotten the peacemaking “bug” and now are in need of career direction on what to study, what experiences to seek, and more importantly, what expectations they should have for their professional careers.

In a way, this is the same struggle many of us had during our own career journeys. For those who, like me, entered the field in the 1980s, we often were seeking better ways of dealing with differences than our professions of origin, such as law or social work, were advancing. Starting in the 1990s, with the advent of graduate programs in the field, more of us were clearer about the nature of the work, but not always any clearer as to where it might be done. For the aspiring conflict intervener, be they a high school senior, a graduate student pursuing a conflict-related degree, or a mid career lawyer seeking a change, the pathways are still today murky at best.

Though I teach graduate students, I have been mostly focused on providing direction for students in college and high school. It is during this time that young people first start to formulate their career goals. Much time is spent today in high school getting young people to think about what is the best educational pathway to becoming a nurse, or engineer, or technology professional, or lawyer. And in college, the notion of career education has never been more emphasized, especially when one considers the massive debt that many undergraduates face.

Through the course of my thinking and working with students, I have come to my own approaches to considering careers. In my book Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace, I offer them to youth who are starting to think about how they can work to help move conflict to constructive outcomes, heal those dealing with the aftermath of violence, and work to sustain peaceful relations between individuals, communities, and nations.

Too often our instinctive response to a student inquiring about the work of peacebuilding and conflict resolution is to respond by directing them to careers that engage in direct action to respond to conflict. We often talk about our own field first, often not recognizing the long and at times arduous road we have travelled. Of course, if we are a mediator, we should talk about the work of mediation and how it is valuable in a world fraught with conflict, and how we find it rewarding. But the road to a successful mediation career is a difficult one, and for an 18 year old to learn that the journey ahead is one that is uncertain and requires extensive training and education might be discouraging and unrealistic. The same goes in looking at other direct action fields such as humanitarian work, diplomacy, or human rights advocacy. Direct action work is where many of us are making are living, but to only focus on fields that work directly to resolve conflict, limits our ability to consider the ways in which our approaches and knowledge can be applied to the widest range of fields, and ones where a student might already have an interest.

It is in indirect action fields where the vast array of occupations that contribute to a functioning and vibrant society can be found: healthcare, business, the arts, science and technology, government, education, military service, and not for profit work. Indirect action careers are those where the prime objective is not necessarily resolving differences or building peace, but might though come about as an important by-product, and as a result improve conditions for those in need. The emergency room nurse who needs to comfort loved ones after trauma or must help foster better understanding between family members, or the athletic educator who comes to realize that there is a need to provide students with cooperative based activities rather than competitive ones, are both engaging in indirect action. The range of careers where indirect action can be advanced is limitless. Consider the police officer who engages in restorative justice strategies, or the IT professional who supports the technology needs of a community mediation or justice center.

By helping young people recognize that peacebuilding and conflict resolution work can take place in every profession, we provide students with realistic and achievable goals. In addition, we ensure that the values of conflict resolution are inculcated across the career spectrum. We want every young person entering the labor market to believe that their skills in dealing with conflict will be appreciated where they start their careers. Today we recognize that we should not have a monopoly on resolving differences. In fact, the aim of our work is not so much to help our clients come to agreement in our presence (though that is what often happens), but to empower them with the skills and abilities to continue to seek peaceful resolution of differences. We know that our good work doesn’t end when the clients walk out the door, but continues as parents, co-workers, community leaders, and public officials continue to draw from our involvement in reaching consensus and agreement.

For those of us seriously engaged in the work of peace, we need to make a priority spending time with youth of all ages to show them the possibilities of making a professional life in advancing the resolution and transformation of conflict. In this way, we are ensuring that there will be a cadre of dedicated professionals following us committed to the values of peacebuilding. This is an important legacy for us all.


David Smith

David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He teaches part-time at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian… MORE >

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