Ben Rush, a senior at Eastern Mennonite University, works with practicum supervisor Jonathan McRay at Blacks Run Forest Farm in Harrisonburg. Rush, a peacebuilding and development major, spent the fall 2017 semester practicing a diverse array of skills, from plant cultivation and sustainable agriculture to ecology education and restorative justice practices. The practicum experience is required of all peacebuilding and development majors. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

Local and global practicum experiences prepare EMU’s next generation of peacebuilders

Writing an instructional manual about growing and using elderberries for medicinal syrups may not look like peacebuilding at first glance, but Eastern Mennonite University senior Ben Rush’s practicum last fall had broad implications.

Peacebuilding and development (PXD) majors complement their classroom studies with semester-long practicum placements that offer on-the-job training. Graduates have entered professional fields such as civil rights law, public policy, education, human rights, humanitarian action and others.

Nathan McKnight ’16 spent his practicum hours in an internship with Freedom Circles in Washington D.C. The nonprofit works with formerly incarcerated people to ease transition out of prison. (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

Among those PXD graduates making big impacts:  Jessica Sarriot ’11 studies public policy at Princeton University; Weber State economics professor Matt Gnagey ’05; and Larisa Zehr ’11 is a law student at Northeastern University.

For his placement, Rush worked at the Blacks Run Forest Farm with founder Jonathan McRay, a 2013 graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The farm fosters the societal embodiment of “a culture of trees: abundant, diverse, renewing, mutual, slow, rooted, cyclical, nurturing and deeply connected underground.”

In addition to writing the manual, Rush helped with tree propagation in the nursery and worked with school groups to plant a riparian orchard and thin unwanted species from streamside areas.

Real-world placements

Such real-world opportunities abound in EMU’s peacebuilding and development program’s lineup of practicums — there have been 60 since 2007.

“Whether in Colombia, Washington D.C., or here in Harrisonburg, our students have unique opportunities to develop practical skills, gain professional experience, and wrestle with the burning issues of our time,” said Professor Timothy Seidel.

The experience helps to ground students in skills learned in the classroom: mediation, conflict analysis, program evaluation, group facilitation, community assessment and events organization.

PXD students have had practicum placements with EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement. Here Interfaith Peace Camp participants visit the Islamic Center of the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg.

In addition to Blacks Run Forest Farm, local placements have included EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute and Center for Interfaith Engagement, The Fairfield Center, New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center, and James Madison University’s Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence. A more comprehensive list of practicum sites is available here.

Further afield, students have fulfilled practicum requirements with internships through the Washington D.C.-based Washington Community Scholars’ Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Vision, N Street Village, Maryland Citizens Against State Executions and Voices for a Second Chance, a nonprofit that empowers the incarcerated, returning citizens and their families in the transition into the Washington D.C. community. Read more about D.C. internships here.

Several other students have spent time with Justapaz in Bogota, Colombia.

Local and unique

The 150-hour placement gave Rush a unique opportunity less than two miles from campus: In addition to learning practical skills for cultivating plants, he could work side by side with people who would guide him through conversations about both restorative justice and “resisting oppressive behaviors and institutions, in a diverse neighborhood where people are trying to live well together,” said the forest farm’s co-founder Jonathan McRay.

Jonathan McRay MA ’13 (conflict transformation) with EMU senior peacebuilding and development major Ben Rush on McCray’s Blacks Run Forest Farm in Harrisonburg.

The experience, said Rush, allowed him to see “restorative justice ideas taken and practiced in creative and effective ways.”

It also furthered the farm’s mission, with “more growing plants to spread throughout our community to provide food, fuel, medicine, mulch, air conditioning, carbon converting, water healing and beauty,” said McRay.

Plus, the elderberry manual will be “a great resource for the farm to share with folks interested in buying the plant from us or in cultivating it themselves and knowing exactly how to use the ripe berries,” he said.

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