SPI Online 2020 holds fast to community-building traditions

SPI FUN FACT: This summer’s institute included 184 participants from 27 different countries and 29 U.S. states. They resided in 60 percent of the time zones on the planet.

In May, the Summer Peacebuilding Institute hosted the first of two virtual opening ceremonies to kick off its five-week programming — the beginning of a grand experiment for the 25-year-old program, pushed into the virtual learning space by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eleven courses were offered, for academic credit or professional development, on conflict analysis, organizational assessment, leadership, trauma awareness, restorative justice, circle processes, and extremism in social media, among other topics.

That two different opening ceremonies were scheduled highlights one success before SPI even started: the online format — with its corresponding lower investments of costs and time for participants — expanded access to a broader diverse group of peacebuilders, among them those with family and work constraints.

This summer’s 184 participants from 27 different countries and 29 U.S. states covered 60 percent of the time zones on the planet. SPI Director Bill Goldberg and staff charted out the number of residents in each of the 13 represented time zones so that courses and extracurricular events, like coffee breaks and Horizons of Change lectures, were scheduled when the most participants could attend. 

If anyone was concerned about how different a virtual SPI would be, those fears were partially resolved by the constant volume of enthusiasm streaming into the chat box during May’s virtual opening ceremony. A few contributions highlight the underlying spirit of the exchange:

  • I’ve learned how interconnected we all are even if we have never met!
  • It’s cool to see people who are here because the opportunity was moved online.
  • Diverse places, people and passions!
  • Different people, different perspectives – the opening of minds together!
  • People are engaged in social justice and peacebuilding despite our current health and economic crisis. That’s very inspiring!
  • People are committed to learn from one another including me as well.

Coffee and networking

Over the next five weeks, with rigorous engagement happening within the formal space of virtual classrooms, SPI staff also wanted to offer informal spaces for networking and sharing — often cited by past participants as equally rich sites of personal and intellectual transformation. 

While no substitute for late-night chats in the residence halls or the companionship of a walk around campus, twice weekly coffee breaks helped to foster the kind of informal interaction that is a hallmark of the SPI experience. These events, open to participants and the broader CJP community, were hosted by online community builders Lindsay Acker and Anisa Leonard

Acker is a 2020 EMU graduate with a degree in peacebuilding and development and a CJP graduate student who worked for SPI the last two summers. Leonard is a senior social work major and joined SPI in 2019. 

Both were a little uncertain about how SPI 2020 would go, but acknowledged  the momentum and their own comfort level grew from the opening ceremony to the first several coffee breaks. 

Spontaneous discoveries were always a particular delight to everyone in the “room,” Leonard said. “Someone would suddenly notice an old friend was on the call. I really enjoyed watching their faces suddenly light up, and hearing them try to catch up with each other about life.”

On another occasion, one person’s mention of their workplace led to the discovery of mutual acquaintances within the agency and a wish to work together on future projects.

‘A vital role’: space to process and share

In coffee break chats, many participants also affirmed the online move. In addition to those who said they would not have otherwise been able to attend, many said that their course and other activities were helping them to “survive quarantine,” or as global protests erupted after the murder of George Floyd, “to process the continued violence against people of color and particularly black people in the United States,” Acker said. 

“That feedback reminded me that even though we couldn’t physically be together this summer, the Summer Peacebuilding Institute still played a vital role in helping peacebuilders with their work. Even though we couldn’t form the same relationships that we could have in person, we still learned from each other, still passed on skills and information, and still strengthened this network of peacebuilders.”

Mary Nitzsche, an associate executive minister with Mosaic Mennonite Conference, shares learnings from the SPI course “Trauma Resiliency and Healing During a Time of Pandemic.”

Horizons of Change series continues

One other tradition continued in the new format: the Horizons of Change series. Speakers addressed a range of topics, with particular emphasis on current contexts of the global pandemic and racial justice work.

  •  Patrick Campbell MA ‘14, the senior emergency manager for Montgomery County, Maryland, shared about his management of the COVID-19 response in one of the most diverse counties in the United States. He works with hundreds of organizations to provide emergency and disaster assistance that is culturally appropriate and trauma-informed. Prior to this, he worked with Red Cross Virginia and served with the U.S. Coast Guard. 
  • Shoqi Maktary MA ‘07 is the senior regional conflict sensitivity advisor for the Middle East and North Africa  at Search for Common Ground. Shoqi has over 16 years of international experience in program management, partnership building, and donor relations. He spoke about the challenges of implementing conflict sensitivity in the context of ongoing violent conflicts, how to promote peace-oriented aid, and the overlap between conflict sensitivity and peacebuilding.
  • Jessica Pope is the interpretation, resource education and volunteer program manager at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. She focused on the history of the National Park Service, which manages battlefields, historical monuments, heritage areas and migrant trails, places that straddle the difficult history of the United States. Her talk addressed the ways in which parks can attract and serve a larger, more diverse population of users; their potential role in helping the nation examine, discuss, grieve from and ultimately begin to heal from and reconcile difficult history; and the role of restorative justice practices in the art of interpretation.
  • Amy Rebecca Marsico MA ‘09 is a former gender and youth advisor for Mercy Corps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and currently serves as a volunteer coordinator with Flatbush United Mutual Aid. She discussed her work to increase the economic and resilience capacities of food insecure households in DRC as well as local efforts to address food insecurity in Brooklyn, New York.

SPI 2021 will begin May 11.