Alumni Relish Returning to SPI

Doreen Ruto, MA ’06, returned to SPI 2014 for a consultation on Strategies for Trauma Awarenesss and Resilience and as the featured speaker, alongside son Richy Bikko, at SPI’s Frontier Luncheon on May 7. Ruto is the founding director of Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development in Kenya.

Instead of returning for EMU’s “homecoming” celebration – always held over one weekend each October – degree-holding alumni of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) often show up for its annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI).

And those SPI alumni who aren’t aiming to earn a degree? Some of them just keep coming back year after year – almost as an educational vacation – or they send their colleagues and friends to SPI.

Of the 2,800 SPI participants over the last 19 years, more than one in five have been repeat participants, taking courses during a second year or even multiple years of SPI. In that number must be counted almost all of CJP’s 398 master’s degree alumni, plus 91 graduate certificate holders. Some of their MA classmates are now SPI instructors, plus many of their professors have taught at SPI year after year.

Detouring six hours to reconnect

Among the first drop-bys to SPI 2014 were Florina Benoit and Ashok Gladston of India, both 2004 MA grads from CJP and now PhD-holders. They made a six-hour round-trip detour from a family-related stop in Baltimore, Maryland, to say “hello” to folks at SPI.

Gladston was last at EMU in June 2011 when he gave a heart-wrenching talk at EMU centering on women from a minority group in southern India who were being violently victimized by mobs from the surrounding majority group.

The two, both former Fulbright Scholars married to each other, happened to arrive on May 7 when Doreen Ruto of Kenya, a 2006 MA graduate, was the featured SPI “Frontier Luncheon” speaker, along with her colleague (and son) Richy Bikko, a 2011 BA graduate who majored in justice, peace and conflict studies.

Over that day, Gladston and Benoit interacted with a dozen professors, staffers and alumni whom they recalled from their studies at CJP 10 years ago.

When the day turned to evening and their borrowed car was found to have a non-working headlight, they lingered for activities very familiar to them – a community “potluck” meal, followed by a cultural program led by SPI participants, and informal dancing. (They huddled with this writer for much of that time answering questions about their work in India – but more on that later.)

They then accepted the impromptu invitation of Margaret Foth, a retiree who has been a long-time liaison with CJP alumni, and slept in a guest room at the Foths’ home, adjacent to EMU.

 “It was like we recalled from our time as graduate students,” says Benoit. “We felt like we were visiting our second home.”

In 2013, Gladstone and Benoit had been scheduled to teach an SPI course on the logistics of humanitarian aid – more specifically, on how such aid intersects with peacebuilding practices, including the “do no harm” principle – but, unfortunately, that year the number of people seeking such training was insufficient to hold the course.

Always more to learn

A third former Fulbright Scholar, Shoqi Abas Al-Maktary, MA ’07, took a break from his job as country director in Yemen for Search for Common Ground and spent May 15-23 taking the SPI course “Designing Peacebuilding Programs – From Conflict Assessment to Planning. ”

“I don’t think anyone in this field can afford to stop being a student,” says Al-Maktary, who holds a second master’s degree in security management from Middlesex University in the United Kingdom. “There is always more to know, more to explore with others in the field. And SPI – with its intensive courses – is a great place to do this.”

Thomas DeWolf of the United States just finished attending his fourth SPI in six years, with the course “Media for Societal Transformation.” He first came in 2008 where he explored Coming to the Table (explained in next paragraph). He returned for a restorative justice course in 2009, and then in 2012, received a scholarship to take Healing the Wounds of History: Peacebuilding through Transformative Theater.”

DeWolf’s connection to SPI began with CJP’s sponsorship of Coming to the Table, an organization focused on addressing the enduring impact of the slavery era in the United States. DeWolf has played a leading role in this organization, which held its annual conference at EMU this year, over a weekend between two sessions of SPI.

Seven times at SPI

A 76-year-old clinical psychologist from Argentina, Lilian Burlando, has an astonishing record of attendance at SPI, having attended about a third of all the years SPI has been held. From her home at the southern-most tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego, Burlando has attended SPI seven times: in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Often with her, also taking classes, have been members of her family of five children and 19 grandchildren. One of her daughters, Maria Karina Echazu, for instance, is a prosecuting attorney in Argentina who took a restorative justice course in 2007 and a practice course in 2011.

Burlando calls SPI “a refreshing experience,” citing interesting course topics, excellent professors and the sense of community. “To me,” she says, “SPI has been a fountain of intellectual and spiritual enrichment.”

Almost all the teachers at SPI – even those like Johonna McCants, who holds a PhD from the University of Maryland – have also been students at SPI at some point. McCants explains how she found her way to SPI:

In 2009, while finishing my doctoral dissertation, I began searching online for practical training in the issues I was writing about. I discovered CJP and SPI and quickly fell in love. I was attracted by the integration of theory and practice, the variety of courses, the diversity of participants, backgrounds of the instructors, and that the program was housed at a Christian university. I participated in Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) at SPI just a few weeks after receiving my PhD. The STAR experience, which was phenomenal, kept me coming back for more.

McCants brought along a first-timer to SPI 2014, Julian Turner. These two, who first met as teenagers, would be married in a month. But first Turner, who works at an infectious disease clinic in Washington D.C., soaked up the wisdom of Hizkias Assefa in “Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” while McCants co-taught with Carl Stauffer “Restorative Justice: The Promise, the Challenge.”

Loves the diverse people

From her base as a high school teacher in a public school in Washington D.C. – and with experience as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland – McCants says she is struck by the egalitarian learning community formed by SPI, where the instructors and participants respect and learn from each other.

Her favorite part about SPI?

Definitely, the people! I enjoy learning from people from different parts of the United States and countries all over the world, hearing their stories and developing new relationships. I also like reuniting and reconnecting with people I’ve met during previous times at SPI.

Discovering SPI on the internet, as McCants did, is not typical. More often, SPI participants are encouraged to attend by previous participants.

Libby Hoffman, president and founder of the Catalyst for Peace foundation, for example, attended SPI in 1996 and took another CJP course in 2000. This year she dispatched two rising leaders of Fambul Tok – an organization doing amazing work of promoting post-war reconciliation throughout Sierra Leone – to take two successive courses at SPI. Micheala Ashwood and Emmanuel Mansaray both took “Leading Healthy Organizations,” in addition to “Analysis – Understanding Conflict” and “Psychosocial Trauma,”

Ten CJP master’s degree alumni had teaching roles at SPI 2014: Dr. Sam Gbaydee Doe, MA ’98; Dr. Barb Toews,   MA ’00; Dr. Carl Stauffer, MA ’02; Elaine Zook Barge, MA ’03; Roxy Allen Kioko, MA ’07 (PhD candidate); Paulette Moore, MA ’09 (PhD candidate); Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho, MA ’09 (PhD candidate); Caroline Borden, MA ’12; Soula Pefkaros, MA ’10 (PhD candidate); and Danielle Taylor, MA ’13. < — Bonnie Price Lofton