The First and Foremost: Summer Peacebuilding Institute

As it wraps up its first two decades, SPI is thriving, having hosted 2,800 people from 121 countries taking core courses such as conflict transformation and restorative justice, as well as cutting-edge ones, like playback theater and the influence of architecture on peace. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

In the summer of 1994, about 40 peace and development workers gathered on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University for a one-week seminar called “Frontiers in International Peacebuilding.” It was the first official event held by what is now known as the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, or CJP, which was then so fledgling it had yet to be fully accredited.*

Organizers, including CJP founding director John Paul Lederach, sociology professor Vernon Jantzi, and Hizkias Assefa, a mediator in conflicts around the world, invited friends and colleagues to talk and think about the cutting edges of practice and theory in international peace work. Some uncertainty surrounded the launch of CJP itself, Jantzi recalls, and the organizers of the Frontiers conference didn’t have any particular plans to make it an annual event.

And they surely didn’t imagine that 20 years later it would be thriving, would have brought 2,800 people from 121 countries to EMU’s campus and would have directly inspired the creation of at least 10 other short-term peacebuilding institutes in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and North America. Nor could Lederach, Jantzi and Assefa have imagined that they would remain involved to varying degrees ever since, though Assefa is the only one has taught every year at the summer institute.

“There was so much energy generated,” Jantzi recalls, of the first conference. “People were so eager to share their experiences.”

Participants found that simply being together at a week-long peacebuilding conference was tremendously beneficial and inspiring for their work, and the response was enthusiastic. During the following academic year, CJP received its accreditation, had three students in the master’s program and admitted a dozen more to begin in the fall of 1995, and had hired its first full-time administrative staff member, Ruth Zimmerman. Things were heading in a good direction, and CJP organized a second Frontiers in International Peacebuilding conference in the summer of 1995.

Conference becomes “SPI”

For its third year, CJP gave its one-week peacebuilding conference a new name: the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, or SPI. Word was spreading, interest was growing, and SPI was about to begin growing quickly in size, scope and length. By 2002, SPI attracted around 150 participants from about 50 countries and offered 20 classes over a two-month period.

One of the major early emphases at SPI – and CJP more generally – was grounding the academic curriculum and classroom instruction in practical, on-the-ground application of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Early in SPI’s history, outside funders helped bring participants from different sides of several major conflicts around the world, including groups of Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland and members of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups from Rwanda and Burundi.

This created a rich and challenging environment at SPI, adding a heavy dose of real-life experience from difficult, violent conflicts – sometimes involving opposing sides of the same conflict – to complement the theory-based aspects of the curriculum.

“In the classroom, that was pretty powerful,” says Tim Ruebke, who attended four years of SPI before earning his master’s degree from CJP in 1999.

Rich experiences outside classroom

Many report that the most powerful moments at SPI, though, occurred during informal, social times away from the classroom. Ruebke recalls an evening gathering at a home in Harrisonburg where participants from Northern Ireland shared stories, songs and dancing with each other and the rest of their classmates.

While the daily sessions focus on the cerebral, “head” aspects of peacebuilding, these informal, social times in the evenings get at its emotional “heart.” This aspect of SPI, Ruebke says, mirrors the reality of many real-life peace negotiations, where the hard work of compromise, connection and understanding between parties often occurs in relaxed, social settings before being finalized at the formal negotiating table.

“A lot of stuff that happens here is informal and relational,” says Jantzi. “We think it’s very significant.”

And as SPI participants often discover, the emotional aspects of peacebuilding aren’t always happy times of singing and dancing. One of the early SPI sessions included visitors from the former Soviet republic of Georgia as well as Abkhazia, a disputed region within Georgia over which a civil war was fought in the 1990s. One evening, an SPI professor had planned a discussion about this conflict and began by displaying a map of the region.

Ruebke was in the audience, and remembers that one of the parties was upset in some way by what was (or perhaps, what wasn’t) portrayed on the map. This immediately and badly derailed the session, and by the time things had been patched up and discussion about the conflict was able to proceed, the importance of the “felt” aspect of peacebuilding had been brought home to Ruebke in a memorable way.

“Even though we were a peacebuilding program, people brought their stuff with them,” remembers Ruth Zimmerman, who says that these sorts of conflicts would periodically flare up between participants. “We had a great learning ground for using some of those [conflict resolution] skill sets over the years.”

At the very beginning, the Frontiers in International Peacebuilding conferences and SPI were simply opportunities for professional development and learning. Before long, however, participants and graduate students in CJP began lobbying for an academic credit component to SPI. Though hesitant to accept the constraints of a pre-planned curriculum, CJP added a credit component to provide students with more flexibility in earning degrees through the program.

Some core courses have been offered year after year, including ones dealing with conflict analysis, restorative justice and trauma healing, and others that focus on practical peacebuilding skills like negotiation and reconciliation. Yet SPI stays true to its roots by exploring the field’s frontiers and updating its course offerings to reflect emerging themes in peacebuilding. Examples of new courses in 2014 include ones on media and societal transformation, playback theater, trauma-sensitive peacebuilding, mindfulness, and architecture as a peacebuilding tool.

Things ran on the skinniest of shoestring budgets in the very first years of SPI, when CJP professors opened their homes to participants after the day’s sessions had ended, while their spouses pitched in to help with meals. Volunteers filled many support roles. This contributed to the organic, intimate atmosphere that remains an important aspect of SPI to this day. But it was an exhausting and, in the long run, unsustainable way to run the event that itself led to conflicts between overworked staff members.

“It was so much work,” recalls Zimmerman, who filled leadership roles at CJP from 1995 to 2007. “I used to put in 70-hour weeks.”

Huge logistics behind SPI

In addition to planning courses and lining up faculty to teach them, coordinating the many moving parts of the growing SPI program presented huge logistical challenges. Once, a participant booked a flight to the Dallas, Texas, airport rather than Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport. Another one hopped in a taxi and directed the driver to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 185 miles north of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

In 1998, just after she became one of CJP’s earliest master’s program graduates, Pat Hostetter Martin (also a participant in the very first Frontiers in International Peacemaking conference) joined SPI to help relieve the growing crisis of stress and exhaustion the workload was placing on other staff. The following year, Martin became SPI’s co-director with Patricia Spaulding, and then sole director from 2004 until 2008.

In 2000, William Goldberg – a 2001 master’s program graduate of CJP – joined the SPI staff as the transportation coordinator. He later served as an associate director, co-director and, as of 2013, the director of SPI, which now has two full-time staff members and employs about 10 temporary staff each summer. (Other SPI leaders: Gloria Rhodes in the ’90s, Sue Williams, 2008-’11; Valerie Helbert, 2011-’13.)

As the first Jewish program administrator at EMU, Goldberg embodies one of the ways that SPI has affected EMU as a whole by bringing such wide cultural and religious diversity to campus. From the very first Frontiers in International Peacebuilding conferences, CJP leaders wanted faculty to reflect the religious and cultural diversity of the participants – a desire at odds with EMU’s requirement that all faculty profess a Christian faith. After some discussion, CJP was able to negotiate exceptions to EMU’s hiring practices and hire non-Christian faculty members during the summer, which Jantzi points to as an example of the strong support SPI has generally enjoyed from university administrators since its beginning.

EMU’s hospitable community

Support from the university extended well beyond the administration, remembers Jantzi. Cafeteria staff embraced the opportunity, rather than resented the hassle, of serving participants with a variety of religious and cultural dietary preferences, while the physical plant staff went to great lengths to ensure everyone stayed comfortable during their time on campus. Together, the welcoming atmosphere the entire university created at SPI for visitors from around the world became an important part of its success.

As employees and departments outside of SPI pitched in to help it succeed, SPI also tried to build closer ties to the broader university community by making events like the opening ceremonies and the periodic SPI luncheons open to anyone on campus and in the surrounding community. And when these general open invitations didn’t attract large audiences, Martin found greater success when she started targeting specific people and departments with invitations and paying for their lunches.

SPI staff have also made similar efforts to share the diversity present on campus each summer with the broader community in and around Harrisonburg. As SPI’s community relations coordinator for about a decade, Margaret Foth worked to connect participants with families, churches and civic groups in the area. She helped form a particularly strong relationship with the Rotary Club of Rockingham County, which hosts a speaker from SPI each year and has helped underwrite an SPI trip to Washington D.C. A close relationship also developed between SPI and Park View Mennonite Church, just down the road from EMU, which has welcomed numerous international visitors in Sunday School classes and as participants in worship services.

“We wanted [participants] to know that it was an area that was welcoming and hospitable,” says Foth. “They weren’t just coming for an academic session. They were coming for relationships in a welcoming community.”

From 2000 to 2010, vanloads of SPI participants made connections farther from campus when they attended a peacebuilding conference held each summer by a group of churches in Knoxville, Tennessee, 360 miles southwest of Harrisonburg. (The minister who organized this conference, Jim Foster, is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary.) By staying with host families, the visitors enjoyed a more immersive experience in American culture; Foth says she could always count on enthusiastic reviews the following Monday, after participants returned to campus.

One year, a Vietnamese-American lawyer from California made the 12-hour round trip to Knoxville, and ended up staying in the home of a Mennonite pastor who, decades earlier, had fought in the Vietnam War. After they stayed up one night talking about their experience of that conflict, the lawyer returned to SPI and told Foth it had been a moment of great healing.

“I can still see him running across campus to give me a hug and say it was the best thing to have happened to him,” she recalls.


Akin to heaven on earth?

In 2014, a total of 184 people from 36 countries attended SPI – about the size that SPI has been for the past five years, Goldberg says. As its third decade begins, SPI is as strong and as thriving as ever – planning for 2015 began before the books had even been closed on this year’s session.

Those who have been involved with SPI in some way over the past 20 years treasure the many memories and friendships they’ve formed along the way.

“I think it’s one of the best things that’s happened for EMU,” says Jantzi. “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved with here …. It’s just a really, really energizing time.”

One year, Jantzi and an Iranian seminary student who came to SPI struck up an intriguing, weeks-long conversation about whether converting other people to their respective religions could be done in a nonviolent, non-coercive way. This man later became a high-ranking diplomat who, years later, returned to the United States as part of an Iranian delegation to the United Nations. He contacted Jantzi and invited himself back to Harrisonburg to give a guest lecture in one of Jantzi’s sociology classes – an encouraging indication, Jantzi says, of the high regard this former SPI participant still had for EMU.

Goldberg says he’s often inspired by the great lengths that people will go to so they can attend SPI. In 2014, a group of Syrian participants traveled at least 12 hours each way, through difficult and unsafe conditions, to Lebanon to get their visas to travel to the United States. Then they did it again to catch their flights – an illustration, he says, of “the need that people have for this training.”

And he’s similarly inspired by the eagerness with which people return to very difficult circumstances in their homes to put that training and learning into practice.

“No matter how difficult the conflict someone comes from, they want to go back and make it better with the new skills they’ve learned here,” Goldberg says.

More generally, Martin, as well as others interviewed for this story, says one of the most important enduring memories of SPI is “the rich diversity of the whole thing. Oftentimes, that came out so well in the opening ceremonies. That just humbled you.

“You want heaven to be like this,” she says.

— Andrew Jenner