This blog post draws from the remarks of Kailee Brickner-McDonald, Interim Director at the Center for Community Engagement, which were shared at the 2022 Clifford Symposium staff and faculty panel.
In September 2022, Middlebury College hosted the annual Clifford Symposium. This year, the Symposium focused on conflict transformation and the myriad ways Middlebury faculty, staff, and students address conflict at home and around the world. The keynote speaker at the Clifford Symposium was John Paul Lederach, Professor Emeritus of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. Author of 22 books, including “The Little Book of Conflict Transformation,” and with experience designing and conducting training programs in 25 countries across five continents, Lederach is known for pioneering conflict transformation work, illustrating conflict transformation requires “both solutions and social change.”
Fourteen CCE students funded through the Conflict Transformation Collaborative presented at the student poster session on how their community engagement activities fall within conflict transformation. The Clifford Symposium also included a panel in which Middlebury faculty and staff shared experiential opportunities for Middlebury students to explore conflict transformation across the institution. As a panelist, Kailee Brickner-McDonald explained why the CCE’s mission focuses on providing community-based experiences to students: “Community-based experiences allow relationships and critical moments to emerge into spaces we can consider more expansive questions, social context, and complexity. The Conflict Transformation lens encourages us to build programs and relationships with more intention and support to make the most of those inevitable, challenging, messy spaces.”
Conflict transformation work with communities encourages students to expect and embrace the tensions that arise while working towards a collaborative solution. “This collaborative work,” Kailee said, “prepares students for lives of meaning and impact through community connection.” She outlined how the hopes of the Conflict Transformation Collaborative align well with the CCE’s mission for students to develop their civic knowledge, skills, and identities. Through their connections in communities, students can explore curiosities in three areas:
- Civic Identities: How do I contribute to conflict and peace? What are my responsibilities to and choices in my communities? How do my values and experiences drive my personal engagement?
- Civic Knowledge: How do I critique the situation from multiple lenses and perspectives? Do I understand the role of power and justice? What resources already exist in the community?
- Civic Skills: How can I practice cultural humility in interpersonal communication? How do I approach dialogue across differences? In what ways can I facilitate collaborative relationships?
In each of these areas, what starts as a tidy-sounding, community-connected experience gets complicated by collaboration, gets real because of relationships, and gets instructive because of inquiry. The conflict transformation lens says to expect and embrace the tensions that arise from working on complex issues among different people and approach them as gifts– spaces where change can happen. Experiential learning opportunities embedded in community building activities offer:
- Growth points in students’ development of their civic knowledge: students learn to critique their situations from multiple lenses and perspectives; students build their understanding of the role of power and justice
- Places to apply skills that require practice: students practice cultural humility in interpersonal communication and try out dialogue across differences; students have a chance to facilitate collaborative relationships
- Sparks that guide students to explore their Identities: students get to ask critical questions like: “How do I contribute to conflict and peace? What are my responsibilities, choices, and positionality in my communities? What do I still need to learn?”
On the panel, Kailee provided several examples of this work, including one from the CCE’s 2022 History in Translation trip:
Students participating in the History in Translation program (Experiential and Intercultural Exploration of Executive Order 9066) visited a “War Relocation Center” for Japanese Americans in World War II. “There they learned the language they’ve grown up using (like “internment camps”) is harmful and sanitizing– to their guide at the incarceration site who’s giving them a tour, and others.”
How did History in Translation explore this conflict on their trip?
CCE staff member Kristin Mullins, Assistant Director of Intercultural and Global Programs, worked with colleagues to bring students from Middlebury College and International Christian University in Mitaka, Japan, together for shared exploration, reflection, and conversation on this piece of US history. Despite the differences in geography, culture, and identities, all participants reflected on who they are and why certain language matters to them. Everyone learned something different about the far-from-homogeneous movement to recognize the impacts of Executive Order 9066 and the nuances and evolution of language choices and memory of the conflicts. Check out the program’s website to see how their work evolved– it captures the documents they collaboratively translated, photos from the experience, and reflections on their learning: History in Translation – Learning through translation (middcreate.net).
The CCE’s work explores conflict not just through topical exploration of current and historical conflicts but also in interpersonal dynamics embedded in all relational programs. Kailee provided another example working with two student leaders of an alternative break program at Middlebury:
The co-leaders/friends were preparing for an environmental justice-themed trip, but after one felt like her voice didn’t matter in their decision-making, their friendship started to erode, and one considered leaving the team. CCE staff worked with them to navigate their interpersonal conflict, support collaboration, and create a positive and affirming space for both students. As Kailee put it, “The collaborative, relational aspect of community engagement work–in this case, the co-creation of a logistically-heavy, team-based learning experience–created a hurdle, and a chance for these students to practice the appreciative inquiry, listening, and participatory decision-making skills they gained in their leadership training and discussed in staff advising conversations, to try out navigating interpersonal conflict in a new, restorative way.”
The CCE’s programs, reflective and inquiring spaces, and interpersonal dynamics contribute to how we address conflict transformation here at home and abroad. Kailee provided one last example to demonstrate how conflict transformation shows up in our work with students who are engaging with various communities:
A student in a Privilege & Poverty summer internship was working with a community organization that addresses housing access. After multiple experiences seeing clients return to the shelter due to factors beyond which the organization can support, the student zooms out to question the policy choices and social constructions that make houselessness a possibility in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. They bring these questions back to their internship cohort gathering and, through reflective conversation, realize they’re not alone in questioning the adequacy of direct service and their role in social change. Students begin to marvel at the interconnectedness of their work across different social services organizations and begin to identify how much they don’t know that they want and need to know, with an eye to the next semester’s course catalog. Students also build connections and develop mentors at their internship sites, allowing them to connect with others about how they’re sustained in doing this challenging, necessary work.
In closing, Kailee remarked, “Working with students to develop their civic knowledge, skills, and identities certainly leads to personal change, but that change also translates into how students engage as humans strengthening communities and contributing to the public good– at the personal, interpersonal, local/community, and national/global levels.”
The CCE is excited to be involved in this challenging and far-reaching work alongside other partners at Middlebury and to see how our work with communities grows and develops throughout the Conflict Transformation grant. For more information on the Conflict Transformation Collaborative, visit the Conflict Transformation website and Instagram.