Selling Peace: Story by Story

Tara D. Sonenshine served as executive vice president of the United States Institute of Peace and then as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is currently a distinguished fellow in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. 6

Before dawn on Friday, December 17, 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi pulled his cart to the Tunisian marketplace where he sold his goods. Local officials there harassed him and confiscated his wares – his livelihood – for refusing to pay a bribe.  This was not the first time—but it would be the last.  In a final act of defiance and frustration, Mohammed doused himself with fuel and set himself ablaze, sparking an international revolution that would become known as the Arab Spring.

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, a fourteen-year-old girl was riding home from school in the Swat Valley of Pakistan when Taliban gunmen stopped her vehicle and shot her— because she advocated for girls’ education. Malala Yousafzai was left in critical condition. She survived, carried on as a peace activist, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The day Betty Bigombe entered the jungles of Uganda in May 1992, she understood that it might be her last. As a government minister, she had initiated contact with the Lord’s Resistance Army—a brutal group led by Joseph Kony and known for its violent guerilla tactics and child abductions. As a peacemaker, Bigombe ventured into the jungle to engage the rebels in dialogue to end the killing of civilians. She went on to become a lead negotiator in Uganda’s ongoing peace process. Like Malala, she understood the power of engagement.

These stories are among the thousands, indeed millions, of narratives about people creating peace through individual and collective action. Their entirely human endeavors inspire others to act, and make the case for peacebuilding today. The acts of ordinary individuals lead others to advocate for the fundamental right to live without fear, to reach one’s innate potential, and to advance economic, political, and social liberty.

These stories are among the thousands, indeed millions, of narratives about people creating peace through individual and collective action.

Stories move people and people move policy. It is not difficult to convince those who work on global issues to care about education, poverty, environmental disasters, and acts of terror. But how can concerned citizens expand those interests, bringing other urgent issues to the table? In an information age of citizen diplomacy, the impact of stories has often translated into funding, policy and legislative support, and engagement. Malala’s story, for example, went viral and became the subject of a feature film. Her actions sparked nationwide attention on girls’ education, and led to a decision by the White House to roll out a new project, spearheaded by the First Lady, called “Let Girls Learn”. That project, in turn, encouraged NGOs to weave girls’ education more seamlessly into their programming and policies.

Stories give other peacebuilders the courage and determination to go on in the face of danger. While stories have the power to inspire action on behalf of peace, not all stories of peacebuilders have happy endings. Kayla Jean Mueller, a twenty-six-year-old aid worker was taken into captivity in August 2013, while leaving a hospital in Syria. She became the fourth American to die at the hands of ISIS. Aid worker Peter Kassig was beheaded, as were journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. My own heart was broken when Anne Smedinghoff, a young Foreign Service officer and former colleague, died in a roadside bomb explosion while working to bring books to an Afghan school. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues were killed the same year in Libya.   These tragic stories of courage for a higher cause must also be told, bringing to light a difficult truth: peacebuilding is dangerous work.

Stories flow from every culture and every level of society—it’s up to us to make sure they are heard.

Though stories alone cannot make peace, stories do animate the peace process, bringing a human face to a field of work that is difficult to document, and elevating the mission of preventing and resolving global conflict. When a photograph of a lifeless Syrian boy on the shores of Greece captured the world by its collective heart, the humanitarian plight of refugees took on new meaning.  A crisis that had persisted for years had renewed urgency and became an international priority.  People are moved to action when they can relate to an individual caught in the crossfire of conflict. Through film, art, music, theater, and every form of cultural engagement and education, we learn of the women and men who risk everything for peace. Their stories must be told—again and again.

With stories must come action to realize the dividends peace brings. This year – 2016 – must be the one in which we move from rhetoric to reality in deepening and widening the circle of peacebuilders, surrounding them with support. It is one thing to talk, for example, about the violence against women by terrorist groups. It is quite another when a Yazidi woman from Iraq testifies before the United Nations to describe her experience as a victim of the brutal rape and sex trade perpetuated by ISIS.  And yet, we must take the next step to prevent stories like hers from happening in the future, by galvanizing governments to strengthen their efforts to reduce the threat of extremism. We need to encourage parliaments to pass legislation to expand the number of women holding office. We need to create news outlets and independent sources of reporting to tell the stories of women who are not just victims of extremism but are also fighting to eradicate it through peacebuilding activities.

Storytelling is as much about the future as it is about the past or present, and there is so much we can do to foster stories of peace in the generations to come. We can encourage young people to study abroad and promote exchange programs. We can continue funding initiatives that lead to cultural understanding.  And we can stimulate a culture of multilingualism so stories can be exchanged more broadly through local dialects. Stories flow from every culture and every level of society—it is up to us to make sure they are heard.

In the end, the story of peace must be a shared tale of triumph over tragedy. As Pericles said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments but what is woven into the lives of others.”

(Feature Photo Credit: “Malala - Nobel Peace Center: Oslo, Norway” by Steve Evans; CC BY-NC 2.0)

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