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  • Richie Davis, for the Greenfield Recorder

Lowering the Temperature

When she retired in June 2015 from decades of traveling to war-torn parts of the globe in the aftermath of violent conflicts training peacemakers to lead discussions of what survivors had endured and how to begin a healing process, Paula Green, of Leverett, had already begun seeing a fraying of the fabric of this nation.

Yet Green didn’t expect the work she’d done in Bosnia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Israel-Palestine and elsewhere as founding director of Amherst-based Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, or as founding director of the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont to become as critical here at home.

The Hands Across the Hills effort that drew Green and other Leverett residents to explore social and political differences with eastern Kentucky after the 2016 election has received attention from The New York Times, The New Yorker, CBS News and media around the world as an example of the need to bridge the growing political divide in the United States.

But heightened political violence — most notably the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — has led Karuna to launch an online discussion series examining lessons from its partners around the world that can be applied to deepening political polarization domestically.

“We’re trying to translate that model of partnering with organizations to bring the dialogue and trauma-healing work we’ve done overseas to address what’s needed here,” says Karuna Center Executive Director Polly Byers, of Conway, about the organization’s “Bridging Community Across Divides” series of “lessons from far and near.”

With four online discussions already presented and more planned, the series tries to “highlight creative, innovative and successful responses to conflict that are building community and supporting lasting peace,” Karuna Center announced this spring. The first of its programs, held March 10, “The Power of Dialogue,” featured Hands Across the Hills co-facilitators Green and Ben Fink discussing the in-depth conversations between the Leverett and Kentucky contingents.

Rather than trying to change voting behavior or opinions, Green explained, the process is about trying to understand a culture that votes so differently on guns, abortion, immigration and other issues.

“Is this all emotional? Are you avoiding the issues?” attendees asked Green, who responded that when 11 Kentuckians first visited Leverett in October 2017, she brought up the issue of guns. “What makes you feel safe?” she asked, and found that her Leverett neighbors felt safe when nobody has guns around them, while the Kentucky visitors responded that they feel safe when everyone has guns.

“We talked about the opioid crisis, and the Kentuckians said people are robbing grandmothers’ televisions to sell for money to buy opioids and they felt they needed guns to protect grandmothers. We went at this very hard issue in a way that we could hear each other. … We want to go underneath, to get to the life experience that gets you to why you want to vote for Trump, what makes you want guns?”

In the second gathering on April 8, Tim Phillips, of Boston-based Beyond Conflict, described that organization’s decades of work, beginning after the Cold War as Eastern European leaders sought guidance as they began preparing for societal change.

Around 2015, Phillips said he began hearing from peacemakers in other countries who advised, “You need to focus on your own country. ”

“Like canaries in a coal mine, they could see and sense the deepening divide in the U.S.,” he said.

Brain science research, he learned, was uncovering an underlying behavioral basis for the work he’d been doing in conflict resolution.

“It’s tough to negotiate with a humiliated partner,” he heard from one participant from Northern Ireland at a workshop. Then a brain and behavioral scientist awakened him to the relevance of new research that shows why so many conflicts and peace agreements seem so intractable.

Instead of the rational beings, “We’re emotionally based beings who can only think rationally when we feel that our identities, as we see ourselves, are understood and valued by others.”

Research on the psychology of polarization that Beyond Conflict has done in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania shows that once interactions go from profound disagreement to “us versus them,” “a whole range of unconscious psychological processes kick in that serve to drive us further apart,” Philips told the April 8 Karuna gathering. Unconsciously, the psychology of polarization tends to exaggerate how much the “other” group might disrespect or dehumanize you.

“The more separated we are, the less contact we have, the more we’re getting our news from our various social media channels … or we don’t live next to each other or we don’t go to the same schools or churches together, we don’t play the same sports,” Phillips said. “We start basing our views of each other based on these silos.”

As a result, the research shows, “Polarization is becoming more toxic, like a public health threat,” he added.

That same April 8 discussion, at which Nigerian psychologist Dr. Fatima Akilu of Neem Foundation explained the post-trauma work her organization with victims and perpetrators of political violence, can be viewed at building-community.

Karuna Center’s series also included an April 1 conversation about lessons learned from working on reconciliation in the aftermath of Rwandan and Bosnian conflicts. Another discussion, on April 21, brought together participants in a Mediators Without Borders network of community-based monitors, educators and responders to build cohesion and negotiate conflicts as they might develop around this country. The non-partisan, volunteer TRUST Network, established by a consortium of organizations as tensions over U.S. elections intensified last September, is based on the U.S. Justice Department’s America’s Peacemakers initiative under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to help communities facing discrimination disputes.

Green said her own anxiety began as the 2016 elections started heating up “because I had seen in so many war-torn countries where the roots of war were connected to the dehumanization of ‘the other.’ I had a worrying sense of the dehumanization and blame, and the aggression that comes along with that, was escalating.”

The growing verbal attacks on Muslims, Mexicans and others that she and collaborating peaceworkers heard “became more alarming,” especially given her work in Rwanda. There, intertribal tensions, in which the Hutu-led government in the early 1990s called the minority Tutsi tribe “cockroaches,” lead to the 1994 genocide that resulted in nearly a million deaths.

“When a human population is reduced to a bug, you can kill them,” said Green. Like with the Nazi characterization of Jews as rats, “It’s classic example of dehumanization. Everybody (in Rwanda) had a transistor radio, which blasted antagonisms and stimulated violence.”

Around the same time, Yugoslavia’s interwoven Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian society was torn apart after the 1980 death of President Josip Broz Tito, with Slobadan Milosovic resurrecting a 600-year-old humiliating incident as a battle-cry that led to atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, including genocide.

“Yugoslavia was a united country under Tito,” Green said. “Before the war, people intermarried without even asking the origin of the family. Nobody cared; religion was not about anything very serious for the people. It was an identity, but it was muted. Everybody looked alike, they spoke the same language.”

In both those violent conflicts, and others where Green worked with other peacemakers on the ground, “It only takes one manipulative, strong leader in power to stoke those grievances.”

A “tremendous insight” for Green and other Hands Across the Hills participants, Green said, is this: “A person is larger than their vote. People I disagree with have full biographies in the way they’ve been shaped and understand the world. There’s always a back story, and if I remind myself of that, it stops me from demonizing others in my own mind and helps me see them in their fullness. It makes me realize they, in their fullness, need respect just as I need it. To discover a whole person under a vote is a lovely thing. All beings are complex and have full lives. We’re shaped by enormous social forces that tell us a lot about ourselves.”

Karuna’s Byers says the new series is part of an effort by the organization to focus on domestic as well as international peace-building issues. “Building Community Across Divides” follows a series of discussions and workshops last year about the past and present native communities in the Connecticut River Valley, as well as a 2017 lecture series on “Transforming this Moment: Bridging Our Divides.

It’s unclear, she says, exactly where the current online series of conversations will lead. The federal Department of Homeland Security has stepped up its funding to respond to domestic terrorism threats with a program aimed at supporting “diverse, innovative, and community-driven methods to prevent domestic terrorism while respecting civil rights and liberties.”

In the March 10 discussion, Mirsad “Miki” Jacevic, Karuna’s senior peacebuilding advisor, asked, “How do we do Karuna-like work across America?

“My slight apprehension and hope for the U.S. is how do we make this work relevant to the people … so this is not something ‘out there?’ It’s very much historically needed in this country. How do we indeed stop this great tendency of American people to say, ‘Let’s focus on the future, forget about the past.’ There are many historical wounds in this country that are never even opened, let alone discussed. How do we really keep at this?”

Green agreed, adding, “We try not to talk to anybody about anything important. That lays the seeds for more violence, for more alienation.”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His website is

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