Teaching Peacebuilding in a World at War – A Profound Experience

As timing would have it, I was invited by Professor Katarina Adam and the Dean at HTW Berlin University to teach an original course on peacebuilding in the Spring of 2023. I postponed it until the fall of this year, due to a catastrophic flood in my home not knowing the course would start just four days after colossal calamity — the beginning of this tragic war in the Middle East on the backdrop of the ongoing one in Ukraine.

At this prestigious applied engineering school, a course such as this is rare to come by and as such, attracted a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students with backgrounds all in some way connected to global conflicts. Though the majority are German nationals, one is from the Ukraine who brought his parents to Berlin in the middle of this war, two with Vietnamese backgrounds, who lost kin during the Vietnam War, one with Austrian roots and a family past defined by Cold War politics and displacement, and one the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors settled via Spain in Mexico City who now, two generations later, is spending her semester abroad in Berlin. As they candidly shared the compelling reasons why they took this course, one burst into tears, and another thought well beyond its educational merit, the course would, in this historic moment, prove to be therapeutic. They shared their unique mix of loss, pain, overwhelm, and disbelief — all aching to shape a world gone terribly awry.

The first order of business was to correct the erroneously foreshortened title, Economics of World Peace, to its longer, correct one: What is the Economic Value Proposition of Place-making for Peacebuilding Institutions?

From there we have delved into a series of case studies of development projects to explore design principles which uphold social justice frameworks, galvanizing community building writ large. Some have shifted entire ecosystems both natural and human, while others re-write policy and thereby history for the benefit of all stakeholders across every socioeconomic rung of the ladder. Challenged to critically think, as they examine old and new peacebuilding institutions, and the places in which they are mindfully situated, my students grapple with the fundamental questions of how to first imagine and then design sustainable, resilient systems and structures to support the building of peaceful communities as they leverage the diverse voices and backgrounds of their constituents with shared purpose to ultimately serve all involved. I have taken the concept of urgent imagination by regenerative designer Teddy Cruz and escalated it to warped imagination for the purpose of this course and this moment, stretching the limits of my students’ knowledge while leveraging the best of their design talents to come into their own as shape-shifting leaders.

It is a privilege and a massive challenge to teach with this war-torn uphill battle and seemingly impossible global context that time and again makes its way into our discourse. With the world in the classroom, we explore the core social justice grounding principles for peacebuilding work and what it means to evolve forward. As the course was already overflowing when first posted for enrollment with 52 students turned away because it was full, I have already been invited to teach this course for the next few years.

Fueled by hatred, bigotry, escalating violence, and zero-sum politics, I dare not think how much further our world can devolve. Instead, I focus my attention on my students’ capabilities, as I work to educate and inspire them to think along these peacebuilding lines. It is a classroom in which I am absolutely certain that cynicism will never take root, as we put the stake for peacebuilding that much deeper into fertile ground together.

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