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Friday, May 15, 2015

May Lunch and Learn: The Rise of Peaceful Conflict Resolution

The concept of a "peace process" can bring to mind images of drawn-out negotiations, tense moments of compromise, and diplomats locked in urgent debate. But as Suzanne Ghais, the speaker for next Wednesday’s International Services Lunch and Learn, has learned, sometimes the key to peace must involve innovative measures, like threats of nudity.

Ghais, who is pursuing her PhD in conflict studies at American University, tells a story of the Liberian Civil War, during which a group of activist women joined hands around a building in which negotiators had turned to bickering and stalling. When their barricade didn't spur the negotiators to action, the women threatened to get naked, a tactic meant to appeal to Liberian cultural beliefs surrounding the female body.

"In Liberian culture, it's believed that if a man sees a naked woman, who is not his wife, it causes a curse," Ghais said. "So the threats the women were making were not taken lightly."

May Lunch and Learn speaker
Suzanne Ghais
The story is among many Ghais has encountered in her extensive research into international conflict resolution. Her interest in the field began when she started at Brown University as an undergraduate. Ghais, who is half Egyptian, was frustrated with a lack of courses in the history and culture of the Middle East. But in meeting fellow students with a similar connection to the Middle East, Ghais found herself in the midst of arguments between students who felt passionately about the Israel-Palestine conflict. When she and other students began to conduct workshops and take other actions aimed at finding a peaceful middle ground, Ghais's lifelong passion for peaceful problem-solving was born.

In her professional life, Ghais has facilitated conflict resolution between tribal groups, professional organizations and within workplaces. Her book, "Extreme Facilitation: Guiding Groups through Controversy and Complexity" was published in 2005 and provides detailed insights into her own distinct approach to reaching consensus, with a focus on flexibility and creativity. But even in the ecosystem of conflict and dispute that make up today's geopolitical realities, Ghais says there is more reason than ever to be optimistic about the power of peaceful conflict resolution.

"The trend is going in the right direction," Ghais said. "We have the Arab Spring, or the Arab Awakening, which I think is the better term for it, that set off some conflicts, but this, too shall pass. There will come a time when the positive actions of those changes, I think, will bear fruit and the conflicts caused by those situations will eventually be resolved. It's understanding that wars are products of particular historical circumstances, and a lot of those sources of war are going to go away. We've gotten a lot better at how we prevent, manage and solve these conflicts. It's more hopeful than not."

The Lunch & Learn lecture will be presented Wednesday, May 20, from noon to 1 p.m. at the American Red Cross, 444 Sherman St. RSVPs are requested by 12 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, by clicking here. Webinar options are also available for remote audiences. For more information, contact Tim Bothe.

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