This is a sponsored post on PCDN
The following post comes from Brittney Ochira, a 2018 graduate of the Master of Arts in Peace and Justice program at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (Kroc School).
You’re sitting across from a survivor of a mass street demonstration gone wrong. He narrowly escaped the shots fired by police into the crowd, but days later he still has the trauma from carrying his young friends who were not so lucky to the hospital. He knows the price of sharing his story with you could be torture, or even his life, but he risks it all to give this interview. He believes in the cause, and he has faith in you.
As a human rights researcher and advocate, you know the pressure you’re under to get this right. You carry the burden of reporting his story accurately, of asking the right questions, of finding the truth and presenting it credibly and clearly. You also know all that can go wrong, so you triple check your recorder, prepare a list of questions you anticipate you’ll need to ask, and practice your opening spiel to make sure you cover all the basics while still helping your interviewee feel comfortable.
With all that is at stake in such an interview, one would hope that the human rights researchers conducting this important work would have completed their first few palm-sweating, heart-racing interviews in a classroom, not in a war-torn country. For many peace studies graduates entering the field, however, this kind of practice is not available. They are likely to learn the art of interviewing witnesses by stumbling through it — and by missing some priceless opportunities in the process.
In the Kroc School’s Human Rights Advocacy course — part of the Master’s in Peace and Justice program — experienced practitioner and scholar Dr. Dustin Sharp teaches graduate students not only how to conduct human rights interviews, but also other practical skills such as how to give media interviews and how to write op-eds and press releases. In simulations based on Human Rights Watch reports conducted in West Africa, students sit behind a one-way glass window and interview a “witness” while the class looks on and provides feedback. This can be a stressful setting, but it pales in comparison to the prospect of bungling a real-life interview.
When learning these practical skills in the classroom (and through field-based courses such as trips to Colombia, Haiti, and Rwanda), students can anticipate and prepare for the kinds of scenarios that arise in real human rights interviews. What do you do if you suspect an interviewee is obfuscating or even lying? How do you lead someone through a timeline of events without asking leading questions? Which details will be most important to establish the credibility of this story? No interview can be perfect, but with preparation you can at least avoid the scenario of returning to your office only to realize that you didn’t ask about the insignia on the officers’ uniforms or how the interviewee is sure that loud sound she heard was actually a bomb.
As the peace and justice field becomes increasingly professionalized, there is a real need for our academic programs to merge the strong theoretical basis of peace studies with the practical skill-building we used to learn on the job. With seemingly every job in the field requiring (at minimum) a master’s degree and three to five years of experience, the expectation on candidates is that they are ready and able to produce thoughtful and high-quality work with minimal training up front.
More importantly, the field is developing a greater awareness of the risks survivors and witnesses take in sharing their stories with us, either through potential retribution in their home environment or through the psychological distress of reliving trauma. With this awareness has come a deeper sense of responsibility for practitioners to handle their work with care — and with skill. Increasing the focus of our classrooms toward practical learning will make peace studies graduates better prepared for the privilege of hearing survivor testimony, and more able to honor their stories in our retelling.
At the Kroc School, we are educating for peace. Ready to join us? Learn more about the Kroc School and its graduate programs.