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The Intersection of Peacemaking and Placemaking: A Personal Reflection

Craig Zelizer

December 1, 2014

 Peacemaking is more than an idea, it is a place. But, where is this place?  Peacemaking efforts around the world fail every day.  Negotiators meet in conference rooms, set agendas and discuss the issues that keep parties and countries warring against each other.  But, the agenda goes nowhere.  More often than not the parties leave the negotiations holding as tightly onto their positions as their briefcases and return to the battles that are destroying families, communities and human lives.

What is the missing link?  Peacemaking efforts are missing a simple and obvious insight.  For there to be peace, we must be creating places that are safe from which there is no reason to flee.

The emerging new field of placemaking offers a piece of the puzzle essential for peacemaking efforts. (S1 Placemaking) The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is at the center of a  global placemaking movement.  The placemaking movement is energized by the notion that we can intentionally create vital spaces that nourish communities and empower people.

Something unbelievably powerful happens when we bring together  the movements of peacemaking and placemaking.  This intersection of peacemaking and placemaking is where we engage in the practice of intentionally fashioning and co-constructing our world.  On a local or global scale, this is the place where we design our future on this planet.  It is an architectural practice and it is a  relational practice.  It is about building community and connections. It is about peace building and place building.

We are just discovering the synergy between peacemaking and placemaking.  These are two movements that completely need each other.  The peacemaking stream adds to the "Eleven Principles for Creating Great Community Places, an essential 12th principle.  "Vital community spaces need to be safe places."  The placemaking stream reminds us that peacemaking efforts are likely to succeed only in the context of a community connecting with each other.

Peacemaking without placemaking, is simply someone's agenda.  We have discovered that when we start with the agenda instead of starting with the relationship, the agenda goes nowhere.  This is the compelling truth of failed peacemaking efforts around the world.   I recently received an e-mail from one of the peace negotiators in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia seeking to end the deadly conflict between the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.  They wrote to me and said:  "We needed to have started with relationship building.  Without this shared connection of eating from a common dish, these talks are going nowhere."

You see, some African cultures have long understood this notion of peacemaking and placemaking.  Recently, I  was traveling to San Diego to present at a conference on conflict transformation sponsored by the Taos Institute of which I am an Associate.  On the ride to the airport, my shuttle bus driver was a young man from the Oromo region of Ethiopia. We connected around our shared experience of growing up in Africa and then coming to the United States.  As he unloaded my suitcase at the airport, I asked my friend Waco this question:  "What does the West have to learn from Africa about peacemaking?"  He paused for only a moment before answering:  "In Africa we eat from a common dish."  You see, there is great wisdom in the African proverb:  "You have no enemy when you eat from a common dish."

If peacemaking needs placemaking, it is equally true that placemaking needs peacemaking.  The placemaking movement rightly seeks to put people before efficiency in designing spaces that connect and empower communities. But, it never works to simply seize places even if it is for the lofty purpose of giving them back to the people.  Occupying public spaces may be empowering in the short run.  But peacemaking must happen if these spaces are to remain as places to empower communities. The cost in human life of seized public spaces, where there is no peacemaking is high.  The people's movement that led to the occupation of Tiananmen Square  in China, ended in a deadly standoff.  Arguably, the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out  because it was place-taking without peacemaking.

It is only at the intersection of placemaking and peacemaking that we can begin to re-imagine our world and  co-construct a desired future.

What does the intersection of peacemaking and placemaking look like?  Yes, this is the place where we eat from a common dish.  It is also the place where we feed one another.  In the Horn of Africa this is called the ritual of Gursha).  In any country or culture, this is the place where we are intimate with one another  and can share our dreams and aspirations.

The intersection where peacemaking and placemaking could be happening is sometimes cluttered with the wrecks of our disregard for both peace and place.  We may need to sweep aside the clutter of instruments of war to begin rebuilding vital community places of peace.  In the city of Asmara where I was born, the country of Eritrea needed to do housekeeping to begin building a country of peace.  Sometimes nature takes over to clean up our messes when we fail to do so ourselves.

If we envision a world at peace, we need to be busy in our homes, institutions, communities and the global community designing places that are set aside to magnify our shared values. These intentional places are spaces where we enhance dialogue, encourage conversations, connect with each other, and listen for the whispered voice of peace.  In our homes, a shared family meal can be such a space.  Front porches on homes have historically been such places.  These are places to call a greeting to a passing neighbor, to sit and visit, to connect the private space of our home with the public space of the neighborhood.  Front porches are places to share a cold glass of water, to become civically engaged and to bond with our neighbors.  Sadly, we have in many places lost both the shared family meal and front porches as intersections of peacemaking and placemaking.

In institutions, we can create such spaces.  These spaces are indeed sacred ground that call us to connect within an organization around our deepest shared values.  It may be a tiny garden space set aside at a K-12 school like St. George's School.  It may be a chapel or a mosque on a university campus.  In institutions, these are spaces to become quiet, to pray, and to reflect.

Creating the space of peace making and placemaking is a core message of every major religion of the world.  The faith traditions call us into these spaces to prioritize the ‘other’, to move beyond self to a shared higher purpose.  This is where we exercise our intellect and our hearts in the service of humanity and the well-being of this planet.  The Dalai Lama says:  “The planet does not need more successful people.  The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.”

The intersection of peacemaking and placemaking is a place of great hope.  My brother Peter visited the country of Eritrea just after the terribly costly war that Eritrea fought for its independence. Much of the infrastructure of the country was destroyed.  Thousands had lost their lives.  Long after the shelling stopped, one could not lean against a wall without wondering if it might crumble.  Peter was greeted in Asmara, the Capital city by an Eritrean host named Solomon.  They walked silently together through the public square of Asmara, a city and country that did not know what the future of independence would hold. Solomon insisted on stopping in the public square at a shoe shine station where he had both his shoes and Peter’s shoes polished. My brother Peter recalls his discomfort with this.  First, it is sometimes difficult to accept being served by others. But this is what happens in the intersection of placemaking and peacemaking. We serve each other! But, shining shoes seemed like an odd priority in this nation that was just coming out of a war. As  Peter walked across the public square with his host Solomon, Solomon explained why shining shoes was important to him at this profound moment in history.  He stated quietly:  “It is important for me to stop here and shine our shoes.  I come here every week to get my shoes shined.  This is why.  When a person shines their shoes, they are expecting that there will be a tomorrow.  If there were no tomorrow, there would be no need to shine our shoes.  When we shine our shoes every week, we affirm that there will be a tomorrow.”

So shine your shoes every week. Shine the shoes of a friend.  Better yet, shine the shoes of an enemy. Wash their feet as is done in many spiritual traditions.  If that is too much, at least sit down at a family dinner table together instead of in front of a television set.  Create intersections of peacemaking and placemaking in your home, your workplace or your neighborhood.  Add a front porch, build a community center, plant a community garden.

Find the place where relationships are valued above agendas, allowing the sacred potential of simply being present to each other to emerge.  I call this the place of relational presence.  In this intersection of peacemaking and placemaking  we discover that which is sacred in ordinary life.  This is the place where we are compelled to take off our shoes because we know we are standing on holy ground.

So let us find this intersection together.  Let us occupy the holy ground of relational presence.  Let us invite into this sacred space our families, our colleagues at work, our community.  Let us invite into this sacred space a world that is yearning for peace and places that are safe.

Thank you. Shalom. Namaste. Peace be with you.

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