State of the Planet

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Conflict, Displaced Persons and the Built Environment

By Beth Fisher-Yoshida

Over the past 50-plus years Colombia has been embroiled in conflict, creating the world’s second largest internal displacement challenge next to Syria. As people have been uprooted from their homes, they’ve been forced to settle elsewhere often in makeshift communities on the outskirts of cities such as Medellín. This pattern of displacement and informal settlement highlights the linkages between conflict and environment—in this case the built environment.

Conflict drives displacement, which in turn drives the creation of informal settlements. Informal settlements, in turn, can be drivers of more conflict and the cycle is perpetuated. These settlements are not officially part of a municipality and therefore, not entitled to the services cities provide, such as electricity, running water or proper sewage disposal. Because of the extra-legal status of these communities, organized crime and informal economies spring up to fill the gaps in service provision and security. This then starts a new spiral of conflict as groups vie for power, wealth and basic services. These new actors become aligned with other networks and become entangled in the larger macro conflict dynamics in the country.

Walking through a neighborhood in Medellín with youth leaders.
Walking through a neighborhood in Medellín with youth leaders.

Narrow, winding paths in Medellín.

Narrow, winding paths in Medellín.

In spite of these difficulties, there are pockets of hope and resilience from youth and community members and leaders from within Medellín. They are taking initiative in ways that improve the quality of life in their communities. They bring passion and local knowledge that keeps them motivated and engaged. For the past two years my colleagues and I from within the Urban Violence program at the Advanced Consortium for Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at Columbia University have been working to strengthen these youth and community leaders. In particular, we have been working with Corporacion Cultural Diafora, Colombia Somos Todos and Puerta Abierta. We have introduced a variety of conflict resolution tools and concepts to build capacity that offer viable alternatives to gangs, violence and feelings of hopelessness.

Youth leaders identifying accomplishments and concerns.
Youth leaders identifying accomplishments and concerns.

In recent workshops in Medellín we continued our work using Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM), this time applied to project creation. CMM takes a communication perspective. We all live by the stories we tell about our social worlds, others and ourselves. Some of these stories are generative, while others keep us trapped in destructive cycles. Our choices are fateful and create the lives we lead and the social worlds within which we live. By changing our personal and social narratives we change our worlds.

People make choices based on the options available to them influenced by what they see in their families and communities. Education and information are game changers. They increase choices community members can make about their development and future increasing their sense of agency and self worth. This naturally leads to a more serious personal investment in the social worlds of their communities, thus reducing urban violence.

Youth leaders discussing their CMM Daisy Models.
Youth leaders discussing their CMM Daisy Models.

We want these youth and community leaders to be successful. They have no shortage of passion as they are deeply committed to making a difference in their communities, in the city and even sending ripples of change across the country. However, translating this passion into processes that conceptualize and frame a project can be challenging, especially if it is not something you have done before or formally learned to do. Therefore, we realized after trial and error that we needed to support project creation from its inception.

This is a sample flow of how youth and community leaders worked through the planning for their projects during a CMM project planning workshop.

We frame the proposed intervention as an “episode,” which is a particular period of time. It can be one exchange, a day, a week, six months or even two years, for example. Each episode has a beginning, middle, end and purpose. We are caught up in episodes we either do not create or those we do create. Therefore, we were teaching ways to develop intentional episodes.

  1. Select a situation/scenario of an episode you want to create.
  2. Who is the target audience of this episode?
  3. Who needs to be involved both directly and indirectly?
  4. What tools will you use to understand the situation better? (In this capacity we teach the use of some of the models from CMM as a way to support the fuller exploration of information to enhance understanding.)
  5. What are the logical forces happening that you want to change? To create? (We explore logical forces, which are the forces that govern what we believe we should/should not do. They are linked to our stories of identity, are culturally connected and value laden. There are ways of creating forces we want to occur so that there are outcomes we want to achieve.)
  6. Map out the different scenarios using these tools.
  7. Describe the episode(s) you are creating.
    1. Purpose
    2. Beginning
    3. Middle
    4. End
  8. How will you know if you are successful?
  9. What are some possible critical moments you anticipate might happen? (Critical moments are events or interactions that occur that have a very strong influence on subsequent outcomes. More awareness is brought to them so that intentional decisions are made, with a fuller exploration of potential consequences for better alignment.)
  10. How will you address these critical moments?
Youth leaders in Comuna 8 Medellín using CMM for project planning.
Youth leaders in Comuna 8 Medellín using CMM for project planning.

It is a point of transformation when participants realize their personal stories and the stories of their communities are interconnected. Significant events that happen to them are related to the events in their neighborhoods. For example, when violence erupts and the one road access is closed and controlled by one of the local gangs, movement is stopped. The people who need to move to their place of employment are prevented; trucks cannot deliver goods for sale; and this impacts their local and personal economies, families and everyday existence. This in turn, shapes their personal narratives to those of suffering, toxic levels of stress and full-time fixation on survival. The learning from CMM in this context is that changing their personal narratives causes them to behave differently in their communities. Moreover, this changes the social narrative because when they engage differently in their social worlds they receive different responses from others, eliciting different responses from them.

With the application and internalization of CMM, there is potential for youth leaders and members of their communities to experience ongoing transformation as their personal and social narratives change, influence each other, and change again.

Beth Fisher-Yoshida is co-director of the Environment, Peace and Security certificate; program director of the MS in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program; and co-executive director of the Advanced Consortium for Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, all at Columbia University.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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