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Building Peace in Colombia Through Youth Programs

Joán Lopez
Joán Lopez

Joán Lopez is coordinator of the Youth, Peace and Security Program out of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4). In Medellín, Colombia, he is working with youth leaders, youth organizations and the AC4 team to foster and share community-building initiatives, and to develop a network in which youth leaders learn from each other. Lopez is particularly interested in understanding the role of art in youth resistance movements and its relation to the production of historical memory in Colombia. Through a materialistic perspective, he seeks to analyze how youth remember and represent the violence and conflict they have experienced, in all its expressions, during the past 30 years in the northwest region of Colombia. Lopez also recently co-authored a report, “Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security in Medellín: A Case Study” with program lead, professor Beth Fisher-Yoshida.

During an interview with AC4 Communications intern Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Lopez explained the program and how Colombian youth are subverting violent conflicts in their city. 

Tell us a bit about how you got started working in Medellín.

About four years ago, Beth Fisher-Yoshida and [professor] Aldo Civico traveled to Medellín to meet a group of youth community leaders from different comunas [zones] of the city (Comunas 8, 5, 2, 1 and Altavista). During that trip, they were invited to visit and spend time around some of the most affected areas of the city due to the violence. They listened to people’s stories of horror, suffering … but above all, to stories of resilience—those that call attention to the ways in which human beings reclaim their dignity during difficult times. This was during the fall of 2014; I had done the same during the summer of that same year.

One thing immediately caught our attention, and it still guides much of our efforts in Medellín: the ability of communities to respond peacefully to violent conflicts.

With this realization, we began working with youth community leaders in our search (theirs and ours) to learn more about the dynamics of community building during, and after, violent conflicts. It has really been a process of learning.

workshop for the youth, peace, and security program
“Niche” (center left) moderates a CMM workshop in Comuna 8, August 2017.

These initial encounters with youth community leaders in Medellín were possible because Aldo Civico had already established good relationships with some community organizers in the city, as the result of his 10+ years of ethnographic work in the region.

Tell us about some of the peacebuilding and violence prevention activities already underway with youth organizers in Medellín. How have you worked within and built from this existing framework?

In addition to our research and writing about the dynamics of “community peace-building” — about how communities find ways to respond peacefully and subvert the dynamics of violent conflicts — we provide support to various youth-led initiatives in their neighborhoods.

Our approach to conflicts through systems-thinking and communications theory has been pivotal to our work with youth leaders. We believe that by sharing some of the theory and methodology that is being advanced at AC4, such as DST [Dynamical Systems Theory] and CMM [Coordinated Management of Meaning], the community work of youth leaders in Medellín can become even richer.

We have dedicated a lot of time learning from youth organizers about their approach to conflict — their methods, strategies, theories. They have also dedicated a lot of time learning some of the methods and theories we have shared with them. It is from this exchange, from this intersection, that we believe the work already made within communities can become more impactful.

How did you work to build trust between the youth organizers and local government? What were some of the challenges that arose, and how did you work through them?

Trust can only be constructed through transparency and consistency. We have become transparent and constant interlocutors between the local government and our partner grassroots organizations.

It can be said that there is a “historical distrust” of the government by community leaders. And there are justified reasons for this. Local and national governments have been absent from these communities for a long time. This fact represents perhaps the biggest challenge to the city: how to construct a city-wide conversation around common issues between government and community?

students gather for graffiti workshop
Graffiti workshop at a public library in Comuna 5. Sponsored and moderated by Fundacion E.P.A. in January, 2018.

There has been some progress. Through conversations and pedagogy, both the government and community organizers are becoming aware of the importance to execute a “top-down” “bottom-up” approach to city matters. We are working to continue supporting the construction of this intersection.

How have comuna community members reacted to the peace deal and implementation process? How has the peace deal impacted the comunas?

The peace agreements between the Colombian government and FARC have been welcomed by most community leaders in Medellín. Of course, there are variations to this. Because the conflict between FARC and the government took place mostly in rural areas, the impact of the agreements is not easily read from an urban perspective. At least not yet. We need more time to make this assessment. However, with the presidential elections this year, the agreements have taken a political character, and that is having an impact on the way electors perceive peace in their communities.

In the conclusion to your recent report, you recommend that you must “continue to identify what is working well and share that with other youth.” How do you intend to meet that goal?

There has been some work done on this matter. We have invited some of our colleagues to international conventions on youth leadership and conflict resolution in places like Barcelona and New York. This has proved to be very powerful, given that in places like this, youth organizers are able to share their work and learn from the work of others.

In addition, we are designing a world comparative research initiative intended to identify the various ways communities around the world have responded peacefully to violent conflicts. Creating networks that enable the transmission of knowledge among youth community leaders around the world is of great importance. We want to join such efforts.

A version of this post was originally published on the blog for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity. All photos were provided by Joán Lopez.

To learn more about the Youth, Peace and Security Project, visit the webpage.

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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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