Over the course of the last five years, the Youth, Peace, and Security (YPS) program has worked with youth leaders in Medellin, Colombia to foster peace and social transformation in communities that have been afflicted by violence. The program is led by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, executive director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4), research scholar Aldo Civico, and program manager Joan Lopez.
Medellin, as the AC4 team understands it, can be taken as a social laboratory, given that the city encapsulates the dynamics of conflict that Colombia has experienced in the past 60 years. The city is almost entirely built by migrants and the forcibly displaced by the war. Yet there have also been many peaceful responses by the communities to conflict.
The YPS program has held innumerable workshops, engaged in fieldwork, and set in motion Participatory Action Research initiatives, with and among youth and community leaders in Medellin. It uses a top-down, bottom-up approach where people can meet in the middle to implement community change. Now, after five years of this work, the YPS program is co-authoring a book in partnership with 10 local youth and community leaders in Medellin about the lessons they have learned. The forthcoming book, Theory and Practice Redefined: A Field Guide to Social Transformation, which will be out in fall 2020, is an opportunity to step back and assess the impact of their work with youth leaders over these past five years. It has also allowed the YPS program to reflect on which lessons can be useful to wider communities of academics, practitioners, and activists interested in peacebuilding and social transformation.
Fisher-Yoshida and Lopez will be co-authoring each chapter with a different expert on the topics in Medellin. “This has been a collaborative research process throughout, so it was important to invite our partners to participate in the writing of the chapters, but we also wanted to honor the fact that when we started doing our fieldwork, a lot of these youth leaders had already been doing this work,” Fisher-Yoshida explains. “We didn’t just come in and teach new things. We just wanted to contribute to what they were already doing. And now, five years later, I was so honored with how warm and excited the reaction was from our partners when sharing the opportunity that we were presented with in writing this book.”
While the opportunity to celebrate the collective development of this work has been quite inspiring, the work has not been without challenges. One particular challenge that the YPS program has found over the last five years has been ensuring that relationships are nurtured remotely when not physically in Medellin. “It’s really important when you’re doing fieldwork from a remote location that you really have reliable partners on the ground. The partners know the everyday and local situation better than you do and are more in touch with the pulse of what’s going. You have an external lens which can be helpful, but in between visits, there has to be something sustained,” says Fisher-Yoshida.
Fisher-Yoshida and Lopez recommend maintaining contact with partners through social media and also ensuring that there is consistency in the type of contact that you have with partners, both in-person and virtually. Nurturing these relationships is also important for building new relationships, because people will guide you to new connections and projects when you have built trust.
While it can certainly be challenging to cultivate these partnerships, Lopez shares the silver linings to nurturing these long-distance, long-term partnerships. “When you’re immersed in situations, it can be hard to measure impact and to really assess if what you’re doing has been working or not. You have your intentions in doing a workshop but you can only see the longer-term unanticipated effects with time.”
During a recent visit, Fisher-Yoshida and Lopez were struck with an instance of one of those long-term effects. Throughout the last five years, the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) methodology has played a very important role in their fieldwork. While the YPS program has conducted many workshops over the years on CMM and how to use these tools for conflict resolution and social transformation among youth in Medellin, it sometimes has been hard to immediately know what the impact is. Yet, during a recent fieldwork visit to Medellin, Fisher-Yoshida and Lopez were invited by their partners to visit a museum. At the museum, the Museo casa de la memoria, community leaders had come together to create a mural with the theme of “reconciliation.” Upon arriving to the mural, they shared with Fisher-Yoshida and Lopez that the graffiti artists and other community leaders had used CMM in order to come up with this theme and the aesthetic form, in order to create something that would be powerful for everyone in the community. This experience is just one of the many impacts their work has illuminated over time.
When discussing key lessons from the last five years, Fisher-Yoshida asserts that it’s really important to be inclusive in big fieldwork projects such as this. “What you can create together is so much richer than what you think you can do on your own. This has been proven to us again and again. Additionally, if you really want to work in partnership with people, you have to understand what that means, all the way through. You cannot plan something and then bring others along at the end, but you must be sure that you are including others at every step of the process.”
Lopez feels as though the process of writing the book has been a microcosm for the fieldwork itself. “This book is like a process of memory for all of us. The people that we are writing this book with are the people that we started walking the streets of Medellin with five years ago, and this book has been collaborative throughout, from writing the chapters to thinking about illustrations and so forth. Overall, I think it’s really important to think about field research as a set of processes that must be trusted, not events. While you should have objectives and ideas, you should also be open to the processes reconfiguring and regenerating.”
For Fisher-Yoshida and Lopez, the book represents an important milestone of their work over the past five years, but it is certainly not the end of their work with youth leaders and peacebuilding. “It’s a culmination but it’s also a transition and an opportunity continue on,” Fisher-Yoshida says. “We’re planning on having a series of workshops based on the specific chapters of the book led by the youth and community leaders co-authoring the chapters with us. Now we have been thinking creatively about how to do this online with the challenges of COVID-19. But nonetheless, this book is just another iteration and we will continue our community-building work from here.”