State of the Planet

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Allegra Chen-Carrel Explores How Groups Can Co-Exist Peacefully

As a biracial individual, Allegra Chen-Carrel has long been interested in the relationships between people belonging to different ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups.

allegra chen-carrel headshot
Allegra Chen-Carrel is the program manager for the Sustaining Peace Project at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity.

Chen-Carrel joined the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) through an internship program in 2018. After working on the center’s Sustaining Peace Project, she was hired as a program manager. As part of the project, she works along with an interdisciplinary team of mathematicians, anthropologists, and social psychologists led by Peter T. Coleman to learn what it takes to maintain long-term peace in a society.

Meanwhile, she is also pursuing a Ph.D. in social-organizational psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where her research focuses on social justice within the workplace and conflict resolution.

In a conversation with the State of the Planet below, she talks about her observations from her research projects in the United States and Mauritius.

Which countries have you and the Sustaining Peace Project been focusing on that have been successful in maintaining and sustaining peace over the last few decades?

Recently, one country that we have been researching is Mauritius. It is a small, highly multicultural island nation off the coast of Madagascar in Africa. Although the country ranks high on several global peace indexes, it has a history of colonization, slavery, and fresh waves of immigration, with legacies that endure today.

Mauritius has no indigenous population. It was an uninhabited island that was successively colonized by the Dutch, French, and British. During colonization, people from Madagascar, and other parts of Africa were brought over and enslaved to work mainly on sugarcane plantations in Mauritius.

Later, when the British outlawed slavery, they started bringing in indentured laborers, mainly from India, to work on the sugar plantation fields.

So, over time, Mauritius became an ethnically and religiously diverse country, and it has been interesting for me to learn how it grapples with this history, and how it now ranks very highly on multiple global peace indices.

In partnership with the University of Mauritius and Dr. Naseem Aumeerally, we have conducted field research, talking to public figures and members of different communities within Mauritius to better understand what they think contributes to peace in their society today.

How has Mauritius been so successful in maintaining peace, despite its history of colonization and slavery? 

Even though Mauritius is a peaceful country, there are legacies of colonization and inequalities that linger. It is not a utopia. Mauritius launched the first Truth and Justice Commission dedicated to the legacy of colonization and slavery. In this way, it is taking steps to address how history influences the present.

People also recognize that peace is fragile in Mauritius. During the interviews and focus groups we conducted, something that rose to the surface was how intentional peace is in Mauritius. For instance, there are many social norms against speaking up or having confrontational discourse. There are also rules and laws against speaking about things that might instigate violence or lead to deeper divides.

That was one finding that was interesting for me, as an American. There is a lot of priority given to fostering harmony at different levels from the government to an interpersonal level. But these non-confrontational values of the Mauritian government and society can, in some ways, also serve a darker side because of taboos about speaking out about problems.

From our research, we observe how complex all of this is and how there are so many factors that are entangled together to create this system that has remained stable and peaceful for so long.

What are some lessons that other countries can learn from Mauritius in terms of co-existing peacefully?

There is no magic recipe for peace, but there are several things that people mentioned as important, such as cross-cutting ties across groups, really explicitly valuing peace and the pride that comes with this peaceful reputation, and the near absence of guns — the country does not have a standing army. In fact, many different factors combine to contribute to the sustainability of the peace. But at its core is what many Mauritians who participated in this research call “le vivre ensemble,” or the way that members of different religious, ethnic, and religious groups generally have created a harmonious way of living in a community together. Appreciating that complexity, the history of relationships between groups, and future goals and expectations can help to understand why things are the way they are in the present.

What other research projects are you currently working on?

A lot of our focus in the Sustaining Peace Project right now is on a data science project where we are trying to understand basic differences in the language used in different peaceful societies.

There is a lot of research on hate speech. We know that hate speech used in social media, news, and blogs can not only reflect the violence and divides in a society, but can also have the potential to instigate violence and division. Yet, there is comparably very little research on peace speech or the language that’s used in more peaceful contexts.

We are using natural language processing techniques to show that there are distinct differences in the linguistic features evident in the news media in contexts that are more and less peaceful. But as is often a limitation with some of these data science methods, they can show you there is a difference, but they don’t tell you what these differences are.

So, we are currently starting a project where we are trying to decipher what these differences mean and what the specific linguistic features of more peaceful contexts may be.

For my doctoral studies, another research project that I have been focusing on is the work of organizational activists, or people who are committed to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice within the workplace. We interviewed 27 organizational activists at various organizations in the United States, and conducted a survey of around 120 people who identified as organizational activists. They shared different strategies they use to leverage tension to meet their goals, such as increasing tension through vocalizing issues, and advocating for change; creating networks and using the power they do have to disrupt and resist harmful status quos; using strategies linked to mediation and dialogue processes to open space for a variety of perspectives; and healing and learning in order to cope and prevent burn-out related to workplace tension around issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. This kind of work is often uncompensated and unrecognized within organizations and very emotionally draining. It can also be risky for people to take on this work, and even jeopardize their jobs. It is important for organizations to not only recognize and acknowledge organizational activists but also support, promote, and compensate them for fighting for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

Something I really appreciate from the Sustaining Peace Project, that I hope to bring into my own research, is the importance of not only focusing on what is not working, but also in acknowledging the positive, and learning from systems that support thriving and flourishing.

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