Rob's selective narrative...
It didn't begin with facilitation. I began to resonate with the importance and relevance of inter-group dialogue in the development of policy during high school debating. At age 13, as our team was preparing for a grand final debate on the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people, we attended a lecture by Ronald Wilson, a former High Court Justice who had chaired a National Commission into past government policies affecting the treatment of Aboriginal peoples. He spoke about the country’s history of discrimination and the way in which his worldview had been transformed by hearing the stories of generations of Aborigines affected by these policies. This experience underscored the imperative of a balance between a rigorous intellectual framework and space within it for the subjectivity of our diverse narratives.
Throughout high school my more argumentative side was complemented by a fascination with language and history; how we express ourselves and how the narrative of people and peoples is expressed through their history. Focussing entirely on humanities for my final year of high school, I was captivated by the ancient world in particular – in Latin, translating Cicero, Virgil's Aenied, and poems of Catulus and Horace, alongside studies of Ancient Rome and Greece.
So on the one hand I was developing a highly critical, argumentative bent through study and debating. At the same time, my parents were (perhaps not even deliberately) modelling a more dialogic approach, which aims to get into the shoes of the other person – to meet a person where they are coming from, not just where they are at, understanding what informs their world-view.
In my post-high school years, I came to recognise the systemic bias in Australia at all levels against genuine dialogue, and its implications for policy formulation. At the local level, I encountered one example after a planning application was submitted for the vacant lot behind my parents' house to build a single-level town-house complex for people with mild physical and/or intellectual disability. The perfunctory community consultation meeting was designed in an adversarial fashion that left it vulnerable to manipulation by particular groups and undermined the possibility of constructive outcomes. It was dominated by prejudice, fear and ignorance based on unfounded objections, for example, that the residents of the complex would start molesting children on the nearby playground.
At the national level, in 2007 news spread of a proposed Islamic school in Camden, a town to the south-west of Sydney not well known for its cosmopolitanism or successful integration of different communities. Again, there was a process of consultation and 'dialogue' more conducive to further conflict and inflammatory mediatisation than to constructive and genuine dialogue leading to a consensus (let alone agreement).
I saw the contrast between these examples and a more constructive approach later that year while I was volunteering for a National Deliberative Poll on the question of Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia. A representative group of more than 300 Australians came to Canberra to spend a weekend consisting of plenary sessions, small group discussions (half the groups with Muslims, half without), and informal interactions. The statistically significant shift in attitudes over such a short period – in many cases strongly held attitudes – demonstrated the potential for genuine dialogue to move groups towards a convergence that harnesses difference rather than merely containing conflict.
My honours study in France in 2009 further informed my perspectives, when I researched the controversial wearing of the Muslim head-scarf in public schools, which had been banned in 2004 by legislation that extended to the wearing of all 'visible' religious symbols in public spaces. The polemic and incendiary nature of the issue, becoming vitriolic even in academic circles, indicated the depth of subjective narratives that were being played out below the intellectual exchanges.
Working with Initiatives of Change since 2008, full-time since mid-2009, I have continued the exploration of these different factors, working on programs in India and South-East Asia, Africa, Western and Eastern Europe – all of which bring together people from diverse backgrounds, primarily non-Western, to develop a deeper appreciation of the dynamic between personal change, genuine dialogue and global action to address social issues.
In 2008, I took over coordination of the internship program at the international conference centre of Initiatives of Change in Caux, Switzerland. Each year there are 60 interns from over 20 countries – the subsidised nature of this selective program (all costs except travel), which we have preserved in the face of demands to introduce fees, means that the diversity is not only geographic but also economic and social. Alongside the interns’ work, I developed a 50 hour curriculum emphasising an approach to dialogue with a greater awareness of, and sensitivity to, the importance of dialogue between different individual cultures as much as between group cultures. The crude attribution of difference and misunderstanding to different cultural groups can obscure a much more nuanced understanding of dialogue that confronts the complexity and idiosyncrasies of individual worldviews. Theory and practice that address dialogue, partnership, reconciliation and conflict resolution are then overlayed on to this inter-subjective awareness. The feedback from interns suggests the diversity of the group and the way in which the program is facilitated is unique.
My increasing involvement with the Caux Conference Centre coincided with the development of the Caux Forum for Human Security, conceived by Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun to address the root causes of human insecurity. There were three distinctive features: its holistic approach – simultaneously exploring the issues through the prisms of just governance, healing wounded memory, inclusive economics and climate change action; the diversity of the participants, vertically and horizontally; and the nature of the forum itself, which deliberately creates space for unexpected encounters and includes a service element for participants themselves, who (whether government ministers or farmers) are expected to help side by side in the day to day running of the centre.
When I first heard of the vision for the Human Security Forum, it immediately caught my imagination, from a human and academic perspective. I ultimately wrote my International Relations Honours thesis with the Forum as a case-study, examining the prospects and pitfalls of cosmopolitanism as a theoretical frame for practical strategies around human security. Though passionate about the potential of the Forum, I was highly critical of it in my thesis. All the same, I then had the opportunity to work with the Forum in the final two years of its five year span. Though only remedying to a limited extent what I perceived as some of its flaws, it was a rich exposure to people in a variety of fields working towards human security – their approaches, their successes and failures, and their perceptions of the priorities moving forward.
Though the work in Caux had been stimulating, bringing me into touch with people from all over the world, that context felt somewhat isolated from some realities. So I made the deliberate decision after the summer of 2012 to move into a new role – as a training consultant to Initiatives of Change International – in the hope that this would give me an opportunity to reconnect more closely with on-the-ground realities.
The opportunity came to lead a facilitation team to deliver a month-long program on reconciliation to 200 Peace and Reconciliation Mobilisers in South Sudan. The project was under the aegis of a government-sponsored program of reconciliation that was plagued by politicisation and logistical challenges from the outset. Other elements of the project were torpedoed following a growing rift between the President and the Vice-President, but the training program continued. This experience – with some significant breakthroughs alongside enormous shortcomings all round – crystalised in my mind the centrality of grass-roots dialogue processes to human security, and a shift in focus in my mind away from the macro-level to evaluate the reality and potential at the grass-roots level; specifically, the quality of dialogue that is able to accommodate diverse perspectives.
Work has continued with the reconciliation process in South Sudan, amidst renewed violence, entrenched political positions, and deep suspicions of all activity. In October 2014, Inside Change partnered with the South Sudan Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation, the South African-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), and the local Youth in Solidarity (YiS) to design and deliver a four-week training program for 70 participants from across the country. The journey continues...