Dilemmas Around Making a “Safe Space” in Peacebuilding Training (Part One)

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 12 Feb 2024

Kyoko Okumoto – TRANSCEND Media Service

5 Feb 2024 – When conducting peacebuilding training workshops, facilitators/trainers often encounter ethical dilemmas. How do values, ethics and trust interrelate each other in the peacebuilding training settings? Such a research theme was explored over a weekend in June 2023, in Davao city, the Philippines, in a workshop called “Workshop on Values, Ethics, and Trust in a Peacebuilding Network,” the third workshop for the AHRC-funded Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding Project, in collaboration with Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI). (Note 1)

Objectives of the Workshop were as follows:

  • to explore the unspoken values and assumptions that constitute peacebuilding training;
  • to explore limits/limitations of these values and assumptions in peacebuilding training and what they are;
  • to explore how these unspoken vales and assumptions are communicated and experienced by those communities and individuals who participate in peacebuilding training (how do they create or sabotage trust?); and
  • to explore how we embody these unspoken values and assumptions in peacebuilding training and how we enact and move towards spoken values and a more nuanced and inclusive ethics in practice which builds trust.

The main schedule was originally planned as follows. Of course, as the workshop proceeded, the facilitators checked in with the needs of the participants and changed it accordingly:

  • Opening Lunch 12:00~13:00, 3 June 2023
  • Session ① 13:00~15:00, 3 June 2023

Introduction & Warmup & Values: What made you who you are

  • Session ② 15:15~17:15, 3 June 2023

Ethics & Peacebuilding Training: When values are threatened

  • Session ③ 8:00~10:00, 4 June 2023

Trust and Peacebuilding Training: Discussion & Activities

  • Session ④ 10:15~12:00, 4 June 2023

Wrap up!

Preparation for a “Safe Space”

In anticipation of the weekend workshop, our team undertook comprehensive preparations. Collaborating closely with the MPI staff responsible for hosting the workshop and my co-facilitator, we engaged in meticulous planning and thoughtful considerations in the lead-up to the event, for the sake of making a “safe space” that is fair for all.

First, the commitment to participation was ascertained in advance by MPI staff during sessions where facilitators were not present. This approach was adopted to ensure fairness and provide participants with an opportunity to express any questions or concerns prior to the commencement of the workshop. Additionally, during the orientation meeting, the principal facilitator (myself) explained the purposes and goals of the research. Explicit emphasis was placed on the information conveyed in the consent form. Participants were clearly informed that they retained the right to withdraw from the process at any point if they were dissatisfied or encountered any reservations. This transparent communication aimed to uphold the principles of informed consent and respect for participants’ autonomy throughout the entirety of the workshop. Notably, participants were made aware of the researcher/facilitator’s dedication to upholding the confidentiality of collected data. Furthermore, an open invitation was extended to participants, encouraging them to pose any questions at any point during the workshop, either to MPI, Osaka Jogakuin University, or Coventry University. This approach aimed to foster a collaborative and supportive environment, ensuring participants felt empowered to seek clarification or express any concerns throughout the research process.

Secondly, although the Values, Ethics, and Trust in Peacebuilding Project (VET Project) initially allocated funds to compensate participants, acknowledging the value placed on respecting their time and energy, a decision was made to abstain from offering honorarium to align with the established traditions of the MPI. It is always a question of research ethics when it comes to how to use the budget, with a focus on ensuring that participant needs are adequately met. The allocated budget primarily covered participants’ accommodations, meals, and essential workshop-related items for the two-day event. It is noteworthy that participants’ involvement and contributions to the workshop were not contingent on financial incentives. Importantly, this approach aimed to safeguard against the exploitation of participants’ commitment, reinforcing the ethical principles governing the research endeavour.

Thirdly, the team made a deliberate decision not to audio/video-record the workshop sessions. Instead, a designated documenter captured proceedings in a written format, sharing the documentation exclusively with the facilitator. To augment the workshop logistics, MPI provided a class assistant responsible for managing all workshop materials and capturing photographic records only to share among the group members, if they request. Moreover, a conscious choice was made to abstain from adopting an online/hybrid format, thereby preventing external observers from accessing the sessions. This decision was driven by the desire to foster an environment of “genuine” participation and uphold the principles of transparency and sincerity between facilitators and participants. Importantly, the successful realisation of these decisions was made possible through the collaborative efforts of MPI’s support and the dedicated teamwork between my co-facilitator and myself.

Finally, as the main facilitator, the most important was that I engaged in a comprehensive preparatory session with my co-facilitator, focusing particularly on delineating the activities to be conducted and their respective objectives. A cohort of 14 participants with diverse backgrounds, encompassing variations in culture, age, gender, religion, profession, and language, represented a rich tapestry originating from eight different countries. Notably, preceding the weekend workshop, MPI had previously organised annual three-week training sessions, wherein all participants assumed roles as either participants, facilitators, or MPI management staff. The joint decision-making process between the co-facilitators regarding the alignment of training materials with the weekend workshop proved pivotal for both the research project’s outcomes and the participants’ learning experiences. While an atmosphere of trust was acknowledged, it was recognised that continual confirmation and reinforcement were essential to further strengthen this foundation, emphasising the ongoing commitment to nurturing a collaborative, trusting and thus “safe” environment.

Having a “Safe Space”?

The primary objective of the weekend workshop was to delve into the intricate connections between values, ethics, and trust within the context of peacebuilding training settings. However, an additional theme concerning the establishment and sustenance of a “safe space” in these settings surfaced in the mind of the author/facilitator. This article is dedicated to exploring this topic, specifically through the lens of the learning processes undertaken with the workshop participants and the collaborative engagement with the MPI team.

Within the realm of workshop facilitation, the notion of creating a “safe space” is frequently emphasised, seemingly treated as an inherent and uncomplicated aspect of the process. However, this recommendation often lacks a shared understanding or consensus regarding the nuanced definition of what constitutes a “safe space” for each individual present. The assumption that establishing such an environment is straightforward overlooks the varied perspectives and interpretations of safety held by the diverse participants involved.

In the context of my peacebuilding workshops, I consciously refrain from explicitly stating, “Let’s create a safe space.” Instead, my approach involves expressing the collective endeavour to collaboratively shape the environment. I convey a sentiment along the lines of, “It would be highly beneficial if we, as a group, work together to cultivate an atmosphere where many, if not all, can feel at ease and, ideally, secure in this shared space and time.” This framing underscores the collaborative responsibility in establishing a comfortable and potentially safe environment, fostering a sense of collective ownership among participants.

The concept of a “sense of safety” is inherently subjective, making it challenging to pass judgment on whether a specific situation is deemed safe for another individual. Furthermore, accurately discerning the extent of someone’s emotional distress or discomfort is a formidable task. The intricacies of human experience, coupled with the subjective nature of feelings of safety, underscore the complexity of accurately gauging the well-being of others.

Given the sensitivity of this issue, my approach in this article is to document and convey solely the insights I have personally gained. It is essential to clarify that these findings do not purport to represent the perspectives of all participants. When articulating my own viewpoints, whether in the capacity of a peacebuilding trainer/facilitator or as an individual, I will utilise the first-person pronoun, “I.” Conversely, when delineating the contents of the workshop, the term “the facilitator” will be employed. I also must express gratitude to the workshop documenter, whose meticulous documentation has provided invaluable descriptions that effectively capture the essence of the discussions. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen to incorporate some of these well-articulated descriptions. (Note 2)

In addition, in crafting this article, my commitment is to incorporate as many verbatim expressions from the participants as feasible. While certain modifications and restructuring of wording may be necessary for the article’s coherence and structure, my paramount goal is to maintain sincerity and honesty in conveying the participants’ perspectives. This approach ensures that the essence of their words is preserved, allowing for a genuine representation of their insights while adhering to the requirements of article composition.

A Small Warmup Activity for Shaping the Sense of Safety

The Workshop on Values, Ethics, and Trust in a Peacebuilding Network began with a warmup activity that focused on creating one’s own sound pattern, finding one’s rhythm, listening to the sound that their partner and others produced.

The 14 participants were given one egg-shaped shaker each and were asked to pair up with the one seated next to them. They were asked to stand up, and each one had a designated as Person A and Person B. Those called A were asked to produce their own sound patterns while the ones labeled B were first asked to listen to them attentively, and then produce simple patterns in harmony with what the A were creating.

In a few minutes, the atmosphere changed. The facilitator changed the instructions and encouraged everyone to produce new and wild sound patterns. Everyone was given the freedom to play music in the rhythmic pattern of their choice while listening to the person next to them, and to all others in the room.

The documentation summarises that 1) the group activity set the mood for receptivity and sensitivity to each individual’s sounds and gestures. 2) It also psychologically prepared each person to listen to the sounds they were creating, the silence, the rhythm, and the non-verbal cues and gestures.

This activity took place prior to the introduction of the facilitators and the orientation session, which provided an overview of the Workshop on Values, Ethics, and Trust in a Peacebuilding Network.

Getting to Know One Another Under the Facilitator’s “Intention”

The second warmup activity called “Picasso Drawing (or Blind Contour)” started by the facilitator’s instructions: Find a partner and a space in the plenary hall, and sit together, while facing each other; Hold one colour pen in your hand and draw your partner without looking down at the paper but focusing on the face of your partner.

The participants followed the instructions. Upon completion, they were asked to inscribe their names at the bottom of their artwork and the partner’s names at the top. Then they shared their respective pictures with each other and personal information about themselves, the kind of work they were doing in the peacebuilding field. Following this exchange, the group reconvened in the large circle, with each participant seated alongside their partner. Each individual then had the opportunity to introduce their partner to the larger group.

This activity served the purpose of helping participants get to know each other better and build trust among themselves. Additionally, it facilitated group reflection on their actions and responses during the activity, prompting an examination of their core value system in relation to their actions. Such activities are most effective in an environment where there is a notable sense of safety. This level of safety allows people to comfortably question and challenge each other, with the understanding that it is done to develop a collective capacity for learning together.

Then, the facilitator asked: By the way, how many of you cheated? How many of you looked at your drawing during the activity? Three participants acknowledged this by raising their hands. Conversely, the facilitator inquired about those who refrained from looking, and 11 participants raised their hands in response.

The responses from the participants were aligned with the values that the facilitator “intended” to extract from them. The facilitator commented that participants might possess values influencing their decision to either choose or refrain from looking at the paper. At the end of the activity, the participants gave the Picasso Drawing to their partner as a remembrance of this fun activity that provided them space to reflect on their own core values – which they were guided to explore further later.

It appears that all of the participants enjoyed the activity, with many expressing that they could relate to their partner well through the process. However, they acknowledged the challenge of the task, as it required them to focus on the partners and remember where their pens and strokes were so that they could complete the partner’s face. They mentioned the need to strike a balance and make a decision on prioritising either “respect” for the aesthetics of drawing their partners or “respect” for the facilitator’s instructions. This situation can also be viewed as a kind of a “test” if they prioritise the facilitator’s guidance or not.

Values, Assumptions and Expectations

In the next section of the workshop, the group was asked to identify their three most important values on separate meta cards and share these with their partner. They were also requested to provide an explanation as to why these particular values held paramount importance to them.

The most important values written by the participants were – forgiveness, trust, love, honesty, appreciating uniqueness, humility, integrity, dignity, self-care, being neighbourly, rights, responsibility, honour, respect, caring for others, equity, equality, peace, transparency, to live out what you say you believe in (honesty), fairness, kindness, Everyone is beautiful., diversity, freedom, and non-bias. Among the 26 values listed by the 14 participants, the values of honesty, trust, and kindness were repeated by different individuals as part of their top three values.

Each individual picked one of their three values and explained it to the big group. Meanwhile, they were also asked the question to explore their core values: Who influenced you as you grew up? When was it that you realised that you are a peacebuilder or want to do something for peace? Why do you do what you do (peacebuilding)?

Many participants stated that every peacebuilder holds certain values that they live by and that guide them in their peacebuilding works. Importantly, these values were not arbitrary; rather, they were deeply rooted in and shaped by a range of personal experiences, both positive and negative. Participants highlighted that their values were influenced by various factors such as individual and childhood experiences, the surrounding environment, key individuals who played significant roles in their upbringing, cultural background, faith orientation, and the communities to which they belonged, including the opportunities given to them. The values of each individual have a history, context, and story out of which they are formed.

They also explained that in addition to the drive of an expectant hope for a peaceful and harmonious community and world, the motivation to become a peacebuilder comes from the force within a person that either overcomes unpleasant experiences and makes them better, or cultivates pleasant experiences and shares them with others and their community to address certain brokenness in the society. The value of love mentioned many times is expressed by the group as treating every individual fairly and equally and with dignity, and respecting other people, regardless of social status and social symbols, cultural practices, gender and faith orientation.

Values wield a considerable impact on an individual’s actions and influence the perceptions of others around a certain individual or in a certain group of people and community can also be passed on. The strengthening of values is dependent on how one person embodies and enacts them, and lives out the conviction and beliefs that they hold within. How individuals will live it out will also impact all others around themselves.

Following the group discussion, participants were instructed to place the three meta cards, each representing their most significant values, in proximity to their respective Picasso Drawings that have their own names at the top.

All the opportunities for sharing their own stories, significant or minor, were actively encouraged by the facilitator. It was emphasised that the act of story-sharing and storytelling contributes to the meaningful and substantial nature of peacework. The facilitator highlighted that the significance extends beyond the storyteller alone; it also involves the listener. Therefore, participants were urged to attentively listen to their partners during these story-sharing moments.

Drawing out Ethics Based on Values and Dismantling Assumptions and Expectations

In the next section, a joint poetry writing activity was initiated. Participants were directed by the facilitator to designate three separate islands using tables within the room. Then, they were encouraged to interact with individuals whom they were less acquainted with.

Participants were then tasked with collaboratively composing a poem, granting them the freedom to select a topic and allowing for unrestricted contributions from each member. Emphasis was placed on the spontaneous and inclusive nature of the activity, with participants not required to be concerned about spelling, grammar, or rhyme. They used a large paper and some colour markers.

After enough time for all the groups to produce a poem, new instructions arrived from the facilitator. These instructions were conveyed in written form, presented to the groups within an envelope so that only the group members can access to the instruction delivered to the particular group.

You have 3 minutes. Please keep silent and read the following:

  1. Revise (improve and edit) the poem with a red marker/pen, so that the poem becomes better.
  2. Give the paper back to the original group.

This was delivered to Group A.

Another set of instructions was delivered to Group B and C. Those two groups received the same instructions as follows:

You have 3 minutes. Please keep silent and read the following:

  1. Tear (rip) the paper quietly.
  2. Put all the pieces into the envelope, and give it back to the original group.

Some silence. Then, someone in a group starts to take action. Eventually, the consequences take place. I have personally engaged in the Poetry Activity approximately ten times, initially as a participant and subsequently in the role of a facilitator. Typically, the Poetry Activity unfolds in a consistent manner across different instances. Some participants often initiate the process by tearing a small portion of the sheet—some do so with a sense of joy or playfulness, while others follow suit, mirroring the actions of their peers. There are also individuals who choose to remain silent and refrain from much action. The varied responses contribute to the unique dynamics of the activity.

When the original broken or revised “poetry” returns in an envelope, groups take out the shattered pieces of paper on their table. Again, people keep silence. Someone shows sense of confusion. Someone shows anger. Then, someone utters some words. Sometimes, they start talking quietly. At times, participants initiate the restoration process without engaging in prior discussion.

The “safe space” is symbolically torn away. This is the end of Part One. Part Two is the next phase where the workshop participants share reflections with one another.

NOTES:

Note 1. This project is funded by UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is headed by Dr. Miho Taka and Dr. Michaelina Jakala of Coventry University in the UK. This workshop took place immediately following the close of the MPI 2023 Annual Peacebuilding Training at MPI on 2 June 2023, and was facilitated by the author assisted by a co-facilitator, Ms. Rosanna Quesada Palm. The workshop participants have attended the MPI 2023 Annual Peacebuilding Training in the previous three weeks. MPI support team was consisted of Ms. Christine Vertucci (Director), Ms. Queenilyn Liwat (Peacebuilding Training Program Officer) and Ms. Catherine Joy Catulong (Class assistant). It took place at Mergrande Ocean Resort, Talomo, Davao City, the Philippines, and the dates were from 3 June 2023 (starting at noontime) to 4 June 2023 (ending at noontime).

Note 2. This workshop was documented by Ms. Queenilyn Liwat, Peacebuilding Training Program Officer at MPI.

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READ: PART 2PART 3

  Kyoko Okumoto (Ph.D.) is Professor at Osaka Jogakuin University, Japan, a research member of the AHRC-funded Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding Project, and a facilitator at Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute. She is also a TRANSCEND International member (Regional Coordinator for Northeast Asia), a board member of TRANSCEND Japan, a former President of Peace Studies Association of Japan, and a former chair of Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute. Kyoko works in the fields of peace studies, conflict transformation and nonviolent intervention, and particularly focuses on the arts-based approaches to peacework. She teaches and facilitates peace workshops held mainly by civil society groups, and universities/schools. She tries to expand and deepen the network among North East Asian CSO/NGO people, and between NE Asia and South East Asia, and also with South Asia.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Feb 2024.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Dilemmas Around Making a “Safe Space” in Peacebuilding Training (Part One), is included. Thank you.

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