Dilemmas around Making a “Safe Space” in Peacebuilding Training (Part Two)

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 19 Feb 2024

Kyoko Okumoto – TRANSCEND Media Service

19 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)

The Purpose of This Article: 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.

Part One provided a detailed account and analysis of the occurrences mainly on the Day One of the workshop. Following a series of warm-up activities designed to foster a sense of group safety, participants engaged in an experimental Poetry Activity that involved vandalizing another group’s artwork. Consequently, it became evident that the notion of a “safe space” was not preserved during this particular exercise. URL here

Part Two intends to examine the reactions, comments, questions and claims put forth by the workshop participants.

Experiences, Emotions and Lost Trust: How could you do this to us?

The groups encountered a collective experience marked by silence, tension, doubts, and disappointment upon receiving an envelope containing the disassembled pieces of their artwork. The facilitator instructed the participants to convene with their respective groups to engage in a collective discussion, sharing their feelings and reflections with one another. (Typically, participants are already gathered together, but at this stage, the facilitator formally recommences the process after a period of silence, bitterness, pain, and disappointment has elapsed.)

Guide questions from the facilitator were: When you received the first envelope with an instruction inside, how did you feel/react to it? Then, when you received the last envelope with the transformed poetry sheet, how did you feel/react to it? What was lost in the process?

This process of discussion leads to the next question for reflection: When your values are threatened, when you are forced to make a choice or when you have no choice, when you have to compromise, or/and when you have power or no power, how do you usually react to it?

First of all, according to many of the participants, it seems that the poem-making was a joy and fun. One participant later remembers: In the beginning, it was hard, but after a while, boom! Another shares: As the poem was produced together, the sense of achievement, being together was there. The participants seemed to enjoy the “safe space” where they could respect each other’s values and actions.

However, when they came to the realisation that the envelope they received contained the fragments of their original artwork, now shattered into pieces, their “heart was broken, energy was down, and trust was lost.”

In the Poetry Activity, one participant claimed: How could you do this to us? Apparently, the comment was directed not only towards the participants who had dismantled her group’s poem but also served as a commentary on the facilitator, myself, who had issued such a cruel instruction. Indeed, immediately following the moment when the group received their own dismantled artwork, a palpable atmosphere surrounded the room—a blend of tension, resentment, pain, and sorrow.

One participant writes in the worksheet that was delivered by the facilitator/researcher later at the end of the session: During the second phase, when the poem returned and I saw that it’s been broken, my heart was broken, too. The poem is our dream. I felt like we lost our dreams, hopes, and input as a group. Our dream is to make our dreams come true. But our inputs were lost, and we lost our trust in others, too. When they returned the broken poem to us, it leaves a feeling that we should not trust them anymore because our things are not safe with them. Another one shares: I felt like I do not have dignity, and that we lost that spiritual strength. I feel shattered and it is difficult to trust others again.

Questioning the Sense of Safety: Reflecting on Ethics Based on Values (1)

Pressures upon the Participants

Knowing that the “safe space” disappeared, the facilitator prompted participants to revisit their Picasso Drawings, examining how their selected values aligned or conflicted with their actions. They were encouraged to signify these connections or contradictions by adding arrow signs onto the sheet. Guide questions were: What were challenges to your original values? What was challenged/lost?

Some reflected: What have we done to others? However, it was an order coming from the “boss.” One commented that this person was afraid of the “penalty” if he did not obey the instruction. Obviously, there was a dilemma. They found themselves sandwiched between the facilitator’s directive and the significance of their fellow workshop mates’ artwork.

Another participant writes in the worksheet: I realised through this activity that everything is governed by what’s been set up by the government, the national law, and the international level and by our workplaces. If we do not follow the law, there is non-compliance. Because the other party was given instructions, I know they had to follow. However, they could have decided and chosen to follow their heart by not destroying the other group’s output.

Obviously, some kind of pressure was there. The pressure was from the “superior,” a facilitator that the participants were supposed to trust and respect. She was someone who was supposed to provide a “safe space” for all. Within the limited time frame (only three minutes to act upon the written instruction), first, there was the sense of frozenness. No alternatives seemed to exist. In addition, there was a certain pressure in the framework of “research” to which the participants willingly agreed previously in the consent form to participate and contribute.

Questioning the Sense of Safety: Reflecting on Ethics Based on Values (2)

The Issue of Justification

One participant claimed: We really didn’t want to destroy it. We were in a dilemma. There was a choice but there’s a supposed notion that there will be consequences if we won’t do it as instructed. So, we chose to cut it in strips rather than into small pieces. So, we can later argue that we followed the authority, and justify ourselves.

It was also interesting to hear that one participant explained: We come to a point where we justify our actions. No matter how beautiful the art is, we have to go through the process, but it doesn’t mean that modification cannot be done. Even if there is a need to follow the instructions given, we can vary our action and keep what the other group treasures.

Another added: We were asked to revise an output that does not belong to us. We had assumptions about some of the things since we were chosen to do the changes to it. Later, we realised that our assumptions were wrong, and we have done harm because we perceived the instructions as a requirement to be delivered. There was no consultation and participation from the people who will receive it. I have realised, some things may seem different to them, and it can harm them. We may replace and change their understanding of others, too.

Another in the same group reflected: I was not in the group that needs to destroy the poem. However, for other groups that had to destroy others’ poems, there seems to be room for them to make their own decisions. It seems that those in other groups have tried to follow their own conscience and beliefs in their own way.

Indeed, the series of discussions serves as a poignant reminder of the complexities inherent in navigating real-world scenarios. We often find ourselves grappling with the delicate balance between our professed values and ethics and the practicalities of our actions, which may sometimes diverge from these ideals. In our efforts to reconcile these discrepancies, we often resort to justifications as a means of forging ahead in life. Critiquing such contradictory behaviours is an easy task, yet transcending this dilemma proves to be considerably more challenging.

Questioning the Sense of Safety: Reflecting on Ethics Based on Values (3)

Maybe Practice of Nonviolence or/and Practice for Trainers?

One participant thought that this could be a good exercise for practicing nonviolence. She explained that nonviolent civil disobedience is an action that many societies can take in an oppressive situation—to figure out ways to stay within the confines of the “law” and still protest.

Some participants pointed out that the activity could have possibly shaken the bad memories or trauma, and there should be some balance of teaching and context. One of them proposed based on her own facilitation experience, “If this activity is to be used for peacebuilders, I would co-facilitate with a person for this kind of activity, but I would not use the said activity with a traumatised community.”

Someone commented that this activity should be good in the setting of a trainers’ training, not with the beginners’ training. Someone else added that it could be an opportunity to learn, and as Augusto Boal called, it could be a “rehearsal for change” since it produces powerful energies toward uneasy tensions, and it can bring about positive changes.

“When we experienced the activity, we all went silent. This activity made me realise that I can now relate to those who experienced the disaster for I could now feel their trauma,” was one honest sharing. How can trainers/facilitators transform this activity into a peacebuilding tool? One has to understand what the community has gone through—its history, pains, and struggles. One needs to ask: Do we really do this training? Is it the right time to conduct this activity?

In addition, it was inspirational and humbling to see how the participants behaved after the “disaster.” In instances where participants perceived a significant lack of respect from their peers, there was a noticeable hesitation before they initiated the process of rearranging and reconstructing the poem. However, eventually, many participants naturally began the task of mending, restoring, and affixing the small pieces of the previously destroyed paper. It felt as though I bore witness to the manifestation of resilience, respect, and care. They appeared to reclaim the sense of safety through their own agency.

Facilitators’ Dilemma around Everyone’s Ethics

As a facilitator/trainer, I confront a dilemma. In seeking participants/trainees’ immersion in the profound comprehension of the nature of brokenness and the essence of deprivation, I have deliberately steered them through a journey demanding significant emotional turmoil and cognitive dissonance. Despite the trust and kind respect bestowed upon me by the participants, I have inadvertently “betrayed” their expectations and “entrapped” them in a challenging process. How arrogant could that be? How manipulative should facilitators be allowed to be?

I confessed to the participants saying: I have this dilemma in this framework of research. Is this an appropriate activity to be used in a workshop? How do you regard the ethical side of the activity?

One participant mentioned: When you received the instruction either to revise or tear the poem, it takes your morality. But either way, your choices are dependent on the situation you are in. Here we learned that when any instruction is given to us, the group needs to carefully think. But sometimes, we act immediately without thinking, and we become so over-smart. Sometimes it is what happens in our life, and in our community.

Another participant explained: When our artwork came back and was not destroyed, I was thinking that maybe they didn’t follow the instructions, and their group made an interesting choice. I was wondering if our group could have done the same—not follow the instructions. (The fact was that their group received a different type of instructions.) When we were told to tear up the artwork, our group mate came up with the idea to cut it into strips so that it could easily be put back together. I saw this as a compromise. We were following the instruction, but we were not destroying the artwork. I was asking myself—what are the implications of this activity? I was a bit perplexed.

I gratefully understand the participants’ endeavours trying to make meaningful learnings within this complicated activity. Nevertheless, it remains undeniable that I compelled them to undergo two arduous paths: experiencing the roles of both victims and perpetrators. Facilitators knew that this would have been likely to happen: See? I knew it! I know better than you! Is this not such an arrogant attitude of facilitators?

Closing the Poetry Activity: Efforts to Regain Trust and Forgiveness through a Challenged “Safe Space”

For closing, the facilitator asked: How shall we close this session? What are the contradictions you see in what you say your values are and what you actually did?  How would you interpret the experience? Furthermore, the facilitator extended apologies for the diverse effects engendered by this activity on the participants and the intensity of emotions that it elicited among them.

According to the documentation, it was observed that the group had already built good relationships with each other, and a spirit of camaraderie existed. This was evident in their willingness to listen to each other, share openly their thoughts and feelings, comfort each other, and apologise to each other willingly and sincerely. Gestures were observed that showed confidence and trust among the participants. This may be because they have known each other for the past three weeks during the MPI 2023 Annual Peacebuilding Training. The way the reflective listening session was conducted showed the humility and openness of the facilitators and the participants. This created a healing and comforting space for the group, making it easier to navigate acceptance and understanding of various perspectives and offering forgiveness, and forgiving one another.

At times, it’s beneficial to “sleep over” emotions and thoughts to settle overnight. The second day of the workshop commenced with a grounding activity. Participants collectively engaged in breathing exercises, accompanied by an action song, fostering a sense of connection and interaction within the group. The circle format allowed everyone to feel and respond to each other’s vibes and presence in a circle.

Subsequently, this was followed by a Peer-to-Peer Sharing Activity. Guide questions were: 1) What have you found joyful in yesterday’s activity? 2) Would you share about your top three values with each other? 3) What is one idea that struck you from the discussion yesterday? The group wrote in pearl points the dilemma that arose in relation to their three values and their actions with the Poetry Activity.

Comments were as follows: I have realised that I could not keep up with my faith and honesty after following the instructions to vandalise other people’s artwork. After appreciating and cheering each other’s output on values, the value of integrity and kindness that we profess has been challenged. I lost mutual respect, and belief, and values toward others. The acceptance level in the community is so low and has become another challenge. It showed that we also did not care about others. Even if we appreciate them with our words but our actions have shown injustice, resulting in broken trust at the individual and family level. There is broken trust. And rebuilding trust is a difficult job.

In expressing my sincere gratitude and respect towards the participants, I humbly offer additional words from their perspectives:

  • I was hurting myself and I was hurting others. I felt as if I lacked understanding of the context and the people. I was trying to control and dominate their emotions. Suddenly I felt disconnected.
  • We were given three minutes to make decisions. We froze and were not able to make decisions that are nonviolent. To love, this one is very difficult. Within the limitation of time and the circumstances.
  • My values were broken and I am wondering if my foundation was not that strong. My action of tearing another island’s work is not in line with my values. I was asking myself: Do I really believe in these values? I forgot the head, heart, and hands values. They were in conflict. I was hurt and I got the feeling—do I still respect my values? How do I deal with my situation?
  • Prevention is better than cure. We should not simply believe in forgiveness but we must be cautious not to injure others, or do something like the act of tearing their poem into pieces that hurts others.

Indeed, apologies may be warranted in certain cases. However, it is important to acknowledge that apologies do not justify or erase the preceding harm. It is also inherently selfish and egoistic to presume that offering an apology guarantees forgiveness. I believe it is imperative for me to delve deeper into exploration to enhance my effectiveness as a trainer. Simultaneously, I recognise the importance of striking a delicate balance between the processes and the outcomes of the trainings. Any training/teaching endeavours provide a specific framework to guide (or, control/manipulate) trainees/students toward achieving goals commensurate with their existing level of preparation. However, I have come to realise that, as a facilitator entrusted with a certain amount of “authority,” it is imperative for me to consistently prepare myself to remain receptive to critical feedback. Probably, that way, we as a group can guarantee a certain level of sense of safety for the workshop settings.

Peacebuilders as a Work in Progress

Peacebuilding is inherently challenging and demanding, and there are moments when our lives are at stake. However, as peacebuilders, we possess the capacity to engage in negotiations within the limited timeframe of three minutes, potentially saving the lives of others. During the reflection session, a pressing question emerged: Why did no one exhibit the courage to inquire directly to the facilitator providing instructions, or why did we not contemplate running to neighbouring islands to seek clarification on these instructions and explore potential solutions? How come as peacebuilders we forgot our mandate to consult and build peace for all sides?

The activity has the potential to evoke experiences that we believed we had already processed. The group provided a space for reflection, highlighting that all peacebuilders are continually evolving, and responses may vary based on the context at hand. The collective responses, coupled with sincere and genuine support, fostered a healing and comforting space, thereby broadening perspectives and deepening understanding among all participants.

Profoundness evolves over time. Throughout the activity, a multitude of diverse emotions unfolded. Participants and facilitators collectively gleaned the insight that values undergo growth and evolution as we progress. Is my value solid enough as a peacebuilder? In response to the question, as many of us in the workshop reached a consensus, we came to the realisation that we are all “works in progress” as peacebuilders, as evidenced by the dialogues that transpired. We shared that multifaceted and diverse factors help us grow, and that is a reason why we have each other and why we continuously have work to do so.

The documenter of the workshop summarises the session by listing up insights from the learnings. One of them is: Cultivating a safe space for others and being a safe person are important in helping others strengthen their values. She also writes: Be conscious about the things happening around us. The actors involved help us act in accordance with the values that guide us. Finally, humility, openness, and commitment to rebuild broken trust is a necessary ingredient in building peace.

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). The workshop was documented by Ms. Queenilyn Liwat.

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READ: PART 1PART 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 19 Feb 2024.

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One Response to “Dilemmas around Making a “Safe Space” in Peacebuilding Training (Part Two)”

  1. anaisanesse says:

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking and important contribution. Trying to understand other points of view is obviously vital in coming to any sort of agreement on any topic, and deep seated biases are probably present in everyone. Such exercises as this could make such a difference to our attitudes,and such examples could be included in classes/ clubs/ groups of young people who, we hope, are our future wherever we are.

    ps there is an error with the capcha

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