"For it is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free." Amin Malouf, In the Name of Identity (2003).
In a small village a thirty minute drive from Berlin what looks like a very mixed crowd gather together, coffee and cake in hand, for the third of their "community dialogue" gatherings. They are becoming masters in the art of story telling, collective reflection and the creation of an instant "safe-space" where trust and confidence is built between people of different generations, nationalities, religions and genders. Taking their personal life-journeys as a starting place and putting them in the challenging historical context of war, division, exile, isolation and violence they also identify an alternative context where neighbours can be counted on, refuge and security re-established and the outlines of a positive future sketched out with some confidence.
Each has a story to tell, deeply personal, always moving, nuanced and often told with moments of humour, humility and hesitation. The nature of the safe-space and imperative to maintain confidentiality makes sharing the details of these stories here impossible - at least for now. Their general description ... leaving a "good life" in Homs of friends, family and a future mapped out for the uncertain promises and high risk journey to Germany; learning to live with the incomprehension of the "Westerners" who moved into the village post-1989 with their good jobs, well-traveled families and little empathy for the forty years of secured isolation experienced by the "Easterners"; navigating as a single-mother social services, health appointments, the search for decent housing, supermarket alleys with little German, small kids and the suspicious eyes of all communities on you, the "head-scarfed" woman from the "other" culture ... Behind each of these is a real person, their family, their community, all far removed from the head line stereotypes we're so easily trapped by.
In sharing these stories, the group, initially suspicious of each other if well meaning, learns to listen (helped by the translators who themselves integrate into the group and share their own insights) , to draw parallels with their own experiences, to respect the other and increasingly the group begins to set its own pace, decide together topics for discussion and offer each other real support.
In a location laden with living history and memory taking the risk to lift the lid off the box and seek a new form of active and creative social cohesion needless to say meets with some resistance, as well as looks of disbelief from funders and practitioners all in search of the magic bullet to the conflict and polarisation dividing communities across Europe today.
There appears to be a lot of talk about war right now ... possible attacks on Guam, post-election violence in Kenya, new battle fronts and configurations in Syria, white supremacists in the US. Whether regional or local, idealogical, ethnically or economically motivated, the polarised profile of these zones of conflict all indicate a current culture of fatality. War is inevitable. Violence is an inherent feature of mankind.
And yet convened safe spaces where conversation is valued and listening takes on the same importance as talking are increasingly proving their worth. The appetite for dialogue is surely there and we are starting to pin point what works where and how. Translating the lessons of community dialogue in our German village to the Board Room where "business-for-good" continues to elude the executive, scaling up the lessons of social cohesion to other communities in Europe, applying the same rigour, emotional maturity and strategic intelligence to global wicked problems ... the urgency to jaw-jaw is staring us in the face at all levels.
For an inspiration of what is possible... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7XhrXUoD6U Look beyond borders, Amnesty Poland, 2016