The Good Fight
by Katharine Reece MFA '12
Random Acts of Violence
Peter Ajemian '89
Martial Arts Instructor
In 2007, Ajemian opened Soja, a martial arts studio, where he teaches primarily White Crane Silat—an Indonesian style of kung fu he's been practicing since he discovered it at Sarah Lawrence in 1985.
Verbal or physical aggression. Ajemian thinks violence is mostly unpredictable; he sometimes compares it to a stack of cans toppling onto you in the grocery store. If you are internally insecure—or experiencing what Ajemian terms "ego conflict"—you'll be unable to respond to the situation appropriately.
Martial arts training helps people to be more self-aware and present in each moment—at spiritual, emotional, and physical levels. "I seek to defraud the illusion, created by action movies and television, that there is a perfect response to an external aggressive act, when what there should be is a learned ability to appropriately manage harassment and intimidation."
- Do exercises that improve your overall health and help train your brain to respond well when you're under pressure. Sweat a lot.
- Practice sparring—which Ajemian likens to two jazz musicians improvising together. Switch up variables such as use of weapons or protective padding to keep challenging yourself.
- Get familiar with your body and its surroundings. Students learn to fall fluidly on hardwood floors or cement without any padding, which trains the body to assimilate and overcome fear.
- Build up physical contact. Ajemian's students start by placing their fists on their partners and pressing their knuckles into them. Then they increase to a light punch, then a deep one, in order to get used to the sensation of being hit.
Why It Works
Ajemian's students learn to neutralize aggression regardless of the form it takes, and ultimately to react appropriately. "People accept themselves at a deeper level and aren't walking through life as reactive, fearful time bombs."
"You must constantly strive to develop your awareness of how you exist and move about your world," he explains. "Regardless of the intention of aggression from someone else—or the random nature of that falling stack of cans—you still have to get out of the way."
Paula Fried '79
With her mother, Fried coauthored Bullies & Victims: Helping Your Children Through the Schoolyard Battlefield (1996) and Bullies, Targets, and Witnesses: Helping Children Break the Pain Chain (2004). She's been practicing clinical psychology since 1986.
Though she spends most of her time counseling families and couples, Fried has also spent the last four years leading workshops for 50 seventh-grade girls. Girls tend to fight using relational cruelty rather than open conflict—they'll recruit a group of girls to ignore another girl, exclude her from the lunch table, or abuse her on Facebook.
Fried teaches the girls to confront each other directly and listen well when confronted instead of employing their usual, indirect tactics.
- Fried tells the girls to handle conflict by addressing it directly in a conversation. In such encounters, first affirm the relationship. With a friend, you might say, "Hey, we've been friends for a long time," or with someone you don't know well, "We're going to be in this English class together all semester, so…"
- Define the problem by stating what happened and how you feel about it. Focus on your experience by saying, "I feel…" or "I don't like when you did x." Speaking from your own point of view is important because no one can refute how you feel.
- Explain what you want to be different or change.
- If you played a role in the conflict, apologize.
Why It Works
"The main currency for girls is their relationships," Fried explains. All relationships have conflict, but in successful ones, the individuals know how to repair problems and articulate their needs. If girls start practicing these steps for nonviolent confrontation, she says, then when an emotionally fraught situation occurs, they'll be able to deal with it effectively, without saying (or tweeting) something they might regret—in middle school and beyond.
"We put so much emphasis on girls being nice, and don't teach them how to handle their anger," Fried says. But she's encouraged by the leaps we're making in our understanding of bullying. "We've come such a long way in a short period of time in what we think is appropriate," she adds. "I'm very hopeful that we can create a kinder world."
Rina Goodman '77
In 2004, Goodman stopped practicing law to become a full-time mediator, founding Transforming Conflict, an organization that helps family members talk about all things painful, awkward, and necessary.
Divorce, disagreements over elder care, family business fallouts … family conflict is often a matter of not only opposing interests and values, but also bad communication. Goodman cites the parable of the orange. "Two siblings are fighting over an orange, and the mother becomes so frustrated that she takes it from them, whacks it with a cleaver, and gives half to each child. The children are dismayed and one says, ‘But I needed the pulp for orange juice,' and the other says, ‘I needed the rind for an orange cake.'"
The orange didn't need to be split, and Goodman believes families don't have to fracture either. But coming to an agreement involves hard work, compromise, and a lot of questions. "When poor communication is rooted in different values or goals, or feeling threatened by those differences, the situation becomes more complicated," she says. "I have to know, and teach my clients, how to ask questions that get to the root of the conflict."
- Goodman advises feuding family members to never assume. Ask clarifying questions, such as, "When you walked out of the room, the door slammed loudly; did you mean for that to happen?" If your interlocutor responds defensively, you might say, "Can you explain what you meant by that? I'm not sure I understand."
- Whether mediating or participating in a conversation, avoid language that blames the other person.
- Be open and transparent—subterfuge helps no one, Goodman says.
- Anger is easier, of course, but rarely helpful. So instead, when things get heated, signal that you need to back off and find another way, or time, to communicate.
Why It Works
Goodman believes she's succeeded when families are able to work together—without expensive litigation or unnecessary emotional pain—to figure out how to share their version of an orange.
"I don't think we will ever be without conflict, or we would be a world of Stepford Wives," Goodman says. "Our differences create conflict, and the challenge is to address those conflicts with vulnerability and empathy—and without violence. Peace is the absence of violence, not conflict."
Cliff May '73
President, Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)
After the 9/11 attacks, May helped found a think tank to fight the movements and ideologies that drive terrorism—most notably, radical Islam. May is an accomplished journalist and frequent guest on popular news programs such as The Daily Show.
Radical Islam's war against Western democracies. "It's more than fighting terrorism," May says. "World War I was not fought against U-boats. Terrorism is merely a weapon.
FDD primarily fights with information, analyzing national security issues and sharing the findings with Congressmembers from both parties, the White House, and the media.
- Ask the right questions. "Many think tanks are supply-driven," May says. "We're demand-driven, meaning we reach out to people on Capitol Hill and in the administration to find out what they need to know. We design our research in response to those needs."
- Hold events to share expertise. The group organizes frequent briefings on Capitol Hill; round tables for public officials, diplomats, and military officers; and panel discussions and debates within the DC policy community.
- Educate the public. May says the media is the most effective way to articulate FDD's positions and policy proposals.
- Make informed predictions. May's staff scans the national security horizon for gathering storms and builds its domain expertise in response. "About four years ago, we felt strongly that we needed to focus on Iran, and that turned out to be right," May says.
Why It Works
You can't fight what you don't understand. "We do the hard digging, crunch the numbers, and provide data, analyses, and ideas that help policy makers and legislators make better decisions about national security and foreign policy."
May is, ultimately, a fighter. "If you don't fight," he explains, "then your defeat is assured. If you do fight, there are no guarantees—but you have a chance. We should love peace, but also tolerance and freedom. If America and the West—and our way of life—are to survive, we will have to fight for it, in every generation."
Art vs. War
Elin O'Hara Slavick '88
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Artist, Activist, Professor
In 2007, Slavick published Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography, a drawing series of 48 places the US has bombed, created from military surveillance images, aerial photographs, battle plans, and maps. Slavick is also a professor of studio art at UNC-Chapel Hill, and loves to remind her students of an old but still significant axiom: The personal is political.
War—which she finds "maddening, unethical, wrong, and ugly," among other expletives.
Slavick believes art can help people exercise their imagination and increase their empathy for others—which is important because "if you can't imagine a world without war, it will never happen."
- To make political what's personal to you, consider how you can move your viewer. In Bomb After Bomb, instead of taking gruesome photographs of war's casualties, Slavick employed gouache, ink, watercolor, and graphite—materials she considered visually seductive and thus more capable of encouraging her audience to think about war in a fresh way.
- Provide resources for others. Empower people in need who want to create but don't have the resources or skills. Do a project together.
- Use public space. Curate a show in an abandoned building or empty window displays. Fill an unused billboard with your art or message.
- If you can't imagine using your own artwork in this way, Slavick suggests organizing a show for other artists or participating elsewhere. Every movement worth fighting for needs organizational, financial, and strategic help.
Why It Works
"If you do a public project within a community, you get a dialogue going," Slavick explains. Getting others involved can generate controversy, which brings visibility to the work. This kind of intentionality with the artistic process and collaboration with people and public spaces makes art an act of social justice. the verdict "It's frustrating that people feel hopeless and helpless, and I often feel that way myself, but if you do nothing, you're just part of the problem," says Slavick. "We make conflict and we can undo conflict. We change the world. To me, it's that simple."
A House Divided
The Reverend James Isaacs '99
Episcopal Priest and Conflict Coach
In addition to serving as a priest at St. James Episcopal Church, Isaacs uses his master's degree in conflict transformation and peace-building to help congregations and organizations work through internal differences.
Churches have the same sorts of political and cultural clashes as any social group, but when religion is involved, things get complicated. "Most congregations and religious communities identify conflict with being bad or sinful," he explains. "They try to maintain a superficial level of peace, since everyone in the community is trying so hard to be good." Despite the members' best intentions, differences in age, language, or worship style can result in the formation of cliques, which need to be reconciled if the congregation wants to remain whole and healthy.
When a conflict passes a certain threshold, an organization's leadership can become inextricably identified with the problem. Isaacs plays the role of the neutral third party, leading an eight-month process to help the community imagine what a future together might look like.
- Encourage teamwork. Isaacs assembles a team of representatives from all sides of the conflict to conduct research and interviews. "This is the first step to galvanizing practical engagement with the conflict because the team must work together despite their differences," Isaacs explains.
- Prove you've listened. "It's important not only to hear but to show people they've been heard," he says. Isaacs and his team of representatives eventually discuss their findings and potential solutions with the entire group in a big meeting, also giving people a chance to provide further input.
- Implement the changes. This step can vary widely from group to group, but usually involves community-building activities and infrastructure changes.
Why It Works
By addressing underlying issues, the organization's long-term health is strengthened. "If three years later, our proposed solutions hold up and make a lasting change, then we've succeeded," Isaacs says.
Isaacs' ultimate goal is not to achieve a superficial veneer of peace, but to teach members of these communities to engage in conflict in nonviolent, nondestructive ways. "Conflict is not negative or positive, but a neutral energy fraught with potential. We just have to learn new ways to discover how it can create transformative change."