While it is easy to get caught up in the current political climate, there are individuals who rise up and push to enact change. Rhea Mahanta is one of those individuals. Mahanta, a graduate student at the University of Chicago currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Affairs as a member of the Committee of International Relations [CIR], singlehandedly founded the Peacebuilding Project, an organization dedicated to the academic instruction of conflict resolution and outreach towards afflicted communities. I interviewed Mahanta to get the gritty details of how she pulled off such a feat.
José Porrata- Thank you for giving me the chance to interview you. How about you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested in conflict resolution.
Rhea Mahanta- Well, I grew up in a very under developed region in Northeast India, and I saw how conflict took hold of everyday life. And rather than responding to conflict with more violence, I wanted to understand how we could change social structures in order to resolve conflictive situations. All my life I studied topics related to politics, social service and development, and I wanted to incorporate my knowledge at both the grassroots and diplomatic levels. In trying to understand both these levels, I decided to study at the University of Chicago.
So, from what I gathered from looking at the project from a distance, it seems to me that it’s an educational project dedicated to showing the community what’s going on in the world. Is this vision of the Peacebuilding Project correct?
Absolutely. I like to think that the project has two components. The first is creating academic awareness on topics of conflict resolution, peace building, the science of peace building, all of which seems to be lacking in academia. The second component is taking that knowledge and translating it in order to have it impact the community, so the same people that are attending our workshops, conferences, and training sessions on conflict resolution are going out to the community and volunteering and doing humanitarian work.
You mentioned that the Peacebuilding Project does workshops and conferences. Could you go into more detail in how it goes about engaging both the academic and social communities?
Most of our engagement has been limited to on campus, with some social outreach programs we have implemented which I’ll get at in a bit. First, what we do is host sessions on campus such as our launch Workshop Session on Conflict Resolution and Mediation. So, we had around 60 people attending, and we trained them under the head trainer from the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution who taught ways to carry out conflict mediation. Our second session was a panel on Religion and Peacebuilding. We just explored different tenants of peacebuilding and what kinds of tools we can adopt in our everyday lives. At the moment we have done activities around twice a month, then we had our third session with Syrian refugees to learn about the hardships they had to go through after coming to the US after leaving behind what they had back at their old homes. Our next session would be [will] on the behavior of conflict management, basically how psychology plays a role in conflict resolution. We partner up with local NGOs [Non-Government Organizations] and invite them to present their research and show us what methods work and we show that information to bodies such as the Pearson Institute [for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts] at the Harris School [of Public Policy at University of Chicago] and encourage them to explore these topics in more detail. We also have a steady program of volunteers who go to the Syrian Community Network in the north of Chicago and they engage with the community through tutoring of Syrian Children and linking up certain students with our volunteers and have them mentored in how to apply to college, scholarships, take language tests and the like.
Wow. That’s a noble endeavor the project has undertaken. I am curious though, how did this project start?
This is a long story. In the interwar period, in the 30’s and 40’s, there was a huge anti-war movement in U-Chicago. The president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, led this anti-war movement and invested in a world government doctrine and somewhere along the line that development died down. The Pearson Institute was then launched in 2015 dedicated to the study and resolution of conflict, which made me want to come to the University. I thought that there was a lot I could do through this University in the field. When I arrived, it was a lot of research on conflict itself but none whatsoever in the peace processes by which one resolves conflict. Say, you are studying conflict in Colombia: you study how the conflict came about but not the mechanisms in which peace treaties and ceasefires are implemented and sustained. There really was no insight into ‘how do we get out of conflict’ or ‘what happens after conflict’. I met with professors all over the University and I realized that if a program doesn’t exist, I’d have to create one! This was encouraged due to my experience attending the Alliance for Peacebuilding Conference in October 2017 in D.C. This gave me a lot of insight into what kinds of topics I could explore and when I came back I applied for funding.
Quite an impressive history! It took a lot of research! I can only imagine. Could you give me a bit more insight as who you contacted and partnered with to fund and promote the Project?
We have a lot of partners both inside and outside the University that have shown a lot of interest in the project. For starters, I owe it to the Graduate Council in UChicago, who organized the Think Tank trek in November. I got to talking to different representatives about my project and what they could do to help out. After talking to the Grad Council and getting sponsorship, I got the approval to make the first workshop and reached out to the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution, where they agreed to talk to our students. The Peace Exchange, whom I was a speaker for, were also invested in the project. We are trying to incorporate their educational models on conflict resolution and build upon them to use them on schools at the south side of Chicago. Next, the Obama Foundation gave me training to start off this project; they had a community training day. I met President Obama, and for 12 hours we discussed how to actually engage with communities and individuals and teach them how to make our project ideas into a reality. Finally, our partnership with the Syrian Community Network has been paramount to our engagement. Oh, and the Pearson Institute has funded our Dinners with Refugees during Ramadan.
As a fellow U Chicago student, I know the think tank trek gave you the capacity to work on the project. As an individual, I’m quite surprised and amazed at the capacity that the University has helped out. Color me intrigued.
Well, what I told you is the rosy side of things. I managed to do all of this during my limited time as an M.A. student. The project will die down if I don’t find someone to carry the project forward. As you know, the CIR’s program is a one-year program, and it cuts the investment I can offer to the project due to the small time period. Also, the Project has no money of its own, and application for funding is done on an event-by-event basis. You need to go through the tedious application process and accept the limited amount of funding the University can give, as well as the venues we can use. We can’t fly in the guests we want due to the Project currently not being registered as a student organization. It’s also a year-long process that due to time constraints, as mentioned, we can’t do.
First, do you feel that there are individuals that can continue on your legacy by using your connections and knowledge to continue the Project within UChicago and outside of the University into other areas in Chicago where there are afflicted communities? Second, has the project considered undertaking fundraising events to be able to fly in individuals to participate in training workshops?
I haven’t even Googled how to go about fundraising. We got selected for the Clinton Global University Initiative, which means that in October, me and two of my teammates will be meeting with potential donors from across the world and whether or not they can offer the necessary funding for our project. UChicago also has offered grants for training public school students, which we plan to use to incorporate ADR training, which stands for Alternative Dispute Resolution. We were hoping to demonstrate how punishment and detention for negative, criminal behavior have not been effective in reforming individuals and reducing crime rates for youth in the south side of Chicago. The students would be offered to take ADR training and learn to manage behavior and emotions, or they would be punished for their behavior. Introducing a program like this in schools would be great for showing how conflict management can help improve society, but we’d have to partner up with the education system and get the green light to implement the program, as well as getting legitimate ADR trainers for the program. We are hoping to get responses to implement these projects, but we haven’t heard back yet.
As for someone who can take up the torch, everyone I worked with is graduating. However, we are reaching to incoming students to see if they are interested in joining and managing the Project. My faculty has been really helpful in supporting the project and are the ones trying to reach out to incoming students. It’s hard to be committed in to managing a project like this in UChicago. Volunteering once a week isn’t a big deal, but even if managing the Peacebuilding Project doesn’t take much effort, which fortunately it doesn’t even if it seems that way, classes and other things take up too much time. Leading the project also sounds very intimidating and that pushes away prospective recruits.
Even so, you managed to create an extremely solid foundation for the Peacebuilding Project, and tangentially you will be working with the project to train the next generation.
Yeah, like, I’m not leaving the Project, just the University. I’ll still be engaged with our partners, just that we need an on-campus insider and coordinator for the project to continue, as well as a decent number of volunteers.
So, having the dirty insider details, what are the expectations you have for the overall growth of the project? I mean getting the project started basically by yourself is an accomplishment in and of itself.
I wish I could’ve gotten more undergrads involved in the Project earlier. As for further plans, I would like to expand the Project to northeast India. I learned about the ongoing conflicts in my region due to my research in Chicago more so than when I was growing up. I really wish the Project could have a more practical approach to conflict management in that area. I wouldn’t say this is my choice of employment, I really do wish to work in diplomacy in the future and work with already existing organizations in different conflict resolution projects. But this project is something I feel committed to and will always take time to work on when needed, as well as bringing the skills I learn to the Peacebuilding Project.
With your record, I really hope to see you in the diplomatic stage of the world. So, before we go, do you have anything to say to any future diplomats and mediators that want to create their own humanitarian organization?
My biggest recommendation is to work with your university. You would be surprised at the resources available for you when you look for them. Of course, that presents the problem of searching for those resources, and taking time to get them, but if you engage with your faculty and try to create something new, you’ll be able to get a project running to address the right causes. The University of Chicago, in particular, really has been supportive in spite of the bureaucratic processes. Like I said, just look for the necessary help and you’ll be on your way!
Mahanta is a prime example that if a human’s drive to do right is true, we can unite people for the right causes.
You can follow the Peacebuilding Project at: https://www.facebook.com/ThePeacebuildingProject/