Voices of Leadership

by Bianca Neff, Executive Director

Courageous peacebuilders taking the road less traveled: Those are the kinds of people we here at Petra love to invest in and empower.


In January 2016 I participated in the Rotary Peace Conference in Ontario, California. There's plenty I could report on...so many organizations and committees and plans for action. So many speakers who moved us and spurred us on with their courage and commitment. But I want to tell a brief story about my friend and colleague Cameron Chisholm, President of the International Peace & Security Institute (IPSInstitute.org) , because it stuck with me.

Moderating Cameron Chisholm's breakout at the Rotary Peace Conference, Jan 2016

Moderating Cameron Chisholm's breakout at the Rotary Peace Conference, Jan 2016

So there we are in Cameron's breakout session of about 100 people, which I'm moderating. Cameron and his colleague have just given a great talk about the work they do at IPSI, which is dedicated to training peacebuilders in the practical nitty-gritty of international peace and security.

IPSI works closely with the US military. Some of their staff have spent significant time on the ground embedded with the US military in places like the frontlines of Afghanistan. In our session, there were the typical questions from the audience about ISIS and other global violent extremist elements, questions about exactly how the organization's work differs from the standard training and equipping and academic prep out there.



And then came the question I was waiting for, put forth by a man who, by all appearances, seemed to be quite far removed from the military stereotype.

You could easily imagine that this guy was a long-time peace activist. At the risk of placing too much importance on appearance, he had the typical look of an aging hippie-turned-hipster, a 50-something year old with dark short-cropped hair, earring, wire-rimmed glasses. Trendy, attractive, and with a look in his eye that said he'd seen a lot of the world and has put in plenty of time on the frontlines of peace activism. Frankly, at first glance I really liked him and felt drawn to him as a social non-conformist with whom I probably had a lot in common.

He had his own perspective on the conversation at hand that Cameron was leading, and so he asked for the microphone to put his thoughts out there; in fact I could practically read it in his body language and facial tone as he stood up, before he even posed it out loud:

"It seems you guys do really good work but...how can you possibly work so closely with the US military? Especially after 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan? Surely you don't agree with all that...how can your approach possibly be good for the kind of peacekeeping you're talking about?"

[That's a paraphrase since I don't remember his exact question/comment, but that was the gist as I understood it.]



I loved Cameron's response...so much that I'm now blogging about it.

He answered:

"We're peacebuilders, first and foremost. You might see on the surface that we're 'working with the military' but the reality is much more nuanced than that. Besides, there's a critically important element to our work as peacebuilders which many people don't realize, which is: Being a true peacebuilder requires you to work with those with whom it's not necessarily easy for you to work.

There are a lot of things I disagree with when it comes to the US military. But when it comes to international security, it also happens that we have goals that do align. Our job as an institute and as the individuals within it is to find and maximize those areas where our paths do overlap without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Trust me, I definitely understand where you're coming from. But finding those nuanced approaches is what comprises successful peacebuilding."

And that's why I love IPSI!

(I also find it quite interesting that 'IPSI' also stands for both
1) the India-Pakistan Soldier's Initiative for Peace and
2) Instituto de Psicoterapia y Salud Integral (Institute of Psychotherapy & Holistic Health)!