Jacobsen Named Most Valuable Peacemaker of 2014

By Purnell T. Cropper | March 18, 2014


In recognition of his work in and contribution to the field of conflict resolution, Adjunct Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution Dr. William Jacobsen has been named Most Valuable Peacemaker for 2014. Jacobsen will receive the award by The Pennsylvania Council of Mediators at the Council’s Annual Conference on April 25 in Harrisburg.

Jacobsen has worked in Burundi and Rwanda with the African Great Lakes Initiative, promoting healing and reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis through a community trauma healing program called Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) and another called The Compassionate Listening Project. Although the genocide in Rwanda took place 20 years ago, much suffering and trauma remains. In addition to his work in Rwanda, he joins other HROC facilitators (including Arcadians Dr. Amy Cox, Emily Cox, Hannah Simon-Girard and Jacob Waldon) to offer HROC workshops with refugee communities and others in the United States. He also volunteers with the Alternatives to Violence Project at Graterford Prison and is a facilitator in Philadelphia’s Dependency Court.

After receiving news of his recent award, The Bulletin caught up with him to discuss his work in mediation, which allows for a third party to intervene and facilitate the resolution of a conflict or dispute; some advice for mediating conflict in our own lives; and his vision for the future.

JH: What are the challenges of doing work internationally that involves trauma?

WJ: A concept that seems so obvious in English might not even have a parallel word in Kinyarwanda. Even the word trauma is new to many people. We do a lot of trauma community work now in refugee communities in the United States and each community we work with has its own culture, its own needs, its own history, and its own wounds. Working with the Congolese culture in Boise is radically different than the Bhutanese culture in Manchester or Baltimore, and different again from the Eritrean culture in Seattle. Whereas conflict between personalities and tribes reflects Congolese refugee communities, the battle in Bhutanese communities is internal, making suicide a deep concern. So, we have to prepare. We have to ask community leaders about the concerns, needs, and, of course, the different personalities. And then we must listen and listen deeply.

JH: What is the Healing and Restoring Our Communities (HROC) model?

WJ: HROC is a program that was created by Africans from Rwanda and Burundi…. It’s an elicitive program that draws on the wisdom of the community to build a safe space where people can share their stories without judgment or censorship and begin to heal. We’ve learned that when there’s deep trauma [around a conflict], the trauma also needs to be addressed…. We’ve found this to be true in Africa, in refugee communities in the U.S., in war zones, in homes, or wherever there’s serious violence.

JH: Your recent work is in adapting the HROC model for the American context. How are you doing that, and what unique elements have come into play?

WJ:  Before we give a workshop in an area, we have to do our homework. …We ask about cultural dos and don’ts. We ask about history and concerns. We ask about needs. We ask particular concerns around religious beliefs and practices. We read articles when available. As we plan each workshop we do so with the concerns of the community in mind, and we allow the community to have the lead in the workshops themselves.

JH: In the face of conflict, it might be easy to feel overwhelmed or a loss of hope for reconciliation. How do you maintain optimism?

WJ: At the deep core of who I am I believe there isn’t an issue that can’t be resolved. I think there are many that aren’t resolved or that are going to take a long time. But there is always hope. I also get strength from the community of people I work with, who are supportive of me and what I do. Many of them are my heroes. I’m also encouraged by the successes I see with the program. HROC works! I see changes, small-scale, person-to-person changes. And finally, faith matters to me. Like Einstein, I believe we live in a benevolent universe, and I draw on that strength.

But, I get discouraged. The needs can be overwhelming. Last summer I worked along with my translator, Bonheur, with a group of mostly government and church leaders in a remote village. “The trauma is being re-enacted,” we were told. “Murder has become almost epidemic. Husbands kill wives, wives kill husbands, children kill parents, and parents kill children.” When trauma isn’t healed, it repeats itself. At one point the conversation got so heavy that Bonheur whispered, “My heart’s going to break. The pain is too great.” When I think of the vastness of the trauma in Rwanda, or Burundi, or Congo… when I think of how little we’ve accomplished, I can get discouraged. But I’m only one person. I don’t have to shoulder the world’s problems, but only do what’s in front of me. To Bonheur, when his heart was breaking, I whispered, “We have to stay present. We can’t walk away.” And we stayed present and didn’t back away from the exercise. But after we finished, we followed with a light and lively dance that brought the laughter and smiles back, so people were able to touch their trauma and come back to a normal place again.

JH: What are a few essential elements of working through conflict?

WJ: Listening is probably the most important. I think a mediator has to be able to stay impartial in the sense of not taking sides. I think that helping people communicate so that they understand each other is a big deal. People speak past each other very often and [it’s important] to help them actually hear each other and what they’re saying…. Sometimes people take a seemingly intractable position and we need to explore the concerns that are behind that position. Those concerns might be negotiable even if the positions themselves are not.

JH: What advice do you have for people, especially students, dealing with conflict in their own lives?

WJ: I think there are a lot of good skills they can learn. I think the most important one is learning how to listen and listen deeply, to listen from our hearts, to open our hearts to the people around us. I wish we had a community wide mediation program at Arcadia. It would reduce conflict on campus, and it trains students to be mediators. That’s my vision.