Moving Peace Education

Learning in polarizing conflicts as a visiting scholar in the USA

By Annalena Groppe

Understandings of peace and corresponding approaches to peace education are shaped by their context's conflicts and violence (Salomon 2002). Moving between places allows one to see specifics more clearly. As my dissertation project explores peace education in polarizing conflicts over democracy in Germany, this text reflects on learning and facilitation in a peace studies department in Virginia, USA, the societal context from which the concept of polarization originates. Showing the didactical relevance of those conflicts, I explore the tension and complementarity between elicitve/process- and actor-oriented, critical/ self-reflective, and trauma-sensitive approaches to Peace Education.


'Movement' is a common concept in peace education. It can be a dancing exercise or the invitation to alternate chairs in the circle for a literal change of perspective. Process-oriented pedagogy often uses the metaphor for a (learning) journey. For example, the heroine/hero's journey is an educational practice of biographical and emotional introspection, mirroring a sequence of quests as portrayed in myths. Lucy E. Bailey and Amanda M. Kingston (2020) present an even more embodied and literal understanding of peace pilgrimage as traveling, visiting, and commemorating places. This type of movement is "a paradigmatic and paradoxical human quest, both outward and inward, a movement toward ideals known but not achieved at home."

In this line, I was aspiring for a holistic change of perspective when I became a visiting scholar at the Center for Justice and Peace Building at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, USA. The visit took place amid my dissertation project in which, among others, I am building on CJP's co-founder John Paul Lederach's conflict transformation theory. Therefore, I aimed to learn from CJP's peace education approach that combines the local experience of peacebuilding praxis with academic education. At the same time, CJP's location in the USA allowed me to observe didactical responses to polarizing conflicts within the context where the concept originates.

I draw from experience gained during co-facilitation, guest presentations, and informal conversations. Due to my outsider's perspective, I might point to aspects usually overseen. However, I only got a glimpse of the learning community. Moreover, I will present some reflections of research partners who joined a research group.[1] We spent two workshop days together practicing and reflecting on peace education in polarizing conflicts.

How do CJP's didactics respond to polarizing conflicts?

At first, I felt that CJP was not explicitly working on polarizing conflicts over democracy, as I had previously described in German case studies: the conglomeration of different conflict issues along a dualistic separating line between homogenized groups (Groppe 2021)[2]. However, within its three curricular branches, Restorative/Transformative Justice, Conflict Transformation, Trauma & Resilience, CJP works on aspects underlying societal dividing dynamics.

While there is overlap between CJP's three pillars aiming for societal change and nonviolent relationships, there is also tension among those different transformation strategies. Justice, social cohesion, and inner harmony, though all associated with peace, can also create a field of tension between each other. John Paul Lederach describes this paradox as Micah's Dilemma:

Doing justice is the pursuit of restoration, of rectifying wrongs, of creating right relationships based on equity and fairness. […] Mercy, on the other hand, involves compassion, forgiveness, and a new start. […] In peacemaking, we can feel the tension of these two necessary energies. [… ] The unique challenge of the Micah dilemma is to uphold both: to pursue justice in ways that respect people and to achieve restoration of relationships based on recognizing and amending injustices. (Lederach 1995, 20)

This paradox is pointedly manifesting in polarizing conflicts and peace education's approaches to learning within: How can I critique systems of oppression and be allies with the marginalized without breaking relationships with those who do not wish for or even accept transformation? How CJP negotiates these tensions didactically can be informative regarding such central challenges for education in polarizing conflicts.

(Re)Integrating the Reflective into Elicitive Peace Education

CJP seminars are rooted in Paulo Freire's popular education, advocating transformative learning for empowerment. It is a central inspiration for the elicitive training concept developed by John Paul Lederach. He locates the transformative potential within the wisdom and creativity of conflict actors themselves (Lederach 1995). CJP sustains its inspiration in popular education and elicitive training with an attitude that welcomes diverse perspectives as a gift.

At the same time, CJP's curriculum (re)integrates[3] a critical lens on students' and faculty's positionality in systems of oppression. Theoretically, this answers growing critiques of missing post- and decolonial perspectives in peace education (Krohn and Pauls 2023). Practically, seminars focus on students' wisdom and relationships while making cultural and structural violence visible. This combination of personal experiences and an intersectional lens makes systems of oppression tangible and inspires self-reflection without moralizing. As diverse lived experiences of discrimination and privileges are in the room, they are more plural and complex than learning about abstract dichotomies that only represent (and homogenize) social groups. However, this is only possible if structural barriers for a diverse group of students are challenged and leveled[4].

Another example of how CJP combines relationality and critique is recognizing land, all living beings, and ancestry as relevant entities within relationships, as practiced by Indigenous perspectives. CJP's didactics encourage moments of experiential presence and appreciation, for example, through an invitation to take a mindful walk after a dense intellectual seminar week. Simultaneously, it invites unease and caution, reminding us of historical and continuing injustices. This abundance of land I overlooked from EMU's hilltop not long ago attracted settlers searching for resources and freedom while forcibly displacing and silencing Indigenous peoples. Students, for example, created a video that recalls both the oppression and resilience of Native People who inhabited the University's land. This land acknowledgment is a first step to challenging continuing discrimination against Indigenous people by centering their perspectives.

A third example of (re) integrating a reflective aspect into elicitive education is the 'Dugan Nested Model' theoretical lens, whichI experienced as a flying word in CJP- seminars.[5] According to Máire Dugan, a specific conflict issue is embedded in relationships and two levels of structures: institutions and systems. Those are not arranged hierarchically but contained within in a layered manner comparable to an onion (Dugan 1996). Systems of oppression in this understanding manifest in the (inter)personal conflict experience. Transformation needs to take those (in part paradoxical) layers into account.

Why do I believe that this paradox and CJP's navigation are inspiring for learning within polarizing conflicts? The relevance of systems of oppression is not far-fetched, considering radical expressions of nationalism, racism, sexism, and antisemitism in polarizing discourse (Hufer 2018). This is understood not as a relict but as a right-wing 'backlash' (Norris and Inglehart 2019). The Leipzig study on authoritarianism interprets this resurgence of previously suppressed authoritarian tendencies as a reaction to liberalization over the past three decades (Decker and Brähler 2020, 21–22). Theories of "post-migrant society" see polarizing dynamics as a defensive strategy against efforts for social justice (Karakayali and Mecheril 2018). When people encounter information that profoundly challenges or irritates them, they tend to align themselves with their social group and reaffirm their existing belief systems (Iyengar et al. 2019). This phenomenon is particularly noticeable when individuals are confronted with their privilege, leading to defensive strategies such as denial and counterattack, as described by Robin DiAngelo (DiAngelo 2019).

Those studies are not stated as legitimation but for a better understanding of polarization as a conflict that is also relational. This relational dimension is presented to show the challenge that Lederach describes as "a passion for standing with the oppressed […] and a compassion for others, respecting even our enemies" (1995, 21). CJP didactically practices holding this tension: while there is an unwavering positioning as allies of the marginalized, they include other-than-power dimensions and open learning spaces, for example, for relationships, emotional experience, and vulnerability. In the following section, I share some observations on how the lens of personal trauma might be of help.

Trauma as a root for polarizing dynamics

Trauma at CJP is a much broader concept than I had learned about it before. It can affect whole societies and cross generations. Trauma is not only related to war or catastrophe but can also manifest in response to societal conditions such as separation from land or pressure to succeed in meritocracy. In this perspective, trauma basically affects everybody. Therefore, it is crucial to consider looking at societal conflicts and their roots in history. Trauma sensitivity becomes a requirement for any transformative process to happen.

A former CJP faculty member, Caroline Yoder, reflected on the possible influence of (transgenerational) trauma on divisive behavior. She suggests that trauma narrows one's tolerance window, and conflicts can escalate more easily. Polarizing narratives specifically trigger embodied threat and fear (Yoder 2019, 72). Building resilience in these dynamics does not mean undoing or forgetting the initial traumatizing event or structure but increasing the ability to live with it. This happens through breaking free (for those experiencing harm), acknowledgment, and reconnection.

Trauma sensitivity also informs CJP's didactics: Students are regularly asked to take a deep breath in class. They use fidget toys while they listen to presentations on various manifestations of violence. Guidance notes to take care of oneself are shared in Moodle Courses. These practices foster an awareness that anyone brings more than rational minds to the classroom, and those aspects matter in conflict transformation. Moreover, this trauma lens actively welcomes everybody to step out or transform any activity if they do not feel comfortable. Such awareness and practice seem crucial to me, as experience-based pedagogy always carries a danger of opening processes that cannot sufficiently be accompanied, especially considering that education is embedded in systems of oppression.

I learned to understand the personal (trauma-)lens as a diversifying perspective in the tension between justice and social cohesion. For example, this manifested in the research group, where I worked with students on polarizing conflicts. We choose to work on how to open spaces to address conflict. This question grew from different experiences, how avoiding polarizing topics can lead to tension, separation, or explosion.

Finally, we decided on a biographical method[6], understanding the personal perspective as a grounding basis for one's possibilities to transform structures and relationships among others. One of the students, Kory Schaeffer, explains: "We have to start with our own change like the change within reflects what's without."[7] In the reflection round, several of us shared that "weaving-in" of aspects like structures was possible and meaningful. For example, Tibby Miller's conflict episode missed the necessary structural setting, so she used the introspection exercise to imagine a room containing all relevant actors and allowed expression of needs and pain, which was vital for her. She also shared that "the variety, like ways to understand both through metaphor, through words, through movement […] each allowed for a different story to emerge"[8].

However, this diversification does not mean that looking at trauma (in its broad sense) would overcome the paradox and tension of social justice and reconciliation. It was of central importance for the students of the research group to raise critical questions while not breaking relationships. Seeing oneself and others as embodied beings that experienced trauma can (only) add a perspective: It might allow one to stand better within the paradox by diversifying the possible entry points.

Concluding thoughts

CJP's threefold curricular pillars widen elicitive – process- and learner-oriented – didactics with a critical and trauma-sensitive lens. While those perspectives are theoretically not without tension, their practice as an act of balancing, transparency, feasibility, and context-specificity allows students to navigate the paradox of 'justice and mercy' within polarizing conflicts. The tensions are not mitigated, though. Ambiguities could even be understood as learning opportunities. Those described attitudes and practices can inspire peace education in polarizing conflicts.

Moreover, by becoming part of a learning community in a different context, I experienced multi-dimensional peace education myself. Sharing meals with faculty, staff, and students, walking beneath blooming trees on contested land, and engaging in difficult conversations while keeping up relationships, not only my outside body moved but also my inside concepts, heart, and soul. Sitting in my home's library again, still feeling the relational traces, I sense the depth in which this movement has broadened my understanding of peace education.

Thank you, CJP, for welcoming me!


My understanding was co-created: I want to express my gratitude to the participating students of the earlier mentioned research group: Hyo-Jin Chang, Katie Corbit, Austin Headrick, Stella Kayenga Mbangu, Elisabeth (Tibby) Miller, Kory Schaeffer (in alphabetical order). Moreover, I want to thank the CJP faculty, especially Paula Ditzel Facci, for your welcoming attitude and all co-learning with you!


[1] The research partners received these reflections to check my interpretation and their quotes.  

[2] In Germany, different understandings of democracy appear as the contested topic, while in the US, democracy is contrasted with freedom more prominently. For this text, I use the general term polarizing conflicts.

[3] There might be controversies, whether this critical self-reflection has always been intrinsic to Lederach’s perspective, as he builds on Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. However, I want to follow an understanding of the ‘elicitive’ that at its core is not prescribing to engage with critical theory. It also needs to be added, that Lederach never glorified the ‘elicitive’ in its pure form but rather expressed a need for balance with prescriptive approaches (Lederach 1995).

[4] Structurally, there are scholarships, host families, and working students’ opportunities to balance the tuition and living costs barrier. While these measures are important, there are, of course, limits to institutionally balancing the (inter-)national burdens. CJP being transparent and authentic in this continuous struggle was inspiring for me.

[5] It is also prominently displayed on CJP’s website and in its Conflict Analysis Toolbox.

[6] We practiced the imagination exercises “Walk with your 4-year old” and the “Transformation method”, developed by Jeru Kabbal (2006). Those imagination exercise won’t raise critical awareness of systems of oppression, neither do they aim to train dialogue skills.

[7] Transcript Reflection Round Research Group, May 12th 2023 (time stamp 1:04:18-1:04:22).

[8] Transcript Reflection Round Research Group, May 12th 2023 (time stamp 1:01:46-1:02:53).


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Über die Autor*innen

Annalena Groppe is a researcher at the Peace Academy Rhineland-Palatinate and conducts research on the potential of peace education in polarising conflicts over democracy.