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A Weekend in Columbia
My wife and I spent last weekend in Columbia SC, attending a workshop on dot connecting and bridge building initiatives in that surprisingly lively city that is home to both the state government and its flagship university. With a minimal investment on our part (mostly for renting space and providing delicious food), we watched a wonderful and stereotype-busting event unfold. If nothing else, it showed us why locally led initiatives have so much potential. At the same time, it helped me see why those kinds of projects are hard to both get off the ground and sustain in part because of the ways we go about funding social change movements. Together, I came away with a renewed sense of hope but also with a deeper understanding about how hard it is going to be to do this kind of work in ways that could lead to the kind of paradigm shift I’ve been harping on for decades.
I need to start, though, with some intellectual background before turning to Columbia and our workshop.
Although I’m a political scientist who obsesses about national politics, I have long been convinced that peacebuilding has to be locally led. Having seen too many “orphaned” agreements negotiated by national leaders go by the wayside, I’ve learned that lasting and sweeping peacebuilding has to start at the grassiest grass roots. That way, the impetus for change comes from average everyday citizens who forge agreements about new cultural norms on just about every issue that faces their communities which, in time, expand nationwide and then to the world as a whole.
Locally led efforts are never enough. Eventually, policy makers in both the public and private sectors have to enact and implement change, too. But, at the very least, effective grassroots projects are a necessary—if not sufficient—part of building what Kenneth Boulding called stable peace.
But in the United States?
The focus on locally led Peacebuilding emerged (way too slowly) from work we have done in countries like Colombia where a mix of community based and elite driven efforts have markedly reduced the level of violence in conflicts that stretch back a half century or more. Now, many of the global organizations that promote locally led peacebuilding—including most members of the Alliance for Peacebuilding where I work—have realized that we have to be engaged in our own troubled country, too. As I like to put it, how can I honestly tell people in Colombia that I can help them build peace if we can’t do it in the 36 communities named Columbia here in the United States?
Unfortunately, we run into a problem here, I am privileged to work with a bunch of organizations that are trying to bridge political divides in the US. Some, but not all of them, have begun locally led initiatives. None of them have done much to “connect the dots” across issue-based divisions or silos. As far as I know, however, none of them has tried to create an integrated program that combined attempts to bridge ideological or issue-based divides through a concerted effort to more or less simultaneously address all of the issues facing that community as has been the case in, say, Gaviotas, Colombia.
Columbia SC: The Perfect Storm
So, I’ve been looking for opportunities where activists could take on all of what the Judy and Peter Blum Kovler Foundation calls America’s neglected needs more or less simultaneously at the local level. I’ve watched partial efforts to do so around racial healing in Portland Oregon and on urban/rural divides in four counties in south-central Pennsylvania.
Last weekend, we finally were able to launch one in Columbia SC. We weren’t building a community from scratch the way they did in Gaviotas in the 1960s. However, the fact that three of my favorite people who work in three very different wings of the social change movement(s) all ended up there presented us with an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
I met Nilanka Seneviratne when he worked here in Washington. He had recently moved back home to Columbia because he could do his work for the Horizons Project from anywhere. I had long been an admirer of Kabrina Bass of the Midlands Mediation Center and now serve with her on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation. Last but by no means least, Mara Zepeda, founding co-doula of Zebras Unite, had moved to Columbia, too. Because she planned to build a strong local Zebra presence in the city (known to many as COLA) and because she didn’t know either Nilanka or Kabrina, I introduced them and they clicked.
So, my wife and I suggested that we conduct an experiment. Bring a group of people from their three communities together and see what happens. We picked last weekend because Jenn Brandel—another of the Zebras’ doulas—planned to be in Columbia for the month and another friend could make the trip from Austin.
So, Gretchen and I arrived last Thursday night in time to see a group of one act plays put on by undergraduates at the University of South Carolina. We spent the day Friday getting to know the city and the wonderful women-owned coworking space, Femme-X, where Mara has her office and where we would be meeting on Saturday before we treated everyone to dinner at a pop up restaurant organized by COLA Love (part of the local Zebra dazzle).
We did not solve any of Columbia’s problems. But we did bring together a remarkable group of local activists and leaders who planted the seeds for the people we met to do something truly amazing.
And we surfaced one huge problem that all locally led projects face, whatever their focus. But let me focus on what happened first.
We didn’t begin the session with the problems Columbia faces because starting that way all too often sets a negative tone for the whole day. That said, it makes sense to start my summary of what happened with them they help put the situation in Columbia in context for readers who are new to either the city (as we were) or local peacebuilding.
Some of them did not come as a surprise. After all, Columbia is a city that happens to be located in one of the most conservative and poorest states in the country.
However, the participants put the familiar in a new light and introduced some new ones that I hadn’t really thought about before we headed south, including:
Racism and its legacy. This is the obvious place to start for any American community, southern or otherwise. Signs of our country’s history of racism and its contemporary impact are hard to miss. Every homeless person we saw and every person we saw riding the bus was African-American. Sure, the city is integrated, including the upscale hotel we stayed at. Nonetheless, you don’t need to have a PhD in sociology to see that institutional and systematic racism still exists—and we never got outside of the center city.
Growing inequality. We spent a lot of time with members of the African-American middle class which barely existed before the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Nonetheless, the signs are that the gap between rich and poor (white and Black alike) is growing. Public housing projects built during urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s are crumbling and no one knows where the displaced residents will go. The roads and the rest of the physical infrastructure are not in very good shape, especially in heavily African-American and/or poor parts of the city and surrounding Richland County.
Jurisdictional fragmentation. That leads to a third issue which I didn’t expect would make it onto this list. Given the way South Carolina is organized, there is plenty of political fragmentation. The City of Columbia’s boundaries do not mesh neatly with the realities of the problems on the ground. Many of the poorer (and heavily African-American) neighborhoods lie outside of the formal city limits, even though everyone in the county has a Columbia mailing address. It is frankly hard for average county residents to be aware of such basics as who their elected officials are and, therefore, who they could turn to if they have a problem that they want to address.
A (partial) lack of leadership. I was struck by how little time the participants spent talking about local leaders, either positively or negatively. I rarely heard anyone accuse them of being incompetent. In fact, the participants used terms like pragmatic far more often than they did ideological or divisive. That said, no one spoke of leaders in the city or county governments or in the private sector as innovators who could propose viable alternatives to any of the problems we discussed.
We actually started the session by asking them what they liked the most about living in Columbia which only made sense since most of the participants had lived there for many years and clearly loved the place. Of course, we didn’t start this way just to get the day off to a good start. Rather, as readers who have been exposed to the ideas of Appreciative Inquiry already know, surfacing a community’s “bright spots” can point us all to even more constructive things we can do in the future.
Still, I was blown away by the assets they mentioned, which also fell into four main categories:
The community’s diversity. As I suspect is the case with many northerners of my generation, I hadn’t realized how diverse the region’s population is. The city of Columbia is now (barely) majority minority with recent growth concentrated in the Hispanic community and among immigrants from around the world, many of whom are drawn to the region because of the University of South Carolina and its six other institutions of higher education. The three pop up restaurants organized by COLA Love (see the third bullet) represented cuisine from the Indian subcontinent, Italy, and Senegal respectively.
A strong civil society. We have to be careful here, because the kinds of formal organizations that people often think of first as being emblematic of civil society were barely mentioned in our discussion, including Rotary which my wife and I recently joined because of the role it has played in provoking social change in many parts of the world. Rather, our participants emphasized the role of the faith communities—there did indeed seem to be a church on just about every corner. More than is the case in northern Virginia where I live, there is also a strong interfaith community that includes members of both predominantly white evangelical and predominantly Black churches. It’s more than faith, however. Time after time, people mentioned the ethnic festivals, the arts community, and the amazing, award-winning library where we did much of the pre-event planning.
A vibrant entrepreneurial community especially among young adults. That is reflected in a surprisingly robust entrepreneurial spirit shown by most of the people who came to our event, especially those who seemed to be in their twenties, thirties, or forties. That starts with Femme X where we held our main session and with the related COLA Love which is starting with pop up restaurants and is hoping to help some of them find permanent homes in storefronts that became vacant during the pandemic and might otherwise swept up by national chains. Not all of this is new. For example, The SODA City market (its name is derived from COLA) has taken up six blocks along Main Street every Saturday morning since 2005. It is partially the kind of farmers’ market we find here in the DC area, but it also has ethnic food trucks, crafts booths, and street musicians, many of whom have “graduated” from the market to permanent retail outlets.
The best parts of a southern lifestyle. I was surprised, too, by how many people raved about the slower paced southern approach to life. Columbia is not a small town but it has kind of a small town feel to it. People smile at each other a lot. They hug each other a lot, too. The people who showed us around a pair of antebellum homes owned by African-Americans asked us a lot of questions about why we had come to visit. Even the most recent newcomers to the area told us about how much they felt at home.
Most importantly, we asked the participants about what they thought could be done to at least put a major dent in those problems in the next year or two. At a time of intense polarization and the Republicans’ control of all vital state-level institutions, it would have been easy for our new friends to throw up their hands in despair. Far from it. Some had trouble seeing how this could happen quickly, but none of them had any difficulty seeing longer term strategies that they could get behind that could at least begin showing signs of success by the middle of this decade. As with the problems and strengths, the opportunities fell into four main clusters.
Get to know each other. The three local organizers come from very different parts of the Columbia community. Although they knew of each other before we decided to take this project on, the fact of the matter is that they had little reason to interact. It was even less likely that the people who showed up last Saturday would have had much to do with each other. While we didn’t attempt to reach out to everyone (for example, we didn’t ask anyone from service clubs like Rotary or the trade unions), it was clear by the end of the day that just about everyone in the room knew at least a handful of friends and colleagues who could easily be brought into the projects that could come be developed in the next two years.
Build bridges. While the people who came already do a lot, it was clear that they could accomplish a whole lot more once they figure out how they could work more effectively with each other. Just before the pandemic began, I organized a conference on “where people take their conflict” for national peacebuilding leaders. Last Saturday, I worked with people who worked for organizations that served precisely that kind of role in the Columbia region. The next step is to help the people who work on homelessness, for example, to work with others who focus on the arts and for all of them to use the skills provided by the community mediation center and other peacebuilders. That will be the kind of silo-bridging intersectional work we only dreamed of three years ago.
Leverage existing institutions of power. As I’ve already suggested, many of the participants were skeptical of what they could hope to accomplish working through local government or mainstream civil society organizations. There were exceptions, including the active and visible arts community or the amazing public library system. Perhaps more importantly, the participants realized that the formal and informal organizations that they were a part of could accomplish a lot more if they spent more time learning from and developing projects with each other.
Build new power bases. Although this final bullet point will not lead to noticeable changes in the one- to two-year time frame we suggested, there was a strong commitment to building new institutions that could have an impact, sooner rather than lager. The founder of Femme X has bought the building next door which will provide another opportunity to build community-based wealth. The same holds for COLA Love and its plans to have a lasting impact that builds on the initiatives of young entrepreneurs many of whom are immigrants.
An Emerging Problem
As the day went on, we kept coming back to funding in general and for the kinds of projects I saw being sketched out in particular.
I’ve known for some time that locally based projects come with some real costs—(puns intended). Some donors seem to want to give their money to flashy projects at the national level which local peace building definitely is not. Others prefer spending their money on organizations with a proven track record which local peacebuilders rarely have because they are often “new to the game.” Last but by no means least, funders typically want to support well-defined projects whereas local peacebuilders normally have to figure out what works in their communities through experimentation, following hunches, and the like.
We were able to put the weekend together without spending a lot of money. However, it is not clear where the money will come from because many of the people who attended the workshop struggle to make ends meet, and we organizers are convinced that people who do social change work should be paid a living wage.
So, our challenge is to find new sources of funding, funding that will come without the usual strings attached.
First Columbia, Tomorrow the World
In closing, we did not get involved in this project because we have a vested interest in Columbia—although I have to say that Gretchen and I both fell in love with the place.
Instead, we are now looking for other places where something similar could happen. Whevere that is, it will be different. There are very few other cities that are fairly small and also serve as a state capital and home to a major university. Few other places have anything like Femme X or a thriving local Zebras chapter. Others will have other assets that Columbia lacks, including perhaps a dynamic Rotary or other social change oriented service club or a thriving trade union movement.
In short, we are looking for other places where local residents might be interested in connecting some of their community’s dots in ways that none of them have been doing so far.
So, if this is at all appealing, let me know.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.