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A healing-centered peacebuilding approach requires fundamental changes in how systems are designed, organizations function, and practitioners engage with people. Key to a system’s transformation is, the intervention is not just about raising awareness, but rather changing behavior, actions, and responses. It uses a trauma lens in order to address the complexity of chronic violence, injustice, and inequity.

The approach recognizes systems and structures which should be supportive of recovery are often greatly damaged by the same violence, and therefore often cannot provide the needed support to aid in the rebuilding/integration processes.

A healing-centered peacebuilding approach refers to ways in which leaders, programs & organizations mitigate the impact of chronic violence, bringing trauma awareness, knowledge, & skills into their organizational cultures, practices, and policies.

A healing-centered peacebuilding approach considers emotional and mental distress to be a critical variable in violent conflict and instability. 

Trauma is not only a consequence of violence but also a cause of instability.

When the community is cracked like a cup, – and like a community the cup is cracked and broken.

What happens when we pour water into the cup when it is cracked? It leaks. Can the community use the water? No because it is leaking and spilling out.

This is how chronic violence impacts communities. It appears as cracks – think about your own communities.  What types of cracks do they have?

Here in Kenya we have cracks from colonialism, corruption, winner take all politics, bad governance plus we have issues tied to violent crime, violent extremism and also ethnic violence every five years during elections. But in Kenya donors have spent billions of dollars tending to our cracks. And yet after decades of outside funding the cracks appear bigger today than before – even with all the outside aid.

Why is this?

We believe it has to do with deep intergenerational, cultural, social, and political trauma that comes with our cracks.

We are not saying it is trauma which has caused the cracks, instead chronic violence, injustice and inequity have caused many of our cracks, but trauma has made it near impossible for us to repair our cracks.

As Dr. Christine Bethell at the 2019 Collective Trauma Summit says “we are living in a trauma organized society”. However after all the billions spent, the one thing we know is that outsiders cannot repair our cracks – that difficult task belongs to us.

Beyond East Africa and the Horn, globally, entire generations and nations live in chronic violence, existing in survival mode for decades.  The exposure to violence has long-lasting effects which are not well accounted for in conflict analysis, stabilization efforts, peacebuilding and governance initiatives.

According to our experience and research there are three mainstream responses: the mental health approach, the psychosocial approach, and the “ignore it” approach.  Alternatively, healing-centered peacebuilding is a lens used to address the complexity of chronic violence.

The initial study by Dr. Angi Yoder-Maina used Ground Theory methodology within an action research framework to develop a new approach. The approach gives a name to an approach not uncommon among peacebuilders dealing with the impacts of violence and trauma.

Key elements of the practice-based approach from the research included Inclusion, Customization and Contextualization, Breaking Cycles of Violence, Systems Thinking, and the use of Trauma-Informed Tools.

The inclusive component of healing-centered peacebuilding has three sub-components.

  1. Multi-disciplinary and multi-sectral;
  2. A role for lived experiences, and
  3. Local and traditional healers are included.

The customization & contextualization component of healing-centered peacebuilding has four sub-components.

  1. Community-informed and cultural adapted;
  2. Importance of storytelling;
  3. Uses a decolonizing approach; &
  4. Utilizes community resources sustainably.

The breaking cycles of violence component of healing-centered peacebuilding has two sub-components.

  1. Engaging both victims and perpetrators, &
  2. Supporting the development of agency.

The systems thinking component of healing-centered peacebuilding has three sub-components.

  1. Resilience-informed;
  2. Social healing is a foundation for development, justice, & governance interventions;
  3. Collective healing approaches; &
  4. Promotes ecological healing.

Trauma-informed tools component of healing-centered PB has 4 sub-components.

  1. Relationships hold space & transform space;
  2. Neuroscience concepts ground practice;
  3. Embodied practices regulate the nervous system; &
  4. Arts-based opens creativity & innovation.

Practice-based examples of this model include the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program at Eastern Mennonite University, our work at Green String Network here East Africa and the Horn, Nagarik Aawaz in Nepal, and at both a policy and practice level Building Community Resilience (BCR) at in the USA.

How do peacebuilders continue business as usual when we can tell things are not working?  The best-planned ‘on paper’ peacebuilding programs often do not work when implementation starts because there is no inbuilt method for participants to deal with their painful past.

Due to a lack of transitional, post-conflict justice, wounded leaders are ineffective, and structural inequalities and conflict are rarely and substantially addressed. How do peacebuilders support holistic and inclusive processes if social healing is not a foundational element of peacebuilding? 

A healing-centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question moving beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” & views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own wellbeing rather than victims of traumatic events.” Dr. Shaun Ginwright

Investment in healing is critical in today’s world.

As Dr. Christine Bethall said at the 2019 Collective Trauma Healing Summit, “we’re a society organized based on trauma, so we need to go from being trauma-organized to being trauma-informed—and then, eventually, healing-centered.”