Experiential Peacebuilding: Practicing What We Preach

BY Ashley Nichole Kolaya

“TELL ME, AND I will forget; show me, and I will remember; involve me, and I will understand.”  These are the words of a well-known Chinese proverb.  They are also words that form the foundation of the experiential learning model employed by the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding. Ana Cutter Patel, the Center’s executive director, described the model in a talk she gave Sept. 18 as part of NYU Wagner’s ongoing, dynamic “Conflict, Security and Development” speaker series.

“Picture this,” Patel began.  “An unlikely collection of individuals: Palestinian Muslims, Israeli Jews, and Palestinian Christians.  Some religious leaders.  Some secular activists.  All with one thing in common: they had to survive a mountain expedition in cold, wet weather, and they had to do it as a group.

“The Palestinians were not well-equipped to handle the cold weather.  They lacked appropriate clothing and footwear, and their camping gear was rudimentary.  The discrepancy between their equipment and what the Israelis were able to bring with them quickly became a source of tension.  The Palestinians’ frustration grew.  They were cold and tired and wanted to go home.  Then something happened.  One of the Israeli participants brought his backpack out in front of the group and dumped it out in front of the group.  The rest of the team started to follow suit.  By the end of the evening, the gear was redistributed, and the incipient stages of a cooperative spirit had developed among the group.  By the end of the trip, impossibly strong bonds developed between the unlikeliest of individuals.”


Patel’s description of this excursion was more than an opening anecdote – it was an accurate reflection of her day-to-day work.  Outward Bound Peacebuilding  sends emerging leaders from divided societies on intensive excursions that promote learning, respect, teambuilding, and leadership skills.  The dialogue created by participants in these experiences lays the groundwork for peace within and between communities in conflict.

Outward Bound’s model is gaining traction in the field of international relations.  A growing trend in the world of conflict resolution and peacebuilding is a focus on experiential learning—learning by doing.  Patel’s organization, along with many others like it, seeks to develop capacity and build public support for peace through the cyclical experiential education model.   In this model, learning requires four steps: action, reflection, discussion, and application.  Though a learner can enter the process at any stage, each step is essential to the process.

To illustrate her point further, Patel involved the more than 50 audience members to her “lecture” in an activity.

“Get with a partner, and face each other.  Put your palms up in front of your partner’s.  Now, the goal is for you to get your partner’s elbows behind his or her back as many times as you can in one minute.  Go.”

Some listeners stood, frozen and confused. Some stood pushing against each other’s palms with all their might.  Others still excitedly see-sawed their hands back and forth, grinning ear to ear.  As the rest of the room witnessed this frenzied movement, it started to dawn on everyone that the point of the exercise was cooperation.

“I don’t know why, but my first instinct was not to let my partner get my elbows behind my back.  I was so focused on my own goal that I assumed if my partner accomplished her goal, it meant that I wouldn’t achieve mine.  I didn’t even realize I was making it harder on myself,” said one of the participants.

This is precisely the lesson that experiential learning has for us in regard to peacebuilding, according to the Outward Bound model.  Though the challenges are numerous, the benefits are plain to see.  This model is an active exercise in developing the qualities that celebrated educator and Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn referred to as the foremost concern of all education: “an enterprising curiosity, and undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial and, above all, compassion.”

Perhaps these qualities comprise a solid foundation on which the framework of peacebuilding can firmly stand.

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