From Class Discussion to Pub Conversation: Learning Through Human Connection

An expectant crowd of students, academics, and miscellaneous community members filtered into a stately wood-paneled hall at Queen’s University Belfast. We had all gathered on the brisk Tuesday night to hear renowned anti-Apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele deliver the annual Mitchell Peace Lecture, which, although not affiliated with the Mitchell Scholarship, shares its namesake. Tasked with reflecting on contemporary peacebuilding efforts, Ramphele questioned, “How does one dare to affirm our interconnectedness in the face of strong forces stoking the fires of divisions?” She began her response by invoking the conventional wisdom that inspired the drafters of the South African Constitution: “you can’t change what is going on around you until you start changing what’s going on within you.” Building peace today, she asserted, involves not only macro-level political maneuvering, but also meeting one’s own spiritual and emotional needs and those of others. Only when we embrace the ancient South African concept of Ubuntu, the idea that “I am because you are,” and recognize that our capacity to build a brighter, peaceful future lies in our ability to empathize with one another, can individuals serve as effective peacebuilders and as ethical citizens of the world.

I’ve found confirmation of Ramphele’s testament to the transformative power of empathy and human connection in every aspect of my life in Belfast, whether sitting in class, hanging out in pubs, or hiking the countryside. Over the past two months, I’ve found myself learning from peers in my Religion and Peacebuilding class about their respective traditions’ conceptions of reconciliation and forgiveness, listening to my cab driver as he recounts his participation in the IRA blanket protest, and speaking with a former employee of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive about the NIHE’s role in building cross-community trust. My peers in my academic programme have shared their reflections on ongoing conflicts in their home countries and have informed me of political dynamics and social issues I had been completely unaware of. My fellow Mitchell Scholars have educated me about their various interest areas and experiences in Ireland thus far. It seems that, wherever I go, I encounter people with experiences and perspectives that challenge my preconceptions about political and social issues and compel me to complicate my historical understandings, self-reflect more intentionally, and empathize more deeply.   

I have so much to learn; I don’t yet have a comprehensive grasp on the complexities of post-Troubles Northern Irish politics. I’ve just begun to learn about the wide range of mechanisms that exist to enact post-conflict structural change. I still get lost walking back from the Tesco three blocks from my apartment. It is but the beginning of a full year of academic engagement and personal growth. However, I know one thing for sure: the people here are changing me.

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