Letter From Belfast

troubles01I landed in London just as the outcome of the Brexit vote also landed.  Half the plane cheering, and half the plane miserable with shock and dismay. I was in the latter camp. I couldn’t understand why the prime minister had allowed it to come to a vote when the vote to leave the European Union was always a possibility, and now a reality.  Putting it to the vote might have been the right populist thing to do while exercising moral courage is a tougher call.

I flew from London to Belfast and walked out of the terminal.  As a child born in the 60s I was still young when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland. I remember watching scenes unfold first on grainy black and white television and then later in full color.

troubles03Those images of violence and conflict are etched into my psyche so when I see them today, such as IRA fighters in the street, they evoke a stream of consciousness from my childhood when I was trying to make sense of what I was seeing. And yet those images remained frozen in time for me. When I had the opportunity to attend a Transitional Justice Institute Summer School in Belfast focused on women’s transitional justice I applied and was one of the lucky few to be accepted. This was a chance to learn from what women had experienced in Northern Ireland as well as learning from women’s experience of transitional justice in other countries.

Over a decade after a peace deal, Belfast has over 8o peace lines and interface areas separating Catholic and Protestant communities of the city.
Over a decade after a peace deal, Belfast has over 8o peace lines and interface areas separating Catholic and Protestant communities of the city.

What was profoundly shocking was that almost a decade after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, domestic violence is higher than it’s ever been and the peace walls remain up to keep the peace between neighborhoods and the slogans on the walls include lines such as ‘Prepared for peace, ready for war’.

While the world celebrated the Belfast Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, not enough attention was paid to sustained and rising violence at home and on the streets by those for whom violence was their daily currency. These men hadn’t transcended and transformed their feelings and practice of violence; in fact, in many cases their violent behavior had escalated.

troubles02It’s clear that we need to pay more attention to how men and boys understand being male and exercise their masculinity as much as ensuring women are meaningfully engaged in peace processes and in positions of power.  This is the world’s longest war – violence against women and yet there is not the funding dedicated to in the way there is to a military operation even though the deaths and casualties far exceed any other war. If economists were tasked with capturing the real cost in lost productivity, and health services cost then the figure would be in the trillions.

So what would paying attention to male exercise of masculinity and women’s participation in peace processes look like?  It would mean that men were exercising their power in ways that expand their creative selves rather than denying or diminishing this side. It means they would likely establish more meaningful relationships and experience higher self-esteem.  It would mean that women were better supported in bringing to the table different relationships, ways of seeing and networking and exercising power. It would almost certainly mean and increased and sustained commitment to health care, education, freedom from violence and social justice. It would mean the practice of transforming power and articulating what positive peace looks like to people on the streets and in rural areas.

In an article written by Fidelma Ashe and Ken Harland called Troubling Masculinities: Changing Patterns of Violent Masculinities in a Society Emerging from Political Conflict, they refer to research studies that have shown that schools are instrumental in the formation of masculine identities. Harland and McCready’s five-year longitudinal study in Northern Ireland with 378 adolescent boys in post-primary school found complex and changing patterns of masculinity through the ways in which boys think about what it means to be a man. For example, from the ages of 11–13, irrespective of school type, the majority of boys believed that men should be dominant, aggressive, a good fighter, competitive, powerful, heterosexual, and able to stand up for themselves.

In presenting this research, Ashe and Harland wrote that

‘Violence and violence related issues were considered to be a normal part of young male development and an acceptable way to resolve issues. Those boys who held these beliefs most strongly scored lower in levels of academic motivation/ preference and higher in levels of misbehaviour. In contrast, boys who were less inclined to hold these strong beliefs about masculinity scored higher in academic motivation/preference and lower in levels of misbehaviour.

For the majority of boys, however, their ideas about masculinity became much more complex as they progressed through adolescence. Boys became increasingly confused about what it means to be a man in response to questions such as “a man should hug another man,” or “it’s ok for a man to cry.” One aspect that remained consistent for all boys across the five years was that it was important for a man to display moral and ethical responsibility and provide for his family. Since boys are rarely taught about masculinity or gender, they are often left to their own, or other perhaps more sinister influences to forge their masculine identities. This can mean that some boys and young men remain susceptible, or attracted to,

Since boys are rarely taught about masculinity or gender, they are often left to their own, or other perhaps more sinister influences to forge their masculine identities. This can mean that some boys and young men remain susceptible, or attracted to, hyper masculinity or violent masculinities, either as victims or perpetrators. This is perhaps where interventions supporting boys to question attitudes and behaviour associated with violent masculinities may be most useful. Helping boys to understand and process changing patterns of masculinities could be developed to support a range of social institutions and adults working with adolescent boys.’

Research shows that in trying to live up to masculine norms, many men place a priority on career advancement, sacrificing relationships with family, spouses, and friends—relationships that not only improve quality of life but that can also offer an important source of psychological support in times of stress and help mitigate problems such as anxiety, depression and illness.

troubles04Many men seem to perceive that, although beneficial to women, equality can only come at the expense of men. Other men may fear that no matter what their intentions are, rather than being seen as part of the solution, women colleagues will continue to see them as part of the problem, scrutinizing their every move. Changing this zero-sum perspective is critical to gaining men’s support for gender initiatives. For instance by exposing men to the personal gains when gender in the workplace is addressed.

This may include more rewarding and intimate relationships with spouse and children; freedom to define oneself according to one’s own values rather than traditional gender norms; freedom to share financial responsibilities with one’s spouse or partner; freedom to parent creatively.

A leadership course might invite questions such as what can this organization do to help alleviate men’s fears and encourage more men to become engaged as champions?
Is the company relying too much on women to drive gender inclusion efforts?’
How are men being equipped to assume leadership roles that support an inclusive work environment?
To what extent do all leaders “own” inclusion as part of their leadership responsibilities? How much are men focused on changing their own behaviors to promote inclusion—instead of looking for others to change?
How are men using and advocating for work life balance benefits such as paternity led family leave and telecommuting to manage their work and personal responsibilities?
Are male and female colleagues being judged by different standards (e.g., promotion criteria based more on potential for men and more on demonstrated achievement for women) and are gender-based assumptions being made about staff needs, work interests, and competencies (e.g., she won’t want to relocate because she has a small child; he doesn’t need work-life flexibility; she doesn’t really want to be on the fast-track), checkout the great work by Catalyst in this regard: Actions men can take to create an inclusive workplace (PDF)

p01ynl2qOn the first day of the Transitional Justice Institute Summer School, the renowned academic lawyer specializing in human rights, Professor Fionnuala Ni Aolain, gave the opening lecture. She spoke of the “armed patriarchy” and of the violence it produces being long term, cyclical, destructive and gendered. Professor Ni Aolain spoke of male dominance minimizing or making invisible women’s experience.  Gender is profoundly hierarchical in political settlement processes. It is critical to take seriously “the social stuff” that is often taken for granted in political processes such as the networking and informal conversations that leverage power and position. Sometimes we think the most important thing is for women to get to the table. What we don’t realize is that the deal got done before getting to the table.

This is the case in Nepal where the current increased representation of women in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) doesn’t mean that women have necessarily increased their meaningful participation in decision-making since women’s opinions even in parliamentary forums are so often discounted or overlooked. Although quotas and reserved seats for women are often an important catalyst for change, it’s important to go beyond such initiatives in order to address the deeper structural issues that often deny women power and participation and sustain their marginalization in different contexts.
Professor Ni Aolain again:

‘post conflict environments are vividly about male systems. There is enormous flux around male identity post conflicts. The international fraternity arrives to “fix” the problem – come with their own gender norms, patriarchal behaviors and they transfer them to this new context. For these reasons we need to assume they are part of the problem. The real challenge – and opportunity – is how to create structures that move societies beyond sharp inequalities and the loss of civic trust.  This means improving meaningful political representation and social and economic protection and transformation. It also means having a plan for rehabilitation and reintegration beyond the demobilization and disarmament.

As Professor Ni Aolain asked, what do you do with “the old guys who stand down”, ex-prisoners – mainly men – who say “this is all that I know. I like being the ‘go to’ person” in terms of their rehabilitation and how they see themselves and their use of power? With this in mind, it means we must be prepared to stand back from deals that are not good for us. A bad peace deal is worse than no peace deal at all. Those that foreclose on transformation are not worth supporting.’

troubles05During our time together, Professor Ni Aolain recommended we embrace what Cynthia Enlow refers to as ‘deploying a feminist curiosity’ and to use this approach to understand what will support dynamic processes that serve women. Check out this really great interview with Cynthia Enlow that captures feminist curiosity in practice, and the importance of a broad curiosity that explores many terrains and takes intersectionality as its cue.

Another speaker at the summer school, Catherine O’Rourke spoke about the way women build and develop their personal and professional relationships, including horizontally and relationally, in ways that open up a range of options for the peacebuilding process that is often different to the way men see and engage in peacebuilding processes.

Aisling Swaine from George Washington University reflected on the approaches to women’s inclusion in peacebuilding and the importance of seeking diverse voices of women outside those known to the system. Critical here is to realize the political activism of women rather than women coming in with halos on their heads.

mcwilliamsMonica McWilliams was a key leader in the Northern Ireland Peace Process and she shared her perspective with us on the difference that peace has made over 25 years. Her sharing was so rich and her perspective so important that I’m including here the raw notes I captured in the rapid-fire state in which she shared her stories and analysis with us.

“People were disappeared – bodies never returned by IRA (war is a very dirty thing) including the mother of 10 children. Scarred, physically and mentally. Displaced, exiled, homeless. Imprisoned, interned, tortured. Segregated, divided, and separated. Women led “The families of the disappeared” – Commission for the location of victim’s remains – asked for interlocutor to come forward and provide indemnity/amnesty for the person. Where one person’s justice is another person’s grievance.
Conflict never going away if you don’t get closure – relief of families when bodies returned 30 years later. It’s easy to put a wall up, it’s hard to pull it down. Our biggest walls are in our heads – same with decommissioning arms. Male prisoners asked in 1986 for a non-academic course on women’s studies (all republican, no loyalists). Over 30,000 prisoners during conflict and 750 when it ended. But no thought given to rehabilitation. Prisoners insisted they were political prisoners not criminals.
Irish diaspora sending funds and arms back to Ireland – geopolitical.
Cessation as requirement for ceasefire – conditions including ceasing rape. Need set of principles, independent timetable, establish a sufficiency of consensus. Women as mediators as much as negotiators. Women on the streets with placards. Harder to get support for their political participation.
New slogans: It’s Over/Time to Build – creating inclusive process for women’s participation. Ensure constructive process to get people to the table. Ensure proposals mean something to everyone at the table. Ensure what is agreed gets implemented. Accept the legitimacy of all involved in the peace process.
Creation of women’s party – Women’s Coalition – due to lack of response from political parties re request for women’s inclusion. Focus on diversity of women at the table. Ensure affirmative action with timetable attached so that it gets implemented. Human rights, inclusion, equality – focus on the three principles you’re going to work on.
Give Women the Vote (green, white, violet colors) and women’s slogan and posters in upcoming elections:  ‘Wave goodbye dinosaurs. Vote for Women’s Coalition Party’.“

Avila Kilmurray spoke of active citizenship being a chaotic and busy space. By the mid-1970s there was a more intentional women’s movement, and this movement helped to secure a Charter of Rights for women in Northern Ireland. This was in direct contrast to the popular attitude of the day, which was “We have to solve the political issues and then we’ll solve the women’s problems”. Women used their relationships and knowledge to drive citizen campaigns and people’s movements. There was a speed of self-organization as communities realized they had to stand on their own two feet and needed their own representation. This resulted in local voluntary community organizations such as the Bogside Community Association and the Ardoyne People’s Assembly that were distinct from civil society organizing largely led by paid NGOs.

This people’s movement was unpopular with politicians and churches due to being seen as challenging power and having a power base. While outsiders created ambitious peacebuilding goals that often set up people to fail, these people’s organizations were grounded in starting with where people were at and focused on people’s needs. These needs involved a response to the reality of grinding poverty, poor housing, domestic violence, rape, law reform, skill-building and people’s representation.  These women’s and people’s groups sought to break down fears and stereotypes by being inclusive of diverse views and perspectives, working back channels and engaging intermediaries including priests and local politicians as well as international women leaders such as Hillary Clinton.

Artivism was also a product of this people’s movement, most visibly through the murals painted on walls across Belfast. While on this summer school, Emeritus Professor and internationally recognized mural scholar, Bill Rolston, took us on a street tour to better understand the history and impact of this mural culture in Belfast. The themes of murals range from the 1981 Irish hunger strike, with particular emphasis on strike leader, Bobby Sands, murals of international solidarity with revolutionary groups and of inspiring leaders such as Nelson Mandela as well as on paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Force.

As Rolston writes, ‘The phenomenon of mural painting grew out of both communities and served a political purpose, that of articulating the hopes and fears, their political identity and ideology of people in those communities. That was their strength. It was also their threat; that is what led to a program to encourage their removal after the peace agreement. Rolston argues instead for an approach of re-imagining the murals that would honor the desire of local people to articulate their politics and identity on the walls.

dorothea-lange-by-paul-s-taylor-1934Documenting movements in the making, including women’s creative and active role, is equally important and one of my friends pointed me to a stunning documentary called Grab a Hunk of Lightning on the life of photographer Dorothea Lange, produced by her daughter. In this vivid documentary, Lange seems the visual equivalent to Studs Terkel in the way she captures a view from the ground on a range of issues covering relocated Native Americans, striking workers, destitute migrants, early environmental depredations, and wartime photos of Japanese Americans citizens forced into internment camps. These images were unsparing and challenging and led the US government impounding them for half a century.

You have to annihilate yourself,” Lange said, “so you can become a vessel…to see what is really there.” In achieving this, Lange achieved a directness and intimacy with her subjects that defined her work and made the case for social justice. She fulfilled the challenge she set herself inside her studio in 1933, to “grab a hunk of lightning.”

Iconic Dorothe Lange migrant mother photographLange also captured the exhaustion of people facing extreme poverty and of leaders of social movements and activists at the frontline. Many of the issues she captured remain critical today, including the increasing feminization of poverty, exploitation of workers, mass populations on the move and the exhaustion and despair of those working at the front lines of social movements for change.

While I was in London last time, I met with Jenny Sutton, the sister of Jacky Sutton who had hanged herself in an airport in Istanbul, after falling asleep and missing her flight, and likely reaching a dangerous panic point because of the sustained stress of her work. Jenny and I talked about the idea of a covenant that NGOs could sign as their own commitment to staff in supporting their decompression from danger zones and depression from what they’d seen and experienced in highly stressful circumstances as much as taking seriously the idea that self-care is a political act.

There is an initiative called The Wellbeing Project that is cultivating a shift in the culture of field leaders and field work toward one that is healthy and supportive of wellbeing. After being incubated at Ashoka for almost two years it is now a co-creation initiative with Ashoka, The Esalen Institute, The Festzer Institute and Synergos focused on supporting the wellbeing of experienced social entrepreneurs, shifting the field of social change, and enhancing the lives of the millions of people touched by the efforts of these changemakers. I hope that similar initiatives are catalyzed to support the work of women human rights defenders and those at the frontline.

In this same spirit of self-care and wellbeing I headed to Vermont for a break. It was summer and time to rest – this was an annual pilgrimage to hang out at summer farmer’s markets, swim in warm ponds, nap under trees, browse a myriad of bookstores and attend the Marlboro Music Festival.

MMF concert-hallThis festival is a place where phenomenally talented young musicians are accompanied by master musicians in rehearsals that become highly celebrated weekend performances over the summer months.

During the intermission on Sundays, homemade lemonade and ginger snaps are served in the garden in a space that serves as an annual reunion for classic music lovers from across the region and the world. The founding of the festival involved refugees from the Third Reich and others who came together to create an environment in which professional players and gifted younger musicians could make music and perform together in a rural environment. Here they invited colleagues to come to, said music critic, Alex Ross, “lose their worldliness, to fall into a slower rhythm.”[
This was also the year we discovered the Yellow Barn Festival in Putney. What joy!yellow barn-lights
Fairy lights marking a pathway to the concert experience.

yellow barn-posterEach night a volunteer artist creates an enormous poster that provides a gorgeous backdrop to each performance.

This was a festival that was formed by two musicians, cellist David Wells and pianist Janet Wells, who founded Yellow Barn in 1969 as an informal summer retreat for David’s students at the Manhattan School of Music. Their neighbors were entranced and one of them named the event for the color of the Wellses’ farm house, cooking meals for the musicians and organizing concerts for the local community. In the following decades, Yellow Barn became one of the finest chamber music training and performance centers in the world, renowned for its musical excellence and its’ deeply creative embrace of art and community.

The night we attended we heard the Jonathon Dormand on cello and Abigail Sin on piano play a composition by Thomas Adès (b.1971) called Lieux Retrouvés (2009) that was one of the most sensual, mesmerizing pieces I’ve experienced. It was an event.


There is something profound about the power of music to transform. My friend, Thatch, sent me a link to this brilliant clip. It features 1,500 Canadians streaming into the Hearn Generating Station in Toronto to join Rufus Wainwright in singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as part of last month’s Luminato Festival.

Reading Maya Angelou during summer in Vermont was the best accompaniment to music festivals:

‘ Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art: to bring our energies to each encounter, to remain flexible enough to admit when what we expected to happen did not happen. We need to remember that we are created creative and we can invent new scenarios as frequently as needed. ‘

sausalito-01Back here on my boat, this eternal rhythm.  Every night there is wonder, mystery, moonlight, a deep blue rocking sea and a faint tinkling of bells from other boats sending out their own sweet call.

Jane Sloane
San Francisco


From that woman
 on the beach,
dusk pours out
across the evening waves


One Reply to “Letter From Belfast”

  1. Dear Jane,

    Thank you for your letter from Belfast. I really like the article. “Actions Men Can Take to Create an Inclusive Workplace” and will find the right time to infuse this in our executive meetings.
    I find it disappointing and daunting that in 2016 I have to take the lead on this but recent events make it so.

    Wishing you so well,
    best, kaye

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