Conflict Transformation

John Paul Lederach

Professor of International Peacebuilding, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Yeah, there were a number of things. And some of the more significant things were prior to having a field per se. My lifetime journey my adolescence would have been in the formative years of what became a field. Obviously the start of it dates back to earlier stages and you see pieces of it here but the field per se probably dates into the mid '70s or mid '80s when you start seeing university programs emerge and a variety of other things. But probably the most formative thing for me, at a personal level well, I should say that I come from a faith tradition, the Mennonites, that have had a long tradition dating back to the 16th century of a theological perspective, of respect for life, often referred to as pacifism, although the language may vary and the theological traditions and how we describe that.

It's considered one of the historic peace churches; I grew up in a context and I'm still a very active member in my wider Mennonite constituency and the local congregation here. In fact the church here in Boulder is the one I helped to start in '82 when we were here, so I have to give absolute deeper credit and attribution to the context in which I grew up, which I think was very formative. My father was a pastor, and I would have heard from very early on the themes that many people who come into the movement from other sectors would see as something they were attracted to; there were elements of that that were very clearly a part of it. So I had a conducive environment for this obviously. But one of the formative things was for me - I grew up in a rural small town area out far west in the Northwest, in Oregon, and a particular moment in our family life, pursuing some education issues, my father was continuing his education and we ended up for a year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a very formative year - big city, opposite of the country, in the south and it fell in the late sixties, I would have been in the 6th or 7th grade - that age or early on.

7th grade is what I'm referring to now which was the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. Our family came very much from a perspective that what was happening with the civil rights movement was a powerful, positive thing. But from several standpoints, not just from a standpoint of what it represented for greater equality of people of color, especially the African American community, but for what it represented in terms of a leader who could articulate a theology and a practice that was very coherent and congruent with our understanding. This was extraordinary. And we had things that happened during that year that really demonstrated how much communities were divided at the time.

My father, we wouldn't attend the events of the school he was training in because they would always hold them in retreat centers and swimming pools where only whites could go and we'd be the one family who wouldn't go and there'd be a lot of pressure about why we wouldn't go. My mother worked in a hospital, and I've told this story on a CD, about an experience that she had in the hospital of being the one white nurse who'd attend to the black patients who were required by the new laws to have access to the hospitals and the white staff didn't want it. So there's lots of tensions that I remember so clearly listening to - on the radio in particular - the speeches that Martin Luther King Junior would give, they still resonate. And I remember real clearly the day he was assassinated. Riots broke out in Winston-Salem like they did in other places. The town shut down.

I remember trying to drive home, we couldn't get through. There were areas where fires were burning. It was a powerful moment. I had some very direct experiences in school where most of the teachers who openly talked about the events and all of my colleagues, I was in a very large junior high school, it was a totally segregated situation at that point and so the apartments that we lived in, my public school would have had absolutely no or little variety of color within it. And when people talked about the school was cancelled for three or four days and when we came back in the first classes we had teachers would say, "What do people think?" And I was sort of stunned to hear the range of responses that came from my fellow students. I can remember, well it's not a pleasant story to tell actually, but I remember standing up and saying I thought Martin Luther King Jr was a great man what he was proposing was going to be monumental and needed for the country I didn't think he was a communist I didn't think he was a and I remember being called down by several of my colleagues and one of them shouted, "What are you, a nigger lover?" And the teacher turned and looking at me, asking me to answer that question. No "that's inappropriate, that's the wrong use, we don't use that kind of language" and for me it was formative because I look back at points in my life, what was I? 13? 12? Or something. I began to in the next years to develop an interest in this.

It was pushed initially by trying to figure it out theologically, what's this faith thing that this has to be something beyond belief, it has to be practice in some form. Stopping my college education half-way through to go on a three-year voluntary service assignment, to Belgium where I worked very extensively with - it was a house full of international students from Africa, Latin America. Very formative kind of things, and then at that point actually making a decision that I would look for a peace studies degree if I could find it. This would have been '75, '76, '77. There weren't very many at that point but I knew that coming back to a Mennonite college that had just started a major, Bethel College in central Kansas, and began in '76 and '77 as part of that, doing my first reading in the field. And Jim Lowey and Kenneth Boulding and Paul Weir and Johan Galtung, so I was reading lots of stuff in Europe while I was still on my voluntary service assignment, but it was kind of an extension learning thing that I connected back to the program. So I majored in peace studies and in history as an undergraduate.