By Fred Strasser
The young Colombians wasted no time after finishing their first training in conflict management from the U.S. Institute of Peace. One garnered funding from Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. for a two-day conference on youth in peacebuilding that might draw 300 people. Another held a workshop for 80 school-age children on handling conflict. A third brought 60 victims of Colombia’s half-century of war together to learn about conducting dialogue to create a culture of peace. All told, more than 20 initiatives have emerged since March from the new Generation Change Fellows Program in Colombia.
The program, which seeks to amplify the voice of young peacebuilders in communities affected by conflict, arrived in Colombia at an extraordinary moment for the country and its youth. In November, the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), completed a peace accord with the government that ended a 52-year insurgency. The country now faces the massive task of cementing the peace by reintegrating ex-fighters into society, reconciling a divided population and reducing the nation’s high level of violence.
Generation Change fellows will have a unique opportunity to contribute to that effort, said Alison Milofsky, USIP’s director of curriculum and training design.
Unlike established fellows from Africa and the Middle East, the Colombians are joining the program in an environment where a long-running conflict has ended and where civil society and the government included youth in the peace process before the agreement and since then, Milofsky said.
“We’re creating a space where youth working across issues such as gender violence or reintegrating ex-combatants can meet and share information, and immediately integrate what we give them with the work they already do,” she said.
Michael Pardo, 23, the founder of a group that uses social media to promote civic culture among youth in the city of Cucuta, said he came away from the training with an understanding of what a sense of community could do. The fellows, he said in a note reflecting on the experience, “form the bonds of friendship that will last longer than the days of training, bonds that create a family.”
Colombia’s peace process spurred wide participation by youth demanding an end to the war, said Luis Felipe Botero, an official with the government’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace. Speaking to Generation Change fellows on a USIP panel co-hosted by Colombia’s University of Cartagena, Botero recalled the days in October after voters narrowly rejected the peace deal. President Juan Manuel Santos managed to move a slightly revised accord through Congress in November.
In the Streets
“We saw youth express themselves very loudly in favor of peace in the streets, supporting the accord,” Botero said. “They were using arts, sports, media, social media.”
Young people had mobilized before the vote, too, through grassroots groups, university workshops and an organization called “Youth For Peace,” which sent representatives to observe and lobby negotiators in Havana.
Before expanding to Colombia, the Generation Change Fellows Program had trained 113 participants from countries where they often face violent conflict in their daily lives: Egypt; Tunisia; Morocco; Jordan; Yemen; Somalia; South Sudan and Sudan; Kenya; Uganda; and Nigeria.
Training sessions focus, for example, on prejudice awareness and reduction, managing conflict through negotiation, dealing with difficult conversations, and crafting one’s purpose and vision. Afterwards, fellows continue to collaborate, share success stories and learn from each other through online connections. The ultimate aim is to increase youth leaders’ contributions to peaceful solutions in communities affected by conflict.
Colombia was chosen for the first training outside the Middle East and Africa because of USIP’s decade-long support for the Colombian peace process and the relationships that grew out of it. The connections include “Fundación Mi Sangre” (My Blood Foundation), founded by the Colombian international pop star known as Juanes. The charity was formed to help victims of landmines and now works with youth in communities caught up in Colombia’s conflicts. Juanes spoke with the fellows about their community efforts via Skype, said Tonis Montes, a USIP senior program assistant who worked on the event.
A Cross-Section of Colombia
The fellows, selected from more than 1,200 applicants, represent a cross-section of Colombians between the ages of 20 and 34, including indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural youth. Their organizing experience runs from victims’ groups to peasant associations to Afro-Colombian civil society institutions. They come from 13 of Colombia’s 32 departments, according to Aubrey Cox, a senior USIP program specialist who acted as a trainer in Cartagena.
The program seeks to leverage its impact by training some of the participants to become trainers themselves; in Cartagena, fellows from Nigeria and Morocco helped facilitate the training. In September, the Colombian fellows will be trained and coached by USIP to, in turn, train youth from Juanes’s Mi Sangre Foundation.
The peace agreement with the FARC by no means puts an end to organized violence in Colombia. Demobilized militia fighters have reconstituted as criminal gangs, drug cartels persist in many regions, a smaller guerilla group, the National Liberation Army, continues fighting, and assassinations of civic activists erode confidence in the state’s new security measures, Botero said.
Still, the peace deal ending the biggest violent conflict is advancing according to plan; the United Nations announced this week that the FARC had fully disarmed and more than 7,000 guerrillas were concentrated in disarmament centers.
In one country at least, the Generation Change Fellows Program is helping further a transition from war to sustainable peace that’s “live and happening in the moment,” Cox said.