Westmont Magazine Bridges of Understanding
Students Travel to Northern Ireland to Learn About Reconciliation
The rope bridge sways quietly from side to side as they cross, precariously suspended between two towering cliffs. Far below the foamy blue sea laps the rocky coast of Northern Ireland. Westmont students had come to this troubled country to study conflict resolution. The natural chasm symbolized the gulf between Protestants and Catholics. They had five weeks to discover if any bridges existed between the two sides.
The communication studies department has designed this Mayterm trip to broaden and deepen student understanding of communicating, negotiating and reconciling with others. “It is one thing to read a text, hear a lecture and apply conflict resolution and reconciliation principles in your own life,” says Professor Deborah Dunn. “It is another thing entirely to see it happen in some of the unlikeliest places between individuals who have good reason to hate each other, in contexts where we might think peace is impossible.”
Dunn expects the experience to transform lives. “We want our students to realize that people and positions can change,” she says. “We want them to see first-hand the dedication and commitment of peacemakers as well as the complex resistance and turmoil that accompany peacemaking efforts. We want them to understand the surface and deep structures of language and communication that both enable and constrain dialogue. We want to inspire our students to become global citizens striving for peace.”
While the group visits various scenic areas, they’re not typical tourists. They are learning how the natural landscape shaped Irish history. “We want to avoid the tourism of so many off-campus programs,” Dunn says. “A visit to a center devoted to reconciliation should be more than just an item in a travel diary or a photo in a scrapbook.”
As much as possible, students stay in small residences providing bed and breakfast. Seeing inside private homes and interacting with the owners gives them a revealing glimpse of everyday life.
Meeting people affected by the conflict, hearing their stories and seeing the setting where “the troubles” have occurred makes a deep impact on the students. “They discover they actually have a lot in common with the people they encounter,” Dunn says. “They no longer think the process of peacemaking is some kind of mystical, abstract, divine intervention.”
For Nate Williams ’05, the biggest challenge was understanding the sectarian nature of the conflict. “It wasn’t about black and white,” he says. “For the most part Catholics and Protestants were indistinguishable when put in the same room, except perhaps differences in accents.”
But Nate saw the differences in their environment. “Neighborhoods are split up the middle by colossal, so-called ‘peace’ walls,” he says. “Protestant areas paint curbs red, white and blue, and fly the Union Jack on every corner. Catholics have curbs with the Irish tricolor. Whether proclaimed through painted curbs and flags or through events such as Bloody Sunday and random sectarian beatings, the demonization of the ‘other’ prowled around, devouring families, streets and communities.
“While parts of the trip painted a picture bleaker than the multiple paramilitary wall murals, the hope and faith of the Irish people and the methods of reconciliation we read about, discussed and saw implemented pointed to a future of possibilities. Through grace we saw the possibility of peace, reconciliation, and community despite differences, or perhaps ultimately because of them. ”
After listening to the story of one father whose son was brutally beaten, Brittinee Barrett began to appreciate the importance of understanding other positions. “Every argument or conflict may not be justifiable, but it should be understood,” she says. “These people can’t see change occurring in their lifetime because there is too much deep-seated hatred. It has to start with the children.”
But, as Mark Oehlman points out, “I realized that the children have to walk by those murals everyday. They grow up with those images in their heads. It was hard to see children living like that.”