Carl Stauffer was born and raised amidst the war in Vietnam. After completing his university education in 1985, Stauffer worked in the Criminal Justice and Substance Abuse fields. In 1988, he was ordained to the ministry and joined an urban, inter-racial church plant and community development project in the inner-city of Richmond, Virginia. In 1991, Stauffer became the first Executive Director of the Capital Area Victim-Offender Mediation Program in Richmond. In 1994, Stauffer and his family moved to South Africa under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based international relief and development agency. In South Africa, Stauffer worked with various transitional processes such as the Peace Accords, Community-Police Forums, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Local Community Development structures. From 2000 to 2009, Stauffer was appointed as the MCC Regional Peace Adviser for the Southern Africa region. His work has taken him to twenty African countries and ten other countries in the Caribbean, Middle East, Europe, and the Balkans. Stauffer’s academic interests focus on narratology, transitional justice, and post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. His research concentrates on the critique of transitional justice from a restorative frame, and the application of hybrid, parallel indigenous justice systems.

Yago: Thanks Carl for sharing your passion for the African people. Now, let us move to a very interesting reflection you wrote about the different roles that a peacebuilding practitioner must be equipped with. You remarkably used a whole imagery from the African traditions.  I would like to go through them so that we can share with the reader the richness and challenges that practitioners face on the field. But, first of all, what motivated you to process your experience in this way?

Carl: I would like to make a quick comment about the seven roles in general. They came, as you said, as part of my own journey. There are three major streams that led into it. The first one, there comes a time when the language and the discipline that you are studying becomes still, and the language of the books that I had been learning from became stale to me (no longer alive) – lifeless. I wanted to find a new language, and I wanted that language to be contextual to Africa, as well as contextual to my Christian faith, and many of the Christian leaders I was working with in Africa. So the language borrows from all of those different streams and my need for creativity. I wanted to make it as contextual as I could within what I was experiencing at a gut visceral level, on the ground, in practicing peacebuilding in Africa for 16 years.

Yago: First you see the practitioner as the “seer”. You say that often in complex conflict situation “things are not always what they seem”. Yes, more than not “there is a story behind a story.” How do you see the practitioner as a “seer”?

Carl: “Seer” is a word used in the Old Testament, for the prophet and for the “Men of Issachar” (a small band of people in ancient Israel who were geographically located) who saw the sign of the times and knew what to do for the nation. They were not only able to analyze, interpret, but they were also able to strategize – a very important role. Yes, we can use the technical word, conflict analysis, but the “seer” is more than that to me. It was trying to capture the strategic notion of our work, the technical analysis, but more importantly the spiritual ability to see in other realms and that is very much part of what the Holy Spirit has promised us, but also it refers to the elders, the wise people, the one’s who can “see” into multiple dimensions of reality at one time. 

Alice in Wonderland talks about, things are not what they seem, and I think the best peacebuilders realize that much of their work is intuitive, that ultimately they can be very strategic, but the turning points, the shifts, in the conflict often happen in unexplainable ways, or in surprising ways, in a release of energy over activity that is in another realm, or in another facet not of our reality of what we can see, right here.  

And as Paul said “we live by what is unseen, not what is seen; what is eternal and not what is temporal.” It doesn’t mean that we are not connected with the temporal but we also understand that the temporal is not the only thing that is real. Material is not the only thing that is real. And therefore when I go into a conflict resolution process I am asking a different set of questions. I ask/pray “where is the Spirit already at work, and how can I align myself to that energy?”

Yago: The second role is  “the bridge builder.” We have to become expert in relationships. In fact, in the end all is about relationships. The practitioner is challenged to relate to him/herself and also to know how to relate with the other without taking stands. To be able to bring real reconciliation through his/her own reconciled self. Could you expand on this?

Carl: I don’t actually know how to build a material bridge. But I have talked to others and asked “how do you build a bridge?”. And some experts say that the bridge must be built from one side to the other, and others say, no we must start in the middle and build from each side out until you meet in the center. I like the latter analogy if that is true. The bridge is best built from both sides, meaning both sides of the conflict, or the different views, the polarization, and then you build together and the bridge builder spans the columns that are the scaffolding for the bridge and are in the middle of the rushing river or gorge, and they are able to hold up, many different truths, many different ideas, many different people that make up the conflict, and hold it in a way that remains balanced. 

The other thing about the bridge is this: the bridge is for walking, for driving, for carrying weight from one place to the other. And this becomes symbolic of the conflict, and those in the conflict who are trying to reconcile, they have to use us and the intermediary process, this becomes the scaffolding, the matrix of strength that holds up that conversation, relationships, emotions – sometimes it is a painful job, a heavy job, a thankless job – a servant’s job

Yago: The third role is the “conduit”. It is about the practitioner capacity of active listening and deep communication. You say that in the journey of conflict transformation, we are often required to be like a “human sponge”. What do you mean by that? How do you envision the practitioner as a conduit?

Carl: The conduit is something that other substances pass through. It is a form that allows another energy to pass through it. I like the sponge analogy because a sponge is porous which makes it highly absorbent. Likewise, we have to be porous. If we are hard and protect ourselves as a shell we will not be able to function in healthy reciprocity with others. Some practitioners would say, no, we should be able to deflect the anger, emotions, or aggression. When we are dealing with an angry person and they are pouring their rage out, if we deflect that rage or respond in like anger, this is what they are used to, that is what continues the cycle of violence. It keeps the same instinctual reaction and counter-reaction feedback loop in the brain going, and once again this reinforces negative perceptions or prejudices of the “Other”. When we literally or figuratively open our porous self, our inner spirit to absorb another person’s pain, we become a co-healer with that person.

At the same time, we must remain keenly aware that we have the resources that can bring light to bear on the darkness that we have taken from within. When our sponge is very heavy, when it is full, we must know how to squeeze it out so that we are able to absorb again. That’s where the caregiver’s resiliency regimen (taking care of self) becomes vitally important – we can’t do without it. I cannot imagine still being in the peacebuilding field if I didn’t have my grounding faith, my spiritual and physical disciplines, and my family, church and community support networks to keep me balanced; without those pieces the work would not be possible for a long period of time. I have seen many people abandon the cause. I talk about casualties. Not literal, though we have many of those people who die for the cause, but we have just as many casualties of people who emotionally, psychologically or spiritually breakdown and leave the race. I’m talking about brilliant peacebuilders who didn’t have their own internal or external resources to squeeze the sponge out and so, left the field all together, did something totally different, because it was impossible for them to imagine engaging at that depth again without burning out. For me, my self-care has its origins in a spiritual source – a resource beyond myself. My strength does not only come through the support of other people to counsel, coach or debrief with me, it also comes in rituals of prayer, of silence, of exercise, of mindfulness, of meditation, of play, of humor, of worship, of song and study of sacred scriptures, riding motorcycle and many other ways in which we empty ourselves so the Divine (God) can fill us.

Yago: Now you describe the peacebuilder as the “activist.” You say that the activist plays a crucial role in precipitating change and re-ordering social configuration. You use the analogy of the African drum. Could you share with us why?

Carl: Yes, I chose the African drum metaphor carefully just because the African tree and drum are overused analogies. I think about the function of the drum beyond the fact that it makes rhythm when we sing or celebrate, that is the one function that we know the best. However, in ancient times the drum was a communication tool. It helped to communicate to other tribes. It called the people in dispersed villages together for a meeting, for a celebration or for a feast. It also sounded the call to war, in that way it was an instrument for mobilizing people to fight. It was used as a warning signal in the event of ensuing danger. So, when I was looking at advocacy, I liked the idea that the drum represents both a celebration, that can be a form for unity and it can also be a form for war  – of resistence. This kind of tension brings together the ‘yin and yang’ of advocacy. Holding this tension in balance is critical because in our peacebuilding field there are some people who say that advocacy and non-violent strategic action are located in other disciplines, not peacebuilding. 

In my mind, activism is a precursor to social change, a forerunner to durable peacebuilding. We must ignite our ‘moral imagination’ in order to find the energy to work for a future vision of peace. This may involve advocacy to change institutions and structures in a way that feels threatening and disconcerting for some people; it upsets the social structures of the status quo. If we are turning everything upside down, it is upsetting – advocacy is risky business. We will be called troublemakers and ‘rabble-rousers’, and so was Jesus! But I believe that a mature advocate has the horizon of peace in mind, and therefore will not hesitate to stir things up in order to reach that goal. Not because we want trouble, or we want to cause chaos, or we want to destroy for the sake of destruction, but because ultimately we want to build up. Like God commissioned the prophet Jeremiah of the Old Testament, “to uproot, and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10, NIV).

Yago: Another role is “the translator-guide.” You say that facilitation is both an art and a science. You use the analogy of the “bushman tracker.” Could you elaborate on this description?

Carl: The “translator-guide” was an accommodation of words, I couldn’t choose one or the other so, I put them together. The concept of translation became quite real to me personally because I had to use translation in a much of my travel internationally. I was accompanied by translators in many parts of Africa and I realized how extremely important this service was for my work. Not only are your ideas and your words in the hands and minds of someone else, but also your life, and your spirit, the way you want to send the message in all its entirety is in the hands of this translator so, some are good, some are not, some are very well trained. One translator, just on the side, as a joke, said to me, “if I don’t agree with what you are saying then I won’t translate it.” I said, “then, we are going to have a problem!” But the best translators are with you in mind, body and spirit. I can remember, one of the best translators I worked with was from South Africa. He was very bright, and he had a beautiful vocabulary. He could also sense the person he was translating for, so he learnt to mirror me in my tone of voice, in my facial expressions, even in my body action, and he moved with me in such a way that he was almost seamless, before I finished my sentence, he started translating the sentence so there was never a gap, there was this dance between he and I as facilitator and translator.

The other analogy is the tracker, which I think is really interesting because this goes back to the indigenous people of Southern Africa, the Koi San (desert dwellers). They evolved over thousands of years this elaborate process for hunting and to survive, so the men from one generation will pass this oral tradition on. But it was more than an oral tradition, it was the whole body experience – every sensory capacity was being used so that they learned how to walk in such a way that they couldn’t be heard, they learned the way of the seasons, the winds, the clouds, the storms. They could tell the difference between each animal print, even the animal sounds, not only of the different species of course, but from within the same species. For instance, they knew when the baboons were fighting, mating, hungry or sending a message of alarm. Apparently, the baboons make a distinct call when they have come across a lion kill. So, when a good tracker hears this sound he can lead the sightseers close to the lions. They could interpret so much about nature, and the world, and water, and sand and soil, and the sea. Today they have become very popular game reserve ‘tour-guides’ or ‘trackers’ for those who want a truly remarkable wilderness experience. Word has it that these trackers can sneak up, and come very close to large, dangerous predators like lions without being noticed. This was a necessary skill in ancient times in order to get close enough to use the hunting bow or poison dart successfully. 

A good facilitator is like a tracker – they must use all their senses and every intuitive capacity. It is not just a matter of what you see, and what you know, and what comes out of your mouth, it is not just the obvious – it is beyond that. The attentive facilitator can feel the pulse of the group. They are mindful of the temperature of the group, if the participants are tired, confused, angry, frustrated, or bored. A mature facilitator has to understand this. And in many ways, just like the indigenous traditions of the Koi San trackers is being lost, so too, the art of wise facilitation was almost lost when it was reduced to technical, calculated skill-sets and lecture formats that give pre-immanence to the intellectual mind but remain devoid of spirit and soul. There are many other ways in which we know, in which we pass on information, in which we communicate and experience shared community and meaningful collective spaces.

Yago: Another role is the “carrier-catalyst.” Here you bring a beautiful analogy of the African woman carrying her baby on her back.

Carl: And this was a tough one, because I know this was against the literature of the West, which says we are not to “carry” the conflict, we are to be objective, the mediator must put an objective distance between him/herself and give the problem to the actors involved in the conflict. The idea of carrier sounds threatening to them – the mediator is accused of patronizing the parties by “carrying” the conflict for them. The mediator could be accused of allowing the disputing parties to become dependent on him/her by “carrying” the conflict for them.

I don’t mean that the “carrier” role is disempowering. I agree we must empower the parties and the actors in the conflict. But what I am getting at here is that just by the role we have been given and I saw this in Africa, the mediating role was not given to a stranger who was objective, or a paid professional. It was given to someone who carried a lot of social network, a lot of social capital in a village or in a town. They usually had a lot of responsibility. They were leaders and elders in many different sectors of society, and therefore the conflict was one more thing to carry and it was a burden; it was a major responsibility. The mediators are not necessarily carrying the solution to the problem; they are carrying the process. So, that is what I mean by this word “carrier”.

And the analogy of the African women who carries the baby at her back or in front, and carrying the baby wherever, to the market, to work in the farm, to go to work in town, to church, or wherever. The bonding between the mother and the child in that way is amazing. There you are as a mediator carrying the relationship and the task. Likewise, the mother has a lot of things to accomplish when she carries the baby with her. Sometimes the baby is sleeping and sometimes the baby is very active. Sometimes the baby is very unhappy and as the mediator you still have to be the mother so to speak – the midwife in this process.

The catalyst is a scientific term, and this also speaks to our role as mediators. The science world tells us that a catalytic entity is a substance that when combined with another substance can change the form of that other substance without its own form being changed. Now, you don’t want to carry that analogy too far because we also want to be open to be changed in the process of transforming conflict, but not in a negative way. We don’t want to lose our identity, because we become so distracted, distorted, or disturbed by our own trauma, or our own story and we lose track of our role as guide. We are to walk alongside others, accompany others in the conflict, without becoming biased, or falling into the same anger, or the same violence, or the same attitude of hatred – what we call vicarious or secondary trauma.

Yago: In the analogy of the woman and the baby, who is who in the context of conflict?

Carl: Yes, when I say the carrier, I was thinking of the mother carrying the baby as the mediator, and the baby being, if you will, the conflict.

I am doing a mediation right now with some medical professionals at the hospital, until that contract is finished I am carrying it, we have the task and responsibility to take this process with us, until it is finished or resolved or we can lay it down and it can walk in its own.

Yago: And the last role, summarizing all the rest is the peacebuilder as the “healer”. The practitioner is called to be a caregiver, confident and counselor. As you said earlier in the interview peacebuilding requires the coordinated overlap of many disciplines, trauma healing and conflict transformation are intimately linked.

Carl: Our tools of conflict resolution if you will, our skills, our instruments, our techniques are lifeless and useless if they aren’t motivated and energized by a spiritual dynamic and understanding. I must know that what I am doing, the particular skill that I am using is also packaged with healing. It is embedded with the potential to heal, not just to resolve or to manage a conflict or an injustice. In the past century 70% of all casualties of war were women, children, and non-uniformed civilians. Simply put, the way we do war now involves many more civilian casualties than it does military casualties, and therefore we are all working with this thing called trauma all the time in this field and yet we are in denial. Political scientists are in denial if they assume that they can do high-level negotiations between conflicting parties and form a new civilian government without having to deal with psychosocial trauma. I think our negotiations break down over and over again, because of our failure to recognize the trauma, identity and dignity wounds that have occurred in the process of war and violence. Positive peace demands that we take our work beyond just power politics and resource interests and economics. And not only that, many of our tools and techniques require a kind of logic that is not possible unless some of the trauma work is being done first.

In summary, the logics of negotiations or mediation are useless with a highly traumatized population that is suffering from complex post-traumatic-stress symptoms. These processes are best served if they come after or along with meeting the people’s trauma and resiliency needs. And then, taking care of ourselves, as we have already talked about, becomes absolutely essential. Thus, at all levels to deny the trauma flow, and to deny the healing role is to deny at least half of our work. This trauma element is being ignored by much of our political science and international relations studies and practice, and yet we wonder why we don’t see the results we would like to.

The other part of this healing role comes back again to the spiritual and the intuitive. Healing is not a matter of applying one technique everywhere we go. Instead, it is a process of trying to understand the context spiritually – to see the unseen and to understand the ‘story behind the story’ in order to apply the right healing mechanisms. Healing takes different forms depending on the context and the way the healing will be experienced and understood. Once again from my own tradition, if you look at Jesus, he didn’t have one formula for everyone, he had a different formula because He first listened and heard from each individual person as to what they wanted. He looked into their heart, he looked and saw and then he responded to that. 

For instance, the woman caught in adultery, he didn’t cast a demon of adultery out of her, as far as we can tell in the Gospel writings Jesus said to her: “Go and sin no more”. Jesus was in essence saying to her, “you have trapped yourself in a social network of sin, of destructive patterns of behavior and you can make a decision to walk out of that, and I am challenging you, walk out of that”. Jesus was giving her a choice to walk out of brokenness and into healing. I am sure there were other structural matters to be addressed, but for whatever reasons, Jesus knew that she had certain choices that she could make to walk out of this oppression. With others Jesus encountered, they were oppressed by spiritual darkness, and Jesus tapped into the spiritual realm through prayer to change configurations so that these persons were free. Yet others that came to Jesus for healing seemed to suffer from a physical illness alone (like blindness) and there was not a spiritual dynamic to it. This was a natural phenomenon and Jesus would touch the eyes and they were physically healed. Still others were given a spiritual diagnosis. Nicodemus came to Jesus at midnight, and Jesus said to him, “you must be born again”. Jesus was giving a spiritual recipe for healing. He didn’t pray for him to be exorcised from a demon of doubt – you know what I mean?  So we have a tendency to hold to one way of healing and then, we try to apply it everywhere, assuming that there is only one way in which the Spirit works. And I think we need to become attune to the specific context, to the specific need and act intuitively at that point, which means we have to be refilling ourselves with Spirit all the time.

Yago: Thanks for sharing with us the different roles of the peacebuilding practitioner as an intervener. It openly shows the richness and the demands on the field. Certainly, we have got a good guideline for the ongoing reflective discernment we are called to exercise as practitioners.