The 6 Fundamental Characteristics of a Peacebuilder

What is a peacebuilder? Discover these six characteristics and personality traits that peacebuilders worldwide and from all walks of life share.

by Taylor O’Connor | 1 May 2020

“Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: this is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.” — Studs Terkel

Excuse me while I karate-chop this old cliché.

So when we hear about people who have really changed the world, we tend to hear about individuals like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and um, well, that’s really it sometimes. You may be able to name drop a few more, but you’re in the minority.

We learn about these guys in school. We catch snippets of their stories on TV and in movies. Their lives are presented as fairytales; their messages sanitized for popular consumption. We pretend that the issues they were struggling to change are long gone. And we imagine that it would take larger-than-life figures to make change anyhow.

Well, the issues these men fought against certainly do persist to this day, albeit often taking on different forms. But we don’t need to look for superheroes to do something about it.

There are so many good people out there working to make this world a better place, carrying forward these struggles for justice, equality, and peace. I work in places affected by violent conflict, and I meet inspiring people like this all the time. And it has been my experience that anywhere there is war, there are people building peace, and wherever there is injustice, there are people fighting for justice.

Where I’m coming from, we call these peacebuilders. And there is nothing magical about what they are doing. A peacebuilder is simply a person that is taking action for a more peaceful and just world.

Peacebuilders are everywhere, and anyone can be one.

Peacebuilders are teachers and social workers. They are artists and actors. They are refugees and writers. They are journalists and community organizers, athletes and entrepreneurs, spiritual leaders and comedians. They are war veterans, academics, scientists, and health care professionals. Indeed, peacebuilders come from all walks of life, from every ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural group, of every age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and social class.

But there is more to the story. While they are all over the place, and indeed anyone can be one, peacebuilders are a special kind of human. And we should be clear about who is a peacebuilder and who is not, lest we run into trouble. Let me explain…

Peacebuilders. A special kind of human.

So I had this kind of crazy experience while I was living in Myanmar about ten years ago as the country just began transitioning from dictatorship to pseudo-democracy. Everyone, myself included, idolized these human rights activists who had struggled for decades against a brutal military dictatorship. And recently released from house arrest, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, supported by a sprawling posse of human rights heroes, was poised to lead the nation to democracy and freedom.

But as a wave of brutal anti-Muslim riots swept the nation, these human rights icons largely remained silent. Some even joined in the fun of whipping up public sentiment against Muslims. And the beloved Aung San Suu Kyi, who initially remained silent, later appeared at the International Court of Justice to defend the military against accusations of genocide. It turns out human rights was just a political tool, to be cast off once no longer of use. These people were not peacebuilders.

Those youth activists and others I had been working with had to quickly figure out ways to decipher the real peacebuilders from the posers. There had been more than one interfaith forum spoiled by bad actors masquerading as peacebuilders. So I worked out a number of defining characteristics that peacebuilders share to help me decipher true peacebuilders from those with ill-intent.

I’d like to share what I learned with you. I hope it will help you embrace the peacebuilder inside of yourself, to find others like you who share a common purpose and outlook on life, and when the time comes, to decipher real peacebuilders from the phonies.

Characteristics of a peacebuilder

Here, I’ve mapped six fundamental characteristics that all peacebuilders share.

1. Peacebuilders understand how peace and justice are intertwined.

Peacebuilders have an intuitive understanding that peace and justice are two sides of the same coin. There are lots of people out there talking about peace that don’t recognize this simple fact.

Martin Luther King Jr., for example, is celebrated widely across the United States. People will celebrate Dr. King as a peace hero while in the same breath show disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement, though the cause of Dr. King and the Black Lives Matter movement are one in the same. Even in his iconic I Have a Dream speech, Dr. King proclaimed, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

A real peacebuilder doesn’t need to be told these things. A real peacebuilder has an intuitive understanding that there is no peace without justice, and a real peacebuilder is fired up about fighting for justice. It should be apparent. When you see someone celebrating a peace icon or speaking of peace without discussing injustice, steer clear.

2. Peacebuilders are driven by compassion for all humanity, no exceptions!

I’ve observed that people are often concerned when people of their own nation, religion, or culture group have been harmed or offended, but they seem less troubled about others. Those in the United States are concerned about the welfare of our troops, but not about countless innocent victims of our military interventionism. We show solidarity to the victims of a terrorist attack in Paris, but not in Pakistan. We sponsor Christian refugees to come to our shores at astonishingly higher rates than persons from other faith groups.

In Myanmar I observed the same. Children from every major ethnic minority group are brought up to learn that the best thing they can do in life is do something to help ‘their people.’ And amongst the broader population people openly demonstrate concern for Buddhist or Christian victims of armed conflict, but seem disinterested to reflect on gross atrocities committed against Muslims.

Peacebuilders are not like this. Peacebuilders will openly express concern about people who are not of their own nation, religion, or culture no different from how they would their own. They recognize how the liberation of their own people is bound up with the struggles of others who are not like them. Peacebuilders are acutely aware of the suffering of others where most are blind, and are called to action because their compassion knows no boundaries.

3. Peacebuilders are strong-willed and free-spirited.

Peacebuilders are not deceived when political leaders galvanize people around ethnicity, religion, or other nationalistic agendas. They are not swayed by hollow rhetoric used to mobilize people to support war and violence. Peacebuilders think for themselves. They do not follow the crowd. They don’t look to others to make sense of things. They question everything.

Conscious of the myriad manifestations of injustice and inequality, peacebuilders are passionate about making change, however small. Sometimes we are passionate about many things. And we follow our passions. Following our passion is what makes us whole. Peacebuilders build their lives around what they care about, not what might bring them fortune fame, or stability, no matter what anybody thinks about it.

4. Peacebuilders challenge the status quo.

Peacebuilders recognize how the status quo upholds violence and inequality, and they understand that it is necessary to shake things up a bit to make any sort of progress. They don’t accept the way things are as the way things have to be, and take decisive action to change it.

Some peacebuilders challenge the status quo directly while others work in alternative, sometimes subtle ways. Some take a bold and uncompromising stance against violence and injustice, while others take alternative approaches. All are peacebuilders no less. The defining factor is that they are engaged in efforts to transform a status quo that upholds violence and inequality, whatever approaches they take.

5. Peacebuilders are self-critical, lifelong learners.

Too often, people, particularly those with any power or social status, are afraid to admit mistakes. They pretend that they know everything already for fear of sounding weak or stupid. But peacebuilders do not possess this quality. Ego is not a friend to peacebuilders.

Peacebuilders understand that the world is dynamic, and issues we engage with are complex. We cannot ever know everything. We are exploring. For us, life is a journey.

And so we enter into the realm of social action with an open mind, using what we learn along the way to inform action. We put ourselves into situations we are unfamiliar with, we challenge ourselves, we experiment with different actions, we make mistakes, and use what we learn to inform further action.

6. Peacebuilders are unconventional and imaginative.

Peacebuilders know that to build a more peaceful and just world, we must have the ability to create alternatives to the present reality. Imagination is a given, and it is a constant practice for peacebuilders. And to imagine alternatives requires unique ways of living and being.

I find that those who are actually making a difference in the world can be defined by their unique lifestyle, their creative flair, and their eccentric nature. Peacebuilders live and breathe the unconventional. We explore different ways of living and being, and in so doing, we discover peaceful alternatives. And often, it is the unique qualities that each individual peacebuilder possesses, in and of themselves, that become a force for peace.

If you found this article helpful and want to find more blog posts like this mapping organizations that build peace across a wide array of themes be sure to check out our Resources page!

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