Global citizens: Club centers on peacebuilding
What do you get when you put close to 20 Rotary Peace Fellow alumni in a (Zoom) room twice a month to discuss some of the world’s most challenging issues?
Something like Global Partners in Peace, a 2-year-old Rotary club whose international membership meets online and specializes in developing thought leadership on issues ranging from refugee advocacy and human rights to youth empowerment and anti-poverty initiatives. “We have really meaningful conversations,” says Linda Low, a 2016-18 peace fellow at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Guests often say, ‘You have the kinds of conversations that I have never seen in any other Rotary club.’”
The club, chartered in January 2022, has 18 members living in about a dozen countries. They include peace fellow alumni, global development professionals, and others with an interest in peacebuilding. Given its global membership, the club has also become a natural forum for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion — within Rotary and within members’ communities.
Low, a communications and advocacy professional living in Seattle, had initially joined a Rotary club in North Carolina after her peace fellowship there. But with a full-time job, she found it hard to meet attendance and participation requirements. When she left, members in her district encouraged her to form a club that could better meet her needs.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she began meeting online with other peace fellows from her class. “We all were looking for a way to connect,” she recalls. Inviting colleagues they knew from the global development field, they continued meeting, and soon peace fellows from other classes found them. After a year, they decided to form the partners in peace club. “We realized this still fills a void” even after pandemic shutdowns, Low says. “We knew we had a model that worked.”
That model is open and flexible. Members take turns chairing the discussions held two Saturdays a month. They don’t take attendance, but members are encouraged to log in at least once a month. Meetings are informal with some people dialing in while walking their dogs or late at night, depending on their time zone.
How to lead a DEI discussion
The dialogue model developed by Rotary Peace Fellow Linda Low emphasizes building connections, understanding needs and interests, and listening. She has this advice:
Reframe the conversation. “I try to frame questions in a way that invites people to reflect on their own experience of an issue and hear someone else’s experience with the same issue,” Low says.
Find shared values. Another activity involves forming circles of people, with a facilitator asking participants to write key values on paper plates. Participants drop the plates in the middle of the circle, reading the words aloud and pledging to uphold each value in the discussion.
Pass the mic. A moderator asks a question to get discussion going, then passes around a talking stick. To encourage listening, only the person holding the stick is allowed to speak.
Meetings begin with a warmup question to get discussion going. It can be as whimsical as, “What is your favorite breakfast drink?” After that, members share updates on what is going on in their communities. “In 30 minutes, you have scanned the world,” says Patrick Bwire, a member from Uganda and peace fellow from the 2016-18 class at Duke-UNC. “We get to hear what issues need to be addressed and how our colleagues are addressing them.”
Members choose guest speakers from their networks, careful to select diverse voices and perspectives. Topics have included rural poverty in Pakistan, human trafficking in Chile, and transformative peace initiatives in Somalia. The impact of those discussions hinges on skilled moderation. Low and her co-facilitators employ a dialogue model that focuses on sharing and listening to peers’ experiences to highlight their common humanity.
Members bring a wealth of experience and perspectives to the table. “If you ask a question about the definition of a concept, it’s possible that you will not come out with a single answer,” says club member Kevin Fonseca, a professor at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia who focuses on peacebuilding, historical memory, and human rights. “Members elaborate with their answers so that it’s a collective action.”
Fonseca notes that the club’s current all-female leadership team demonstrates its commitment to equity and breaking traditional molds. And while Rotary is nonpolitical, these members aren’t afraid to discuss politics. “We talk about policies and governments, what’s happening in the States, and how it affects other countries,” says Low. “It doesn’t go there [get confrontational] because we’ve gotten to know each other so well.”
Sajjad Hussain says being part of the club allows him to see beyond his own focus on peacebuilding in Afghanistan and his native Pakistan. “It also gives me a sense of responsibility, belonging, and fulfillment as a global citizen,” he says.
Members are reaching out to other clubs to share their expertise, with a focus on DEI. Low says this grew out of work she and her classmates did at Duke to bridge divides on campus following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Low created a “leadership dialogue” model that she and classmates used to hold workshops with students from different colleges. “People walked away saying it had been a transformational weekend,” Low says. “We kept getting requests to do more and more.”
After the club chartered, she trained other members in the techniques and began fielding requests to talk about DEI from other Rotary clubs including ones in California, North Carolina, and Washington.
Bwire says the club approaches DEI differently because members have already experienced it in the peace program. “My class had students from 21 different countries,” he says. “That already gave me a hands-on experience in how to interact, relate to, and communicate with other people, and how to understand others, appreciate differences in culture, skin color, and people from other regions.”
Low agrees. “The whole point of the peace program is to bring different points of view and different lived experiences together to come up with something that is even better at the end,” she says. And reaching something better, together, is what the partners in peace club is all about.
This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.