The Stories We Tell by Brittany Keegan

by Brittany Keegan

Friday, March 31, 2017TOPICS: Study Abroad

necla's class in front of el museo nacional
begin quoteIt was insightful and inspiring to hear the struggles Colombia had endured during its decades of conflict, transformed into messages of strength and hope.

Written by MA in Peace and Justice student Brittany Keegan

Every country, culture, community and individual human being has stories we tell to make sense of our history, our place in the world, and our relationships with one another. We tell these narratives in many, many diverse ways; from creative expressions like written word, art, and theater. They shape the worldview that we embed into our systems of education, political discourse, and subjects of history.

As I wandered the exhibit halls of the National Museum of Colombia, while on field-based course in Bogotá with my cohort from the MA Peace and Justice program, I began to catch glimpses of the many stories of Colombia’s history. Paintings, pottery, silverware, each piece had something to say. There were stories of the diverse communities of people, stories of Colonial history, and even stories of the conflict. I was particularly struck by the Memoria y Nación exhibit, which principle purpose is to “become an open space for reflection about our history, inclusive and diverse, so that it constitutes a contribution to the process of national reconciliation.” Museums are one way we tell the stories of who we are, our history, our identity.  

During our trip, we had the privilege of not only seeing the cultural side of the country - the Museums, the street art of the Candelaria district, and the landscape of the city for atop Montserrate - but also to sit among some of Colombia’s foremost scholars and practitioners working on the peacebuilding process and peace agreement implementation. In those conversations we had the opportunity to listen to beginnings of the next unfolding chapter of Colombia’s story: that of post-conflict Colombia.  

These developing stories about Colombia’s identity as a post-conflict society kept popping up in the words of our speakers. We heard phrases like: Colombia is a country of paradox and that for every year of experience Colombia has in conflict, it has that same year of experience in peacebuilding. It was insightful and inspiring to hear the struggles Colombia had endured during its decades of conflict, transformed into messages of strength and hope. One example that optimized this for me was the framing of Colombia’s experience with ex-combatants as now one of its greatest area of expertise. Colombia demobilized approximately 56,000 ex-combatants; an experience that will hopefully serve them well now as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) begin their demobilization.

On the other hand, there was another story we heard. Every single one of our guests mentioned or at least alluded to how influential the idea of “gender ideology” was during the plebiscite. Each time it was mentioned, I felt more curious about what the story was here and what its significance was. It turned out, that a misrepresentation of the gender mainstreaming component - which in reality was about effort to recognize the impact of conflict on women and intentionally include women in the peace process - was co-opted into fear that the peace agreement had a hidden “homosexual agenda.” In the end, it's still unclear how influential this campaign was in swinging the vote during the plebiscite towards opposition. However, the more important question for me is: what does it mean to have our message distorted or misunderstood? What does it mean when the subject of our story is shifted? In this case, when a historical use of the gender mainstreaming approach in the peace agreement - which should be a cause for celebration - was misrepresented. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, especially in politics.

In the current political and social climate of the United States, we are seeing many of our countries mostly deeply held stories being questioned. Are we (or should we strive to be) a post-racial society? If women are equal in opportunity, what does it mean that we still have a significant wage gap? Is the U.S. still a land of opportunity; and for who? How does that shape how we view economic inequality and immigration?

What does it mean to have a shared narrative as a nation? I am left to reflect on the bold statement of the National Museum of Colombia: “to become an open space for reflection about our history, inclusive and diverse, so that it constitutes a contribution to the process of national reconciliation.” Open space for reflection. In seeking peace and justice, may we build these spaces - to listen to the stories we are telling and construct new narratives together.

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies

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