New CONTACT Executive Director Rings in his First Year with Music Making for Peace

By Julienne Gage

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Bruce W. Dayton

After 15 years teaching global politics and conflict resolution at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in New York, Bruce W. Dayton was eager to work more directly with peace activists operating on the frontlines of conflicts around the world. That opportunity arrived last summer when he was chosen as the executive director of the School of International Training’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (CONTACT) Program for mid-level peace activists. This summer, he will celebrate his first anniversary with a little song and dance — exploring a partnership with Musicians without Borders.

Each June, CONTACT invites about 50 international peace building professionals — often from opposing sides of the same conflict — to spend three weeks at SIT in Vermont and Washington, DC exploring what drives conflicts and what peaceful means have historically worked to resolve them. Under Dayton’s leadership, the program will now enroll some 20 global artists to spend a week in traditional peacebuilding theory and practice classes and a second week exploring how to run community music programs.

“What I think is so magical about peace building through the arts is that when governments won’t or can’t make peace and people are divided, the arts are an immediate connection,” said Dayton. “We all sing and use our voice, and we all can perceive beauty. It’s at a very base level a way to get people to connect.”

Musicians without Borders has been employing that philosophy for 17 years by training local musicians in war-ravaged or conflict-ridden communities to set up sustainable music programs aimed at social inclusion, community empowerment and contributing to a culture of nonviolence.

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Musicians without Borders in Rwanda

For example, Musicians without Borders helped local artists in Rwanda forge an alliance with the medical organization WE-ACTx Hope to teach singing and songwriting to HIV-positive youth, many of them children and grandchildren of the country’s 1994 genocide. In ethnically divided Kosovo, youth at the Mitrovica Rock School not only learn to bang on the drums and strum the electric guitar, they learn that this genre of music gave their Cold War predecessors an important outlet for freedom of expression, and respect for the identities of others.

Last year, it launched a professional training program for experienced music workshop leaders, training 25 skilled musicians from around the world. This led to a number of new collaborations, including the one with CONTACT. Musicians without Borders has never engaged in U.S. programming, until now. The fit with CONTACT was natural, precisely because SIT seeks to create a safe, neutral environment for exploring the root causes of violence and conflict, and music can help to set the tone.

“These are conversations that don’t happen out in the real world, so part of CONTACT is to create a space where that kind of interaction can take place,” Dayton said.

Megan Hughes, Musicians without Borders’ management and communications specialist agrees.

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Musicians without Borders in Palestine

“Through our partnership with CONTACT this year, we wish to deepen and expand our approach to nonviolent leadership, as well as contribute our own perspective on peacebuilding through music to CONTACT’s global community, contributing added value to the training program as a whole,” she said.

The contours of the program will mimic that of Musicians without Borders. Workshop leaders engage participants in community music activities, including songwriting, drum circle facilitation and cooperative musical games, to foster empathy and connection within the group. These activities can work in small groups as well as part of a larger community event in public places, such as local schools or community centers.

“It’s a powerful symbol of the possibilities of trust building and re-humanizing the adversary,” Dayton said.

And while it might seem novel, Dayton suspects this type of exchange probably dates back to early human history. For example, the Greeks used sports to bring warring factions together through the first Olympics. And music is more innate than sports. How else would early civilizations who didn’t speak a common language make friends and influence people?

“When the first human communities came together, I imagine they made noises and sang together. It’s just part of who we are,” Dayton said.

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Musicians without Borders in Mitrovica, Kosovo

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine some of the CONTACT musicians withstanding the temptation to jam with each other during the first week of the program. Still, the music workshops in the second week are specifically geared toward the idea of taking what they learn together and using it for community building programs.

Dayton hopes that if the model is successful, he can broaden the CONTACT curriculum with other arts and culture electives such as visual arts and filmmaking. For now, he can’t wait to see and hear the program’s final talent show.

World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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