• GraceWorks Myanmar

Arts-based peacebuilding delivers landmark significance

A world-first arts-based peacebuilding initiative has formed part of GraceWorks Myanmar’s (GWM) community development education (CDE) program since 2016, and recent research reveals it has supported significant strides toward long-term peace.

Arts-based peacebuilding recognises that community development (CD) efforts add little value if they don’t acknowledge conflict dynamics in a setting such as Myanmar, and that the arts create unique spaces for people to explore ideas that are central to peace – such as identity, perspective and culture – outside of their everyday life.


The initiative has been led by Dr Vicki‑Ann Ware, Senior Lecturer in Deakin University’s International and Community Development program, with design input from Joanne Lauterjung (Consultant, Sonic Bloom Yangon), A/Prof Anthony Ware and Shannon McSolvin. In 2017 and 2018, it was further strengthened through co-design with participants, encouraging village-led development, and creating an exciting and globally ground-breaking meeting point between arts pedagogy, peacebuilding and CD practice.


Within GWM’s broader CDE program, it has involved twice-yearly arts-based peacebuilding workshops over three years per village cohort – supporting more than 40 villages to date in Rakhine State – a region known for high levels of ethnic tension between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, alongside extreme poverty.


Taking a new approach to peace


Building peace requires skills such as the desire to cooperate, empathy and understanding multiple perspectives, shared identity, communication and critical thinking.


Dr Ware says the arts can provide a powerful bridge to these skills, in part by lowering barriers through emotions such as joy and even sorrow, and by using activities that do not require literacy skills for participation.


“It has been a huge journey to develop the arts-based peacebuilding model,” Dr Ware said.


“Conflict identities are complex and become ‘frozen’ in people’s minds when they see people who are different to themselves as ‘others’, and form rigid views about them,” she said.


“Shifting attitudes and creating the space for peace first requires the space for critical thinking, creative problem-solving and the chance to rehearse new skills, mindsets and behaviours in safe environments outside the busy-ness of daily life.


“We’re using the arts to help people capture attitudes and cultural expectations; analyse, learn and explore new ideas; and gain new tools to express, reflect on, recall and share those ideas.


“Through activities like collage, song-writing, poetry, storytelling and comic strips, we’re creating safe places and shared experiences that play important roles in unfreezing fixed views and opening up new ones.”


Showcasing a real shift


The research released earlier in 2021 confirmed that, across a three-year period, the majority of participants showed a growing belief that peace was possible in Rakhine State – a major outcome when considering the decades of conflict behind entrenched beliefs.


GWM’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Simmons, says the team is proud to be drawing on such a leading, creative and life-changing initiative.


“The research that Dr Ware and others have led is showing exciting progress and is really challenging assumptions that peace is not possible in communities that have known decades of conflict,” Peter said.


“While steps toward peace have been small, they are significant when you factor in the complexity of community dynamics in Rakhine State,” he said.


Dr Ware says the work unfolds through layers of engagement to encourage and generate new skills through the arts.


“This work is about making people consciously aware of what they have and need to encourage peace,” Dr Ware said.


“If you take something like role playing, it’s a low-risk and often fun way for people to explore and experiment with harsh versus more measured responses to the people around them, and develop greater empathy by watching or engaging with those stories,” she said.


“The arts offer fairly unique ways of linking thinking, emotion and imagination to create new concepts and ways of looking at the world.”


Gaining powerful feedback


Feedback from village participants gained through the research process also pointed to gains such as greater courage to advocate for peace, and the forming of new connections between people of different ethnicities.


“The stories from community members have shown exciting outcomes and steps toward peace, and have demonstrated the very real relevance of arts-based approaches,” Dr Ware said.


“We went into this critically aware of the potential pitfalls, given that arts-based peacebuilding isn’t a silver bullet, and the arts can be used to further entrench rigid views, so the substantially positive feedback has been encouraging,” she said.


One participant expressed their connection to arts-based approaches, saying, “we all use music to connect – we can know people’s feelings through song – it’s the same everywhere”.


Another conveyed the role of the arts in supporting ongoing reflection and recall, saying, “we think very seriously about how to compose poems…after composing them, they remain in our minds”.


Yet another one spoke about how role-playing helped build confidence in responding more effectively with people, saying, “I like role-playing – speaking harsh words creates conflict…speaking soft words reduces conflict”.


Signs of more flexible view-making is just one positive indicator, seen in one participant sharing their discomfort with rigid ideas and their desire for new perspectives and empathy, saying, “I feel very sad [about the violence]. We could kick them out. But can we find perspectives for equality and peace?”


Another participant reflected a similar idea, saying, “our religion and ethnic group may be different but we are all human and we can come together to solve problems…Now I know I have many different identities and things in common with other people around the world…We need to look at our own perspectives, and then try to also see from others’ perspectives.”


The work has also helped people build agency and responsibility for promoting peace, as reflected by one participant, saying, “at first, I thought the government needs to build peace, then the township authority needs to build peace, and then villagers. But I realised villagers should build peace between ourselves first. And then [grow this] step-by-step.”


More information on the arts-based peacebuilding model and research is available via The European Journal of Development Research. For GWM, we see this as a critical and empowering step forward in holistic CD work by supporting a healthier foundation for intra and inter village development and promoting the far-reaching power of peace.

Excerpts from Ware, VA., Lauterjung, J. & Harmer McSolvin, S. Arts-Based Adult Learning in Peacebuilding: A Potentially Significant Emerging Area for Development Practitioners?. Eur J Dev Res (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-021-00416-x


“…sensitively facilitated arts-based workshops provide opportunities for collective reflection on conflict-repertoires, for experiencing emotions linked to conflict without being re-traumatised, for deliberating and critiquing the status quo, devising and rehearsing creative solutions, and encapsulating intended repertoires for easy recall in everyday situations. Group settings offer safety, serious purpose, listening others and alternative viewpoints, which can facilitate critique of current thinking and conduct, leading to formation of new perspectives and behaviours. Being fundamentally metaphoric-symbolic, arts can soften impacts of exploring painful, contentious issues, providing spaces where creative imagination, problem-solving, critical thinking and empathy re-ignite trust and hope. New perspectives can develop, leading people to see rivals as humans and legitimate peacebuilding partners.”


“…nearly unanimous participant feedback on experiencing arts-based learning clearly shows they found arts-based activities helpful in supporting learning, through experiencing new ideas and emotional states, reflecting on the status-quo and desired alternatives, imagining new ways of responding, then rehearsing these before leaving the workshop’s safety. Arts activities provided safe spaces to fail and try again until they mastered desirable skills. They created spaces for deep reflection on specific conflict-repertoires. The symbolic nature of arts activities allowed them to draw new conclusions and insights, and helped them assemble learnings into hooks, enabling easy recall.”


“This study, therefore, demonstrates significant scope for arts-based workshops to facilitate the adult learning required for peacebuilding within bottom-up CD programming. Arts processes build on participatory approaches common to CD, and allow Freirian consciousness-raising—i.e. awareness coupled with ability to act. Arts expands participatory CD’s potential to enable non-confrontational exploration of sensitive issues, suggesting arts-based peacebuilding workshops as part of CD programming enabled different spaces to everyday activities, allowing people to step back and reflect on conflicts, while building on participatory approaches employed across the rest of the CD training.”


For more information

  • To access the original article summarising the research, titled Arts‑Based Adult Learning in Peacebuilding: A Potentially Significant Emerging Area for Development Practitioners?, by Vicki‑Ann Ware, Joanne Lauterjung and Shannon Harmer McSolvin, in The European Journal of Development Research, visit https://doi.org/10.1057/s41287-021-00416-x (please note, this is a paid article with a free abstract)

  • To find out more about the program, please contact Dr Vicki‑Ann Ware at Deakin University on v.ware@deakin.edu.au

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