by Karen Ross, Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance
Whether in the form of joint sports teams or theater troupes, cross cultural study abroad experiences, or intensive weekend dialogue sessions, programs designed to bring together youth across conflict lines offer a unique platform for fostering communication and understanding. But how do you measure the impact of these programs? In contexts of ongoing, sometimes violent conflict, how can you assess whether programs bringing together teenagers barely old enough to vote are able to make a difference in the big picture of the conflict?
These questions have been at the forefront of my mind in my work and research with dialogue and encounter groups, both here in the United States and among Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Over time I have concluded that we need to think much more broadly about what constitutes impact and how it can be assessed in order to understand the true value of cross cultural communication and grassroots peace-building initiatives in conflict contexts.
Think beyond cognitive and attitudinal changes
Much of the research about the “impact” of encounters has focused very narrowly on the cognitive and attitudinal changes participants experience over short periods of time–perhaps only a few months following their encounter experiences. Obviously, knowing this is worthwhile. But the narrow focus means we get no closer to understanding the connection between dialogue and cross cultural encounter programs and the potential for a more just and peaceful society–or if this connection even exists.
Look inside the black box
Evaluations also often focus on a link between program participation and outcome, without examining the actual mechanisms of the encounter programs themselves. To understand impact, though, we need to learn what happens inside these encounters that can result in transformation. How do programs model the kind of change they want to inspire participants to work toward? How do they connect participants’ personal experiences to broader socio-political issues that need to be addressed?
Focus on engagement in social change
In the spirit of moving beyond short-term cognitive change, my ongoing research in Israel has focused on the continued involvement of former participants in activities promoting positive social change in Israel.
Among my research participants, I found that even years and sometimes decades after their participation, approximately half of these individuals overall are actively involved with other peace-building initiatives or activities focused on changing Israeli society to be more equitable for all of its citizens. Many point to the encounter as inspiring their later actions, as well as their belief in the potential for social change to occur and their own ability to be part of it. Some speak about acquiring political knowledge that inspired them to think critically about Israeli society and work to change it. Others talk about being inspired by the equality modeled between Jews and Palestinians among encounter program staff to have hope that such equality might someday be reflected in Israeli society, and motivated them to work towards that reality. Alumni also attribute their continued engagement to networks of friends and activists that were formed through encounter experiences and maintained in ensuing years.
In the words of one member, encounter participation “transformed my life.” Thinking more broadly about measuring impact can help us see the potential role of encounters in transforming conflict contexts as a whole.
Karen Ross (PhD, Indiana University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance. She specializes in peace education and dialogue, focusing on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.