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university for peace

werk for peace, peaceful protest, dance rally
Culture, Peace

Podcast: WERK for Peace Founding Organizer Firas Nasr talks Peaceful Protesting

Introducing (maybe): a new platform for all the podcast lovers in here!

Last week I had the honor of speaking with WERK for Peace founding organizer (and my good friend) Firas Nasr about peaceful protesting.

Since the movement started, I’ve been inspired by how WERK for Peace harnesses the power of dance to shift narratives, send a rainbow-hued message and empower the LGBTQ community in Washington DC and beyond. While the interview was ostensibly part of a University for Peace project on nonviolent resistance, Firas’ message is simply too good to share with only a few people.

“With the Mike Pence event, lots of people assume that our primary goal was to send Mike Pence a message. And lots of people ask me, you know, do you think Mike Pence heard you? Do you think you were effective? But for me, the goals are really centering the queer and trans community, and allowing us to celebrate our bodies, to celebrate our community, and to come together for a shared cause. And that’s I think why our events are so effective. I measure efficacy on whether or not the queer/trans community had fun, was safe, showed up… our protests are really about centering our bodies and our voices, our experiences, the marginalized individuals within our community, uplifting those voices and creating community through our events.” — Firas Nasr

WERK for Peace is a queer-based grassroots organization that uses dance to promote peace. It was founded in response to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in early 2016. Listen here:

“There’s a very clear underpinning as to why we use dance. Our bodies are ascribed political and social narratives, and so by moving our bodies we are actively shifting those political and social narratives. We’re redefining them, we’re reclaiming them, and we’re reclaiming our bodies in the process too. That is to me such a powerful means of both personal and social change happening at the same time. That encapsulates why dance is so powerful as a means for social change.” — Firas Nasr


Will podcasts become a regular menu item here? I’m not sure yet, but with this WERK for Peace spotlight I think I’m off to a good start! Watch my new Soundcloud page to see what’s next.

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international relations
Central America, Peace

Why I Don’t Care about International Relations

[Our] accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought to have a monopoly on the path to the future. — Wade Davis, Wayfinders

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

After a challenging three weeks in an International Relations course, I realized something…

Wait. Let me rewind first. Three wekes ago, I wrote:

Anthropologist Wade Davis—and particularly his book on indigenous systems, quoted above—has left a deep impression on me in the past year.

He expresses, with compelling eloquence and abundant case studies, my own feelings about our modern status quo. In these first few weeks at UPeace, I have seen the Western paradigm for peacebuilding and conflict resolution repeatedly touted in assigned readings as the apex of human thought, with few voices raised in opposition. (Makau Mutua comes to mind.)

While traveling over the last three years, I have encountered countless well-intentioned people doing far less good than they had hoped.

I believe it comes down to arrogance.

The problem is that we think we know everything. We think our truth is the only truth—that our reality is Reality. We are self-centered enough to believe human development is linear (and concentrated in the “West”) and that anything that came before, or from outside, is irrelevant to our future as a species.

This narcissism holds repercussions far wider than the field of peace and conflict studies. It impacts economic systems, food production, development, immigration policy, and so much more. Even worse, it closes our minds to all the wisdom available to us within our own history, and it stunts our capacity for creative and critical thought.

Human innovation is limitless, but only if we are humble enough to apply it to the flaws in our own paradigm.

As a storyteller, I am most interested in the role individuals play—as agents of change, or as champions of a flawed system. It is individual arrogance that calls America the “Greatest Country on Earth” and believes it devoutly. It is individual arrogance that can watch a system of production far outpace the earth’s capacity for regeneration and call that progress. And it is human arrogance that promotes the universalization of broken structures in the name of peace, employing many kinds of violence to achieve it. I believe real progress will come from empowering individuals to think critically and tell new stories about peace.

This is why I’m drawn to movements like social permaculture, rewilding, and experiential learning. These proceed with humility and open minds, don’t assume they have all the answers, and look beyond a human-centered, modern Western paradigm for solutions.

I do not believe there is anything idealistic about such an approach; given the circumstances, it might be the most pragmatic yet.

international relations

You see, I wrote the above words from the perspective of a writer, a student of anthropology, and a poet with an enduring interest in indigenous wisdom. The readings in my recent course, on the other hand, offered answers mostly rooted in the rigid and ethnocentric tradition of International Relations.

In our final assignment, we were asked to, “Cite the theoretical frameworks and readings that have most influenced your thinking.”

Instead, I decided to be honest—and not to simply put words on the page for the sake of a grade.

I had to admit that those theories and readings had not influenced my thinking—not in a meaningful way.

They made me question the utility of any political system at all. They made me seriously consider becoming an anarchist. And they have made me wonder if perhaps my incorrigible optimism is not so well-founded.

With the utmost respect to the field of International Relations and those dedicated to it, I am not at the University for Peace to learn about Neorealists and Neoliberals.

I do not care about great powers, nor small ones.

I do not care if China will be the next hegemon, not really.

I do not care if my worldview would be classified as “Cosmopolitan” or “Neorealist.”

I believe in the potential for transformation at the micro level, and I direct all of my efforts in my work—in writing, facilitating, editing, and learning—toward that end. I believe that the actions and choices of individuals and communities have an increasingly global impact.

This impact does not care what experts on civil society say about it. This impact will go on impacting regardless of what I say about it.

I believe in the exceptional power of media to inspire, accelerate, and sustain that transformation. International Relations speaks of hybrid warfare. Perhaps we could also speak of hybrid media: Individual “influencers” with audiences numbering in the millions. Online forums that subvert the status quo and utilize new blockchain technology to circumvent established channels of communication (and power) entirely. Anonymous “actors” who sway the tide of public opinion.

A single policy change may touch millions of lives (for better or worse), but so can a single viral article.

So, what do we do with that power? I am refining my answer to that question day by day. This new media is a masterless force, and I hope I can have a tiny, tiny role in directing its course—by adding my own voice to the multitudes and advocating for tolerance, understanding, equality, love, and curiosity, and by supporting individuals to find their voices and harness their experience for positive change.

The theories and paradigms I have studied so far paint an excellently accurate picture of the “world as it is,” but I am more interested in the “world as it could be.”

It is critical that we see things as they are if we wish to shape them to a vision of how they could be—absolutely. Frameworks and theories are useful tools for organizing practice, innovating solutions. Yet, as Einstein (or, it may have been Mark Twain) famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

From where I sit, even new theories look suspiciously similar to old ones. Human-centric. Stubbornly rooted in a Western paradigm. Of limited relevance to the average human being.

The extraordinary young entrepreneurs I met in South Africa, in Kenya, in Zanzibar do not need our theories. Are they not already doing more than any of us to promote peace in their communities? The writers I have worked with for years, supporting them to share stories of trauma, of sexual abuse, of mental disorder, may or may not agree with Kant’s theories on peace, but they are practicing peace—and inspiring others to do the same.

The yoga students in my classes do not need theories of transformation to transform.

The lesson is in the practice.

None of this is to discount the value of large-scale institutions, nor the power of structural change. Indeed, transformation must occur at all levels—for instance, nations signing onto the Paris Agreement; big business investing in corporate responsibility; entrepreneurs pursuing eco-restorative initiatives and non-traditional models of growth; and individuals committing to drastic changes in lifestyle.

But while the knowledge I have gained in the past three weeks is undoubtedly valuable as such, my work is not there at the level of state actors and UN resolutions.

My work is not theoretical—or, I do not want it to be.

I find it impossible to understand how my actions, here at the most micro of levels, have any bearing on these expansive theories.

And that’s okay.

There are seven billion of us here on the planet, and more on the way. There is no shortage of shoes to fill.


Adapted from a (perhaps overly honest) final reflection paper for my recent course at UPEACE.

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Central America, Culture

How to be an Incorrigible Optimist, or, What I’m Doing in Costa Rica

“We are the crazy ones who choose to believe in peace,” he concluded.

One sliver in a blurred progression of notable speakers and presentations that overfilled my two-day orientation at UPeace (University for Peace) in El Rodeo, Costa Rica, his words stuck with me.

The volcanic mountains of San José rose in the hazy distance outside the window. Over 100 students from several dozen countries filled the seats beside me. Anyone pursuing a master’s degree in Peace Studies must be at least a tiny bit of an optimist.

I certainly am.

To trust, to believe, to hope—this is my daily act of rebellion in a world that tells us only to fear, to hate, and to doubt.

Our world is full of darkness. And it is full of light. I am an optimist not because I do not see the darkness (of course I do—who could ignore it?), but because I choose to always strive for its opposite.

The world is at war; I hope for peace.

Humans are cruel, petty, hateful, and foolish, but I believe—I know—they are more often kind, generous, loving, and wise.

No matter how many times I encounter the former, I continue to trust. This is not naïveté; it is optimism. Because my world—the world I want to live in—must deserve my faith.

peace, optimist, costa rica

How can we be incorrigible optimists in a world that is constantly turning on its head?

Simple.

We choose it.

We rebel against cynicism and decide to be optimists. There is no other way.

That’s what I’m doing here at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Choosing to believe in peace.


More stories of discovery, peace and adventure in Costa Rica are on the way. What do you want to read about? Let me know and I’ll probably take your suggestion on board!

Continue reading
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