By Jennifer Ptacek, PhD. Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Dayton, USA
For those of us involved in peacebuilding work, we can easily see its connections to health and community organizing. In fact, you might argue they are inextricably linked. However, when we look at the research we rarely see peacebuilding, health (including individual and community well-being), and organizing considered together. As a communication scholar who studies organizing in health contexts including in the peacebuilding sphere, I pondered this with Dr. Stacey Connaughton, Professor of Communication and Director of the Purdue Peace Project, housed in the Purdue Policy Research Institute, in which she also serves as Director. In our recent article published in Health Communication, we address these intersections through a case study of our work in Liberia, West Africa and propose ways in which scholars can theorize and contribute to research at the intersections of peacebuilding, health, and organizing.
The Purdue Peace Project (PPP) is an externally funded initiative that collaborates with local citizens in conflict-prone areas around the world to reduce political violence. It operates from the belief that “local citizens have expertise and experience to develop and enact effective communication strategies to prevent violence in their communities” (Connaughton et al., 2017, p. 518). The PPP’s relationally attentive approach (RAA) to engaged communication scholarship focuses on engaging in ongoing co-construction, embracing reciprocity between communicative choices made in engaged collaboration and its impacts, fostering inclusivity, and practicing reflexivity. Dr. Connaughton also discusses this in her HCPB blog. The PPP’s work in Liberia has centered on violence stemming from conflicts with motorcycle taxi drivers (called pen-pen riders), the devastating Ebola outbreak starting in 2014, and Liberia’s 2017 presidential election. We began collaborations here in 2013, as a local peacebuilding network (the Pen-Pen Peace Network; PPPN) was formed to first address issues with pen-pen riders.
In our recent article, we argue that peacebuilding should be considered in tandem with health/well-being and organizing for three main reasons. The first reason is that peace is intrinsically tied to well-being. We saw this ring true in the case of pen-pen riders who were formerly combatants of Liberia’s Civil War. Their reputation for being violent toward law enforcement and citizens, having poor hygiene, and engaging in reckless driving had stemmed from their challenging transition from war as child soldiers. Simply put, pen-pen riders saw themselves as other citizens saw them: as outcasts, undeserving of acceptance. Through the efforts of the PPPN, consisting of local citizens from various affected groups, we noticed a shift in the pen-pen riders’ mental well-being. Once citizens started seeing pen-pen riders as humans and included them in peacebuilding efforts, the pen-pen riders started accepting themselves and taking better care of themselves. One pen-pen rider noted, “I got to understand the importance of my life. So the only way you can enjoy life is peace” (Ptacek et al., 2020, p. 14). We saw the interdependence of peace and well-being play out as Liberian citizens organized to build peace among concerns of physical and emotional health.
The second reason for considering the intersections the peacebuilding, health, and organizing is because peace is constituted through the processes and acts of organizing for well-being. When the Ebola outbreak struck Liberia in 2014, it became not only a public health concern but a concern of increased civil unrest and violence. The PPPN quickly focused its efforts on Ebola awareness and prevention as well as building peace and togetherness. Bridging their continued peacebuilding work among pen-pen riders and Ebola prevention, the PPPN involved pen-pen riders as key information-providers because of their unique ability to move around town quickly on their motorcycles and speak multiple local dialects. This case showed us how the act of organizing around a major health concern constituted peace through an emerging sense of togetherness. We see how public health crises influence organizing and peace communication in these positive ways but also in negative ways, such as accentuating a lack of trust in some institutions.
The third reason we argue that peacebuilding, health, and organizing should be considered together is that organizing is an essential part of peacebuilding. In addition to the above two examples, the case of Liberia’s 2017 presidential election highlights this argument. A history of election violence, combined with a recent Civil War and withdrawal of the United Nations Mission in Liberia, left Liberians in fear for their safety leading up to the election. To address the concern the PPPN began their Peaceful Elections Campaign which included a variety of activities to bring people together and spread messages of peace. Connaughton et al. (2016) and Ptacek et al. (2020) empirically noted some positive transformations from this work, including greater shared identities, solidarity, and peace at a national and individual level. The organizing efforts of the local citizens in the PPPN allowed them to address conflict as it arose and pivot quickly from one issue to the next. They were able to do so through establishing a clear communication system between members, relationships throughout the community, and a mission that guided members in uncertain situations.
I invite others to consider and contribute to the research and conversation about the intersections of health, organizing, and peace. We have seen how inextricably connected they are in the work of the PPP in Liberia and other countries. Drawing from the cases in our recent publication, I want to share some of the questions we forwarded here:
- How do communities organize in order to address violence between groups?
- How do members of a marginalized group change other group members’ attitudes and behaviors about peace and violence?
- How do outgroup members organize peacefully in the face of a health crisis?
- What is the relationship between fear (mental health/well-being) and violent protests during election time (and other times of uncertainty) in war-torn countries?
- How can practitioners apply the relationally attentive approach to other post-conflict countries to encourage local citizens organizing in order to reduce [election and other] violence and improve community well-being? What are the impacts of doing this?
Even in non-war-torn countries, health threats are a concern to peace. In considering these, we highlight the argument of other communication scholars that “Communication in and by organizations, and as an organizing process, has profound implications for the health of individuals, organizations, and society as a whole” (Harrison & Williams, 2015, p. 1) and add that peace and doing peacebuilding work are essential to individual and societal well-being. I hope that we can continue to build upon these intersections in peacebuilding scholarship.
Connaughton, S. L., Linabary, J. R., Krishna, A., Kuang, K., Anaele, A., Vibber, K. S., Yakova, L., & Jones, C. (2017). Explicating the relationally attentive approach to conducting engaged communication scholarship. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45(5), 517–536. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909882.2017.1382707
Connaughton, S. L., Pauly, J., Linabary, J., Yakova, L., Krishna, A., Stumberger, N., & Ptacek, J. (2016). Organizing to identify and identifying to organize: The unanticipated endurance of identifications in a voluntary social collective [unpublished manuscript]. Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University.
Harrison, T. R., & Williams, E. A. (2015). Introduction to organizations, communication, and health: Exploring intersections for theory, practice, and change. In T. R. Harrison & E. A. Williams (Eds.), Organizations, communication, and health (pp. 1–9). Routledge.
Ptacek, J. K., & Connaughton, S. L. (2022). Addressing the intersection of health, organizing, and peacebuilding: A case study of peacebuilding in Liberia. Health Communication, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2022.2040169
Ptacek, J. K., Kamal, D., Rawat, M., Linabary, J. R., & Connaughton, S. L. (2020). Doing locally led peacebuilding: An examination of the relationally attentive approach to conducting engaged scholarship in Liberia, West Africa. In P. Kellett, Connaughton S., & G. Cheney (Eds.), Transforming conflict and building peace: Community engagement strategies for communication scholarship and practice (p. 9–33). Peter Lang Publishing.