PK with another participant in a motion activity

From Raw Experience to Reflective Learning: My MPI Journey

I have had a rather privileged upbringing and was brought up by protective parents who were keen on ensuring a good livelihood for me. As a dreamy-eyed young boy, I chose literature for my undergraduate studies. Literature gave me some clarity and direction and made me value altruism and egalitarianism. It continues to have a profound impact on my worldly outlook.

As a young boy, there were instances when I used to feel helpless and confused. I could not understand why there were so many divisions, hierarchies, inequities, and determination to politicize issues. Oppression in the name of development, gender, caste, religion, nation, language, etc.—to which I had till then hardly any exposure—forced me to look at the harsh realities of life. Not knowing how to handle such contexts, I used to simply stay dazed.

As life moved on, I concluded that one needs to be stoic in the face of the unfair and unacceptable. If there are “bad” people out there, learn to keep away from them. If there are suffering members, try helping them. It is okay if you do not challenge structural violence. If bigotry and hatred are unfolding, look elsewhere and feel content that there are still others who shower love and care on the needy. If there is an abuse of power, keep away and await someone to speak the truth. If there is moral decay, bemoan it. These quick-fix formulaic approaches made me tired and unenthusiastic. Perhaps some of the key socio-political shifts over the past two decades in my country had enervated my conscience. Maybe, I was yet another metaphorical rabbit caught in the headlights of a neo-liberal world. I needed some experiential and cognitive shake-ups for me to recognize how youthful idealism could slowly pave the way for lifelong, unconvincing ethical compromises and unreflective endurance of many unjust practices.

Padmakumar standing on a chair with Paulo Baleinakorodawa in an activity about powerThis weary worldly outlook of mine was to change in 2018. A United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia scholarship and encouragement from CHRIST (Deemed to be University)—my organization—led me to three weeks at the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute’s (MPI) Annual Peacebuilding Training. Honestly, despite being a rank outsider to the field then, I had my naive assumptions about the domain of peace work to be one with good intentions, but probably less rigorous. Once my first-week course began with Fundamentals of Peacebuilding, I started acknowledging my ignorance. That one week of intense orientation under the able guidance of Paulo Baleinakorodawa laid a strong foundation. The vast landscape of peacebuilding and the promise it holds for those in conflict-ridden contexts was now evident and convincing. The next week, I had a course on Conflict Resolution Skills offered by Wendy Kroeker and Paulo. Besides addressing my anxiety of lacking skills in the domain, the course gave me the confidence that any of us with the right skill sets, knowledge base, and proper attitude can work towards resolving conflicts, big or small. My final course was on Art Approaches to Community-Based Peacebuilding. Kyoko Okumoto and Babu Ayindo, our facilitators, ensured that all of us danced, sang, performed, and explored many art forms. More importantly, we learned how to use all that artistic energy to diffuse tension, prompt reflections, and create a culture of peace.

Padmakumar shaking hands with another participantOver those three weeks, I learned that listening is more important than speaking and peace is more needed than justice. I realized that I had to re-calibrate my value system. I felt a new-found meaning to my existence. I felt humbled in the company of fellow participants who had witnessed violent conflicts almost as a day-to-day event and yet retained a sense of resilience. They had seen losses that probably would have shattered me a thousand times. Yet, they kept looking for hope, hardly had any sense of revenge, retained their humane self, and believed in a better world. Many others were resolutely committed to being messengers of peace in their chosen or destined contexts. If my fellow participants were kind, mentally strong, friendly, and energetic, the resource people were exemplary. They were theoretically sound and experientially rich. We participants found them approachable and affable. Many of us are in touch with them and continue to take their guidance.

Padmakumar and two women look on an art projectIn November 2019, MPI gave a few alumni (including me) an opportunity to get trained by Inke Johanssen and Carino V. Antequisa. It was a one-week Facilitation Skills Training of Trainers for Peacebuilders. The two gifted facilitators made it a fantastic occasion to learn for all of us. They began by asking us what we wished to learn; kept their inputs to a bare minimum; crafted the structure of the training; enabled all of us to share our questions, experiences, and answers with each other; and ensured we emerged as confident and resourceful facilitators of peacebuilding trainings.

While there are plenty of organizations offering many worthy courses across the world, there is something characteristically different and special about MPI. It is the people there, their principles, and the positivity that they enable in the participants. MPI harnesses the power of the human potential and channels it in the direction of peace.

It is MPI’s 20th anniversary. At the same time, there is a pandemic out there that continues to hit us with disaster stories, almost with sea-wave-like frequency. It is time for us MPI alumni to do deep reflections and recharge our spirits. Let us take care of ourselves first, as our stability and clarity are of supreme importance to do peace work. Let us then dispel despair and replace it with hope; let us stay together and play the catalyst. Together, we can make a positive difference. We ought to. That is the way to value and acknowledge the 20 years of MPI.

Padmakumar M M (PK), MPI Batch of 2018 and Head, Department of Media Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore, India