As part of Karuna Center's 20th Anniversary year—connecting with our past, and looking ahead to build the future—we recently interviewed Dishani Jayaweera, a Sri Lankan peacebuilder who we have been blessed to count as a friend and colleague over the past 15 years. Dishani is Director of Programs for the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation: Home for Diversity (CPBR), an NGO in Sri Lanka she co-founded after participating in Karuna Center programs. With her leadership, CPBR has grown to engage thousands of people in Sri Lankan communities in initiatives to build a more just and peaceful future.
KC: I was wondering if, to start with, you can tell us a little bit about your peacebuilding work: about what you do, what is your main purpose, who do you work with?
DJ: I think, when it comes to peacebuilding, the first work I have is with me, because I am also part of the system that I do not agree with, in my head, and in my heart. So then, because of that, I have worked a lot with myself, to transform myself, to be the person whom I want to be—and then at the same time, while going through that process I'm trying to be supportive to the others also going through that same process, and then bring all the energies, as a synergy, and to connect it with the system to make an impact in the systematic level. That's the overall purpose of my work.
KC: How did you first come in contact with Karuna Center, or Paula or Olivia – what have the highlights been of our work together and what has made the most impact on you?
DJ: When I first met Paula, it was at CONTACT at SIT in 2000—I was working in the peacebuilding field as a project officer and she asked me, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I organize logistics of events, I find the venue, I get things ready,” and she said, “Why are you doing that?! You are a leader! Find the leader in you.” I had become very content in my life, thinking that I should just have a home, a family, and enjoy the love of my husband—but Paula gave me a push to wake up and pursue my real purpose in life. I had been a leader when I was younger, but then I moved away from it. She encouraged me to connect with my purpose and I founded CPBR along with Jay, my life and working partner.
During that time, Karuna Center launched a two-year program in Sri Lanka to train facilitators. Paula and Olivia were the trainers. I was the country coordinator. I remember one time Paula and I were conducting a facilitation workshop together and she told me, “Out of all the people here, we will be lucky to get one facilitator,” and I was shocked. I did not understand what she meant. But now I see that facilitation is not only about the skill of facilitation, but also a about developing yourself spiritually (spiritually beyond religion).
Reconciliation was something I learned about first in 2000 in Vermont, at SIT—Paula was my teacher, for one week at the CONTACT program. That was the first time I learned the word reconciliation even though I knew the concept in my own way, and I really wanted to learn it—and that's where I fell in love with reconciliation. That's how the name also came to the organization. The word peacebuilding was from the other co-founder, Jay, and Reconciliation was from me. [CPBR—Center for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation]. When I came back from Vermont, I knew it needed to come more from the heart than the brain. When it comes to justice, there is big brain component, but when it comes to reconciliation—I know justice is a big part of it—but at the same time it will not be coming full circle if it is not coming from the hearts of people. So, that's why I wanted to design initiatives that are starting from heart and then connecting to the head and hand.
So what we are trying to do is to initiate a discourse about religious principles; we are doing intra-faith dialogues to really go back to your origin and the purpose of the religion, and then first reflect with your own self, and then with your own community, and then as a larger community. The more I work with religious communities, what has happened to me is I become a secular person—because the process guided me to understand all religions, and the process guided me to really read all the religions, and the process guided me to listen to all religious leaders. Should I say more about what we do?
KC: I would love to hear more about the work that you do.
DJ: In the first place, when we start to work with religious leader groups, we introduce the subject of conflict transformation, and then we are asking them to take the knowledge in their own religion to do conflict transformation in communities. Our purpose is to make them feel confident to use religion to do problem-solving and conflict transformation. We start with the intra-faith dialogue, leading to an inter-faith dialogue process, to really understand each other's religions as well as each other's belief systems. Our main purpose is to create safe space to identify, accept, respect, nourish and celebrate diversity. See, in our process the last point is celebrating. Often, I see other programs that jump right into celebrating diversity, but without creating a safe space before that, celebrations by themselves do little to make lasting change.
In this process, one of the main achievements is we—as in all interfaith groups in our project locations—introduced a model called interfaith dialogue centers. It was a very new concept in the country. Through interfaith dialogue centers, for 1-½ years, we have consulted communities to get their recommendations for social reconciliation in Sri Lanka. They have formed more than 300 groups—separately, children, women, youth, elders and men. They have covered close to 80 villages, and consulted between 4,000-4,500 people. They have collected all the recommendations, developed a roadmap to do policy, advocacy, and lobbying work, as well as developed a process to implement those recommendations at the community level. And after they did that, they created the People's Forum 2015, inviting state heads as well as the international community, bringing close to 1,500 people to Colombo, the capital of the country. They presented all of their recommendations to the State. Eight years were spent to set up the whole human and physical infrastructure to establish interfaith culture within the communities, and now CPBR is slowly becoming a facilitator, rather than an implementer. As the program designer and strategist of the organization, I feel so happy that we came through a process that we can slowly hand over the task to the people we work with.
KC: I didn't realize the extent to which CPBR works at the community level. I don't see how you could try to address any issue without involving the people who are most directly affected by the problem, so this is just wonderful.
DJ: It's more than directly involving them in solving their problems, it is having a long-term strategy and a long-term vision: how we can develop their power, introducing skills, capacities, infrastructure, and networking them into the civil society and top level, the political level, to really voice their voices in those spaces, and take the control when it comes to their own community level. So, we don't focus much on micro-level of problem solving, we thought that creating infrastructure and systems and methodologies with skillful people is what our role is.
When it comes to the youth program, our approach is totally different. It is a 100% secular space, and our lead approach is art. We have a main program called Voice of Image, so it's through photography. We develop them as professional photographers. Their first common theme is “ Our Village: Our People”. Now we are working in 7 locations with 15 groups. We are giving cameras to them to really express themselves and the way they see the world. Then we are bringing different religious and ethnic youth groups to one place, and we are doing what is called exhibitions for dialogue, and dialogue for action, and action for change. Parallel with that, we are developing a group within the same villages called community organizing groups, and the community organizing group is the group that will take from that point onward the process to organize exposure visits, to organize mini-exhibitions in their own villages to initiate the same dialogue in their own communities. Then their communities will be coming to see the photographs, and they can see a Muslim village, and a Buddhist village, and a Christian village.
With the women, during my whole process of engaging interfaith groups, what I realized is that most of the time female religious leaders have a very separate perspective and point of view and reading of their religion, but they are very afraid to voice it in front of their male counterparts. So, I realized we have to create a separate space for female religious leaders to be themselves first. We have to work with them and walk with them through a process where they can build their confidence, and build their “within-power”, and break this social dilemma to say what they believe in, and come to a common understanding. The purpose is to create space for them to really re-interpret, or interpret, the religion through their eyes—especially a focus on what role women and women religious leaders can play in reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka.
And there is another component we bring to that—we are bringing community-level women and interfaith groups together through home gardening, environment work, and recycled jewelry-making—very community-level women—but at the same time introducing conflict transformation and developing their skills, so we bring the head, heart, and hand components together with health (H4). Then they do intra and interfaith dialogues and celebrations to understand each other’s culture, beliefs and practices. How are we as a group of interfaith groups going to protect our human race, Mother Nature, and the soil, and the trees, and this environment? How we can create a system in our villages that creates healthy food for our children? This the most difficult task, but until we do that, all the things we do are just only patching.
And another thing I want to say: sometimes I feel so happy and content to be a peacebuilder, because I think I was blessed and privileged to meet the most beautiful people in the universe—because all of them are dreaming and working in different ways and different levels, to do something—to do their little bit—in order to make this world a place which works for all, and not for just a few.