Peace Chat

Alison Balmat
September 01, 2002
girl in blue shirt types on computer
James Collins

Amanda Wetzel presented part of her honors thesis during the U.N.'s "year of Dialogue among Civilizations."

Peace isn't made when political leaders shake hands, but people form common goals for their community," says Amanda Wetzel, a political science major at Penn State. " I want to be a part of that."

Wetzel's honors thesis focuses on the collective identity, or sense of belonging, among members of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a group formed before Ireland's 1996 elections to join Catholic and Protestant women in efforts to promote peace. "Northern Ireland's political system is divided, framed around either the British or the Irish party," Wetzel says. "With different religions and ideologies, it's intriguing to me that these women came together."

A new collective identity, explains Wetzel, forms when personalities, religions, and nationalities unite. Although creating a group mentality is often associated with negative connotations—extreme nationalism, for example—Wetzel emphasizes the positive aspects of uniting different cultures and ethnicities. "When you bridge the gaps and accept differences between individuals within a group, a new identity is created."

The first step in the process, she says, is establishing dialogue.

"A dialogue begins on the individual level—two people chatting on the Internet or meeting face to face—and from those interactions, relationships develop," explains Wetzel. Inspired by a Sudanese woman who began a cross-community women's center, Wetzel decided to create the "One Nation" listserv with youth from around the world. " I exchange e-mail with young people from every corner of the globe," says Wetzel. "We leave our prejudices at the door and welcome any person to participate in the discussions."

Wetzel put her ideas about dialogue's power to promote peace on paper and was one of ten students worldwide picked to read her winning essay—her view on how simply talking can promote understanding between cultures—to foreign ministers, scholars, and world leaders in New York City last November. The essay readings were part of the week-long finale of the U.N. "Year of Dialogue among Civilizations," jointly sponsored by the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the educational branch of the U.N. The culminating events included discussions at Seton Hall University among the contest winners, focusing on improving relations between countries.

"Within our discussion groups, I talked to students from around the world about the September 11 attacks, listening to their ideas and sharing my own," Wetzel says. "Some of the students' opinions I didn't always agree with, but that was the whole point—we listened to what others said. We talked about our beliefs. We created a dialogue."

Also participating in the sessions was Mohammad Khatami, president of Iran. "Khatami was elected by the young people of his nation, and he believes we can use our voices to ensure peace for the future," says Wetzel. "His visit to the U.S. to hear our essay presentations marked his first time on U.S. soil—and a positive step toward peace between our nations."

Wetzel's interest in how dialogue can improve international relations continued during internships at the U.S. State Department—where she helped coordinate the "Vital Voices" conferences, giving women political training—and at the American Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she worked in the European Affairs Bureau. In the Netherlands this past summer, Wetzel studied the rise of extreme right-wing parties in Europe. "We need to talk about these radical ideas—that the Holocaust never happened or that immigrants are inferior—or people will tend to accept them as true."

Wetzel is dedicated to creating cross-community dialogue internationally, says Lorraine Dowler, assistant professor of geography and women's studies. "She incorporates the voices of women into her projects, voices which are all too often ignored in political debates."

Wetzel will study human-rights law at Queens University in Northern Ireland this fall with a George Mitchell fellowship and also will continue looking at communication across cultures.

"I'm not claiming that dialogue will create instant world peace," explains Wetzel. "I'm simply saying that it's a great start to promoting tolerance and understanding in our world."

Amanda Wetzel received a B.A. in international politics with honors in international politics and geography in May 2002 from the College of the Liberal Arts and the Schreyer Honors College. Her honors adviser is Michael Berkman, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in the College of the Liberal Arts, 112 Burrowes Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 863-6120; mbb1@psu.edu. Her thesis adviser is Lorraine Dowler, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography and women's studies in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 302 Walker Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 865-3433; lxd17@psu.edu.

SIDEBAR

Excerpts from "Dialogue in a Digital World"

Along a dirt road in Sudan, a Muslim woman breast-fed her baby. As Bisi nursed her child, a group of emaciated Christian women crept out of the brush, carrying little bundles. Bisi pulled her child close as they approached. A woman opened her bundle and Bisi gasped as she stared at a starving infant. Bisi laid her child on the grass. She reached out and brought the other woman’s baby to her breast, reflecting only momentarily on her cultural belief that nursing another woman’s child would poison her milk. I met Bisi at the Beijing Plus Five Special Session of the United Nations on Women—a forum focused on improving women’s rights—where I learned that she now operates a cross-community women’s center in Sudan. Her work gives me hope for peace in areas of deep ethnic conflict. Her leadership in creating dialogues inspired me to join together with other youth and create the "One Nation" discussion forum. We are an e-mail collective with members from all around the globe. We are Nigerians, Egyptians, Moldovans, Albanians, Germans, Americans, Swedes, Norwegians, Canadians, French, Italians, Australians, Indians, Russians, Malaysians, Algerians, Jordanians, and Iranians. We believe in the power of dialogue to promote intercultural understanding. We believe that dialogue among youth will promote peace in the future… .

Politicians are an important part of dialogue, but ordinary people working for peace should be recognized and encouraged. The world sees only violent images of deeply divided societies. Outsiders seldom see the success stories of community dialogues that break down the barriers between ethnic groups. When dialogue is featured, it is often not constructive. High-level name calling matches are often reported instead of highlighting the work of young people bringing communities together… .

September 11 is a date that is forever marked in the minds of Americans. It is a difficult for some to think about dialogue during a time of war, but it is imperative that Americans try to understand the views of others around the world. Because of the "One Nation" group, I have discussed the terrorist attacks on the United States with citizens from around the world. I will never forget the images of the World Trade Centers falling. I will never forget that Muslim students were harassed at my university and at other universities across the nation. Our dialogue was not effective enough to prevent their discomfort. I will also never forget the "One Nation" group discussions on the day of the attack, and the message of a friend from Nigeria who challenged the United States and critiqued our foreign policy. I did not agree, but I tried to understand his argument. We had a dialogue—and although we are very different and sometimes disagree, our dialogue continues.

—Amanda Wetzel

Last Updated January 10, 2014