Ending violence from war by changing the way we view peace: An interview with Professor of Political Science Dr. Séverine Autesserre

This is the second in a series of interviews bringing attention to issues and innovators in global culture. We spearheaded the development of The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research to provide ongoing support to Barnard College faculty conducting research that promotes mutual understanding between diverse societies and allows Barnard’s exceptional faculty to engage deeply in original studies on topics spanning international relations, peace building studies, economics, and human rights.

In 2018, The Leth Family Fund awarded the second consecutive grant to Professor of Political Science Dr. Séverine Autesserre, an award-winning researcher, author, and an expert in peacebuilding and African civil wars, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her latest findings will be published in a forthcoming text, On the Frontlines of Peace.

Q. Dr. Autesserre, you are an expert in war, peace, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and African politics. May I ask what sparked your interest in civil war and peacebuilding?

. Before becoming an academic, I wanted to be a journalist, as my parents worked for the French National Radio Station. However, I quickly discovered that I wanted to do something about war and suffering, and I became an activist. So I worked for humanitarian and development agencies in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicaragua, and India. But ultimately, I needed the freedom to ask questions and challenge perceptions about peace and peacebuilding and not lose my job. My role as a professor at Barnard has allowed me to do just that.

Q. You have argued in the international news media that even as the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world has failed to stem the flood of violence in Congo, Idjwi—a local island on the border between the Congo and Rwanda where 83 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day—has somehow avoided the conflict, thanks to the everyday involvement of its residents. What did you discover?

. The island is peaceful because of its grassroots groups, social networks, strong beliefs, and agency on an individual level. When there is a conflict, instead of calling the police or the army or resorting to violence, people on Idjwi will attempt to contact a local religious network, or a youth or women’s group. Each citizen also helps maintain the stability of his or her village by keeping tabs on potential troublemakers and working with local leaders, such as priests, to prevent minor issues from escalating into violence.

Q.  Interestingly, you argue that traditions the international elite might quickly dismiss, such as local beliefs, actually play a significant role in fostering a culture of peace on the island.

. Yes. For instance, traditional promises, or blood pacts, between families who agree never to hurt each other go back centuries on the island. The people of Idjwi also benefit from beliefs in surrounding provinces who claim the island is home to powerful sorcerers who can cast protection upon you, or cause you harm if you try to invade or disturb the island. These beliefs help deter violence by both insiders and outsiders, just as different spiritual and religious systems help prevent violence in other countries.

Q. So how is studying an exception in the Congo like Idjwi “a first step in changing the way we view and build peace”?

. Many foreign entities think that local people are incompetent or corrupt, even violent, believing that only outsiders have what it takes to build peace. But it is not the army, state or police, or any outside peacekeeper, that keeps tensions from erupting into violence; it is the community members themselves. I do not believe that all is lost in Congo. Many people strive for peace and manage to make a difference. My research indicates that activists, diplomats, and development workers would do well to focus on tapping into and unleashing the talent and potential of the Congolese citizens.

Q. You have provided expert analysis and commentary in the international news that what builds peace may not be elections or agreements between world elites. “It may not even be democracy — at least not right away.” What did you mean by that?

. Most politicians assume that it takes an agreement between world elites to end armed conflicts. But in order to stop wars, an essential first step is to understand how people have actually succeeded in building peace. Many successful examples of peace-building have involved innovative grass-roots initiatives, led by local people, often using methods the international elite tends to dismiss. This may not require billions in aid or massive international interventions, but it may involve respecting local beliefs, including what Westerners may view as superstitions.

Q. The Leth Family Fund for International Research is a permanent endowed fund that allows a diverse cross section of Barnard’s exceptional New York City faculty to engage deeply in research. As the second recipient, why are funds like this important?

A. Researching grassroots dynamics of war and peace is not something that I can do by staying in my office in New York. What readers like most about my book manuscript is all of the stories I can tell them from my time in Afghanistan, Congo, Colombia, Somaliland, and other countries.—all of my on-the-ground material. But collecting this kind of material is expensive. I have to travel to remote, hard-to-reach places, and that costs a lot of money in terms of plane, car, and boat transportation, not to mention finding places to stay, and the like. So funds like this are crucial. Without grants like those provided by the Leth Family Fund, I just couldn’t do the kind of research that I do.


Image: Courtesy of Dr. Séverine Autesserre

Join IRIS in New York City

An intimate conversation with Jake Halpern & Michael Sloan


Thursday, April 25, 6:00pm
The Yale Club
50 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, NY 10017

Cocktails & hors d’oeuvres
Attire: Business Casual

Join a private discussion with journalist Jake Halpern and illustrator Michael Sloan, the Pulitzer Prize winning team and co-creators of “Welcome to the New World,” a graphic narrative series featured in the New York Times.

The series follows the lives of two Syrian refugee families after their arrival in the U.S. on election day, November 2016. 
Cartoon illustration
Also joining the discussion will be Issa and Aminah, the Syrian mother and father of one of the families depicted, and Chris George, IRIS’s Executive Director.Event attendees will participate in an interactive, behind the scenes discussion of the intensely creative and collaborative process of the Pulitzer Prize winning team of Halpern and Sloan.  

IRIS, in partnership with community co-sponsors (a group of community volunteers trained by IRIS), resettled the families depicted in Halpern & Sloan’s series.  Event proceeds will benefit IRIS — Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services


Nadja Cardona
Nyla Islam
Christy O’Keefe
Claire Qureshi
Eileen Scully
Drew Ruben

‘Culture Matters’ at TRIP 2018-2019

Dear Friends and Partners –

Culture Matters! We are delighted to share a brief year end overview of the 2018 and 2019 TRIP grants. We are honored to partner and advocate with nonprofit organizations worldwide.

Destination Cultural Grants

We accomplished two large destination grants this past year; a first ever Middle East/Jordan event for Tourism Cares (pictured below), with 100 leaders focused on 12 Social Enterprise developments, and the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Social Impact event in Seville, Spain.

Our Family Fund for International Research provides ongoing support to Barnard College faculty conducting research and fieldwork on topics spanning international relations, peace building studies, economics, and human rights.

Boat building in The Apprentice Shop – Rockland, ME

Global Arts & Culture

We supported The Center for Arts, Technological Studies and Conservation in Denmark, a major center for technical study, scientific research and active conservation of fine art from around the world to conduct research and conservation of degrading Old Master drawings in the collection of the National Gallery of Denmark.

Peru’s ‘Turismo Cuida’ Plan Wallata is a 2017-21 five-year plan to support Incan communities in the city of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley – along with a new museum opening!

One of America’s finest boat building institutions, The Apprentice Shop (pictured above) in Rockland, Maine, receives multi-year support from TRIP with full scholarships dedicated to internships for a recent student from Greece and applications for other European youth interested in traditional craftsmanship.

TRIP continues to support the International Studio & Curatorial Program in Brooklyn (pictured below), to provide early or mid-career residents from Africa with studio and professional opportunities to further their creative careers.

Modupeola Fadugba, International Studio & Curatorial Program – Brooklyn, NY

Advocacy and Cross-Cultural Events

TRIP has collaborated with IRIS, the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, for a three-year grant sponsor to help with the integration of refugees into the American culture in Fairfield County, Connecticut and New York.

And the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County was a new grant recipient this year. With over 600 members throughout the community, they created a new website that now features thousands of cultural events and openings.

Jordan – location of a World Heritage Site

Once again, it has been an honor to work with all of you in this past year, and we look forward to the bright new year full of cultural engagements and great work from our grantees!

Robin Tauck & Colleen Ritzau Leth

P.S. – Robin is featured in Advantage, a global magazine, with a terrific article titled ‘Transcending Borders for the Greater Good’ found here on pages 44 and 45 that we are delighted to share with you!

2018 Tauck Ritzau Residency at ISCP

Brooklyn, New York—For the second year in a row, Tauck Ritzau Innovative Philanthropy (TRIP) is underwriting the Tauck Ritzau Residency for artists from Africa, which runs this year from June 1, 2018 through August 31, 2018, at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP).

Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba (b. 1985), whose elegant and socially concerned paintings and works on paper address issues of identity, representation, and access, was selected as the 2018 Resident from a pool of more than 100 applicants across the African continent. Ms. Fadugba’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions in Africa and France and her figurative paintings of African and black American synchronized swimmers were recently included in a group exhibition at the Royal Academy, London and appeared on a spring cover of a recent international issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The Africa Centre, a Cape Town-based pioneering, progressive non-profit organization, carried out the search.

This is the second ISCP residency underwritten by TRIP with support from The Dennis Elliott Founder’s Fund, named in honor of the founder and first director of ISCP. Last year’s inaugural recipient was Kiluanji Kia Henda (b. 1978), a self-taught Angolan artist and winner of the Frieze Art Award who works in photography, performance, and video.

Although Africa enjoys a thriving contemporary art scene, there is limited funding for world-class residency programs for young and promising artists to produce and present new work and to make connections that will further their career.

Housed in a former factory in Brooklyn and featuring 35 light-filled work studios and two galleries, ISCP is the most comprehensive visual arts residency program in New York City and the fourth largest in the world.

Ms. Fadugba, who studied chemical engineering and education at Harvard but has no formal training in studio art, confesses that her academic background might pre-dispose her to conducting “large-scale experiments”—she paints on papers that she carefully burns in her studio. This summer, she receives full use of a private studio; assistants; a stipend for living and housing expenses; and extensive professional development opportunities, such as studio visits from art critics and participation in talks and exhibitions.

On a warm July night, Ms. Fadugba presented a visually striking ongoing series, “Synchronized Swimmers,” which depicts an underwater world filled with dynamic, moving bodies weaving stories about teamwork, friendship, and unity during a special “Artists at Work” presentation.

Deeply interested in the social history of communal swimming pools, Ms. Fadubga said the location of her residency in New York City allowed her to find inspiration in The Harlem Honeys and Bears, an acclaimed all-black synchronized swimming team for senior citizens who perform water acrobatics and offer free swim lessons to children to reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning. Previously, she had depicted synchronized swimmers in Lagos, Africa in her representational works.

Ms. Fadugba described a lack of swimming culture for black and African American communities in the U.S., noting that black and African American children in the U.S. drown at five times the rate of other children. In fact, according to the USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African Americans do not know how to swim.

“How can I think about synchronized swimming in a more meaningful way?” she mused during the talk in which she projected images of her work.

From August 24, works created Ms. Fadugba at ISCP will go on view at Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana. As of this writing, we are delighted to learn that Ms. Fadugba’s residency has been extended for one month, until the end of September 2018, with underwriting provided by Gallery 1957.


Images: 2018 Tauck Ritzau Resident Modupeola Fadugba during a recent studio talk at ISCP, Brooklyn, NY.

Conserving and Revitalizing Craft and Knowledge in Papua New Guinea: An interview with Professor of Anthropology Dr. Paige West

This is the first in a series of interviews TRIP will feature with grantees to bring attention to issues and remarkable innovators in global culture. TRIP spearheaded the development of The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research to provide ongoing support to Barnard College faculty conducting research that promotes mutual understanding between diverse societies and allows Barnard’s exceptional faculty to engage deeply in original studies on topics spanning international relations, peace building studies, economics, and human rights. The inaugural grant was awarded to Professor of Anthropology Dr. Paige West, who recently published Dispossession and the Environment (Columbia University Press, 2016), a study on the impact of NGOs, tourism, and foreign visitors on Papua New Guinea. Dr. West is currently working to preserve the island’s threatened cultural tradition of Malagan—intricate, layered carvings that communicate ancient histories and local knowledge through their motifs.

Q. How did you become interested in Papua New Guinea?

I became an anthropologist because of Papua New Guinea. When I was a child, like so many of us, I read National Geographic. So the sense of other people and others places was in my consciousness from an early age, and I was interested in Papua New Guinea. As happens, I forgot about it. [But] during my senior year of college, I read a book by Roy A. Rappaport (d. 1997), [the anthropologist who wrote about the relationship between the island’s culture and economy]. I realized in that class that I was incredibly passionate about the environment and culture—the island is both the most biologically and the most culturally diverse place on Earth.

Q. You are now an authority on Papua New Guinea and respected locally. In fact, you were recently approached by Papua New Guineans themselves. What did they share with you?

My research partner and I were approached by elders from the New Ireland communities. New Ireland is one of the large islands to the north of New Guinea. They were concerned about Malagan carvings—the lynchpin of local ceremonies and culture. These elders explained that there are only six master carvers alive today and these men are in their late 50s and early 60s. When they die, the knowledge of both Malagan carving and the underlying ontology and epistemology of the Malagan ceremonies will be lost.

Q. What makes the objects important and unique?

Malagan carvings are represented in public collections all over the world, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. These are the most collected, most spectacular objects from the island. They have this incredible power because their motifs contain family histories, origins, and crucial knowledge about the relationships between people, plants, animals, and spirits. The carvings themselves are not objects of value for Malagan culturally; rather, it is the imagery, or the motifs, that are carved onto the objects, that contain what is of value. Only master carvers can produce these carvings and there are strict rules for when, where, and to whom a carver can pass on his craft and knowledge.

Q. How are you using the funds?

Prior to this gift, we received a U.S. Ambassador’s Fund For Cultural Preservation Grant to begin working with the last living master carvers to document their knowledge. This support is unspecified and unrestricted, which is allowing us to really move forward with this project, expand our team of collaborators, and do environmental and cultural conservation together. It is allowing us to buy tools; make introductions for carvers; and connect with researchers at institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Australian Museum. The support from The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund is also supporting our long-term goal, which is to help Papua New Guineans who want to conserve and revitalize their tradition access the people who can help them do it. We want to get these carvers hooked into global networks of art and conservation that value these objects and help the carvers articulate to younger people in their societies why Malagan matters.

Q. You mentioned that the funds have allowed you to do environmental and cultural conservation together. How so and what is the urgency?

We believe that this kind of work can really help articulate the connection between art and the natural world, and we want to help local people understand why it so important that these traditions be talked about, discussed, and argued over right now. There is this really fundamental connection through these objects between the culture and the environment in Papua New Guinea. The environment is changing very quickly: sea levels are rising rapidly and there is extensive bleaching of coral atolls. The Malagan carvings have five different layers of stories in them and all of these stories have an ecological and cultural and ecological component. The ecology motifs are very site specific to where the carvers are from. Most of these villages will have to move [as a result of rising sea levels], and the ecological basis for their societies will be gone. These carvings house the memory of that.

Q. The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research is a permanent  endowed fund that allows a diverse cross section of Barnard’s exceptional New York City faculty to engage deeply in research. As the inaugural recipient, why are funds like this important?

It is very important because it will help myself and other faculty to develop new kinds of research projects and programs that might not traditionally fit within the funding structure of our disciplines. This fund will help the faculty at Barnard break down interdisciplinary boundaries when we are asking new kinds of questions.

Q. In closing, your recent book is a searing study of how local knowledge is devalued and eroded by journalists, developers, surf tourists, and conservation NGOs in Papua New Guinea. What is the connection between dispossession and the threatened knowledge of the Malagan carving tradition?

Europeans, Americans, and Australians have built academic careers, museum collections, and scientific bodies of knowledge that really started in Papua New Guinea. There is this way in which the people and the places from which this knowledge was extracted have never benefited directly from that knowledge, nor have they ever had the opportunity to work in the fields developed through that knowledge. When I think about dispossession, in addition to extraction of natural resources, for example, I think about this more ephemeral thing—knowledge.


Image: Funerary Carving (Malagan), Late 19th-early 20th century. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum