In recent weeks, both Colombia and Venezuela have been making international headlines for very different reasons. The world was reminded of the former’s wobbly transition towards a post-conflict state just a few days into 2019, when a car bomb left over 20 dead in Bogotá. Neighbouring Venezuela on the other hand finds itself at a crossroads. Opposition leader Guaidó currently enjoys the backing of almost the entire international community as the interim President of Venezuela and the US, a key ally, has not discarded the possibility of using military force to remove Maduro from power. This leaves many divided between those dubious of any real changes given Maduro’s grip on the military and supreme court, those fearing a full-blown armed conflict if a foreign military intervention were to take place and lastly those who remain hopeful that a peaceful transition is still possible if Maduro steps down.
With the wider political dynamics in mind, it is important not to underestimate the role that informal processes can play in brokering and sustaining a peace deal. In particular, grassroots initiatives can generate a unified call for peace from large segments of the population that are traditionally excluded from the more formal, higher-level negotiations. Rather than feeling as though peace is being imposed from above or abroad, informal peace initiatives can create a bottom-up demand for peace and a shared vision for the future. Without this, the implementation of a peace agreement like that in Colombia rests on shaky ground, with over half of the population failing to back the agreement in the 2016 referendum.
In this blog, Peace Direct intern Celia Carbajosa spoke to leading social entrepreneur, activist and Rotary Peace Fellow Maria Gabriela Arenas- or ‘Gaby’ as she goes by- about an approach to violence which she thinks is largely overlooked: that of visual arts and innovative education. Gaby is the founder of TAAP (“Taller de Aprendizaje para las Artes y el Pensamiento”), a foundation based on promoting peaceful living and learning through creative workshops. TAPP uses drawings, photography, videos, textiles, sculptures and other tools to stimulate children, parents and the wider community to change how they think about violence and come up with communal solutions to eradicate it.
Their methodology is rooted in neuroscience, art, pedagogy, development communication and learning through play. TAAP also delivers training programmes to governments, companies and NGOs. These are designed to help these actors promote the use of creative problem-solving, empathy and localised strategies to reduce violence in their communities. To view their business model and strategy in more detail, please click here).
Questions and Answers:
1. How would you summarise your model to someone who doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of the context you work in?
I’ll start off by explaining the context in which we work. Latin America has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, despite the absence of war. However, poverty, stark inequalities and socially normalised forms of violence play a big part in this terrible trend. For example, physically punishing students is normal in Colombia and Venezuela. I think this stifles creativity because you’re teaching kids that there is only one correct answer to a problem, and they only know when they’ve done something wrong when they get hit [by their teacher]’. What happens then is that so many children in Colombia and Venezuela grow up without enough confidence and they don’t have the tools they need to question their thinking or reactions. TAAP’s model is centred on ending all forms of community violence by reaching out to parents, teachers, and children through visual arts and creativity. Our training programmes stimulate peoples’ problem-solving abilities by making them think about the consequences of their actions and what the peaceful alternatives could be instead of acting out through violence. This could be by using dialogue, negotiating, asking for help or walking away from a difficult situation instead of throwing a punch at a classmate. The idea is that by practicing these skills and behaviours, non-violence becomes the default response to a trigger or threat.
2. People often think of peacebuilding as negotiations, signing peace agreements and high-level meetings - why are certain aspects of your model (play, imagination, and art) just as important?
Again, let me start off with a regional example. In 2016, the countries with the highest homicide rates were (in order) Syria, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras and Afghanistan . Three of these were in Latin and Central America which are not considered active conflict zones. In Venezuela, the majority of these were committed by young people in gangs. Young people are facing a lack of opportunities, a growing drug trade and harmful gender norms which portray gangs and violence as ‘sexy’, especially for men. Even though peace agreements and negotiations are important, decisions made at the UN Headquarters will not change the reality and the issues that these young people face.
The realities of communities can only be solved in communities, not at high-level meetings or roundtables.
Another reason [why the model is so important] is because people just don’t expect it, and at TAAP we use this to our ‘advantage’. In Colombia, if you have experienced violence, you often get the chance to join a DDR [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration] programme, but you should see the look on people’s faces when you ask them to start drawing! Getting anyone to open up about the violence they’ve faced at home, in relationships or at school is extremely difficult. In part because of the intrinsically negative focus on their traumatic experiences. However, at TAAP we realised that as soon as we started shifting the discussion towards how much better their lives could be without violence, they would not stop talking!
We found that engaging people’s creative side is incredibly powerful. The secret to our success lies in the fact that artists are always thinking about new possibilities and their next creation.
If you can get a person to go beyond their identity as a victim or perpetrator of violence, this frees up an infinite amount of space to start looking at their potential.
There is a Japanese tradition called Kintsugi which is the art of fixing broken pottery with gold. Instead of being hidden or disguised, the fractures in the pottery are highlighted with gold. It is often thought that Kintsugi makes the repaired piece even more beautiful and valuable than the original, revitalising it with new life. We use this beautiful metaphor in our training programmes to emphasise resilience and to demonstrate how learning from negative experiences, coping with traumatic events and not hiding our ‘scars’ makes us better.
3. In your view, what is the dynamic between interpersonal violence (i.e. domestic violence, child abuse) and political violence? Could you put this into context for both Colombia and Venezuela?
Violence is a form of control. Governments and political elites have always used violence in Latin America to control and coerce people into obeying. I also think the normalisation of violence in the home and in classrooms has been a key enabler of modern conflict in the region sadly. In Colombia, more homicides have been committed in the last ten years than in the 50 year-long conflict between the FARC rebel group and the government [ Gaby is referring to the statistics published by the National Center for Historical Memory of Colombia, which she references in an earlier interview here] . People assume that in countries like Colombia the biggest threat of violence is armed conflict, however almost 68% of these homicides were related to cases of interpersonal or domestic violence. Just like political violence is used to control people or maintain the political status quo, interpersonal violence works in the same way. I think that such high levels of interpersonal violence and the fact that many people normalise this has created a breeding ground for armed conflict to reign in our recent political history. I’ve seen first-hand that when you start building community resilience, people feel they can collectively say no to drug trafficking, gangs and political intimidation. However, I think that this empowerment needs to go hand-in-hand with citizens learning about their human rights, the economy of war and consequential thinking, which we cover in our programmes.
4. How do you think your model could contribute to peace in Colombia?
The TAAP model ultimately builds the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of communities by shifting their identities. By meaningfully and legitimately contributing to society, livelihoods that fuel the conflict lose their appeal to ordinary people as I explained before. This is when we have a real chance to create a society that rejects violence, in all its forms. For example, TAAP worked with a group of vulnerable Colombian women who had been waiting for years to receive government benefits, which never arrived. We delivered a series of entrepreneurial workshops to these women and they are now selling ponchos along a touristic religious route, which has significantly improved their quality of life and that of their children. Average women like these could have easily been threatened by a local gang into working on an illegal coca farm but now they are running their own businesses and they are living free from the threat of violence or abject poverty. Imagine what this could be like for Colombia on a larger scale…
5. What impact have you seen through your education programmes that indicate a change in public policy, community well-being or steps towards peace?
We had a difficult but fruitful experience with the Government of Miranda in Venezuela a few years back. We arranged a meeting with civil servants in the education department to present our research on how including peacebuilding and creative problem-solving modules into the local school curriculum would reduce community violence. At first, we were met with some resistance since they had never heard of such an approach, but it did not take long to persuade them-I’m convinced they could tell that we had done our ‘homework’. As a result of our advocacy, now every individual training to become a public-school teacher in Miranda must receive peacebuilding training before they can formally qualify.
6. What other countries are you implementing your model in? How can it be scaled up or applied to other contexts?
Right now, we are implementing our model in Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, the United States, across Central America, the United Kingdom, France and Qatar. The basis of our methodology is universal, but of course it needs to be adapted to each country context. TAAP is built on a social franchise business model, whereby any organisation can receive our training and get access to our material. We then continue working with the organisation in question for a few months so they can adjust our model to their specific context and train others to do the same. Our aim is to give clients the resources and support they need to continue their work sustainably. In my experience, this creates a kind of multiplier effect because one training can lead to so many more, which means we have a much larger reach and impact than if we had tried a more traditional or lucrative business model. Call me naïve but I’m really happy with the results we’ve had so far-we’ve reached over 20,000 children and parents and are aiming to reach many more in the next few years!
TAAP’s model has already had a tangible impact in Colombia and Venezuela, with many more to be reached as the foundation implements its model across and outside of the region. TAAP’s work offers a grassroots approach that is cost-effective, scalable and complementary to the top-down peace mechanisms that are already in place in Colombia. By providing training for legitimate livelihoods, people at risk of accepting or being coerced into selling drugs, joining a gang or working on an illegal coca farm are now able to stand together and turn down these ‘offers’, despite the very real threat of violence.
In addition, TAAP’s trainings seek to produce a shift in individuals’ identities and in their civic values. This is crucial because currently, political disengagement (particularly in the field of peacebuilding) remains an issue across the continent. With human rights and civic education infused into their workshop messaging, TAAP is working to counteract the ‘culture of violence’ that emerges after long periods of armed conflict, whereby aggressive reactions become the predominant way of responding to triggering situations.
Gaby goes beyond traditional peace messaging by giving vulnerable communities real experiences of self-activation and community cohesion as her workshops encourage trainees to take on community projects. In parallel, TAAP’s programmes also create a safe space for children to develop important communication skills that can take the place of violent responses. TAAP firmly believes that stimulating children’s curiosity, empathy and creativity are some of the best remedies against the epidemic of violence, regardless of where you are.
By giving children and adults the tools they need to live a life free of violence, it is hoped that this will motivate more people to preserve their communities’ newfound peace and fight for what they are entitled to under their governments (i.e. access to basic services, education, equality of opportunity etc), particularly as the absence of these have often been used to justify armed conflict (for example in both Colombia and Venezuela). Increased political participation and unity around eradicating violence, in all its forms, could lead to more inclusivity when shaping peace policies and negotiations going forward, rather than this being restricted to political elites. Peace-building needs to be everybody’s business.