This post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog, “The Recovery Poet”.
I believe art has the power to save people. I believe this because it saved me.
I am an artist.
I am a poet.
I am a peacebuilder.
I am recovering.
Funny enough, art was not always something I believed in. At least not this strongly. I was a musician in high school. I did some journaling. And I even tried my hand at poetry when the season for poetry submissions came along in English class. I never saw art as something that changed anybody, even though I loved music. Band was my favorite time of day. I connected with music in a way I connected with nothing else. And on my worst days, it was how I managed to understand the world.
I’ve played my hand at drawing, music, writing, and poetry. Finally, I found my home in writing and poetry with a hint of music when I have the right instrumentation. Let’s be honest, trombones just don’t play parties alone.
I’ve always found solace in words, but I remember a time when I couldn’t even find words. Every time I started writing I spent more time scratching words out and doodling over them than I did creating anything. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to start talking about what I knew. That is what the best writing is about – what you know – and what I knew was way too complicated to start talking about out loud. Just a few years ago, though, when I ran out of excuses to not deal with it and all other means of ignoring everything, I came face to face with a type of broken I can honestly say I hadn’t yet seen. It’s one thing for the people you love to break you accidentally. Because they don’t know any better. Because they are broken too. It’s an entirely different thing to be broken by someone you love intentionally, knowingly, and oh so blatantly. That’s what should have broken me. If I’m really honest, I’m not sure I should have made it this far today. Right when I should have been permanently, irreparably broken, I found my words.
It was finding my words that started to change the way I look at the world, healing, and eventually peace.
I started to see that art has a unique role in understanding pain, struggle, and conflict. That I could really uncover the causes of my own pain and conflict by exploring my art, and ultimately that exploring my experience through art could also help other people explore theirs at their own pace, in their own way.
My journey to seriously consider the role of art in peace began here. How can we do peace if we don’t take the time to understand the underlying, innermost causes of conflict – inner and interpersonal? And how can we possibly understand the underlying causes of conflict in a community if the people in the community haven’t had the chance to understand them themselves?
I didn’t understand what I was struggling with for a long time. Art helped me figure it out in a way that was comfortable for me. Sometimes sitting down with a traditional counselor isn’t enough, and often it’s not even an option. We have to find a way to better understand and identify the causes of conflict in individuals and communities, so that we all know better how to address them.
Art let’s you explore your life and experiences both directly and indirectly, and, for those who don’t do art, seeing and discussing art can help you uncover your own struggles.
What better way to promote agency in your own understanding and healing than art? Art helped me realize I was an agent in my own life, that I had the power to deal with my problems, and that I could do it through art, when so much else had failed. This was a pivotal moment in becoming the person I am today.
The Theory Behind the Journey
Peace is both the ending of violent conflict and the removal of structures that promote violence. It is creating structures that contribute to sustainable, lasting peace. There are many opinions about how that happens, but most agree it has political, social, economic, security, and legal dimensions. My degree program broke it down into conflict analysis and resolution, human rights, and development and human security.
If you look at peace theory, it’s so clear that art has a place amongst those dimensions. The basis of conflict analysis and resolution is that to end violent conflict and create peace we have to figure out the causes of conflict. As you’ve probably seen, art has the ability to uncover and explain the causes of conflict in new and more holistic ways. It can help people realize what their own struggles are, and also help people better understand the struggles of others.
Art can revitalize local economies and promote not only short-term relief, but long term, sustainable development. It can build up local artists and artisans while bringing in art lovers, collectors, philanthropists, and business people – thus boosting local, small business to meet the increased demand for housing, food, and transportation.
It has also helped record and remember lives lost to terrible human rights abuses. It’s often helped promote reconciliation. Things like storytelling are often used as traditional forms of forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. Art is so often used for social recovery that art therapy is now a widely used tool for helping children, youth, and adults overcome horrible traumas and abuses.
The Missing Link – Why Nairobi?
Art has a role to play in each and very aspect of peacebuilding. Peace is often seen as a systemic goal, and art has a role to play in that too, but what art really does is make an intentional connection between the creation of inner, personal peace and systemic peace.
The youth I met in Kariobangi and Mathare believed so intrinsically that their everyday actions could contribute to personal and community peace. That they could build peace by saving money from their car washing business to teach children about social issues through football. That they could build peace by doing free concerts for community events and schools, so they could use their art to contribute to individual and community development, while also pushing for deeper conversations through the subject matter their art explores. That a couple of djs could contribute to peace and social awareness by creating a mix-tape that also talks about social issues during traffic jams.
The coolest things about youth in Nairobi is they’re already on a journey to connect inner peace to systemic, and they want to do it in new, innovative ways. So in some ways, they taught me, at the end of the day, that art just makes sense. If we ever want to take youth seriously, and we should if we really take peace seriously, then we have to start speaking through mechanisms that youth speak through. Youth are not only the backbone of society, but also the backbone of peace. And I know from the youth I’ve met here that I would be completely lost to try to create peace with youth without including the very voice they speak through.
For me, the lesson at the end of the day is this:
For all those without the privilege, resources, and opportunity to be heard, art is the voice. For all those too broken, marginalized, and disenfranchised to speak, art is the platform.
I hope you’ll keep following as I begin interviewing Nairobi artists who use art for social awareness, change, and peace. Stay tuned next week as I tell you about my first meeting with artists in some of Nairobi’s informal communities who are using art for peace education. It’s already been an incredible journey, and I’m so excited to see where it goes next.
I hope you’re having a fun, fulfilled, purposeful week. Until next time!
Jessica Ciccarelli, the Recovery Poet
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.