The Beauty Behind the Dust

By Jessica Ciccarelli

Sometimes, if you aren’t careful, you miss the beauty for the dust. I think it’s easy. You just get so preoccupied by what you see as wrong with a situation that you forget to ask what anyone else thinks and, perhaps more importantly, you forget to find the good. To me, this seems especially true in situations of poverty. The more impoverished a community is, the more unlike what is known, the more people from the outside, people like me, forget that it is still someone else’s normal, everyday life; and, that in the midst of their everyday problems, they find their own solutions to everyday issues. If only we’d zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture we’d see that there is a lot of good going on — even if it is on the periphery. This is the single most important lesson the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies contributed to my internship in Kenya this summer: We have to look at the big picture to create sustainable peace.

If you look at the two photos above, they both depict the Mathare slum community in Nairobi, Kenya. The first photo is a close-up of Mathare’s houses and the community. If you look closely, you’ll see the rusted, tin-metal of the houses and colorful clotheslines. The second photo shows a zoomed out view of Mathare. You can still see the rusted tin of the houses, but now you can also see people walking, youth working and a beautiful, community sack garden. So, it is not so much that the first photo is wrong, but that it doesn’t show all of Mathare. I was missing part, and I wouldn’t have realized how important the rest of that picture was without the lessons of the Kroc School. My professors would want me to put it this way:  In every situation there is a multitude of actors at many different levels contributing. Each one has its own role and motivations and to promote peace we absolutely must acknowledge and address all of them.

The youth in Mathare are incredible. They took my breath away each and every day they showed me their homes and community with nothing but passion and generosity. They contribute so much good to their communities — they really are changing things from the inside out. I wouldn’t have seen that quite so clearly if it weren’t for the values the Kroc School instilled in me. Values of openness, multi-level thinking, appreciation for the role of all people and all actors, and the truth that I am not now, nor should I ever be, “saving” anyone, merely playing a role and helping in a way that should eventually be no longer needed. I think you should love the people and the place you work in. But, you should love them in a way that says you understand that one day you and your love will be irrelevant, and that’s okay.

I may not have spent my summer mediating or designing peacebuilding projects, but I did carry these values of peace and justice with me all the way to Nairobi, Kenya. I carried them with me and gained so much more for it. I carried them with me and realized what it means to say we have an obligation to “do no harm.” I’ve now walked into impoverished communities in two different countries. This summer I carried the values of peace studies with me. Two years ago I did not. Reflecting back I think I was lucky the first time to have done no harm. I realize now, having spent a year intensively studying peace and justice, that if we aren’t careful it is easy to do harm and not even know it. Loving a place, a people, is a beautiful, incredible thing. It’s a gift, but merely loving them is not enough. Peace studies showed me how to use that love to contribute to sustainable peace. Thus, it is in that respect that I am indebted to the Kroc School, the staff, and the professors, for teaching me that peace is often an exceptionally bold venture championed best by the most humble of people. Thank you, Kroc School, staff and professors, for teaching me that the greatest question I can ask a community is how I can serve.

The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.