In Perfect Harmony

USD Professor Ami Carpenter.

AMI CARPENTER’S WORK IS ALL ABOUT RESOLVING CONFLICT

It’s usually one of the first lessons taught to young children: Treat other people as you’d like to be treated. But for Ami Carpenter, an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (KSPS), this life lesson is her life’s work.

Carpenter — who teaches Analysis and Resolution of Violent Conflict, Interpersonal and Small Group Conflict Resolution and Conflict Resolution in Communities and Organizations — spends much of her time studying the way people interact with each other under immense pressure and strife. Consequently, she focuses on ways that people can more effectively co-exist and resolve conflicts.

Carpenter was born in Arkansas, the middle child of 10 siblings. “I learned conflict resolution at a very young age,” she jokes. Studying psychology and communication studies at New Mexico State University, she graduated from her master’s program lacking certainty over which career path to follow. Initially thinking she’d pursue a career as a clinical psychologist, Carpenter spent a year in the field at a counseling center but found herself burnt out after just a year. She noticed, however, that many of her clients were suffering from a lack of a very basic skill — how to manage basic conflicts. While designing a course on interpersonal conflict skills, she stumbled across the larger field of conflict analysis and resolution. She knew then that she’d found her calling.

Carpenter headed east on a full scholarship to begin her PhD work at George Mason University’s Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution in northern Virginia.

“Washington D.C. is the center of domestic and global governance, and home to an astonishing array of organizations advancing peacebuilding,” explains Carpenter. But when 9/11 happened, the focus of the world shifted, and so did Carpenter’s. Basic conflict resolution took on a new meaning, and became a concern not just in the classroom, but in living rooms and at kitchen tables across the United States.

“I think the discourse of conflict analysis and resolution took a blow after 9/11,” she muses. “It got subsumed in a national discourse that justifiably gave voice to our collective grief, but channeled it into an agenda of retaliation. We definitely started paying more attention to inter-ethnic relationships inside our own communities here at home.”

Beginning her third year at USD, Carpenter hasn’t wasted any time becoming involved in conflict resolution both here in San Diego and halfway around the world. She’s embarking on two major initiatives that put her, and USD, in the center of conflict resolution. Her efforts have drawn the attention of local leaders; in fact, she was named one of the “50 to Watch” by San Diego Magazine this year.

Now Carpenter and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice have joined forces with the San Diego County Office of Education, the City of San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention and various foundations to launch the second annual Gang Prevention and Intervention Summit. The summit, a countywide event hosted at USD, will bring together city policymakers, community and school-based leaders and organizations, law enforcement and community members in mid-September.

Throughout the summit, contributors will share information about strategies to prevent the growth of gang activity and violence in San Diego neighborhoods, promote networking among the governmental, private and non-profit organizations in San Diego County, and facilitate whole-community involvement through strategic guidance and leadership in North County, East County and five sub-regions of the City of San Diego, identifying necessary funding through multiple coordinated efforts in each area.

But her concerns don’t end within the confines of San Diego County, or even within the United States. She’s currently undertaking a long-term project studying neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Carpenter and fellow KSPS instructor Topher McDougal have begun a study that aims to understand why some neighborhoods remain largely peaceful while others suffer sectarian clashes. “We’re also interested in learning more about why some groups obtain arms to protect and defend neighborhoods, while others are armed to commit horrific atrocities in other neighborhoods,” Carpenter explains.

The primary topic under investigation is whether participatory neighborhood governance, leadership strategies and cross-cutting social networks positively impact the capacity of people to resist revenge-seeking and retribution. 

Carpenter hopes to better understand how peacebuilding functions at a very local level, through churches, trade associations, marketplaces and community dialogue groups, and how those activities can be supported to strengthen peace building initiatives around the world.

Whether it’s in the classroom, in gang-infested neighborhoods in San Diego or in war-torn cities halfway around the world, Carpenter is bringing the mission of the KSPS right along with her. — Melissa Wagoner

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