Thomas Hill is a clinical professor at the NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs (CGA) and the director of its Peace Research and Education Program (PREP), where he oversees the peacebuilding concentration within the Master of Science in Global Affairs (MSGA). A peacebuilding practitioner and researcher with more than 20 years of experience focusing on Iraq, he has made more than 30 visits there and overseen the design, development, and implementation of research projects focused on peacebuilding efforts. His applied research projects include “Enhancing Possibilities for Youth Peacebuilding at the University of Anbar” (sponsored by IREX), “Joint Certificate in Peacebuilding at the Domiz Refugee Camp” (sponsored by the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education), and “Building University Capacity in Peace Education in Duhok and Mosul” (sponsored by the United Nations Development Program).
Hill teaches a variety of graduate-level courses, including Peacemaking and Peacebuilding, the Workshop in Applied Peacebuilding, Conflict Assessment, Structures of Peace, the Joint Research Seminar in Peacebuilding, and the Advanced Joint Research Seminar in Peacebuilding. His research interests include the role of universities as actors and sites for peacebuilding; the importance of community-centered approaches to civil society-led peacebuilding; and the use of conflict analysis and assessment as tools for integrating development and peacebuilding.
The PREP program will celebrate its fifth anniversary in person on February 28 at 7 E. 12 St. at 5 p.m. (including a virtual option) with a discussion on “Decolonization in Action: Walking the Walk with PREP’s Partners.”
Tell us about the PREP program. How and why was it conceived?
PREP grew out of existing peacebuilding projects that a small team of researchers and I were leading at CGA in Iraq and Colombia. As the work became more complicated—and the size of our network of partners reached critical mass—it became clear that we needed to institutionalize our peace research and education work. It was no longer just a couple of projects, but a community of scholars, practitioners, and activists, and they needed a permanent home.
What were its goals when it began?
From the beginning, PREP has sought to catalyze higher education institutions and organizations that play higher education roles into becoming more effective peacebuilding actors. All universities have the capacity to contribute to peacemaking in their own communities and globally, but very few of them do it strategically or intentionally. PREP aims to help universities see themselves as not just providers of education and research services to their communities, but as influential stakeholders that can intentionally and constructively affect the conditions that make our societies more peaceful.
Why do you think it is important for us as a school to be involved in peacebuilding around the world?
NYU is a global institution, and NYU SPS sees itself as the part of that institution most committed to applied learning. Thus, both the University and the School have special obligations not just to teach about the theory and practice of peacebuilding, but to participate actively in equitable partnerships with like-minded learning institutions.
What has the experience of students in the program been like? What have they taken away from it?
Although PREP is not a degree-granting program, students at CGA participate in its programs as graduate assistants. They interact directly with PREP’s partners in Iraq, Colombia, Libya, Kuwait, and elsewhere. By doing so, they learn about the very context-specific nature of peacebuilding and begin to see themselves as part of a global community of peacebuilders.
Can you tell us briefly about its participatory action research approach?
PREP believes strongly in the idea that peacebuilding work has to be undertaken in a spirit of true collaboration if it is going to be successful. So, participatory forms of research—where partner organizations lead the establishment of research agendas and priorities, and determine the contours of most research activities—are the only ones that really make sense to us. Any meaningful peace research must include an action component or it isn't really serving the community or society where it occurs.
You are commemorating PREP’s fifth year on Feb. 28. What has changed over the years?
PREP has changed a lot in five years. In the beginning, our network of partners was much smaller. By the middle of this year, we'll be working in six countries, with more growth anticipated. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited our activities for almost two of those years. We learned during that time how to overcome limitations on travel and in-person meetings, while at the same time rediscovering the truth that peacebuilding needs face-to-face contact in order to catalyze true transformation.
What have been some of the successes and challenges?
Our entire team at PREP is immensely proud of our attention to building and sustaining our research partnerships and watching as our partners have grown and deepened their work. The greatest challenge continues to be access to resources. Although we have had some success in fundraising, building a long-term sustainable foundation for PREP remains an aspiration.
What's next for the program?
PREP is committed to expanding its network of learning institutions, and supporting them in using research and education as mechanisms to strengthen peace. I would like to think that in 10 years, PREP could be the hub of a much larger global network of higher education institutions committed to fostering peacebuilding through participatory research and education.