February 27, 2023

CGA Graduate Student Spotlight: MSGA in Peacebuilding’s Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson is studying in the MS in Global Affairs program at the NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs (CGA), where she is a graduate assistant in the NYU Peace Research and Education Program (PREP). She assists on the “Municipal Leaders Building Peace” participatory action research project that engages two partner organizations: RESURPAZ in Colombia and Moomken in Libya. PREP, led by Clinical Professor Thomas Hill and Associate Director Katerina Siira, commemorates its fifth anniversary on February 28.

Johnson’s research interests are in gender, the mitigation of sexual violence, and sex education. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Global Studies and Spanish at La Sierra University in California, where her undergraduate thesis emphasized the religious and social influences of Latin American culture on teenage pregnancies in Latin American women. She served as an English literacy tutor for Spanish speakers in her hometown of Riverside, California, and translated documents and interpreted for asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in Blythe, California.

How did you get involved in the PREP program?

I had known for a long time that I wanted to get my master’s degree in international affairs. NYU offered me even more: the chance to study peacebuilding and international development. I was immediately drawn to the peacebuilding concentration headed by Dr. Hill. He often used examples from his work in PREP in our peacebuilding class. When I heard that PREP was looking for a Spanish-speaking graduate assistant, Dr. Hill encouraged me to apply, and I’m so glad I did!

Talk about your experiences at PREP and your research activities.

Working at PREP is like taking a very dynamic class. I’ve learned so much in my short time there. Katerina has been incredibly helpful in guiding me through my work. She has shown me how peacebuilding processes work for each of our partners, explained participatory action research (PAR), and even showed me a songbook containing folk songs for peacebuilding and community from FUNRESURPAZ, one of our partners.

The PREP team is currently working on ways to understand and measure relationships and trust. One topic I am looking at is how we measure trust between teams and individuals. If forming collaborative relationships is a sign of success in peacebuilding, then we must figure out how to measure relationship strength. But we must also understand that one team’s definition of success is not the same as another’s, so research is constantly evolving. There’s no “one size fits all” research methodology, so adaptability is key.

What insights have you gained from being involved in PREP?

I’ve learned a lot about peacebuilding during my time at PREP! One of the first projects I worked on introduced me to inclusive pedagogies such as PAR. Outsiders like myself need to let local actors take the lead. They have insights and knowledge that allow them to understand better the nature of the violent conflict, which they’ve often been immersed in for years, or even decades. One concept I discussed with some leaders from FUNRESURPAZ is that “la gente no sabe que sabe”—the people don’t know what they know. Using inclusive teaching practices that make everyone a learner and everyone a teacher allows us to uncover hidden knowledge that helps us to better understand each other, violent conflict, and how we can approach it dynamically.

How do you think these peacebuilding activities will help you—or society—in the future?

Working and learning with PREP has changed how I perceive the peacebuilding field. One of the most important things that stuck with me is the emphasis on decolonization. Peacebuilding, historically, has had deeply neo-colonialist undertones, which have guided western understanding of the practice. This kind of paternalism, which ignores the knowledge and culture of local actors, can grind peacebuilding to a halt and even further damage relationships. Knowing when to step back and let others take the lead is incredibly important in peacebuilding. Even well-intentioned actions have consequences, and the best thing I can do is correct my mistakes, forgive myself, and keep listening and learning.

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