Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy weekly podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow with the GCSP’s Global Fellowship Initiative. For the next few weeks, I'm talking with subject matter experts to discuss issues of peace, security, and international cooperation. Thank you to our listeners for tuning in, once again. Conflicts and other disasters, most manmade and natural, can still blight the lives of many. Hence the common interest we have at the GCSP and other security dedicated institutions to find solutions to these. And I must say one of the most innovative and original of the speakers that I've encountered at the GCSP is my guest on today's podcast, Dr Rama Mani. Dr Rama Mani is a transformative leader, peacebuilder, poet and performance artist whose life work and art are devoted to human and global transformation. She's originally from India. Rama Mani as a political scientist and French literature graduate, educated at Bryn Mawr John Hopkins University in the USA, and at Cambridge University in the UK. She's the founder of Theatre of Transformation Academy whose purpose is to champion and support the creative power of humanity to shape our shared future. She's the Convener of the Enacting Global Transformation Collaborative Initiative at the University of Oxford Centre for International Studies, which seeks to redefine paradigms of power and shape creative and human responses to current global crises. Both initiatives are grounded in the Theatre of Transformation art form and methodology developed by Rama, based on her 30 years of expertise in peacebuilding, leadership and governance, with inputs from diverse scholars and decision makers. Rama offers tailor made transformative performances to ignite diverse audiences to become active co-creators of our shared future. She teaches transformative leadership based on this methodology to global decision makers, including the UN Senior Leaders Program of the UN System Staff College and at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy courses for senior diplomats and policymakers. So, as you can see, she leads a very busy life in art and teaching. So, we're very grateful to welcome her to this week's podcast. Welcome Rama.
Dr Rama Mani: Thank you so much, Dr Vallet. Paul, it's great to be at GCSP and talking on the subject dear to my heart.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, I'm sure you're going to do a great job. But my first question is, of course, a very intriguing one, which I probably asked myself when I first saw you perform at the GCSP course is, how do you as a global security policymaker and practitioner and scholar get interested in the role of arts and culture?
Dr Rama Mani: Well, I'm glad you asked that, Paul, because I was shocked when it first happened to me. And I think in the beginning, I dismissed my own intuition that art matters. Because you know, when you're in the heat of working on global security, especially when you're on the ground working in conflict areas, I mean, the last thing you have time or interest in is what we think of as a soft stuff, you know, things like art and culture. And I remember only too well, the many times, you know, I was in Afghanistan on a global policy fact finding mission and would speak to the heads of the NATO mission, or the UN and talk to them about human rights. I mean, they would think human rights was soft stuff, you know, let us get the security situation in place. And then we deal with this human security, human rights. So you could imagine how far down the road art and culture might be to a global security practitioner or decision maker. So when it first hits me, that we as global security practitioners, policymakers, or decision makers, we're missing something big on that break, something could be literally art and culture. I myself was, really almost perplexed, puzzled, shocked. And the way it happened it was after my PhD, you know how it is, after your PhD you think you have not all the answers, but a good number of the answers. My PhD had been about peacebuilding and the restoration of stabilisation, after wars, genocides, especially how you restore justice, restore the security sector, etc. And after this, I go off and work across the African continent, first based in Ethiopia, then Uganda, but covering the conflicts in Africa for a major international humanitarian organisation, Oxfam, as their conflict policy advisor. So, what I'm looking for is what's the most effective way? What's the best way to change policymaking? And what should happen but as I'm going around from big meeting to big meeting with heads of state, with policymakers, diplomats but also visiting communities who've been affected by conflict, it starts dawning on me that there's something missing and it was actually in the middle of the night one night that it kind of went, Aha! It's the art. And I found myself puzzling over how could arts possibly be the answer. And the answer that came to me then which I then spent the subsequent 21 years of my life because this happened in June 2000, that I had my “aha” moment. And I've been unpacking what that means. But what hit me back then was that art offers a way to express whether it is for the victim of conflict, the perpetrator, the bystander, that hapless, you know, witness, those who express things which we as policymakers cannot do with our declarations, policy statements, laws are, what even journalists aren't able to do even with very evocative and poignant storytelling, and its art in all of its forms. And what comes with that is an understanding of the culture from within which this art is expressed, and how it is speaking to the values, the deep foundations of that culture, I posit over there. But this was really how it came to be 21 years ago, and then I really made an effort in every conflict area I worked in every crisis area to see what that might mean, to go and hear the artists to go and understand the culture, to see how that changes our way of operating in crisis when we have that understanding.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, so precisely, what is the impact and the potential contribution of arts and culture to global security?
Dr Rama Mani: Aha! I mean, it's a big one. And I could give you the short answer or the long answer. Indeed, very much to answer this question that we undertook a whole interdisciplinary research project where we were looking at the contribution of culture which we dissected into philosophy and ethics, anthropology, religion and spirituality and the art and see actually, the Responsibility To Protect was becoming this major international norm, whether it was through its active defence failed or successful, or through Responsibility to Protect in certain cases where the international community felt it couldn't do anything. So actually, with Tom Reese, a very, very well known professor was often at GCSP, very well known in the international community, who's both a practitioner as well as a great scholar of humanitarian and global governance issues, we actually looked at this issue and we look for local scholars and local artists who could from within and tell us what really matters and what should be cared about. And I myself was privileged to write the chapter on art. And in addition to directing the whole project and writing sort of the our initial understandings and our conclusions and work was absolutely astounding as when I began to put together what I had been witnessing and current conflict, after conflict and crisis zone, after crisis, or just focusing on art and that I'll come more broadly to culture, you see what a reservoir, what a treasure trove there is, which, just could maybe escape our attention, because that's not where we are looking, even when literally, it's as much in our face as the graffiti on the walls of UN missions or of peacekeeping operations, handing us what we need to see, showing us what the people are experiencing and what they want from us, we fail to recognise those messages and see that they could be guiding us in what we want to do. So in short, art can tell us what we cannot otherwise find out even through in depth analyses of that society, because it's living, it is happening then and there in front of your eyes, art is what happens in a particular way, in the situation of crisis, it can give us signs, indications that can help to guide our decision. Like it helped us to retrace our steps to re adapt our interventions, and can help us to really understand the people in whose benefit and on whose behalf, we are making deficient and intervening in the first place.
Dr Paul Vallet: Another question about impact in some ways, how has your theatre of transformation practice affected the decision makers and global security? And how is that relevant for global security?
Dr Rama Mani: Wow, I would need to unpack maybe very quickly what this could possibly mean this theatre of transformation. And I have to give a huge amount of credit to GCSP for that. Because even though it was 21 years ago, that I discovered, much to my surprise, the importance of art and culture, and made that a part of my business, my “to do” lists when I went to any country. The last thing I imagined was that I would have to take off my scholar or policymakers’ glasses and step on the other side, you step on stage as it were, and engage in the practice of art. And so, this was my even bigger surprise, and that only happened in 2013. And it actually happened literally because I was on a peace mission to Palestine, it was during the Arab Spring, I was sitting on a couple of different international boards of foundations and international organisations, which were dealing with the Arab Spring dealing with the rise of democracy and civil society. And as well as the backlash against it. And we had one of the board meetings in Jordan was the Foundation for the Future, working across the Middle East region. And from there, we went on this peace mission to Palestine. And there, what happened was a story that I heard was so powerful that the testimonies of people of what they'd experienced people have totally different ages and backgrounds, that when I came back to the University of Oxford where I was a research scholar, and ran this initiative and was asked I was your peace mission, instead of giving the kind of normal report that you and I tend to give at the end of a fact finding mission or peace mission. I don't know what came over me. But I literally started reciting some of the testimonies that I had written down and rewritten on the plane back. And when I did that, it was like a valve opened up inside me. And I realised that it was all these Palestinian stories, but literally, every story of people I'd met in all these conflicts and crisis areas around the world, and some stories in particular, not just the ones that tore my heart apart. But the ones that gave me hope, because those were the stories of the people who, despite the crisis, despite the repetition of crisis, had found a way to kind of go within transform themselves, and in that way, actually change the paradigm that was governing their society and transform their communities and societies as well. And little by little from that day onwards, which was December 2013, I began to enact more and more of these stories in the first person. And to my delight, when I did my first performance recital at the United Nations, Christian Dussey, who has been the very able enterprising and innovative director of GCSP until this this very summer, he was there at the UN and said, aha, this is really something which we need in global security. But actually, the classrooms of GCSP became my living theatre of transformation, where I would share stories relative to the topic I was teaching, but then everyone in the classroom, the diplomats, the military officers, the justice officers, the police officers, the civil society, people would step into the story apply to their context, and that was literally seeing the impact it had then and there. And thanks to that, I've been able, you know, most of my work has not been, to cultural audiences in what could I say, in theatre halls, that's been some of it. But it's really been in our settings of global security at conferences, at summits, and just seeing the impact, the transformative impact it has on people to witness real life to need a sense of oneness with these real life, people that they work with and for, but then to actually realise they have that capacity for transformation themselves as global security decision makers and practitioners.
Dr Paul Vallet: And indeed, as I told our listeners, I've seen you do it myself. And that's really something to behold to actually see you morph on the stage but also on the lecture stage too and carry with such power, the narrative and the performance of one particular story, then moving on to a very different one, which has an equally powerful lesson and see the audience spellbound, I know what you were just talking about. But of course, if much of these performances also happens in a fairly receptive environment, I had to ask you, because of course, you also lead others into the same activities. And not all performance places are safe. So, I was wondering whether you knew of instances in which violent actors attempted to suppress the art performances that reigned at peace and conciliation? And is there a way to protect the artists who are involved in these activities?
Dr Rama Mani: Thank you for asking that question. Paul. And I the two sets of answers I want to give when you asked the question immediately, what came to mind was Kosovo during the 10-year occupation period, where literally Kosovars, ingeniously and very courageously organised an alternative parallel system, totally underground. Schools went underground hospitals went underground, every service went underground, because anything you were caught doing in daylight, you were susceptible to being arrested in prison and disappeared, perhaps. Theatre and the arts also went underground. And it's amazing because you're one of the case studies we looked at in our book on the Responsibility to Protect and The Power of Art and Culture was Kosovo. So I had the real chance to meet several of these artists who were acting underground and they would talk about the extraordinary danger already if they were simply coming back from a recital or a rehearsal and caught with a page in their hands are caught with a paintbrush the danger they were in, but actually when the performance have happened underground, you know, the effect it will have on the Kosovar population. But the incredible risk each single time of being caught, whether you're an audience member or a performer yourself. So that was one that came to mind. And I'm sure there were many performances that were interrupted and disrupted and what you must know. I mean, we all know, and we've witnessed it again with COVID is my finding has been in conflict artists are the first to be targeted. You know it the poets in Algeria, you know, it was Mahmoud Darwish who had to go into exile because he was speaking for the Palestinian people. It's whichever is the art form, or whichever is the individual artists or artists most seem to be speaking the voice expressing the grief and defiance of the people, they will be the first to be targeted. This is indeed one of the reasons why you could say this propaganda art, you know, why tyrannical leaders and regimes have known, use the art as a way to gain control over the people, but also why they've targeted and destroyed artists, why they very histrionically storm into certain, you know, during Nazi regime, fascists regimes storm into certain performances and very publicly arrest beloved artists in order to spread fear. I also did apply your question to myself, you know, to see, they've been such instances in my life. And I know that they've probably been many, and they're some of them are escaping my attention. But I'm also thinking of cases where, in my own audience of whether, where people felt challenged and challenged me, and funnily enough, Paul, as you ask the question, right now, two instances came to mind, which are polar opposites of each other. One was in a university, you know, The Global College, which was established by Lloyd Axworthy, one of our great great icons of global security in the University of Winnipeg, when the least expected it was an indigenous grandmother, who was taking this course, on a Global Security and Justice with me. And she had an outburst at one point saying, I don't feel understood or something like this. And what was really important than was, I had the presence of mind, luckily, not to take it personally, not to get upset, but to create a safe space where she could explain I could understand she wasn't expressing her anger against me, you know, Rama Mani in person, because I hardly look like the coloniser that's, you know, destroyed her life and her children and grandchildren's life. But it was I was a projection of what she's experienced all this time. So, I could create a safe space where she could go through that and come out on the other side. And the other was actually it was a fabulous experience, right in GCSP, where there was a very senior Pentagon officer. And in the beginning of our process, we know where I was just as you said, you know, going from one very different story to another in different continents. And he had this real outburst in the beginning, challenging the process. And then we had a little bit of a discussion, I said, go along with it and see where it goes. And if you want to just sit back and that’s also fine. And at the end of the session, it was very touching, because he came back and he said, I really want to make a statement, that in the beginning, I felt this way. But then I realised that when one of my junior officers comes to me with an idea, I always encourage him, usually him and say, let's try it out. And I felt I needed to have the same attitude, even though this really challenged me. And I didn't like it in the beginning. And I'm really glad I went through that, because now I can really see its impact. And it's beneficial, you know, outcome for me. And for all of us. That was a great experience. But of course, I've also had times when I've been in the field, working with grassroots activists, where there is a real danger that if people outside knew what we are doing inside, we would be at real risk. And there have been some times where that has been the background against which we have been meeting and doing our work.
Dr Paul Vallet: Right. Yeah. Well, I think that leads me to my final question, and, you know, we were discussing how, of course, artists undergo a period of training and they learn their craft, and there art performers as well, too. But we're also of course, in the in the business of talking to global security decision makers. And the question is, perhaps, you know, how do you articulate the teaching of this kind of very particular kind of art, geared towards a global security to professional artists, but also to global security decision makers? And is there something we need to do differently in what we're doing at the moment?
Dr Rama Mani: I mean, the great thing for me is that I never went to art school. I didn't have to spend those years, you know, learning the craft of theatre. So if anyone tells me “Oh, you know, that's too difficult, I can't do that I didn't get trained in it”, I can say, “Hey, look at me, you know, I mean, if I was the least artistically talented person I had ever met in my life. And if I could do this than anyone can,” and what I see, to my absolute astonishment is I've never been in a setting where I've done you know, a master class or seminar or a workshop, and not seeing even the most shy, the most reticent, the most hesitant of participant, whatever they're standing or stature, step forward, and not simply step into character, step into their own desired future step into their worst enemy, their closest ally, person whose life they've saved, a person who's saved their life, a person who's changed their way of thinking about global security and conflict. Not only have they been able to do that, but they actually enjoy doing that they felt this expansion because the thing is, that why is it so important for us and why this needs to become a part of how we are, whatever, trained, taught, as in which ever part of global security, international relations we are in if the moment you realise I have the capacity, the natural capacity to become Paul Vallet, and Paul has a capacity to become Rama Mani because we can, not simply deeply hear each other, we can literally step into each other’s skins, I don't like to step into each other's shoes, because many of the people we work with or for don't have shoes to step into, you know, or they had to leave their shoes behind to escape, you know, just a few days ago that it was refugee day. So really paying homage to, to refugees, and people forced to flee all around the world, as well as those working to save their lives and protect them. So when we realise we have to step into someone else's skin, it does simply be growing humanity. But imagine you now have four pairs of eyes and you have four eyes, you have four ears, you know you're multiplying your human potential, your human capacity to respond to any situation, because just by stepping into one person, you've doubled up, so imagine if you can then step into all the different actors, the different stakeholders in our any in any security situation, you are actually at no cost, no expensive training program, no sophisticated technology, digital setup, whatever which costs thousands of millions of dollars and no extra military expenditure, you can actually develop the eyes, ears, capacities to realise to what is the best way to respond to this crisis situation that will not simply managed it, stifle it but actually conform it for the longer term.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, you know, you've been talking about the epiphany you had which led you to work this practice today. And while I hope that today's discussion will also act or many of our listeners, it's been quite an inspiration. I'm afraid, we could talk about this at length, but this is all we will have time for today. So I want to thank you very much Dr Rama Mani, for speaking with us today, it was a real pleasure. And to our listeners. Thank you, of course for joining us on this podcast. I hope you will work with her next week to hear more insights into peace, security and international cooperation. Please follow us on Anchor FM and Apple iTunes and subscribe to us on Spotify and SoundCloud. I'm Dr Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and until next week, bye for now.
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