Communities, Conflicts and Coming Together
Alissa Wilson has a mission: to help people solve their conflicts in non-violent ways that build upon commonalities instead of eliminating them. While maintaining her sense of optimism and love of the performing arts, Wilson has traveled the globe researching and implementing the art of conflict resolution.
Expanding a set of modern dancing skills and interviewing former child soldiers may seem like disparate activities. But then again, finding common ground where none is immediately evident is exactly Alissa Wilsonís area of expertise.
"As a person whoís starting out in a career, I havenít, you know, saved whole villages," says the 26-year-old Wilson, a second-year student at The Fletcher School who has traveled the globe researching and implementing different methods of international conflict resolution. "But working with people who have, and who have done a lot of this work, and finding out what the options are for being productive in this industry, has been an amazing experience."
Wilson, a modern/Afro-American dancer who also sings in Fletcherís a cappella group (the aptly titled Ambassachords), is using her time in the classroom to put her varied experiences with organizations such as the United Nations and the Centre for Democracy and Development into perspective.
"After working out in the world, youíre really ready to sort of sit down and contextualize what youíve been doing, and just have a little bit more of a grounding for the next stage," she says.
Where both the performing arts and the art of conflict resolution are concerned, Wilson had an early start.
"My mom, who is a trained singer, trains people in conflict resolution in the private school system," says the New York native, who graduated from Amherst in 2000 with a bachelorís degree in political science. "When she brought home the conflict resolution curriculum, at first I was like, ĎOh, thatís really great, but I want to fight like a normal person!í"
Though she had always been interested in international affairs, Wilson pinpoints the "amazing and wonderful" undergraduate year she spent abroad at Londonís School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as the catalyst for her commitment to resolving conflicts.
"I lived with a woman who was from southern Sudan who had gone to Uganda as a refugee, but still had family there," Wilson says of her time at SOAS in 1998 and 1999. "I had always read about conflict and conflict resolution, but that was what really brought it home - what her family was going through."
After graduation, Wilson accompanied a former professor to a meeting of the office of the UN Undersecretary General for Children in Armed Conflict, where she "hit it off" with one of the program officers, 'Funmi Olonisakin.
"She said, ĎOh, you went to SOAS, thatís really interesting - why donít you submit a resume? Would you be interested in an internship?í" Wilson says. "I said, ĎYes, yes, yes, I definitely would!í but theyíre unpaid, so I couldnít do it immediately because I had student loans."
In the meantime, Wilson served as an AmeriCorps member at the Peace Learning Center, training third-through-twelfth graders in developing problem-solving and peer mediation skills. Her child-focused work there prepared her well for the following summer, when she took Olonisakin up on her internship offer and studied the impact of armed conflict on children.
"I dance a lot as well - between the fellowship and traveling to Nigeria, I was in a performance workshop in New York. Iím much happier when Iím doing it. Itís a good stress relief, and itís creative, and it makes me happy. The fact that Iím still trying to keep the arts alive and also doing conflict resolution kind of mirrors what my mother has done."
"I was in New York, but I worked on Northern Uganda," Wilson says. "The undersecretary general [Olara Otunnu] is actually from there, so it was interesting working on a region that he has such a connection to."
Wilson views her experiences to that point as interlinked.
"It was pretty cool: I got to do this work with kids and conflict resolution [at the Peace Learning Center], and then the next summer, I went to the UN to do children and conflict work, so it ended up building upon itself," she says.
After her UN internship ended, Wilson worked for the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis. Her responsibilities there were global in scope, and took her far from Indiana.
"I got to go to Porto el Negre, Brazil, for the World Social Forum," Wilson says. "The anti-globalization movement was really at a height then, and I wanted to know what people were doing to say, ĎOK, we donít like the system - how are we going to change it?í We went to watch and observe."
At the same time, Wilson was serving as a fellow with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University - an experience that furthered her understanding of the role philanthropy can play in alleviating crises and conflicts.
"I ended up applying for it sort of as an exploration of voluntary action for the public good, and what that means - I found out [philanthropy] was not just about giving away money," Wilson says. "I got to write about natural resources extraction industries and how they perpetuate conflict."
When her fellowship ended, Wilson contacted Olonisakin.
"Sheís Nigerian, and she had helped to start a few organizations in Nigeria and one in Ghana," Wilson says. "So I went to Nigeria and worked at the Center for Democracy Development for six months and did research on children and armed conflict."
Wilson had her work cut out for her.
"The Economic Community of West African States at that time had a child protection unit that was a few years old, but it only had one person!" she says. "Youíre talking about Liberia, Sierra Leone, the border of New Guinea - all these places where thereís all this conflict - and then Nigeria, where in most of the country thereís no out-and-out war, but there are a lot of places that are heavily militarized.
"Child protection is an extremely broad idea," she adds. "You need to protect the kids who are in a war zone, in a heavily militarized area, or just in a place where they need some support."
Right before she served as a monitor for the countryís 2003 elections, Wilson applied to Fletcher from Nigeria.
"It was my first choice because it has a really great conflict resolution program," she says.
And Wilson has utilized that program and the connections it offers to the fullest: "Last summer, I was at the Carter Center doing an internship in the conflict resolution program, focusing on West Africa, which was a really wonderful experience," she says. "With some NGOs, your organization doesnít have the cache to get invited to these upper-level meetings. With the Carter Center, because Jimmy Carter was president, we got a lot of amazing invitations."
She also met a lot of "amazing" people.
"One of the people I worked with this summer was a former freedom fighter from Zimbabwe, but now he does conflict resolution," Wilson says. "He came through a path of, ĎThis is the armed struggle that I really believe iní to thinking that working in a militarized time was no longer appropriate, that there were a number of other ways to go about things."
What sheís learned at Fletcher - where sheís on the admissions committee and for which sheís spent a lot of time doing outreach - has aided Wilson in her work with the Carter Center.
"I took a class where the midterm and the final were policy papers, and that really helped me when I had to write a strategy memo this summer," she says. "Itís wonderful to think about ideas and theories and talk about them, hash them out - definitely very necessary. But I also needed to learn how to sit down and write out how to intervene in a whole country in 10 pages!"
Wilsonís focus on conflict-ridden areas is emotionally as well as academically challenging.
"Itís been hard to hear some of the stories that people have to tell about their experiences," she says. "Iíve spoken to a lot of children in conflict and child soldiers, and it can be really difficult."
Wilsonís life is not all-work-and-no-play, however: she balances her humanitarian pursuits with creative ones.
"I dance a lot as well - between the fellowship and traveling to Nigeria, I was in a performance workshop in New York," she says. "Iím much happier when Iím doing it. Itís a good stress relief, and itís creative, and it makes me happy. And I sing in the Ambassachords at Fletcher - itís fun; weíre a good group of people. The fact that Iím still trying to keep the arts alive and also doing conflict resolution kind of mirrors what my mother has done."
Upon graduation, Wilson hopes to enter the upper levels of government, possibly in Africa. "I would like to be someone who works at the Ďtrack oneí level of government but knows about the issue of children in conflict," she says. "It is so important, especially in intra-national conflicts like the ones Iíve been looking at, to bring that knowledge to the negotiation table."
Itís not only within conflicts that Wilson hopes to effect change, however: she also hopes to do so within the conflict resolution sector itself.
"The conflict resolution sector and a lot of the upper-level government is still not a totally gender-balanced and race-balanced community," she says.
Wilson is confident, however, thanks in no small part to the people sheís worked with. "It may sound clichť, but Iíve met people who are just incredibly strong and have come through so much, more than I could ever imagine," she says.
And drawing inspiration from their strength, Wilson continues to work towards something she can imagine: "The possibility of increasing the amount of peace in communities - local, national or international - and moving those communities forward in their development."
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.
This story originally ran on Nov. 29, 2004