'Should we try to transform the world?' This question opened a seminar last month at Oxford University's Centre for International Studies. It was asked by Professor of International Relations Kalypso Nicolaïdis.
'In this Centre we try to explain the world, and this is important,' she went on. 'But we are in this world to make things happen. So we are hosting a new programme, Enacting Global Transformation, in partnership with the Theatre of Transformation Academy. In this programme you will hear real-life stories of suffering, of hope, of inspiration. It aims to bring the spirit of art and inspiration into academia.'
The Theatre of Transformation Academy was founded by Rama Mani (top picture), Senior Research Associate at the Centre. Dr Mani has worked in many of the world's conflict regions and has concluded that 'creativity, imagination and innovation in problem solving are potent tools to rejuvenate governance.'
The seminar was called 'Testimonies for Transformation in a World in Turmoil'. It began with a performance by Dr Mani, whose acting skills rival her academic standing. With quick changes of head-dress she turned herself into a series of people – a Somali tribal elder, a nuclear scientist, a Palestinian mother, a Fijian chief – whose transformation in attitude had led to creative initiatives aimed at resolving deadlocked situations.
She was followed by 15 academics and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, speaking of their own experience of transformation and its impact on their work.
Anna Brach, from Poland directs the European Security Course at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Four years ago, she said, she was 'super frustrated, bored and making a mess of life'. She decided to stop complaining. 'I discovered it was possible to change my thoughts and attitudes. Now I run courses at the Centre which aim to make people better decision-makers, and I constantly see transformation as people discover the mindsets and skills which enable them to influence the future.'
Leila Nicolas, Professor of International Relations at Lebanese University in Beirut, pointed out that testimonies can fuel extremism, or help to bring peace. Growing up amidst civil war, she said, 'I was a fanatical Christian, hating Christians of other sects, all Muslims, everyone from a different background to me.'
Then, in her early twenties, 'I realised that Jesus' message was peace, not hate and war. It was not easy to admit that my beliefs were so ugly. It took me almost 10 years to get rid of my paradigms of hate – a hard journey of awareness, shame, guilt and confession.
'Now I believe that all people deserve dignity. As an academic, I use testimonies to let students reflect on the horrors of war, and to say never again. Stories have a great effect in transforming attitudes.'
Elena Butti, an anthropologist and doctoral student at Oxford University, told of her work among urban gangs in Colombia. 'As I got to know them, I discovered we could connect. Anthropology emphasises cultural differences, but we are really trying to understand our human motivations. Their drives had led them to join a gang, which was not what I, as a middle-class Italian, would do. But I realised we had similar drives for social acceptance. Now I understand myself better.'
Ian Robertson lectured at the University of Zimbabwe for over 30 years, and his work is making a major contribution to improving crops grown by smallholders. This sometimes puts him in touch with national leaders. 'Most of us criticise leaders,' he said. 'I have decided to care for them. I take time to listen in quiet each morning, and that has been a source of many creative ideas to help the country. On several occasions I have shared an idea with an influential person, and have seen the idea implemented.'
The Theatre of Transformation Academy (www.theatreoftransformation.org) partners with organizations that pioneer personal and global transformation, including Initiatives of Change. Reports from this seminar can be seen at www.facebook.com/theatreoftransformationacademy