citybeat (2006-45)

UT’s new Center for International Study endorses change by promoting discussion

Photo courtesy of Save the Children

Wednesday, Nov. 1

On Youth and Political Violence

At a roundtable discussion this past Monday, a small group made up of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, politicos and other scholarly-types gathered to discuss the potential of UT’s Center for the International Study of Youth and Political Violence as a research institution. The center, which was founded in 2005 by Dr. Brian K. Barber, professor of child and family studies, and adjunct professor of psychology, purports to find ways to bring researchers, policy-makers, field workers and clinicians together, people who normally don’t collaborate.

That’s why the center has invited top-tier professors from around the world to join in this discussion. By engaging different viewpoints—and thereby tapping into new data—the hope, then, is to bring divergent ideas together, all while searching for some kind of truth in the process. In acedemia, serious cross-disciplinary discussion has never been terribly widespread.

“We hope the center’s unique focus on collaboration between researchers, policy makers, field workers and other organizations will create a model for integrating efforts in this area,” Barber says. “Through these coordinated efforts we will better understand youth experiences in political violence by facilitating cooperation between the groups who can help improve their situation.”

The center received generous funding, backed by UT chancellor Loren Crabtree, which amounts to $100,000 every year for five years.

“We were excited by [Barber’s] concept,” Crabtree says. “We challenged him to go back and cut his budget, which he did…. This very inventive notion of having conferences that deal with the regions of the world that have been torn by violence directed against youth, and sometimes perpetrated by youth. It’s a timely topic. It’s an awful topic. But it’s one we need to pay close attention to.”

Ed Cairns, professor of psychology from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, says that “in terms of the size of this problem and in terms of the number of academics that there are, only a small proportion of people are working on this problem (the physical and psychological effects on children who live in areas of intense political and military strife).”

In Northern Uganda, where children are abducted and forced to join rebel militias, psychologists have noted physical symptoms that result from psychological trauma.

The film Invisible Children features a young Ugandan who says that he feels ill when he doesn’t see blood.

“It is critical that we focus on a very important population of youth who have not received enough attention and recognition,” Barber continues. “We as a group are trying to give them their due attention. It’s a very complex endeavor to understand conflicts themselves, how cultures differ.”

For researchers like Cairns, there’s never a consensus as to the long-term effects of trauma that children are exposed to in war-torn countries. He remembers, shortly after he accepted his position at the University of Ulster, some of his colleagues would say that every child in Northern Ireland was affected by the conflict. By no small coincidence, these musings coincided with one of the worst years in Northern Ireland in terms of the deaths.

Later, Cairns noticed that some would go so far as to claim that none of the children were severely affected by the conflict.

“Very early in my career, the relationship between research and academia and real problems slapped me in the face,” chimes in Neil Boothby, a senior member of UNICEF, UNHCR and Save the Children. “[In Cambodia in the early 1980s] I saw a refugee woman shot and killed, and was absolutely powerless to stop it. She was actually trying to get back in the refugee camp having gone out trying to trade on the black market. In her satchel was about 75 cents worth of MSG.

“Listening to the Cambodian children who have lost their parents,” he goes on, “who went through a horrific holocaust-type experience and whatnot—even the way they dream, which was very much about their parents entering their life again…. They somehow existed in a state that was between life and death.

“It was very much about ritual…. They didn’t teach that part when I was a graduate student.”

Boothby participated in a 16-year study that followed child soldiers in Mozambique, individuals who were once labeled by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as “future barbarians” and “a lost generation.”

“Well, they’ve grown up,” Boothby says. “The vast majority have turned out to be good spouses, good parents and good neighbors…. It’s not always about what goes wrong in childhood, but why does something go right? That to me is a fundamental question.”

“When I listen to you all talk about the resilience of youth to move on with life, beyond the traumas that they’ve experienced,” comes the voice of a young academic, “I wonder how we can talk about this kind of resilience in terms of institutionalized patterns that continue to perpetuate the same cycles of trauma and violence.”

“Perhaps we need to redefine what war is,” says Pamela Reynolds, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. “There are wars that aren’t called wars, so they don’t get the kind of international attention they deserve. How are politics involved? What kind of trade do we do with them? Who sells them the small arms? Who actually supports this kind of militarization?”

Later that day, by pure happenstance, poet Yusef Komunyakaa would read at Hodges Library:

Something as political as dust , he writes. Say something to us dreamers …. As redemptive as a straight razor against a jugular vein .

“Interesting correspondence is already in the works. It’s going to be fruitful, that’s for sure,” Crabtree says. “It’s the wonder of the university that so many of these things fit together.”

Nevertheless, Cairns leaves us with a warning: “Sometimes when [politicians] would actually fund my work, it would be because they wanted to say that they funded research, but they rarely pay attention to the results. Getting policy makers to listen to the things I’ve been saying has been the hardest thing of all.”


Wednesday, Nov. 1

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Tuesday, Nov. 7