story of the people

a place for peace: our space between stories

the space between... image:  Jonah Allen Photography

the space between... image: Jonah Allen Photography

I was fired on a Friday afternoon.

After seven years of purpose-driven existence and prideful self-identification as the girl the UN-mandated University for Peace couldn't get rid of - first a masters degree, then an editing gig, and now a bit of teaching and a doctorate program I'm a year from finishing -  I was fired.

In a three-line email.

Written by a woman I've never met, to inform me of a decision made by an ad hoc committee she now chairs, which was thrown together in the aftermath of a mass faculty exodus when few professors had contracts just months before the start of the new academic year.

After seven years of fighting for more democratic, transparent processes of decision-making and power-sharing; of bearing the consequences of a visionary university in need of saving from its contrived yet crippling financial crisis; of keeping the dream alive in classes where students are taught to be the change they wish to see in the world, there I was, sitting in front of my email inbox, just another throw-away casualty of the UPeace nightmare I had grown accustomed to, and had tried to rise above.

We all had. Not because we liked a good challenge or found meaning in a martyr-like crusade of fighting the good fight to finally transform an institution mired in structural hypocrisy from the start, into the type of place we knew it had the potential to become, so it could somehow live up to its powerful name as a true University for Peace. By now, we knew better than to believe that dream still had a chance in hell. No, we had given up on that sort of futile future long ago. We stayed, because each year, despite the circumstances, 150+ students from all over the world would show up, inspired to learn, share, dream, create and enact visions of a more beautiful world. Each year, women with willpower and men on a mission would come to study at UPeace, drawn in droves to the place that seduced us all in our shared passion for peace and hope, and that we, as former students, staff, and faculty now held the responsibility to uphold. That, and the steady salary, of course.

I could go on, as courageous friends have already done, about the structural injustices at the heart of UPeace and our collective discontent. I could talk about undemocratic power and decision-making arrangements, outdated fundraising approaches, lack of transparency in high-level deliberations, eggregious inequalities in salary distribution, non-existent processes for dialogue, communication and conflict transformation. I could even add my own slew of scathing criticism on crony-style dealings in university administration, a constraining yet binding name-sake affiliation with the United Nations, an entity whose own peace record is dubious at very best; and of course, my favorite, a dictatorial figure-head director who continues to make six figures including benefits, and travels around the world in often fruitless attempts to fundraise for a university he's driving into the ground, while higher-up administration - who also make a hefty penny - try, impossibly, to maintain morale among an increasingly disillusioned faculty and staff by continuing to preach the tired mantra of "this university is in crisis!" - in other words, shut up and do as you're told, because you're lucky to even still have a job. Ah yes, the power of a salary to inspire and shackle the complacency of the masses, of people like me. Of course, I've been complicit in this peaceless drama for nearly a quarter of my life, staying the course instead of walking away. The judgment I pass here lives on in my own guilty conscience.

I could go on, but I won't. I'll take the high road and keep it short and sweet. Because it really is that simple. And it comes down nearly entirely to what spirituals and intellectuals are now calling our 'space between stories'. This moment in our collective social history when the pieces of the old story we once wrote and read as real no longer ring true, and the new ones are beginning to unite us in an emergent process of coalescence into all that's yet to be. The new story of the people, as spiritual economist Charles Eisenstein calls it.

As the old story unravels through powerful moments of disjuncture in our own personal journeys of change, the new one finds strength in an uncertain future, a coming into being representative of a fresh set of shared social ideals, values, beliefs, practices and ways of being in the world. And in this in-between, as many of us are experiencing as we speak, we are forced to confront - often uncomfortably - the old-story patterns and structures, values and institutions that aren't made to fit the new story of the people. It's not that they're evil or intrinsically bad, but rather that they no longer represent a vision of reality we can all embrace as our own. And UPeace, as I see it, for all its turmoil and beauty in pain-staking contradiction, is no less and no greater than a living, dying microcosm of this transient moment in time: our shared space between stories.

As we step further out of the old story and into the uncertain blossoming of the new, we come to a deep realization that I often find challenging to accept, no matter how clear it has become. Institutions mired in the old-story structures and modes of interrelating that new story identities have increasingly outgrown - places like the University for Peace - these places were never meant to survive the transition into the new story. These places weren't built to hold the dreams they inspire in the dreamers they nurture who aren't afraid to be different and do better than all that's come before.

These places, places like the University for Peace, aren't meant to be saved.

They are meant to die.

Because they can't live up to the vision, values, beauty and magic in the type of possible worlds already in the process of creation and coming into being.

UPeace is a paradox in terms, yes. Inspiring the new, yet stuck, immovably, in the old. Its hope for transformation has passed. So I say, instead of fighting to save it, why not let it die? Let it burn with the pages of the old story, so that volumes more beautiful can emerge from its ashes, from among the flames in the hearts touched by its fire, glowing in embers of anticipation, innovation, creation, inspiration. Just waiting to catch a spark.

Contemplating life after UPeace, that's the vision I walk away with, of embers and ashes sparking flames of creation. Of crumbling walls and shoes that don't fit, of dreamers and do-ers standing and working together in spaces strong enough to hold us, cultivating ways of being that honor our new story and the patterns of living that make life beautiful. Places where people aren't numbers and respect is earned through compassion and connection, not commanded from positions of paid-for authority. Where power rests in our ability to step fully into our gifts, share them through our work, and direct our energies toward a common good. We may walk barefoot for a while until our new-story shoes fit well enough to wear, until they are beautiful and strong enough to support us along the journey.

UPeace, I am at once proud and ashamed to have held you in my spirit for so long. Proud for having been part of a vision for peace and a player in inspiring others to imagine and create the more beautiful futures we know our planet and her people deserve. Ashamed to have half-followed orders and stayed the course in an institutional infrastructure unfit for the majesty of its own name.

UPeace, I thank you for being my halfway-home between stories for seven years of my little life.

UPeace, I love you, I honor you, I salute you.

And now I hope you die.

...Peacefully, and in your sleep, of course.

*All statements expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.