Interview with peacebuilder John Filson: “We need to open channels of communication between parallel worlds.”

I decided to gather my favorite interviews of all times here on my website. They were spread out on various websites. Some of them are french and available on the french section of my site. This one was dates back to august 2019 as I was working with Kale M. Connor on our Worlds Studio project.


Working as a coach, I often use nonviolent communication methods to help individuals and teams improve their relationships. At some point I wondered what methods are being used on the planet to develop peace in the worst zones of conflict.

When a tribe has been killing family members, kidnapping and raping the women and children, and looting the resources of another tribe for decades, when both sides have kept killing for revenge and honor, losing sight of what caused the hatred to even begin with… How do you help them move forward and free themselves from the endless vicious cycles of pain, vengeance and conflict? How do you help them turn the page?

And what can be done about the political parties creating divides in so many countries? How do we get people to listen to each other and realize that we all have similar needs and complementary knowledge and resources? 

I see these as essential design problems which humanity needs to transcend. 

After spending some time online searching for answers, I stumbled upon John Filson’s Youtube channel, and decided to ask him for an interview. He kindly accepted, and we ended up having an inspiring, hour long conversation! 

Thanks to his channel, I learned that there is a whole field of expertise called peacebuilding. Through short videos, he shares some key knowledge on how to understand the dynamics behind conflict and peace, what seems to work, and what doesn’t. 

N.E : Can you please explain to us what Peace Studies are about ? 

J.F. : Peace studies is a cross section of social sciences, but the central thread is social conflict: How do groups of people become polarized, and ultimately violent,  towards each other? What are the strategies that people work on over long periods of time to change the dynamic of relationships between groups away from something that is harmful, exploitative and violent towards something more sustainable and life giving ? 

N.E. : How did you end up becoming a Peace Builder ? 

J.F. : I grew up in Southern California in a very diverse community but not necessarily knowing about other people’s cultures, other than interacting with kids in school. 

I think I’ve always had two traits that maybe explain my trajectory: I’ve had the ability to empathize, maybe just from my parents or church or environment, and I’ve had a strong sense of fairness. 

I used to get in trouble with elementary school teachers for talking back to them when I thought they were being unfair with a less-confident student. 

In college, I had the chance to travel in Latin America and that really opened my eyes to a much bigger world, other narratives, other ways of seeing the world, and the issues in it. 

I was hooked and I wanted to continue learning and understanding about all of that. 

I did some volunteering after college in Central America working with small farmers on development projects, trying to get better prices for their hard work. That was in Nicaragua. And then, I was able to work with homeless and runaway kids, teenagers, when I got back in Los Angeles. I learned about the social issues in my own backyard. Wanting to understand the world got me in this field. 

Why do large groups of people see the world so differently and even though we might be neighbors or interact in many different ways, why are we so far away from each other in terms of understanding the other person’s experience? How does that translate into structures, systems and society that created a situation where one person can have an easier life in many ways, at least in terms of physical needs, than many others? How does that happen? How do large groups of people come to believe an idea about another group of people that shapes their actions and behaviors towards them? Peace Studies gave me the language and the conceptual framework to talk about these issues. 

N.E. : What were the most interesting experiences in your career as a Peace Builder ?

J.F. : After grad school I worked for a relief and development agency called Mennonite Central Committee in Iraq. I was their program manager from 2007 to 2009. I was seconded to a local partner that we worked with, a Chaldean Seminary. The Chaldean church in Iraq is an eastern tradition as old as any western Christian tradition. I lived with Iraqis. There were no other foreigners that I knew or even met until my second year. 

I really saw a lot of what was happening in Iraq at the time from the perspective of the people who were not around Americans, working inside compounds or regular folks in that way. That was a great glimpse into social conflict in an active open violent situation. That led me to DC where I did advocacy work to be able to talk to our elected officials and their staff in congress and the state department and other parts of the government about what was happening in Iraq, because I had a unique perspective and continued that work for about five years. 

I was opening communication channels between civil society partners of ours who were solving problems and preventing violence and finding solutions in war zones around the world and making sure that their recommendations for what the US government can do or should stop doing, should do more or less of, to help their peacebuilding goals. 

Moderating Wilson Center Panel on the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States

N.E. : Did you feel like Congress really listened to you ? 

J.F. : I worked with the staff of elected officials and not directly with the officials themselves. What was surprising to me is that people did genuinely listen and were interested, but very quickly our agreement bumped into the wall of the vast majority of voters that don’t recognize that truth or would agree with it or support it. So it’s already a non-starter. It wasn’t so much about the elected officials being insincere or not listening, or just being lazy or stubborn. It was more that they don’t really have power. They are the sum of what their voters accept. Many try to make change from the top, but the system is not set up to make that happen. So the biggest take I learned from going to Washington is that, there is a lot of power and ego there but it’s just a reflection. The real thing that creates American foreign or domestic policies, anything the government does ultimately comes from what the collective American believes. 

N.E. : This sounds like a company who has to please its clients. 

JF : Right exactly. So that’s why I’m very interested in working with other creative strategic folks who have their eye on what is shaping our collective understanding of the world. For example, technology has always shaken things up. The steam engine, or the iPhone… The way tech is shaping things with social media or the way we communicate opens up all kinds of amazing possibilities for connecting, solving problems and doing good work, but it is also building walls. Never mind the fear mongering and the people who are gaining followers by playing into our fears and prejudices. That’s unfortunate and needs to be addressed. But what’s curious to me is the nature of the tech itself. The algorithms are designed to give you more of what you already like, so that essentially creates a bubble around your world. You hear more of people who agree with you and less of people who disagree with you. The only exposure you are getting to other views is when somebody in your group is presenting it as ridiculous, saying “look at how crazy they are!” That’s concerning because it then creates alternate parallel realities around some voter in Oklahoma living in Trump territory. I have trouble believing that those people are all old fashioned and racist and not very educated. That sounds like a stereotype of outsiders that don’t understand. There are a lot of intelligent people who, for the most part, are making rational moral judgments about the world based on the world they know. It’s not that they are crazy. It’s just that their world is so different from urban Los Angeles. What is moral in urban LA is not in Oklahoma and it looks crazy, and vice versa. I believe strongly that if we can penetrate those worlds and world views by not wasting our time and energy on frontal assaults against peoples’ intellectual defenses, the people who we think are crazy and see us that way can change their view and understand more about the limits of what they thought they knew and grow into something bigger. 

N.E. :  How did you start making videos ? 

J.F. : I left my policy work to start working on video productions in 2015. 

I know that I like communicating in creative ways and I recently studied and got involved in film productions, to be able to communicate through compelling content. I also teach Peace Studies part time at a local university in California. 

I’m combining a lot of different skill sets because what I want to do in the long term is to help people understand in practical useful ways the concepts from our field and strategies to be able to transform conflicts that they may be experiencing in their communities in a more explicit way. Because I feel like everybody experiences conflict both in their personal life and in their society and I feel like most people have an interest in reducing terrible, ugly, sometimes violent conflicts. The field that I come from has a lot of useful ideas and strategies for that. I want to be a communicator to make this accessible to a wider audience. 

I started as the low guy on the ladder just getting involved in any way I can with film making and worked my way up to having a producer role. It’s been good. 

In fact we have a documentary movie coming out this month. It’s not directly about peacebuilding but it is taking a look at what humanity is capable of when we see bigger than our differences and ourselves. It’s called When we were Apollo. This month is the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon and this film tells the story of the 400.000 technicians that no one had heard of and who were part of making that happen. We are excited that that’s going to air on public television here in the US and in some other locations. 

N.E. : Are there any documentaries you find inspiring in peacebuilding? 

J.F. : There is one that shows what grassroots reconciliation looks like in West Africa. Sometimes, I show it to my students. It’s called Fambul Tok. It means “family talk” in creole in Sierra Leone. It documents the process of some brave people in an organization that is working on grassroots forgiveness processes with victims and perpetrators from the civil war and what that looks like. I like it because it’s hard to document and share experiences of conflict. It’s all around us and we see it but a lot of it also happens in our private minds and private lives and this is a time when you can see transformation happening with people through a lot of conversations and soul searching and encounters. Around a campfire you see victims call out their perpetrator in front of the community and the perpetrator asks publicly for forgiveness. It’s an African way of reconciling a lost sheep back to the flack rather than the western system of crime and punishment.” 

N.E. : Forgiveness is often a big challenge. How can we help people understand how a human mind and how our systems work to stimulate positive change ? 

J.F. : There is a lot we can do to talk about those dynamics but the wall that everybody hits is, “ok, but everyone collectively doesn’t have the time and ability to understand these things”. In strategic peacebuilding, in the framework of “Do no harm,” Mary Anderson talks a lot about connectors and dividers and that there are natural factors in a given context that can have a dividing effect but also a connecting effect. There is an organization that emerged from her work and is still a leader on that approach: CDA, collaborative learning projects. 

There can be locations where people coming from a different world, different narratives can come to interact because of some shared interest. Marketplaces or small enterprise, businesses, where everyone wants to provide for their children. Sometimes, you can do that by collaborating with people you would not want to communicate with or that you would otherwise see as your enemy. That’s one example. Another one can be overlaps in certain aspects of identity. 

In the US there are deep divisions in terms of world narratives and world views between white and black Americans. But maybe a third factor, say a particular faith, can be a uniting aspect in which people can see commonalities rather than differences. But the same is true about dividing forces, especially in the “Do no harm” framework which was really developed to inform the work of humanitarian organizations that were working around the world trying to do good in places of conflict when they are helping people. But they may work closely or benefit one community and not the neighboring community and thereby create resentment and conflict that wasn’t there before. 

A good connector is creativity and the arts. We are rational people understanding what is happening in the world objectively but conflict often activates our irrational, subjective, emotional parts of our brain. When I say: “Israelites and Palestinians should live in peace together,” I just crashed my message against your opinion and your frontal defenses. 

If you are somebody who sees the world very differently than me, or if you have a view of the world that harms people, like if you are a white supremacist, you’re not going to get through that barrier at all because those minds are made up. 

That’s because we are communicating on the rational plane. What other methods could help that person to experience ideas or thoughts on the emotional plane, and come to those rational conclusions on their own without being told? If there were forms of communication, not even about the topic, but that could somehow plant a seed that some day challenges some preconceived notion in that person’s mind. That’s how I think we can make change in a less direct but sometimes more effective way. •

Thanks again John for this great interview ! And those who enjoyed reading our conversation… well, you may want to have a look at Morgan Freeman’s latest documentary series, The Story of Us, if you are now also hooked on the topic of peacebuilding. 😉

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