Making Peace: A Q&A with Emily Welty

Dyson Professor and Director of Peace and Justice Studies on the NYC Campus, Emily Welty, PhD, discusses her experiences with conflict and peacemaking both abroad and right here on Wall Street.

Emily Welty, PhD, is no stranger to conflict—well, studying conflict, that is. She recently completed a major research project that served as the basis of her doctoral work, during which time she spent a year in Uganda and Kenya observing the faith-based peace building by nongovernmental development organizations, the Mennonite Central Committee in particular. Welty is also part of a seven-year advisory board with the World Council of Churches, where she works to help churches think about how to engage in international affairs, peacemaking, and social justice.

Most recently, Welty collaborated with fellow Pace faculty members including Matthew Bolton, PhD, Meghana Nayak, PhD, and Chris Malone, PhD, on a book entitled Occupying Political Science: The Occupy Wall Street Movement from New York to the World. The book, which will be published in January 2013, focuses on how political science helps to explain Occupy Wall Street and what Occupy Wall Street demonstrates about political science. Welty’s research examines the different ways nonviolent tactics have been used by Occupy Wall Street.

You address peacemaking from several different perspectives, but your specialty is the “religious dimension of conflict and peacemaking.” Why do you suppose religion plays such a crucial role and what have you learned from your personal research experiences?
Conflict affects everyone and often many of the dynamics that make conflict feel particularly uncomfortable is that it calls into question central, core parts of our identity or worldview. Globally, we see many conflicts both internationally as well as domestically that involve core tenets of people’s identity. Faith, religion, and spirituality represent core identity tenets for many people— they are among the nonnegotiable aspects of our personal identity. So, when that identity is challenged, it is particularly difficult.

I first became interested in studying religious dimensions of peacemaking because I was frustrated by the way that religion was often blamed for causing conflict. My experiences living and studying in Palestine/Israel, South Africa, and Northern Ireland as a Watson fellow made me realize that religion is a force for both conflict and peace. In all three of those cases, religion has been used by parties to justify violence but there have also been tremendous voices for peace coming out of the religious groups. I find religion fascinating—the more I learn about the strong peacemaking and social justice traditions in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, the more interested and excited I become about the power of religion to be a force for peacemaking.

What is one surprising or unexpected thing you’ve learned while conducting your research?
I feel really strongly about the importance of approaching research with both passion and curiosity. It is more important to know how to ask good questions and listen than it is to try to be an expert or tell people how to do things. I think I bring this same sensibility with me into the classroom. My students have wonderfully rich personal experiences that they bring with them to Pace; I see my role here as helping them to think about their own story by using peace and justice studies theory.

I have also been continually surprised and grateful for the hospitality I have been offered in almost every context that I have worked. Many religious traditions refer to the tradition of offering hospitality to the stranger and I have seen that in practice throughout my work. Throughout my research in East Africa, dozens of Ugandans, Kenyans, and North American volunteers spent hundreds of hours with me sharing their story. That kind of abundant generosity is humbling and an enormous privilege. As a researcher, having so many people help you in so many ways, means you must produce the finest quality work to honor them.

What do you hope to gain or learn by continuing research into conflict and peacemaking?
My larger goal is to help the process of peace and justice studies become part of the mainstream curriculum at universities—it is a wonderful interdisciplinary field and so many different disciplines have much to offer.

In my own research, I hope to continue to understand how contemporary faith traditions can draw on their own cherished traditions in order to end the suffering of others. I am very inspired by so many of the people I meet around the world who are practicing nonviolence and making enormous sacrifices for peace—I see my role as a researcher as helping to tell their stories. I want to change the perception that religion is a cause of conflict.

Do you have any other research plans for the future?
I am getting ready to leave for a trip to Sri Lanka and Myanmar/Burma to speak to several religious leaders about reconciliation. While most of my research has been international, I am interested in looking at the role of religion in social justice movements here in New York City as well. There has been intriguing work by faith leaders involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement that I would like to examine further.