At 6 am on Saturday April 6, four Vassar students gathered in front of Main Circle to go to New York City. However, it was not just for a weekend outing to the city. The students were attending “Lessons in Peace,” a conference of psychologists and activists involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of post-Apartheid South Africa.
TRC was established in 1995 and focuses on reconciliation and restorative justice, which stands in contrast to retributive justice models employed by other international criminal courts.
The conference, held at New York University Kimmel Center, was co-sponsored by MAP–Mental Health Activists in Partnership, and New York University Postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.
The trip was organized by Stephanie George’14, who learned about the event through a family friend who was one of the principal organizers of the conference. George thought it would be important to share the event with other Vassar students, so she advertised it on Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAP) group on Facebook.
Naomi Dann’14, who found out about the event through GAP Facebook group, said “I wanted to participate in the conference because I thought it is relevant to my studies. As an independent Peace and Justice Studies major, I think about issues of war, conflict, violence and injustice in society on many different levels and from many perspectives. This conference was a new way for me to look at these issues from a psychological and personal perspective.”
Over the course of the day, two leading psychologists, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and Gill Straker, both of whom are involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, gave talks about the role of psychoanalysts and therapists in the process of political reconciliation and justice.
Gobodo-Madikizela emphasized the psychological aspect of the restorative justice process.
“The victim also needs forgiveness. It is not from moral obligation or a morally higher ground, but to come to terms with oneself, to be at peace with oneself,” she said.
She went on to emphasize that at the core of forgiveness is empathy. “It is the ability to think about the perpetrator’s mother,” Pumla said, “Contextualizing the perpetrator as a son of some other woman rehumanizes the perpetrator and makes room for empathy and forgiveness.” This ability is central to the mission of restorative justice.
Panelists highlighted where social justice and psychology met. This intersection is important not just for racial reconciliation in post-conflict societies, but also for a more active social justice paradigms elsewhere.
“How to apply the ethics of empathy strategically to aspects of everyday life for a more active social justice and peace around the globe is what the liberals should be talking about,” Melanie Suchet, the discussion mediator, stated.
Dann said, “[I] learned about a psychological perspective to think about transitional justice, reconciliation, healing from trauma, and the ways that collective trauma can be healed, commemorated, addressed and learned from.”
Krystal Cashen ‘13 said that she was pleased that the speakers at the conference attended to the role of psychology in these issues.
She said, “[I was] very excited to see that there were so many mental health professionals who were interested in learning how to apply psychology to topics of social justice. It affirmed my desire to continue the work I have begun at Vassar as I develop my career as a psychologist.”
According to Dann, the attitude of hopefulness and possibility for reconciliation was what stood out about the conference, and she was able to see the psychological aspects of the social justice issues that she had been interested and involved in.
After the lectures by the leading psychologists, the students were able to participate in small-group discussions with mental health professionals from various backgrounds.
The conference, students agreed, was an opportunity to apply their knowledge in a novel way.
Dann said, “It was absolutely wonderful to get outside of Vassar and meet other people from very different places in life (older, professionals, from various backgrounds) to talk about the issues we discuss here in classes, but in a different context.”
Cashen added, “Conferences such as this one allow students to expose themselves to different ideas and individuals from varied backgrounds that they may not be able to find on campus.”