When Kara O’Brien ‘16 (MAPJ) arrived at the Kroc School in 2014, she had a pretty clear idea of what she wanted to learn. O’Brien had spent a year in Northern Ireland working with Corrymeela – a legendary peace and reconciliation center whose mission is bringing people together, and which it did with some success during the turbulent times of sectarian violence in the 1960s and ‘70s. “I was working with former paramilitary organizations and school groups who share the same neighborhood but had never associated with each other because the neighborhood is literally divided by a wall,” she says. “Northern Ireland has become an example of how power-sharing works, how a peace agreement works. And when I got back to the States I wanted to dive further into those theories and ideas.”With a concentration in conflict analysis and resolution, O’Brien’s classes included conflict mapping and peacebuilding, transitional justice, and international negotiations. That last one, she says, even proved useful in her personal life, from helping her negotiate her own pay to de-escalating disagreements with family and friends. But it was her internship with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives in Washington D.C. that put O’Brien on the path she’s followed since graduation: supporting communities beset by conflict as they work towards stabilization and transition.
O’Brien in Nigeria
A two-year stint on a project in northeast Nigeria aimed to bring returnees home from the war front and peacefully integrate them back into their communities. “We were also helping those communities with economic opportunities in areas where we found that a lack of access to resources was a real driver for recruitment into armed groups,” she says. O’Brien spent about a quarter of her time on the ground in Nigeria, working with activists, organizers, and grant recipients in a region marked by terrorism and violent political instability. “Anyone who walks into this line of work needs to be aware that it’s not your typical safe office job in some ways,” she says. “But when you’re actually in the field, it feels so much more hands-on and visceral. You get to interact with people on the ground. You’re hiring facilitators to engage in community-based discussions on topics that have never been easy to address in a meaningful way.”
In her current role as a program manager with international development contractor DT Global, O’Brien is attached to a USAID project in Sudan known as TEPS (Toward Enduring Peace in Sudan). She was in Sudan last October when the military staged a coup. After a week holed up in their hotel, she and her team were safely airlifted out. “That was probably the least secure that I’ve ever felt doing this work,” she says. But even a coup hasn’t shaken her determination or her commitment to a calling that was nurtured at the Kroc School.
O’Brien in Sudan
“It’s very hard to know how things are going to go in Sudan,” O’Brien says.” War and peace are two sides of the same coin. Because once war ends, then what do we do? We try to put in structures, confront attitudes and adjust transactions in ways that help people interact with each other in their daily lives, without having to feel like violent conflict is the only option to achieve goals or address grievances.”
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