Article on Community Arts and Conflict Resolution

Integrating Community Arts and Conflict Resolution: Lessons and Challenges from the Field

written for community arts net, clickhere

Within the field of community arts, many arts-based practitioners may become involved in work in conflict-affected settings both domestically and internationally. Examples might include creating a theater project with youth in a post-conflict divided community, providing refugee communities a safe artistic space for creation and healing, and organizing musical concerts to bring communities together in areas of conflict. Given that community arts-based practitioners often become involved in work involving conflict issues, there are valuable lessons that can be drawn from the conflict-resolution field. I do want to caution that it is beyond the scope of one brief article to adequately cover the breadth and depth of the conflict-resolution field; therefore, throughout this piece additional resources will be highlighted.

Over the past two decades, conflict resolution has blossomed as an independent field of practice, theory and research.

Over the past two decades, conflict resolution has blossomed as an independent field of practice, theory and research. Conflict resolution is a multidisciplinary endeavor that draws on relevant theory and practice from sociology, psychology, international relations, labor relations, law and economics, and from emerging work by practitioners and scholars within the discipline.[1] The central goals of conflict resolution, regardless of the particular disciplinary approach or frame used, are to develop a greater understanding of the sources and dynamics of conflict and to develop and implement more effective responses to preventing, managing and reducing the effects of conflict.

As the field has developed, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of practitioner organizations, academic journals and undergraduate, graduate and professional education opportunities, within the United States and around the world.[2] Although many individuals enter careers directly as conflict-resolution practitioners in community nonprofits, the federal government and international organizations, an increasing number are bringing the skills into other sectoral areas, such as health, education, public policy, the media, humanitarian relief and international development.

The Conflict-resolution Field

When most people think of conflict resolution, one of the first images that come to mind is a mediator helping two individuals or groups in conflict to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome to a problem with relationship and/or resource dimensions. Mediations can take place within community mediation centers in the United States, in the business sector, in workplace disputes or in international settings. While mediation is one area of practice, the conflict-resolution field is much broader and can involve processes such as facilitation, dialogue, cooperative problem solving, peace media, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, among others.[3] These processes can be used in diverse settings ranging from a dispute within a community, such as where to build a community park in a community in the U.S., to helping to promote reconciliation between divided communities in post-conflict settings such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One of the challenges in the field of peace and conflict resolution is that to date there is no unified terminology. For this article, we have chosen to use the term conflict resolution as a catch-all term to refer to the broad field of associated processes, practices and theories connected to conflict work. Others may use more specific terminology, such as peacebuilding, conflict transformation, conflict prevention, conflict management, conflict mitigation, conflict reduction, cross-sectoral conflict work and conflict sensitivity.[4]

One of the core assumptions of conflict-resolution work is that it is possible to transform conflict from an adversarial approach where groups in conflict either see each other as the problem or focus on their differences. Through appropriate processes and skills it is possible to move to a more cooperative approach that allows the parties to focus on the issue rather than each other and facilitate their working together to resolve the issue in a way that meets their fundamental interests.[5] This is not to indicate that this is an easy process, but it is often possible through long-term work that addresses multiple levels of society.

Conflict resolution is increasingly being mainstreamed into educational activities, economic-development programs, refugee assistance and public health.

While conflict resolution can be conducted as an independent process, in recent years it is increasingly being mainstreamed into other areas and sectors, such as educational activities, economic-development programs, refugee assistance and public health. This trend is called conflict mainstreaming.[6] One reason for this change is the realization that conflict often undermines the economic and social development that must take place to build peace long-term.[7] Integrating or mainstreaming conflict resolution across sectors does not necessarily mean that all programming should become conflict-resolution- or peacebuilding-focused, as this depends on the particular goals and context of each situation.[8]

For example, instead of a stand-alone microfinance program to help improve the economic situation for Bulgarian and Roma populations in Bulgaria, a program may also integrate a conflict-resolution approach to help improve relations within and between the communities. This can be done through joint economic activities, promoting dialogue about the future of the community and other similar means. Another example involves a theater-and-education project in Bosnia-Herzegovina that not only sought to help integrate drama techniques into the classroom, but also worked to promote conflict resolution by involving youth and educators throughout the country in addressing conflict-related themes.[9] Community arts-based practitioners working in conflict-affected regions might find it useful to examine how conflict-resolution processes and goals can be integrated into their existing projects and to view this approach as a continuum of possibilities.

Who is Responsible for Conducting Conflict-resolution Work?

Throughout the world many organizations are directly or indirectly involved in conflict-resolution work. There are an increasing number of organizations that focus their primary work on conflict-resolution issues within the United States and internationally. Many of these organizations are located within the civil-society sector and are composed of nonprofits. These range from grassroots organizations, such as community mediation centers, to international nonprofits, such as Search for Common Ground,[10] which has offices in more than 15 countries, to governmental institutions such as the Conflict Management and Mitigation unit of the United States Agency for International Development[11] or the United Nations Development Program.[12] In addition to organizations that primarily focus on conflict issues, there are also numerous organizations such as Mercy Corps, World Vision and the International Rescue Committee that traditionally focused on long-term economic-development, gender, agriculture and refugee relief, but recently have begun to integrate a conflict approach into their work.

An increasing number of organizations have begun to recognize the value of using culture and community-based arts as one tool in their conflict-resolution methodology.[13] For example, Search for Common Ground has used theater as a tool for engaging communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has brought together leading musicians from different sides of the conflict to compose and perform songs for peace in Angola, Macedonia and the Middle East. CARE International and the Center for Drama in Education in Bosnia jointly organized a multi-year theater and education project that sought to integrate theater into classrooms and communities, while also explicitly working across the conflict divide in Bosnia.

In addition to using the arts in conflict resolution, a number of organizations also use community-based arts-therapy approaches to help communities and individuals heal from the effects of conflict. For example, War Child[14] is well-known for providing creative art therapy processes to help communities in Bosnia, Kosovo and other locations around the globe heal from the trauma of war.

One of the core models within conflict resolution that has relevance for community arts-based practitioners is that of Multi-Track Diplomacy.

One of the core models within conflict resolution that has relevance for community arts-based practitioners is that of Multi-Track Diplomacy developed by John McDonald and Louise Diamond from the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy.[15] They stress the diverse range of actors[16] and processes that should be involved in conflict-resolution work including the following: 1) government, 2) nongovernmental, 3) business, 4) private citizen or individuals, 5) research/education, 6) activism, 7) religion, 8) funding, 9) media (including the arts). In order to move toward peace it is critical to involve as many sectors as possible in conflict resolution. Artists involved in community-based work might also find this model useful for exploring how to improve their collaborations across sectors.

The Importance of Analysis

One of the core steps in any conflict-resolution process is conducting a thorough analysis of the conflict context. There are numerous models and approaches to analysis, with most focusing on examining the sources of the conflict, the parties involved, the dynamics of the situation and possible areas of intervention. Based on the analysis (which should involve at least to some degree a participatory approach with local actors), an appropriate conflict-resolution process can be designed. Many conflict-resolution scholars and practitioners caution against adapting a one-size-fits-all approach to conflicts and emphasize the importance of understanding the particularities of each situation.

An analysis can also help identify the current stage and level of violence in a conflict. For example, is the conflict escalating and moving to increasing levels of violence or has the violence ended and are the parties beginning to move toward reconciliation? Based on the particular stage of conflict, ranging from discussion to destruction, an appropriate response can be developed.[17]

Arts-Based Conflict-resolution Approaches

The specific arts-based process may not directly address the substance of a conflict, but may facilitate increased understanding and interaction among conflicted parties.

The range of arts-based activities conducted by international and local conflict-resolution organizations and artists is quite diverse. A project may directly intervene in, or address the substance of, a particular conflict in a community. Arts-based processes such as theater can help groups to explore specific conflicts from multiple perspectives and envision alternative possibilities,[18] or they can bring together groups that are in conflict to address the relational aspects of conflict. The specific arts-based process may not directly address the substance of a conflict, but may facilitate increased understanding and interaction among conflicted parties. Some efforts are more activist in nature and challenge existing and unfair social orders, while others aim to help individuals and communities deal with the potentially traumatic effects of conflict. The various approaches are summarized below:[19]

Arts for Peacebuilding – Largely based on community arts in which groups from different sides of a conflict are gathered together to conduct joint artistic products, sometimes focusing on the conflict.

Social Protest Art – Although this does not fit within a traditional model of peacebuilding, this type of art is often used during higher stages of conflict. Through artistic processes, individuals seek to resist and protest against violence through cultural means.[20]

Creative Therapies – Processes largely focused on promoting individual level healing of individuals who have suffered because of conflict and/or trauma.

While it is unlikely that community-arts processes have the ability to halt the violence of severe conflict or directly address the more structural and economic components of conflict, it is clear that they can play an important role in building relationships between groups in conflict, fostering reconciliation, healing and much more. As William Kelly, a community-arts practitioner from Australia, eloquently states, “It is my previously stated belief that although a painting can never stop a bullet, a painting can stop a bullet from being fired.”[21]

Key Lessons from Conflict Resolution for Arts-Based Practitioners

Ten thousand Burundians came together in a peaceful demonstration to celebrate their traditional culture during the Sangwe Peace Festivals, organized by Search for Common Ground to symbolize that peace was returning to Burundi. Photo courtesy of Susan Koscis, Search for Common Ground

Click for slideshow

As the field of conflict resolution has evolved in recent years, we have been able to more clearly identify what contributes to successful practice and explore current challenges. In this section, several areas that may be of interest to arts-based practitioners will be highlighted.

The Importance of Collaboration

In order to achieve significant results, practitioners in the conflict-resolution field have expanded their collaboration efforts within and across fields. Although this can be challenging given the competition over limited funding, the logistical challenges of facilitating collaboration and competing agendas, the field has made significant strides in this area. Within the U.S., the Alliance for Peacebuilding was established in 2001 as an effort to increase the collective voice and impact of organizations working in the international arena.[22]

In order to achieve significant results, practitioners in the conflict-resolution field have expanded their collaboration efforts within and across fields.

At the practical level for community-arts practitioners, partnerships might involve a number of areas. First, in some arts-based and conflict-resolution projects, professional artists have teamed with conflict resolution practitioners to develop programming. For example, in Vukovar, Croatia, destroyed during the war, a community photography project was initiated to have Serbian and Croatian youth document various aspects of their town and mount joint exhibitions. Given the escalated nature of the conflict and the need for concrete photography training, the project provided both a professional conflict-resolution person and a photographer to work with the youth.

Evaluation Matters

One of the challenges that the conflict-resolution field has faced is a failure to document the impact of our work. To date, much of the evaluation work has been anecdotal in nature, consisting of narrative stories about the outputs and outcomes of our work. In recent years there have been increasing efforts to build rigorous design, monitoring and evaluation (DME) procedures into all aspects of our work. This is necessary for several reasons. First, funders are demanding accountability. Second, in order to build our credibility with external actors, we need to be able to document not only the short-term results of our work, but also the long-term impacts. Of course this is challenging in a real-world conflict setting, where there are multiple interveners conducting processes that may or may not be coordinated.

The issue of attribution in determining the contribution of a particular effort to a particular outcome is challenging, but more effort is being expanded in this area. There have been especially innovative efforts by the Reflecting on Peace Project from the Collaborative Development for Action, which uses a bottom-up methodology to look at impact, and by Search for Common Ground, which produced a handbook on DME in 2005.[23]

In academic training programs, many universities have begun to offer classes and practical training in evaluation techniques, realizing their graduates need to develop these skills in order to be competitive in the job market and also to help build the credibility of the field. In relation to community-arts practitioners, developing and integrating appropriate evaluation procedures throughout the project life cycle is critical.

Dealing with Stress/Trauma and Self-Care

Given the high-stress situations many individuals place themselves in, particularly those working in international conflict situations, the field has done a very poor job of addressing the importance of self-care. Most helping professions ranging from social work to psychology have well-established systems of self-care, in terms of peer support groups, mentors and training provided in instances of burnout and secondary trauma. As a field, we are just beginning to incorporate these concerns into our practice.[24]

Practitioners may rush individuals to engage in processes without providing adequate space, time or care for communities to heal.

An additional challenge is that many conflict practitioners, particularly those working in violent or post-violent conflict settings are often working with individuals who have been exposed to traumatic incidents. While exposure to trauma may not lead to emotional or mental-health challenges, there is a potential risk. At times, conflict-resolution practitioners may rush individuals to engage in processes without providing adequate space, time or care for communities to heal. Moreover, they could potentially do harm if they push for a community to engage in a process when they may not be ready.

In order to begin addressing issues of self-care and dealing with trauma, several universities have begun to offer courses in this area and there are some short-term training programs. In addition, it may also be appropriate to work in partnership with mental-health professionals. For example, in one month-long dialogue project with youth from a conflict-affected region in the Caucasus, a team consisting of conflict-resolution trainers also included a social worker specializing in youth issues.

For community-arts practitioners working in conflict-affected regions, developing awareness of trauma and strategies for self-care and working effectively with others is critical. This may need to be done through partnerships with local and international mental-health professionals, if appropriate.

Avoid Parachuting In/Long-term Commitment

Often in situations of conflict or post-conflict there is a mad avalanche of organizations that rush in seeking to help.

Often in situations of conflict or post-conflict there is a mad avalanche of organizations that rush in seeking to help. While many organizations have good intentions, funding also is an attraction. Ethically, conflict-resolution organizations should examine what type of long-term commitment they are making to a region. There are many organizations/individuals that may parachute in and soon leave, even repeatedly, and while this can have benefit, truly effective solutions must involve long-term action commitment and work by both local and international actors. That may not always be feasible given international funding constraints and other obstacles, but ideally, long-term thinking should be part of the process.

For community-arts practitioners, it is important to explore levels of commitment to a community and the potential danger of not meeting expectations raised by their involvement. This can be addressed largely through transparency and clarity about the scope of work and clear discussions with local partners.

Do No Harm

Within conflict resolution and international development, the concept of Do No Harm has developed over the past decade, largely through the work of Mary Anderson. As Anderson explains, “When given in conflict settings, aid can reinforce, exacerbate, and prolong the conflict; it can also help to reduce tensions and strengthen people’s capacities to disengage from fighting and peaceful options for solving problems.[25] Instead of seeing conflict-resolution activities as a process that neutrally seeks to promote peace, it is important to see that outside interventions in conflicts can have unintended negative outcomes. They could come from introducing resources that leads to increased competition, through imposing culturally inappropriate processes, through legitimizing one group over another, through poor staffing decisions and many other factors. (Anderson, 1999). Careful conflict analysis and ongoing monitoring, as well culturally diverse staffing, transparent decision making processes, culturally diverse staffing and the inclusion of relevant stakeholders will make it easier to minimize potential negative outcomes.

Grounding Work in Local Contexts

In order for conflict-resolution work to be effective, it should be built on local realities and be participatory in nature.

While outsiders can make valuable contributions to conflict-resolution work, it is vital that local peacebuilders and civil-society activists have a strong say in developing activities. Much of international development work (including some conflict resolution) has had a strong power imbalance, with outside experts coming in to help train, educate and work with locals. However, in recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on collaborative partnerships based on local contexts and culture. In order for conflict-resolution work to be effective, it should be built on local realities and be participatory in nature.

A more recent trend has also been increasing reliance on interactions directly between conflict-region exchanges, where individuals from one conflict region may share their experiences and expertise with other conflict regions. For example, Initiative for Inclusive Security has helped foster linkages and connections with women peacebuilders across conflict regions, bringing together women from Sudan, Colombia, Iraq and other regions.[26]

For community-arts practitioners, the importance of participatory approaches and basing processes on local cultures is well established. There may be room to improve practice, as well as explore further the idea of building further south-south exchanges.


Throughout this article I have sought to provide a brief but useful description of the field of conflict resolution and possible lessons for arts-based practitioners. It is clear that both fields are expanding in their scope and impact. The two fields of practice are natural allies, and together they can be stronger. Developing increased linkages between the two fields (and with other sectors) could bring significant benefit.

Craig Zelizer, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor in the M.A. in Conflict Resolution within the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His areas of expertise include working with youth from violent conflict regions, civil-society development and capacity building in transitional societies, program evaluation and design, working on conflict sensitivity and mainstreaming across development sectors, and arts and peacebuilding. He was one of the co-founders and a senior partner in the Alliance for Conflict Transformation, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to building peace through innovative research and practice.You can contact him through the ACT Web site.


[1] There are many useful texts on the field and include the following: Miall, H., O. Ramsbotham & T. Woodhouse, Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformations of Deadly Conflict (Polity Press, 2005); Lederach, J.P. & J.M. Jenner,, A Handbook of International Peacebuilding: Into The Eye Of The Storm (Jossey-Bass, 2005). See also Web sites CR Info,; Alliance for Peacebuilding,; the United States Institute of Peace,

[2] The Alliance for Conflict Transformation,, can provide useful information on the field, practices and educational and career opportunities. A report on careers in the field, Zelizer, C. & L. Johnston, “Skills, Networks & Knowledge: Developing a Career in International Peace and Conflict Resolution” (Alexandria, Va.: Alliance for Conflict Transformation, 2005) can also be downloaded for free.

[3] For an overview of various approaches to building peace through diverse processes see the text: Van Tongeren, P., M. Brenk, M. Hellema & J. Verhoeven (Eds.), People Building Peace II. Successful Stories of Civil Society (Lynne Reiner Publishers, 2005).

[4] The online training program on intractable conflict provides a useful glossary of key terms. See

[5] Adapted from Search for Common Ground, Also see the classic text by Fisher, R., & W. Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin Classics, 1994).

[6] International Alert, a leading peace and conflict nonprofit, has produced several publications on conflict mainstreaming, in which they also use the term conflict sensitivity. For more information see

[7] See Anderson, M., Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – or War (Lynne Rienner Pub., 1999).

[8] See the work from International Alert, and also the Collaborative Development for Action,, for more writing on this.

[9] For more information on arts-based conflict resolution processes in Bosnia, see Zelizer, C., “The Role of Artistic Processes in Peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol. 10, #2, Fall 2003 (pp. 62-75),

[10] See

[11] See

[12] Within UNDP, the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery has taken leading role on conflict-related programming. See

[13] Brandeis University has also developed an on-going project on the role of arts in reconciliation. The website has a wealth of information including articles and case studies, see

[14] See

[15] For more information see the Institute of Multi-Track Diplomacy,

[16] In this article, the word “actor” indicates individuals participating in a given situation, not professional actors working in theater.

[17] Fisher, R J., & L. Keashly, “The potential complementarity of mediation and consultation within a contingency model of third party intervention,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 23, No. 1 (pp. 29-42), 1991.

[18] Epskamp, K., “Healing divided societies” in People Building Peace. 35 Inspiring Stories from Around the World (Utrecht, Netherlands: European Platform for Conflict Prevention, 1999), pp.286-292. Also C. Zelizer, 2003.

[19] Zelizer, C. ,"The Role of Artistic Processes in Peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina” (Doctoral Dissertation, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., 2004).

[20] This is similar to more social activist art or action art as termed in the Americans for the Arts Report, “Animating Democracy: The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue,” 1999.

[21] Kelly, W., “Art’s real concern is humanity: Notes from the end of World War II” in Art Towards Reconciliation (Gernika, Spain: Fundacion Bilbao Bizkai Kutxa Fundazioa, 2000), p.19.

[22] See

[23] See, and the Search Manual is available for free on their Web site, along with evaluations from some of their programming.

[24] Eastern Mennonite University has a program, Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience, that offers training and consultation in this area, The University of Denver and EMU also hosted a conference in February 2007 on Trauma and Peacebuilding, and papers should be made available online in the near future at

[25] See Anderson, M. Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War, op. cit., and the work of the Collaborative Development for Action.

[26] See

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