Writing for Peace: Colombian Initiatives with Kate Vieira 

By Kyla Guilfoil, Editor-in-Chief

Kate Vieira broke down how the written word can build peace by presenting her work from Colombian schools to the Manhattan College community in the second installment of the college’s 2022 Peace Week events. 

Vieira, professor and Susan J. Cellmer Distinguished Chair in Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went to Colombia in 2018 after receiving a Fulbright Fellowship, and began work focused on peacebuilding initiatives there. 

In her presentation, Vieira established that her work was a very collaborative effort, made possible by her community members in Colombia, including educators, activists, poets, writers and young people. 

“What I want to share today is how Colombians in one community are using writing to build peace in the aftermath of a decade’s long war, whose violence continues to reverberate,” Vieira said to the audience. 

Essentially, Vieira explained that writing is an incredibly accessible form of peacebuilding, which she saw through her work with community members in Manizales, Colombia. 

“I did not arrive in Colombia from a peaceful country to teach Colombians about peace,” Vieira said. “Because we do not live in a peaceful country. As you may have noticed, I came to my work there as a researcher, writer and educator in the field of writing studies, who wanted to understand from an ethnographic and collaborative perspective how people write and teach writing in order to address pressing social problems.” 

As Vieira explained in her talk, Colombia has the highest number of displaced people of any nation, with the exception of Syria. In 2016, the Colombian government signed the Peace Accords, which sought to rectify the prior 52 years of deadly conflict, which resulted in 200,000 deaths across the nation, and millions of people being forced from their homes. 

However, these Peace Accords have not solved the issues of violence in Colombian communities. So, alongside larger political initiatives, people like Vieira and her team are part of grassroots initiatives to build peace from the ground up. 

For Vieira, such initiatives revolve around the writing process. In her talk, she articulated how writing can be used for peacebuilding by using definitions from various scholars. 

For one, she outlined writing as “an expressive embodied practice that can facilitate emotional healing.” In another, writing was described as being material, which makes it possible “to hold social authority and circulate a shared social vision.” 

Different definitions determined writing to be a “social practice that can participate in processes of liberation and justice,” and to be “an art with potential to promote truth telling and social dreaming.” 

However, Vieira makes clear that just writing isn’t what builds peace. 

“People have to invest [in] writing with magic for it to perform magic,” she said. 

To further explain her work in Colombia specifically, Vieira broke down the five community groups that she collaborated with to investigate the process of writing for peace. 

Vieira interviewed 22 writers, and spent 14 hours obversibing her participants in literary workshops and events. She also worked with sixth and tenth grader students by co-leading and observing 19 writing for peace workshops, alongside interviewing 11 focal participants to make up 52 interviews and collecting 300 student poems as well as a narrative reflection survey with 40 students. 

 Vieira observed 12 hours of planning workshops with three different instructors, and interviewed a total of four teachers. She also observed 16 hours of rehearsals for the intergenerational music and poetry group Los Imaginantes Sonoros (The Sound Dreamers), and interviewed all of its members as well as family members of the members. 

Finally, Vieira participated in the creation of a community published book and board game alongside other authors. 

Vieira also spoke about testimonio, which is essentially different street art that demonstrates social and political calls for peace in Colombia. She shared different images of this testimonio, including an outline of a body on the sidewalk, and words calling for the end of violence and war for their children. 

Vieira’s goal is to turn her work into a bilingual book that contains both English and Spanish. She says it is important for the book to have Spanish in it so that the true spirit and meaning behind the research and the experiences in Colombia cannot be understood fully through English. Plus, adding Spanish will make it more accessible to the people of Colombia, which is of greatest importance to Vieira. 

During her presentation, Vieira went on to talk about the power of listening to kids. 

“I think we need to listen to kids,” she said. “I mean, I don’t want to get too political, but I think about the response to the pandemic. For example, I live in Wisconsin. All of the bars were open, but my child couldn’t go to school. Like, what if we had taken a children’s perspective on what was important? I’m not saying that there aren’t other kinds of ways to think about this. But in any situation of armed conflict, you know, as we are all kind of watching the images come out of Ukraine right now, and we see these images of children. Like, what would the children say about that? What if children’s voices were at the table?”

She went on to say that as a writing teacher, she feels there is too much pressure to teach kids to write a certain way, and that instead we should encourage our children to write because what they have to say is important, and we should be listening to what they actually want to say. 

Robert Geraci, professor of religious studies, was able to make Vieira’s visit to MC possible as he actually met Vieira in their first English class at the University of Texas at Austin during their undergraduate years. 

“Peace Week is an integral aspect of our mission at MC, and what Dr. Vieira brought to campus was a novel and interdisciplinary way of working with people to help them overcome the challenges of war and move toward reconciliation in the present,” he wrote to The Quadrangle. “By engaging in creative practices like game design and encouraging young people to express their own reality through journaling, fiction, and poetry, she and her collaborators in Columbia provide real ways of consolation and, even more, world building. That is, her work with her collaborators helps young people build a new world for themselves and their neighbors. It’s really quite amazing!” 

Geraci shared that he was particularly touched by the story of Vieira interviewing one of her twelve year old students in Colombia, named Luis. 

In his poem, Luis said that he wished for his neighborhood to find peace and tranquility, and wrote, “when the birds sing, one feels the folklore of their song.” Luis told Vieira that that was his favorite line that he had written. 

“I can’t stop thinking of Luis (age 12), who envisions a world where ‘birds sing and one feels the folklore of their song’,” Geraci wrote. “This remarkable image encourages me to think about the storytelling of our own environment. What is the folklore of our birds? I bet it includes all the love and care that our Lasallian community has brought to bear in making the world a better place. I hope that Peace Week will continue to reach out to our students, faculty, and staff–giving us hope and inspiring us to new heights.” 

Nuwan Jayawickreme, a psychology professor who organized peace week, was impressed by Vieira’s work. 

“I was impressed by how she conducted her research in Colombia,” he wrote to The Quadrangle. “She used a type of research methodology called participatory action research, where researchers work with their population-of-interest to develop research questions, identify appropriate methods and interpret the collected data.  This type of research allows you to conduct research that is meaningful and impactful for the studied population.” 

He added that her specific research was a powerful way to see how creative work can make a difference in healing. 

Adam Koehler, an English professor and old friend of Vieira from graduate school, was also excited to have Vieira on campus. 

“I thought the talk was a wonderful way of merging our work as scholars and our larger social and cultural work toward peace – all while coming out of the pandemic, which took a toll on all of us in so many ways,” Koehler wrote to The Quadrangle. “What stood out to me was the optimism in what Dr. Vieira found in her work with her collaborators. In a war-torn community, these young writers found a way to express what mattered most to them: their families, the beauty in their everyday lives, and their relationships with their teachers, and even their government.  That the peace accords included listening to poetry written by young people — to provide that voice in the collective effort of rebuilding peace — is such a profound result to come out of what was meant to be a simple community building exercise.” 

Koehler was also moved by the fact that Vieira chose to work so closely with young children.

“When she point blank identified how revolutionary that truly is — to listen to young people — I was taken by the way writing does the important work of recording our experiences so that the powers that be can do the important work of building peaceful spaces for those experiences,” he wrote. “It’s a reminder of what I hope we can achieve in our classrooms, especially as we all begin to realize just how much we collectively went through after two years of remote and hybrid learning as it seemed the world was falling apart around us.”