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Safe Spaces - From Trauma To Transformation Through Dialogue

Lysychansk. Safe Spaces
Lysychansk. Safe Spaces | © Goethe-Institut

Research Tandem: Max Doering, Oksana Potapova

1. Why Lysychansk? Why not?

For one year now, whenever we talk to colleagues about our work in Lysychansk, we have to answer the same set of questions. What are you doing there? And why Lysychansk?  To outsiders the city does not seem to be a hotspot of the conflict, while actually it is. It is located in the so-called „yellow zone“, not far away from the contact line. During the war it has been under the control of both sides and a person sensitive to the trauma of the place will easily find traces of the war, it’s silent presence and loud absence. It is of strategic relevance, since it is located on a hill and it has symbolic value for being one of the oldest cities in Donbas and used to be a forerunner, if not a role model of the industrial development of the region. Another assumption is that whatever we do in Lysychansk has no impact on the region or the conflict itself, while actually it has. Lysychansk, called the „Cradle of Donbas“ is so representative for a lot of places in the region. The similarities with other cities are bigger than the differences, the industrial past and the post-industrial decline, the migration history, the cultural hybridity, the coal mining romanticism, the post-soviet legacy. Whatever we can do in Lysychansk successfully is worth at least to be thought about for other cities in the region. So why Lysychansk? Our answer is „Why not?“.
As our professional background is in dialogue facilitation, peace research, and human rights activism, we both are interested in stories and Lysychansk and it’s inhabitants have a lot of stories to tell. During the last year we heard stories about the war in the city, stray dog gangs, hidden government operations, connections to the „other side“, and marriages between warring factions. We observed clashes between political groups and an extraordinarily peaceful and relaxed election day. We discovered spaces of peace between human beings and animals, hidden spots of unbelievable beauty, legacies of an unnoticed colonial past, rat-crowded basements, and many waterholes. We interacted with people in three languages; people with different approaches on how to deal with conflict; people, who we would later recognize in the television; people, who genuinely love their city and don’t want it to fail; people, who can be so different in different spaces, we felt like almost talking to a different person; people, who stand against the division of their home region and continue to work on both sides of the line; and a bunch of amazing, kick-ass kids.
Lysychansk was a challenge to us and not easy to grasp. Whenever we thought „Now we got it“ the next surprise was just waiting around the corner. It felt like, from the day we put our feet on its ground the city soaked us up into the working process that had already been going on. The first approach by a member of the local organization was attempted to find somebody, who would be able to initiate, facilitate, and manage a dialogue between the stories the warring factions in the city tell about the conflict, the identity and the future of the city and the region. Over time, this first request has transformed into a dialogue format that deals less with the past than it deals with the future and offers a framework for a variety of topics regarding the future of the city, security, spaces for interaction, and solutions to socio-economic challenges. Among the participants of the dialogue the sensation was not so much about the topics they discussed, but about that it happened at all. People of very different backgrounds coming together and interacting together, talking about their everyday problems, seems to be something the city has lacked for too long. It really needed it.

2. Methodology: Explore! Empower! Act!

If, against good will and knowing better, we ever had a pre-set plan of what we would like to do in Lysychansk and how, it became obsolete within the first hours in the city. Our meeting with the local organization encouraged us to make some decisions regarding the methodology of the research. Most importantly, we wanted to be as useful to the actual needs of the city as possible and we did not want to cause any harm, for example by pushing our own agenda without considering the needs of the local population. Therefore we chose to adopt a meta-theoretical framework, which would allow us to really understand the place. We agreed that it would be an explorative process, which acknowledges the epistemic ownership and expertise of locals, whose lived experiences would become the primary source of knowledge. The secondary would be our debriefings and reflexions, which mostly dealt with the development, falsification and transformation of hypotheses. Only as a third source of knowledge, we would consult literature to back up findings theoretically. Here is our meta-theoretical framework.
Ontology: Acknowledgment of Local Expertise
It doesn’t matter how much we study: without integrating the lived experiences of those involved and affected and without acknowledging them as experts, we not only put ourselves in danger of comprehending the object of research insufficiently, but also of denying subjectivity and agency to those affected. This, given the existential circumstances in conflict and post-conflict regions, is counterproductive not only for the normative goals of peace work and social sciences, but also for those affected. This obviously meant that we as a research team also took the decision to work closely with the local organization and understand ourselves as one research team.
Epistemology: Understanding instead of explaining
Distance is an essential part of every research process, but it belongs to the stage of data analysis, not data collection. In order to understand a conflict two things are vital. First, there is no way around being physically present in the field (conflict area) or at least being epistemologically close to it (through intense interaction with the people affected). Sensing and experiencing something first hand is epistemologically something fundamentally different from getting something (theoretically focused) explained. Secondly, this calls for an explorative approach, which obviously diametrically opposes conflict analysis based on pre-set categories.
Methodology: Participation of People Affected, Action Research/Emancipatory Research
In our approach the borders between conflict analysis and conflict management blur, since already naming the trauma represents the first step towards coping with it. The distinction between conflict analysis and conflict management is inadequate in many cases, because it enables the conflict management to be influenced by conflict analysis, which in itself represents a selection of data on the hand of the researcher.
In order to avoid this problem and not causing any harm, trauma-sensitive conflict analysis must take place in a framework of action research, which is an approach that implies that the „object“ of research makes part of the research team. In this manner the „object“ regains subjectivity and agency, which is imperative as a precondition for the determination of relevant data and can represent an empowering and emancipatory experience for the participants. It triggers a process of scientific self-reflection on the side of the „object“. They equally become the experts of their own conflict and researcher of their own conflict in the sense that they activate and implement their own expertise towards a goal set by themselves; in other words, they become “subject” and „object“ of their research process.

The role of us as external participants in the research process is to methodologically assist the research team in the process of distancing from themselves, so that a distanced observation of own practices becomes possible. It is only the external researchers, who have the ability to create this perspective distance and take along the local researchers to that position. Local researchers usually do not have the ability to take themselves out of the research process to an extent that allows a distanced observation of the object of the research by the subject of the research, since subject and object are the same group of people. This makes the presence of external facilitators of such process necessary. Their role is to facilitate a collective process on the construction of knowledge.
Approach: Dialogue by Theatre of the Oppressed (TO)
TO is a form of community theatre that does not require any previous experience of acting or performing. It invites a group of people, troubled by a specific community issue, a conflict, or a situation of oppression, to reflect on one’s experience and jointly brainstorm about possible solutions via means of theatre. By means of engaging their whole selves - their  bodies, experiences, feelings and their imagination - the group is able to look more holistically at the reality they are trying to transform. Personal stories of conflict, inequality or discrimination become the basis for a community  play. Dreams about a better future fuel the group’s creative search for what can be done to find a solution.
The method is inclusive, sensitive and accessible for groups of any age, background or social strata. Even more so, the safe space created in the process of join play, self-disclosure and sharing of challenging personal experiences, fosters connection between diverse participants and creates a natural sense of togetherness. At the same time, rooted in personal stories, the method allows for different group members to be represented in their own struggles and to share their perspectives on the issue, without feeling like they need to blend in or join a certain mainstream narrative inside the group. In fact, diverse games and exercises within this methodology invite the group to seek multiple perspectives on the roots of the problem they are trying to solve, on the needs and desires of the parties involved, as well as on the larger socioeconomic, political, cultural and other factors which may have led to the problem.
Without it being a classic dialogue format, TO workshop has dialogue at the core of its techniques. It also recognizes that inequality and conflict are results of unbalanced power relations which lead to lack of representation or self-expression by groups that feel less powerful in society or in a certain group. Thus we often live in a culture of monologue (where those with most power have a say, while others remain silent). By creating a safe space for expression, by reflecting on power relations and giving voices to everyone, TO aims to restore a culture of dialogue, or rather polylogue, first in the space of a single workshop, and later, hopefully, in society at large.

 3. Findings: Safe Spaces - From Trauma to Transformation through Dialogue

In this section, we want to present a small summary of what we did and our findings on Lysychansk. As mentioned above, the format of the dialogue itself turned out to be the bigger sensation to the people involved than the actual topics discussed. This reflects in our findings, too. They comprise those hypotheses that stood ground the critical reflexion of the research team and are based on our observations of the two dialogue performances, our interactions with the field and with each other. Among our findings the most consolidated and ground-breaking ones deal with the significance of understanding the local trauma for conflict analysis, the necessity of creating and the variety of safe spaces in order for post-conflict communities to regain agency, and the introduction of a new concept of security with relevance to conflict management. These findings are interconnected and will be presented in a logical order. First we will explain how most conflict management approaches are doomed, since they rely on the findings of conventional conflict analysis, which usually fails to recognize and grasp the local trauma, which subsequently remains untouched by conflict management. In response to that we propose a conflict analysis that is based on conflict ethnology and participatory research.
Secondly, we will present our interpretation of the local trauma of Lysychansk and what it needs for it to be overcome. Finally, we will deduct the mechanism from our observations, conceptualize it as a new concept of security and derive implications for conflict management.
Research Process: Two Workshops - Two Performances
Initially, only one theatre workshop was envisaged as part of the research, and it was aimed at creating a space for trust building and exchange of narratives about the future of the city between different citizens. We ended up working with a group of 8 people - 7 women and 1 man, three of them being active in our partner organisation, others affiliated with it. The workshop lasted 3 hours and included games and exercises aimed at building connection with each other, rekindling our creativity and reflecting on experiences of activism in the city. Using human sculptures, the group explored their activist identities, sources of support and inspiration for creating change, as well as sources of criticism and barriers. Some of the key responses that emerged revolved around “freedom to be myself”, “creativity and innovation”, “solidarity and sense of togetherness” as sources of support; “judgement by others”, “lack of understanding among close ones of what I do and why”, “very little initiative among other citizens to join what I do”. A theme of “spaces for support and belonging” seemed to be emerging.
This was followed by development of a brief forum-theatre scene which in symbolic terms showed a group of people marching in line, who opposed an individual dancing on their way. The marching group first simply pushed the dance aside, then after seeing that the dance goes on, the marching people used force to try and stop her, and at the end integrated her in their march. The scene generated reflections about freedom of expression, of individual revolt against “the system”, of violence - physical or systemic - which threatens those who want to make a difference. After the discussion, there was time for trying out solutions. They ranged from individual efforts of the “dancer” to persist against all odds, to the efforts of creating a nonviolent sitting protest as opposition to those who are marching, and to creating an alternative system which became strong enough to oppose the marching group. This brief play and interventions generated quite a lot of enthusiasm in the group, because we were able to jointly create a safe space for trying different strategies and not fearing failure, and because the iterations finally made it possible for the group to come to a strategy that resonated with all. “Having safety to try out new approaches, to fail and to start again is crucially important, if we want to make a lasting change” - such was the main outcome of the day.
The performance of the same play happened a few days later in one of the local schools. This time the audience of 20 kids and about 5 teachers (including the school principal) were talking about the dynamics of conflict and violence in the city, via the scenes they saw on stage. in the same manner, after watching the play, the audience was able to make interventions. The first few ones were in fact quite similar to the efforts made during the previous rehearsal: dance even harder to resist getting sucked into marching; try to (violently) oppose those who outnumber you; try to create a new system by gathering people around you. All of these efforts, although partially successful, were based on a paradigm of competition, of “us” against “them” and of using force, one way or the other, to instill one’s agenda. Finally, the last suggestion made by a student, actually started from a moment of pause and care - before creating an opposition or starting a new movement, the actor kneeled  to ask the injured dancer how she felt and if she needed help. Only after that did he proceed, together with her, to create a system of interaction which was different from “marching”. This intervention was experienced by most spectators as a shift of paradigm: from competition and violence to connection and care. Does that mean that there is a need for change of value systems before a structural change can take place? And are the youngsters better equipped to introduce that change? We left the questions open… 
The second workshop and performance were not part of the original plan, but hey, we committed ourselves to the flow of things guided by the energy in the group. After the end of this performance the enthusiasm of the school kids and our local partners inspired us to come back to Lysychansk once more, this time for a more in-depth workshop with teenagers. This is what happened at the end of May. We spent 2 days working with a group of 12 amazing, energetic and authentic kids who jumped into the work from the first minute of it. Using similar games and exercises we have built trust and allowed ourselves to be silly together, before we dove into serious discussions on “What concerns you in the life of your city?” and “What would you like to change?”
The group started with scenes that depicted severe violence, robbery and bullying - all of these experiences, supposedly, having been part of the kids’ lives. Together we talked about the reasons behind such widespread insecurity in the city, seeming apathy of the people towards the sufferings of others, and the role of social media in spreading the news about such incidents. We asked more questions that we found answers, and then we broke out for the day. The work picked up on the following day with a shared sense of “team spirit” which the group felt after the first day of work. “We never felt so connected and so much as a team!”, said one of the participants. “Now I am inspired to do something creative together”.
 And so we proceeded to created. This day we focused on creating scenes of a city we want to imagine in 20 years: what does it look like, what are we doing in it, how do we feel, what is the role of nature in our city landscape? These questions led to creation of two contrasting scenes: one depicted incidents of bullying, aggression towards and from stray dogs, and street littering - all of these being the challenges which the youth of Lysychansk sees relevant today. The other scene showed a green park, with well-developed infrastructure and places that feel safe and inclusive for people of different age, gender and social status. It’s a place where everyone in the city wants to be, where no one needs a cell-phone because there is a connection to nature and a safe human connection present. Yes, along with a well-developed infrastructure, the kids showed explicitly a transformed culture of human connection which prevailed in their images of desired future: a culture of respect for each other and the nature, a culture of care and genuine interest in each other’s needs and experiences. Even the feeling of the scene was different - that of joy and lightness, rather than a fake sense of obligation to be in the same space by force.
The next step was easy: we simply juxtaposed the two scenes together, one being that of “the present” and the other depicting “our desired future” and in-between we left a question to the audience: “What needs to happen in order for us to move from scene one to scene two?” This question would then be an invitation to the audience to intervene and suggest concrete actions for change.
The play itself was shown during a short art festival “Remote and Imminent East”, in Kostyantynivka to an audience of local activists, other research teams and curious citizens who came to check out the art festival. This time, the play generated a discussion around different types of culture: a culture of violence vs a culture of respect and care; a culture of connection vs a culture of isolation; a culture of responsibility vs a culture of complaining. Several interventions showed different perspectives on how we can create spaces for supporting the kind of culture we want, and how cultural practices can assist us in that. At the end of the discussion we came back to what we started with - a need for safe spaces where different groups of people can jointly generate ideas, try them out and fail safely together on their way to a sustainable future. It became clear that the younger generation is now carrying the baton of change, but only with support of adults and those in power, will they be able to give voice to their ideas and desires. A space for inter-generational dialogue and cooperation seemed to be needed…
Findings 1: The Significance of Understanding the Local Trauma for Conflict Analysis
How can peace work, usually starting with a conflict analysis, ever be successful, if the trauma of the field remains untouched and not understood? Most approaches of conflict analysis, including those that are requested by and delivered to decision-makers, set up a framework of categories in order to explain the events during a conflict. Conflicts are too multifaceted to be limited to parties, objectives, and dynamics. These aspects are useful to set the frame for conflict analysis, which then has to deal with the question how the conflict has changed the behavior of those affected and, for conflict management, how to repair those changes considered to be harmful. After all conventional approaches of conflict analysis deal only with aspects that can be decently observed from a position of involvement and unaffectedness, while at the same time they ignore perspectives of those affected or reduce their relevance to the content useful for the purpose of analysis. This establishes a hierarchy between the archives of knowledge of (mostly unaffected) „experts“ and those actually affected on a daily base. These hierarchies can consolidate the conflict and its consequences to the extent it contributes to the already ongoing loss of agency.
While each of us has a personal connection to Donbass (Max having lived and studied there; Oksana having grown up there and her family still residing there), none of us have experienced the most violent phases of the armed conflict first-hand. And yet, while in Lysychansk we could sense the consequences of the conflict all the time and our emotionality and consternation stems in parts from the ubiquitous presence of the cities’ collective trauma, affecting us and our work here. In this regard, we have become part of the conflict and it could be overwhelming in times how fast we could build an emotional attachment to the place. Therefore it is not surprising that the result of our own conflict analysis reflects on the city’s’ trauma, instead of who caused it how and to what ends. Only, when we can understand the trauma of the conflict, we can be able to choose the right instrument in order to deal with it.

Findings 2: The Trauma of Lysychansk and the Creation of Safe Spaces
It seems that the conflict has narrowed down public life in Lysychansk to the existential  and daily needs of its population. This can be felt by the way people deal, or rather do not deal, with the most recent violent past. It is easy not to speak about war, when there is nothing to speak about in that regard. Not to speak about the war in a city that just stopped to be a battleground and has the frontline around the corner, is a form of denial and since the denial is constant, the war is constantly present. Responding to our question about their biggest pain, our local partners gave us a list of everything that went wrong in town from their point of view. Most of the problems they summarized can be seen as a result of a nexus of agony: people do not interact with each other; they are isolated; they don’t care about their community; they live from day to day; they mistrust their neighbours.
Lysychansk needs safe spaces and both of the words have to be understood in a broad sense. Safety does not only refer to the absence of physical or clinical harm, but to a state, in which the consequences of people’s choices are low on or even free from risk of causing existential damage. This state offers a way of interaction, in which people can be creative and playful, they can try to figure out different ways of approaching a situation and dealing with it and learn from these experiences. Also, space does not necessarily refer to a physical building or a an actual area. It describes the absence of those aspects that limit people’s range of choices in their actions. This space can be a building with exclusive access, it can be an agreement in an interpersonal relationship, or a stretch of time that is not dedicated towards a specific purpose. We as a research team used self-reflection and vulnerability as a ground for building safety between us, and relied on Theatre of the Oppressed and NonViolent Communication for creating safe spaces between us and the local communities.
Findings 3: „Positive Security“ as the Security to Fail
We have found that there is a contradictory dynamic in the role failure plays in conflict and conflict management. While in conflict the costs of failure usually increase due to the existential situation and the scarcity of material and immaterial resources, most approaches of conflict management require and attempt to trigger a change of perspective and learning process, to which a safe space for failure is essential. This means that in conflict, people actually need the costs of failure to be as low as possible, while in reality the costs are constantly increasing.
We want to overcome this and introduce the concept of Positive Security as an analogy to positive freedom and as a characteristic of the external, intervening, or mediating party to a conflict. This means that the party is not only responsible to take effort in guaranteeing the physical and infrastructural security of people, but also to reduce the costs of failure in order to make a collective learning process possible.

 4. Remote and Imminent - The Role of Culture in Lysychansk

Understandings of culture are manifold and cover a broad range of social phenomena. Therefore, in order to understand the role culture can further play in Lysychansk, we must first conceptualize culture. Here again, we decided to start the development of our understanding of culture a posteriori, based on our experiences and observations in the field, instead of approaching the field with a set concept of culture in mind, which always involves the danger of overseeing something of local relevance or excluding it from the analysis, because it does not fit the definition. Nevertheless, we do also want to present some findings that are inspired by our own understanding of culture, which calls for a wide definition of the concept, comprising various aspects and characteristics of culture.
Culture does not only comprise the production and reception of fine arts and popular culture, but also and maybe even predominately patterns of interpretation internalized by the bearers of culture. They help them give meaning to and make sense of the world and comprise rules, norms and value systems, which are dynamic and constantly shaped by and reshaping human beings' behavior and the structure they live in. Culture does not necessarily refer to national cultures, but to groups as a result of social organization. They can be (geographically speaking) very wide and loose, or (geographically speaking) very close and tight, or can exist beyond beyond and through geographical locations.
Conflict in this context can be understood as a rupture within and/or between cultural systems. While parties believe the conflict to be caused by the indivisibility and/or maldistribution of the object of the conflict, conflicts always also happen on numerous further levels that mostly have nothing to do with the object of the conflict, but the value and meaning parties ascribe to it. Whatever we as human beings argue about, it has always also an aspect of identity.
Culture as Safe Spaces - Druzhba and Carol Singing
Just in the city center there is a big grey building. Probably the first building one could see in the more lively area of the city. It’s name is Druzhba (Russian for “Friendship”) and it used to be a cinema, part of which is still operating as such. The Great Hall though has been transformed into an urban culture space and has become a hotspot for the local teenagers to meet and spend their time skating or playing basketball. The complex contains more rooms and spaces that are not operating yet, but seem to be waiting for activation, whispering the promise of a future that has already found its way to the name of the space: the Center of Urban Culture.

Druzhba is an answer to the local challenge of the city to be aging and shrinking. Depending on who we asked the number of pensioners leveled between 35 to 60%. Young people are a minority and find themselves in a vicious circle of extegration and emigration. Cultural activities for young people are few, therefore they leave the city as soon as they can and because they leave there is even lesser reason to offer cultural spaces for adolescents and young adults. Druzhba is an attempt to break this circle by just offering a safe space young people can connect to and fill it with life themselves, a space inviting for creative and peaceful interaction.
Another cultural activity offering such a space is the Carol Singing Festival, which was organized this year for the first time by MICT 3.10 and will hopefully be repeated in the years to come. The idea is to bring together people in the street and sing together Christmas songs everybody knows and can connect to. Not only is this an attempt to stress the common values of different confessions of Christianity, which in part have been abused during the conflict, but also for locals to value the power of common action over individual action.
In both examples culture, understood as an acknowledgement of identities, adolescent urban identity in the first and Christian identity in the latter, is used to open safe spaces for interaction of groups of the city, attributing to it’s variety.
Culture as Intervention - Herded Bus Stops
Lysychansk is in it’s physical reality a very long city and a very fragmented one. This represents a source of hardship for its inhabitants, who often have to travel long distances between two appointments and are dependent on the public transportation system. Crowded buses are not uncommon, space and seating is scarce, and so people are eager to get a pole position at the bus stop. Not seldomly, this can result in arguments, resentments, and accidental injuries. „Looks like the herd needs a shepherd…“ some activists must have thought, when they decided to use culture as a method of intervention. Coming from theatre, the transition to flash mob was a marginal one and soon after, bus stops all over Lysychansk would face the presence of people, sometimes dressed as shepherds, who would appeal the people: „You’re not a herd of animals. Queue up!“
Culture can soften up interventions that otherwise might face resistance or even lead to arguments. Taking a role and assisting others in doing so adds a humorous and playful nuance to a tense situation and opens for creative solutions. Since learning usually starts with irritation, culture can take that role here and cause such an irritation for the goal of efforts displayed, lessons to be learned, and solutions to be found.
Culture as Identity - The Fox and the Museum
Culture also functions as an instrument to ascribe meaning to incidents and characteristics and contextualize them. In this regard, culture transports values and norms and assists people in navigating through the challenges of their lives. This is the normative face of culture.
In a conversation with a member of our local partner organization, the people of Lysychansk were characterized as very skilled in finding smart and funny solutions, as seen above. As a matter of fact, the cities emblem displays a fox, which has become the mascot of the local population. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that locals from Lysychansk have this characteristics, because of the fox and even the interpretation that the fox was picked for the emblem, because the people are so smart stands on shaky grounds. Still, people connect to the fox that can be found everywhere in town and they ascribe meaning to it and potentially also see it as a role model to exploit their local superpower.

How some of the many other identities of Lysychansk are constructed and perceived can be seen in the cities’ museum. The current exhibition deals with the most recent violent past, presenting art craft in a combination of military equipment and Ukrainian symbolism, while other rooms cover the topics of coal mining and the period of the Soviet Union.

Culture will be crucial in defining the future of Lysychansk. The potential of culture  becomes visible in the many ways operates in the city on various levels. It can easily be a resource to trigger interaction, identification and transformation. And it can contribute to the healing process of the cities’ most recent violent past. Nevertheless, this is a question of culture itself, the perspective towards conflict to be specific and the interpretative frame culture sets as a kind of such a perspective. While conflicts do negatively impact and destabilize the foundations of communities and can limit agency, subjectivity and sense of community, they also represent an opening for change. Where the strengths of a community cannot be taken for granted anymore, the weaknesses are also open to be contested and the structure of the community can be renegotiated. It is just a matter of perspectives.
In the preparatory workshop to the second performance the bus stops popped up again, when the kids developed an image of what actions they could take in order to improve the city and they came up with the idea of redesigning the bus stops. Given the challenges Lysychansk faces, the design of bus stops might appear as a minor issue. On the other hand, Lysychansk faces a long journey and there might be long stretches of waiting on the way. So why not use the time and transform the stops on the way into enjoyable hang-outs? Nobody knows, when the next bus will come.