Wiping the tear gas from my eyes, back against a fence along Bassin de l’Arsenal, I took a moment to calm myself.
Despite all this – the tear gas, water cannons, continued boom of petrol bombs, firecrackers and yells, the growing panic had started to calm. My eyes searched across Boulevard de la Bastille for the woman, but she disappeared in the massive swarm of people and smoke.
Almost 24 hours earlier, I had been standing on a mountainside in Caux, Switzerland with my colleagues. We were concluding the Just Governance for Human Security event, or more specifically The Pillar Peacebuilding Approach: Women As Drivers Towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
Seventeen women from nine countries had come together to discuss The Six Pillars of Human Security (Social Inclusion, Sustainability, Food Security, Healing Memory, Inclusive Economics, Good Governance)and how they link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They brought their varied personal experiences, ranging from a member of parliament, refugee activist, environmental expert, to a social worker, professor, historian, entrepreneur and activist.
This retreat, separate from the Caux Summer Forum, was intended to address challenges in their communities and help them find solutions through the lens of being a woman and the UN Global Goals.
Since 1946, Initiatives of Change (IofC) Switzerland and Caux Palace have provided a uniquely idyllic place to do this overlooking Lac Lémanin Switzerland.
The palace is a safe space of trust building, reflection and beauty; each person is expected to share their story and to learn from each other.
Generous sponsors help to make this possible and foster a global community of action: we each stand on the shoulders of others, holding each other up and lending support to bring change in our own ways. We each do our part with the tools we have. It is better not to become isolated in our ideas or surroundings, to not turn away from harsh realities.
We become more open when we reach a hand across the table, share a meal, ask questions, listen, and build community. It happens when we are not standing alone, but standing on the same equitable level as every other person. While I attended as a JGHS team member and facilitator, I felt mostly I was a sponge observing and learning from these women, there to help foster a space where they could create.
A unique part of JGHS is the Healing Memory Pillar, the focus on storytelling, creating a safe space to honor the path an individual walks, to name the trauma or struggle without judgement or exclusion. This builds trust, allowing participants to dive in and hear each other.
It takes courage and vulnerability, and releasing preconceived impressions. It is hard but from this trust begins and the work of addressing solutions takes shape. This pillar is important because it addresses the gray and muddle areas of peacebuilding which are a multilayered and complicated process.
The focus is on understanding how each individual approaches a topic using their own deeply personal lens.
I was lost in reflections from Caux’s weekend retreat when chaos erupted in an area of Paris. Only in passing did I first register the acrid smell of smoke. Around the corner from my flat and I found myself suddenly in a swarm of people. This was an annual May Dayrally for labor union and immigrant rights, but it had broken down into a melee of anarchist members from the Black Blocs and a mix of organized marchers. A call to arms on social media for a “Revolutionary Day” became a series of petrol bombs that shook me from my curiosity and into the movement.
The crowd suddenly turned and I felt the force of energy as people began to run, escaping the police’s use of tear gas and water cannons. In this frenzied and dangerous moment when a crowd can suddenly become a stampede, a small group stood calmly waving their hands, trying to calm the crowd. They yelled, “walk walk, please calm.” Coughing from the gas and moving to the safety of a fence, I locked eyes with one woman and she smiled. It was a moment of kindness in chaos. It took courage to stand and face that panicked crowd and calm them.
I wanted to ask her why she was there that day, whether it was to march for better worker and immigrant rights or to disrupt the system, or perhaps both, what lens was she looking through? What was her story and what did this experience of risking her own personal safety for the good of others mean to her?
These are the same questions when we look at the most significant global events or the smallest daily actions. Her courage helped many and took only a moment, she was a peace builder in her own way.
While I will never know who the woman at the protest was, I felt like I knew her. She was so much like the women I had worked with in Caux: women who came together to create action, to ensure there is progressive change in their communities, to address the most challenging topics head on. This is how the UN Global Goalstake shape and become attainable, through action and engagement. Each person views the world through their unique lens but this lens is the first step in building a force for global change. How you take that step is the real question.
So, as a friend once asked me, I now ask you: what steps will you take?
Always seeking to be curious, brave, kind