Promoting Healing Through Stories and Dialogue
By Jennifer Park | Layout Editor
Throughout the month of April, the Center for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation, and the Veteran and Military Affairs Center will be hosting a series of open-ended dialogues about war through the lens of literature called No-Man’s Land: Dialogues on the Experience of War.
Bergen Community College was one of two two-year schools nationwide to receive a prestigious two-year grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities in 2017 to facilitate Dialogues on the Experience of War. BCC last received a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities in 1979.
Each dialogue will focus on a short story. The first on April 4 will center around “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, which is set during the early stages of the ongoing American conflict in the Middle East.
The second on April 11 will center on “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway, set in World War 1, and the last on April 19 will center on “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien, set during the Vietnam conflict.
Co-director of the program, John Giamo of the Veteran and Military Affairs Center, stressed that the range of time frames would only help in further understanding the universal impact of war.
“These are not simply stories that can be relegated to the past,” he said.
As the American conflict in the Middle East continues, the proportion of Bergen County residents, and thus BCC students, impacted by war, either as a soldier or civilian, continues to rise.
No Man’s Land hopes to create an intimate space for these people specifically to discuss and share their experiences in order to explore who is affected by war and how. The event is open to all, as war stories are not merely about war alone.
Giamo says that “we’ve all experienced loss, whether you’ve been in the military or not” and loss is the foundation of these stories.
Giamo aims to broaden the narrative surrounding veterans. He said that often, veterans are regarded either as heroes or victims, both of which ignore the complexity of the experience of war.
Giamo expressed hope that through these dialogues, we would better our ability to “see veterans as human beings” and not just as a trope. He also hopes that the exercise of empathy involved with discussing war will help participants “become more empathetic, more understanding, and less judgemental.”
Co-Director, Thomas LaPointe, of the Center for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation hopes to broaden our understanding of the American experience of war to further include immigrants.
According to FiveThirtyEight,wartime veterans comprise around five percent of the total American population as of 2014, and that share continues to decline. However, the number of immigrants and refugees entering the United States is expected to rise. LaPointe hopes to incorporate their voices and bring them further into the dialogue.
Giamo stressed that dialogues are not an exercise of pedagogy. Instead, they are open-ended discussions through which people can construct their own meaning and connect through shared experiences. Though the dialogues are based on the framework of literary analysis, it is expected that the discussion will shift from an intellectual to emotional basis.
It is likely that these dialogues will touch upon difficult topics such as trauma, loss of trust and feelings of isolation and abandonment.
“It’s a painful experience,” LaPointe said, adding that participants would effectively “open the cut and inhabit the space of the cut.”
However, the facilitators are fully prepared to tackle the challenge. “We want this to be a space of healing, and we have people who would be supportive of that.” In addition to the presence of mental health professionals, facilitators have undergone extensive training.
Giamo estimates that the ratio of time spent preparing to the time of the actual dialogues is around 100:1. The co-directors expressed that it was all time well spent.
Giamo said that “anything that’s meaningful requires effort.”
Putting on these dialogues was a massive effort that required the collaboration of an extensive team. In addition to administrators and veterans-in-residence here at BCC, team members include Nela Navaro, the Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University, Patrice Lenowitz, a prominent domestic violence advocate, and Joyce Apsel, a professor at NYU.
Future installments of No Man’s Land are planned to incorporate more diverse stories about war as well as accompanying art pieces. However, not all is set in stone. The team plans to adapt the programming to the wants of the participants.
According to Giamo, “we really don’t know the outcome until we go through it.” The project also includes ancillary programming such as a guest lecture, film screenings, performances and art exhibits.
The co-directors ultimately hope to extend the grant, and to that end, hope to increase the college’s institutional connectedness. The Center for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation, the Veterans and Military Affairs Center, the Office of Student Success as well as faculty, are all working together on this project. Through this, the team builds institutional infrastructure that should facilitate sustained projects.
Ultimately, the goal of this project is to connect on an individual level as well as an institutional one. Giamo expressed that pointing out and celebrating differences was all well and good, but that finding commonality as human beings to celebrate was equally meaningful. The lens of war may seem to limit things, but really, it opens avenues for all to connect through story.
“No Man’s Land: Dialogue on the Experiences of War” will run throughout April. The organizers would appreciate prior notice of attendance. Please RSVP by emailing either John Giamo at firstname.lastname@example.org or Thomas LaPointe at email@example.com, calling (201) 447-7992, or visiting bergen.edu/community/center-for-peace-and-justice-reconciliation/