Good Actor

An Interview with Forest Whitaker

OR: What is the organization's chief mission and why are partnerships so essential to it?

Whitaker: WPDI’s chief mission is to help conflict-affected and vulnerable communities achieve resilience, peace, and sustainability. At the core of my vision is the idea that peace is not just the silence of arms or a signing of agreements among politicians and diplomats. Such peace does not last by itself. People must adhere to it — especially since today most conflicts are internal to states, which means that peace is more akin to reconciliation. In that sense, peace is a set of values, attitudes, and behaviors that everyday people practice in earnest. It is a culture. Communities are peaceful when they live by a culture of peace. In communities affected by long-term, chronic conflict, the culture of peace has been replaced by a culture of violence. Peace, in such places, must be learnt anew. This is where partnerships are so central in our mandate. We consider young people partners who implement our mandate on the ground. This is important, because we want to send the signal that they are on an equal footing with us. We do not think that we know everything better than they do — starting with their own country. By extension, we seek to work directly with local stakeholders — which is actually the most efficient way to obtain results. At the other end of the spectrum, we seek to expand the scope of our partnerships to obtain material support, of course, but also strategic support. We seek to learn from our partners, on the ground or at the international level.

OR: Where are its major geographical areas of focus at the moment?

Whitaker: I have mentioned already that we are present in South Sudan, where we cover the whole southern region of the country, and in Tijuana, Mexico. What matters to us is the kind of context where we intervene. In Uganda, we address the sequels of a civil war that generated thousands of child soldiers and we train and support young refugees. We have another program in Mexico: in Chiapas, where we aim to empower youth from indigenous communities. We also have a program in the United States, in Los Angeles, where we seek to infuse values of peace directly into the school curriculum. We also started a new deployment of our work in Cape Flats in South Africa.

OR: What are the forces driving the problems WPDI seeks to address?

Whitaker: These driving forces make for a very intricate skein. Some key issues are poverty and exclusion. Youth disenfranchisement is a deep driver of the problems we seek to address. Young people want to feel useful, to know that their potential serves a purpose. When young people have no economic or social perspective, they will turn to those who offer them such a sense of purpose — it can be a gang or an armed group. The is the reason why, for example, the rehabilitation of former child soldiers will always be a demanding process: their values and outlook on life have been shaped by years of living with violence.

Another deep driver is, as I stressed already, chronic conflict. It is important to stress that nuance when it comes to solutions. People and communities do not react the same when violence and uncertainty become pervasive dimensions of everyday life. There is a systemic dimension of repeated trauma. Some of the youth we work with have been through terrible ordeals — losing parents and siblings, being forced out of homes, being conscripted in armed groups and made to commit atrocities. Trauma must be addressed individually and collectively if we want to genuine peace to happen.

OR: Have they gotten better or worse in the time you have been working on them?

Whitaker: I am not certain that there is a single answer to this question. WPDI is still young and we operate at a very local level. But I do think that we make a difference in the places where we work. In South Sudan and Uganda, our youth manage to get tribes or villages that have been in conflict — sometime for years — to reach peace agreements. This is significant. There is an awareness, including among local authorities, that if WPDI had not been there things could be worse.

OR: What do you regard as your biggest success doing development and conflict resolution?

Whitaker: My biggest success is to have created conditions for young people to pursue their dream of giving back to their community, however challenging this may seem. From a strategic perspective, I think that the achievement here is to have combined development and conflict resolution. These two areas are often quite distinct. The organizations that respectively deal with them are usually very different because they are designed to operate in distinct contexts. My view is that, in the places faced with the biggest challenges, there is no such distinction of context. Proof of this is the fact that conflict-affected places — be they countries or areas within countries — are those that fare the worst against the SDG’s. If we want to leave no-one behind, we have to rethink our approaches and break silos when necessary.

OR: What lessons do those experiences hold for other people and organizations looking to get into this line of work?

Whitaker: One main lesson is that investing in youth, trusting their potential, and providing them adequate tools to undertake projects actually works. What you need is a good, solid starting package and the determination to patiently follow their progress. If you combine all of this, you have a very efficient model of intervention.

OR: What do state actors and other global influencers need to know about the issues WPDI works on that they currently do not?

Whitaker: They need to know that 408 million youth live in places affected by conflict and that the majority of conflict-affected regions are off-track to achieve the SDG’s. These numbers indicate the scale of the efforts needed in the coming years. Let’s think of the potential for transformation that we could unlock if we invested serious resources in projects developed by young people to promote peace and sustainable development in their communities. Governments should do it. Companies should do it. Foundations should do it. Young people want to be part of the solutions. We must do our part.