MEGHANN AUREA VILLANUEVA
My name is Meg. Half of my friends from all over the world used to refer to me as their ‘friend who works in the UN’ or ‘my friend who works to save the world,’ or (and this is a funny one), ‘my friend who travels around the world to make peace.’ It took me awhile to find the right ‘strategy’ to make people around me understand what I really do, who I work for, and most of all, what I really stand for.
How I got here.
I started my journey to social work at the early age of 15, when I volunteered and helped my father run a summer camp for street children in my hometown, Bacolod City in the Philippines. Back then, it was about mingling, playing and learning along with the street children, sleeping in tents and doing bonfires. That was when I learned about inequality in my small community. Many of my friends at the summer camp did not go to school. While I was complaining about being asked to wash dishes, they had to work or beg for money so their families could eat.
This opened me up to the whole idea of doing volunteer work on my own, from building houses with Habitat for Humanity, to mangrove and island clean-ups with environmental groups, to visiting rural areas to raise people’s awareness about human security, the arms trade, and landmines issues.
16 years later, here I am.
Now at age 31, I have probably attended about 30 educational events on different issues, mostly related to peace and human rights education, intercultural learning, and conflict transformation. I have organized or trained in about 16 training courses in the last four years; have worked on three international disarmament campaigns; have co-authored six books and manuals; and have engaged in three lobbying missions at the United Nations in New York. Most of these experiences were life-changing, or better yet, have directed me to where I am right now. However, while these milestones seem to reflect (and for lack of a better term) “achievements” in my personal and professional career as a youth peace worker, it’s the lessons (the good, the bad and the ugly) from these experiences that best reflects the achievements that I take as food for growth.
I share my story with a two-fold purpose – first, I am giving myself the chance to reflect and write about what peace work has taught me in life, and secondly, I take this opportunity to share my reflections of my work through the years with others – others who at some point, may have been in the same boat or on the same journey. This is not an exhaustive nor a point-to-point list, but simply a personal story of my journey as a young peace worker.
1. Keep the “faith” and be patient
By faith, I don’t just mean in the religious sense, but the importance of loyalty and trust in what we are doing. I mentioned in my introduction that the type of work we do is not something easily understood by many people. We are either considered social workers, development workers, OR the peacekeeper sent by the UN – but the essence of being a peace worker is something more complicated. Through the years, I have realized that my dedication to peacebuilding is what actually led my friends to eventually understand what I do.
2. We sometimes assume we’re helping, without really knowing
In 2008 I went backpacking in Costa Rica and Panama. On the way I visited little towns and offered some volunteering work. I stayed for a very short time (1 week) and my (then) immature and idealistic self thought “wow, I am helping everywhere I go!” Now I realize I have not communicated back to these people to see how things were; I do not even remember their names! While I have learned to give my small contribution, I actually do not know how much it helped (and I am just hoping it did make some small difference).
3. Not everyone we work with will have the same principles and values for peace that we stand for.
Yes, it happens and it can happen to anyone. This is one of the most challenging things I have had to face as a peace activist. There’s no perfect organization, and there’s no perfect boss, manager or colleague, but the moment we feel that our values are not upheld, either we do something about it, or it’s probably just best to go someplace else. I have had this inner echo of “well, if I stay in this job, I will be able to slowly change things from the inside” and while it is important to try to do our part, it is also important to be realistic and see if our efforts are gaining results. If not, we will be drained, tired, and will not find meaning in the the work we are supposedly passionate about. Simply, if our workplace does not ‘practice what we preach’ or is ‘walking a different talk’, working will not be fulfilling anymore.
4. Treasure collaborative learning and collaborative work.
Being a coordinator gave me a chance to facilitate and promote participatory, open and collaborative processes – may it be for an event, a publication, or a campaign. It makes a big difference to the people I work with! We become more motivated, inspired, and it is more fun to learn while doing things together. We can be important pillars that support collaborative work instead of competition. Sharing the idea of working together and contributing with each one´s capacity and limitations is what we want to promote.
5. Draw the line between work and fun.
Although it seems like the boundaries are very thin and almost invisible, especially when our jobs are so close to our hearts (that they don’t seem like work at all for us), it is important to make a distinction between what stays in the office/field, and what we can and should take to our homes. I have made this mistake several times over. While it is good to be able to talk to my family and friends about work, there were many times when discussions would go sour, arguments would go overboard, and finding who is doing it right or wrong, or debating ‘how things should be done’ has ruined many weekends or holidays. I would sit 5 hours in front of the computer even during very short vacations, or spend my 2-3hrs lay-over at the airport trying to find a free wireless internet spot right next to an electric outlet, or worse, scheduling a working meeting with a colleague who happens to be at the same airport at the same time (which I’ve done twice, by the way!).
6. We have to take care of ourselves as much as we care for others!
I cannot reiterate this enough! Closely related to the one just above, in 2010, I had a biopsy, had to take a one-week ‘bed-rest’ for over-fatigue, and my vision got worse – all in one same year. I worked an average of 10hrs/day in front of the computer, skipped mealtimes, slept less, and even in my sleep, my mind was heavy with thoughts and plans. I slowly understood the need for that ‘balance’ in my life, that my fulfillment should not just be about work but also about myself. I started doing yoga in 2012, which helped in giving me this ‘space’ I needed for myself, and with it came healthy eating habits (i.e. eating slowly and healthy, giving up unhealthy food and drinks and drinking lots and lots of water!). I finally felt the effect of what REST really meant. We are young and our energy is unstoppable, and it is important to learn and find that balance, before it is too late.
7. Have a support group.
Honestly, I don’t know how I could have survived many challenges in my work (and in my life in general) with such a positive outlook if not for my support group. They have journeyed with me on the bumpy road, given me advice and reminders, helped me take decisions, or simply listened to me as I poured my frustrations, complaints and disappointments. They can be our colleagues, our parents, our siblings, our friends. We do need them! They will keep us sane and will guide us back on track when necessary!
8. Self-evaluate and dare take new and more sustainable directions in work and in life.
In my case, I have recently realized that I needed to move on to more sustainable ways of doing peace work. I realized I was no longer happy with what I was doing, that I was burnt out, and was not taking care of myself, as I should. I decided to move on and work on a personal peace project that I hope to dedicate my time to.
9. Be thankful. Appreciate.
Whatever it is that you have gone through, whatever hardships and challenges you have faced as a peace worker, see the brighter side of it. Did it make you a stronger person? Did we learn from it? Did it make us better? Even if we have learned very little from it, it is important to have a thankful heart.
10. My work led me to the most amazing people on this planet.
I was and am most inspired when I am around people, whether when doing trainings, attending a forum, or in a partnership meeting. I believe it is neither luck nor coincidence, but the passion and dedication for the work I do that draws me to people that I am able to build long and meaningful relationships with. While I still cannot say I have friends from all the countries around the world….
This list can go on. My journey of 16 years in youth peace work has in many ways made me who I am today – a truly happy person with a truly happy heart, capable of seeing conflicts as opportunities for change and transformation, ready to make the most out of what I have. I am a happy young peace worker. And I believe that at the end of the day, this is what truly counts.
Story: Meghann Aurea Villanueva (31) is the director of the Peace Programme at Fundació Catalunya Voluntària. She lives in Barcelona and coordinates capacity building of youth multipliers in the field of peace education, intercultural dialogue and conflict transformation through the EuroMed network Peace Bag (www.peacebag.org).
Artist: María Albero