Starting a Career Building Peace

by David J. Smith

The January tragedy in Tucson, Arizona involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a number of her constituents has raised a national call for civil discourse and reminds us of the need for professionals dedicated to helping societies and individuals prone to violence. There is a vast range of careers that can play intervening roles for troubled individuals, including mental health professionals, social workers, police, and educators. Many professions work to prevent and resolve violence, as well as build peace.

In some of these jobs, focusing on peace is not the prime objective of everyday work, but is often an important outcome of the efforts. Teachers, for instance, are generally not in a classroom specifically to build peace, but education provides tools that are essential to living free of violence. Law enforcers, journalists, and therapists also are often building peace in indirect ways. Other professions operate in a more direct way to promote peace. In these cases, the professional is engaging specifically in activities meant to prevent, end, or deal with violence, or ensure continued peace. Examples of these occupations include domestic violence professionals, community mediators, humanitarian workers, and diplomats. As such, there are two ways of working for peace: jobs that focus on direct action and those that foster peace indirectly. Depending on the circumstances, a job that focuses indirectly on peace can at times be working in a direct way, as in the case of a teacher who engages in peace education by sponsoring a peer mediation program or a journalist who writes about war and violence with the goal of finding solutions.

Another way of viewing peace careers is to consider the level of engagement. Is the professional working directly with individuals to lessen personal conflict; working with groups to reduce community, interracial, interethnic, or interreligious conflict; or working in a global context focusing on nations in conflict? For instance, an individual who works as a youth counselor may be working indirectly to bring about peace, and these efforts are at the individual, or micro, level. Working to lessen conflict between commercial land developers and a local residential community as a mediator is working directly at the group, or meso, level. Finally, one who is working at the United Nations, the U.S. State Department or a non-governmental organization can be promoting peace directly and sometimes indirectly at the global, or macro, level.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Levels of Engagement

Working for peace is not just for those working in the non-profit or government sectors. Increasingly the business sector is emphasizing practices that build peace in a strategy known as “corporate social responsibility.” Many global businesses are making sure that their practices promote human rights, an important element of peace. Arguably, even those pursuing a military career can be working for peace. Military personnel are increasingly tasked with negotiating between groups in conflict and using peacebuilding skills to promote inter-community harmony. This is very much the case with those deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Teacher (as a peace educator) Humanitarian worker (in a post-conflict environment)
Journalist (who writes about conflict) Community mediator
Nurse (in a post-conflict environment) Domestic violence worker
Military (promoting inter-ethnic understanding) Ombudsperson
Therapist (working with patients dealing with violent behavior)

Figure 2: Peace Careers


“There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” – Peace activist A.J. Muste

Here are some ways for career professionals and educators to guide the aspiring peacebuilder:

Working for peace is not like any other job. Working in an environment focusing on moral and ethical issues demands that one feels strongly that the work reflects personal values. A student should identify a cause that she is willing to work passionately for -- late at night, on the weekends, and without a big paycheck!

There is no single academic path to a peacebuilding career. Many working in the field are doing so by pursuing careers in healthcare, law enforcement, or social services, while others choose humanitarian careers or diplomacy. Emerging academic fields that focus on peace are worth considering, such as peace studies and conflict resolution. Peace studies is a discipline that broadly looks at understanding sources of conflict and developing strategies to promote long term global peace. Conflict resolution tends to be more applied than peace studies and considers domestic issues additionally. Both programs encourage internships and study abroad to enhance one’s skills and broaden abilities to work in challenging and multicultural environments.

A good way to start a career is by investing time in related activities, particularly by volunteering. Every organization in the peace field can benefit from the talents of idealistic and eager college students. Many groups involved in local peace and conflict resolution efforts are staffed by students who give of their time and talents apart from classes. Students can also consider activities and clubs as varied as Model UN, faith based organizations, and diversity groups that promote peacebuilding.

As with any profession, a supportive community is important to advancing one’s interests and aspirations as well as helping with moral and emotional support. Mentoring and networking are also important, especially in a field that is ever changing and needs to respond quickly to local and global events. Relevant communities can also be found through virtual social networks like Facebook.

As one says in real estate, location, location, location! Being at the right place (or environment) at the right time is an important factor in starting a career. If a student’s interest is in global efforts, opportunities are more likely to be found in Washington, DC (or another large city) than in one’s home town. Because I work in the global context, I often encourage students to move to DC to start their peace job hunting. I liken coming to Washington as similar to the aspiring young actor who goes to Hollywood and waits tables hoping for the big break. On the other hand, a local community also has many avenues for engaging in peace work. For those dealing with the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, there are many careers to be pursued that focus on building peace within their own community. Career Counselors can lead students and others in the direction of peace by sharing resources, both community-based and world-wide.

From National Career Development Association

David J. Smith, J.D., M.S., is a conflict resolution and peacebuilding education expert who has worked in domestic and international settings for over 20 years. He has taught at the community college and 4-year college levels, and is an adjunct faculty member at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. A former Fulbright Scholar, he is the National Educational Outreach Officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, DC. The opinions in this article represent his own and not those of USIP. He can be reached at