Rachel Brown will be the Common Ground on the Hill keynote speaker for week three, and will tackle conversations about communication’s role in increasing and reducing the risk for violence. Brown said via email she runs an organization called Over Zero.
“If you can remember from the days of doing fractions and division, any number over/zero cannot be divided. We work to help societies resist division and build collective futures,” she said.
Brown said Over Zero works to bring together academics across disciplines to solve issues, and design new solutions and learn more about how communication can be used to “build societies that are able to resist attempts at division — whether based on skin color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, political preference, or any other piece of our identity.”
The Carroll County Times caught up with Brown to discuss her keynote address, which will take place at 8 p.m. July 9 in Alumni Hall at McDaniel College.
Q: Tell us about how your work began.
A: I started doing this work in Kenya, where I founded and ran an organization called Sisi ni Amani Kenya (“We are Peace” Kenya). Phones — text messages in particular — had been used to prepare and organize groups for violence during Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence, and I worked with local peace activists to build new tools that used the same tool for peace. We built a platform to reach people over text message with civic education, invite them for events like political debates, and respond to rumors, misinformation, and tensions in real-time. With over 65,000 subscribers to our platform, we worked throughout the country’s 2013 election cycle.
In 2014 I moved back to the U.S. and was a Genocide Prevention Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for Prevention of Genocide, where I authored Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communication Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech. That’s where I really dove in to exploring the knowledge that different fields and sectors — from neuroscience and social psychology to marketing — have to teach us about communication and conflict. Over Zero builds on that work: through trainings and capacity building, designing and seeding new projects and pushing research forward by fostering interdisciplinary connections.
I first started on my path towards all of this work in Maryland, so it is exciting to come back for Common Ground: I grew up in Owings Mills, Maryland. In 10th grade, I studied the genocide in Cambodia for a history project, and became passionate about preventing that type of violence and targeting of people based on their identity.
Q: What is your role at Common Ground this year?
A: I will be delivering the keynote address for Week 3, and I will be teaching a class through the course of the week that will take people on an in-depth dive to learn about the role communication plays in increasing division and violence, and will then guide them through a process for designing their own approaches to use communication for good.
Q: What is your keynote address about?
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A: My keynote address is called Resisting Division, Creating Active Peace. It will focus on understanding the ways that communication divides people based on different parts of their identity — we see common patterns over and over again — to make people more aware and able to respond when they see those dynamics taking place. We will look at patterns of communication but also the very human emotions, needs and tendencies it taps into. Then, I’ll talk about the role of communication in resisting that type of division and moving people towards action that can prevent and undermine violence and division and move societies towards what I call an “active peace.” Most importantly, I’ll talk about the role that anyone in society can play in using their own voice and talents to have an impact on these issues.
Q: Why do you think your keynote address topic is important for people to hear? Why is it relevant right now?
A: Many people are worried about divisive rhetoric in our country right now — whether based on political affiliation (liberal/conservative; Democrat/Republican), religion, legal status, national origin and more. I have found that people are eager to find ways to change this, but often don’t feel like they know where to begin or how to take action.
It’s easy to feel like these are big issues that we have no control over, but the truth is, we all play important roles and we all have a voice. Looking at it through the lens of communication, you can realize how many conversations — whether in person, by text, on social media — you have in a day, how many people you come into contact with, or the power of something as simple as a story to change the environment you’re in. By looking deeper at our communities, and looking at how communication spreads, the narratives and ideas that are being bought into, we can start to figure out ways to shift the conversation or to engage people in new ways. We all also have unique access to different people and communities — whether as a teacher, a musician, a friend, a store owner or more.
We also know the types of communication we tend to see over and over again when groups are targeted — to be harmed in some way or, at the extreme, with violence. And we know it’s important to take action early on when this starts to happen. To me, this means that it’s important to help people see how they can think about their own roles and unique capacities, and feel empowered to take action in a way that’s effective.
Q: Why is Common Ground so important? What do people get out of it and why should they go?
A: I’m so excited to be at Common Ground this year along with the Over Zero team. It’s my first time, and I am excited to learn new skills and ways of thinking, to be immersed in arts and creativity, and to meet people with different perspectives and talents. I think Common Ground helps build a wonderful vision and reality of community and a society that embraces creativity and brings people together. As we all work to create a more peaceful society, initiatives like Common Ground that recognize the value of the intersection of different fields and practices are more important than ever.