Pushing Pupils With a Passion for Peace - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Pushing Pupils With a Passion for Peace

Pushing Pupils With a Passion for Peace

By Poornima Apte


There are ways of addressing conflict while preserving human dignity.

By Poornima Apte

Professor Anna Spain Bradley, OZY Educator Award winner
University of Colorado Law School, Boulder 

I believe people can change the world through the choices they make. As a professor, a scholar and a mediator, I work to build understanding about how our choices can lead to peace — and why our best efforts at peace sometimes fail.

My passion for promoting peace began as a child. Like many, I had grandparents who had served in, or simply survived, World War II. I knew I was fortunate to grow up in a time and a place of relative peace. In high school, however, I witnessed other kinds of violence, born of racism and poverty. My high school guidance counselor, a key mentor, saw potential in me and asked me to join a new program that trained students as peer mediators. I was hooked, and I’ve been a mediator ever since.

As an African-American woman who is biracial and bicultural (my mother is from England, and my father is from Virginia), I appreciate how one’s identity is intersectional and complex. Identity is also essential to understanding and moving through conflict.

I reject Aristotle’s view that “the law is reason free from passion.”

I remember one case that I mediated where a male supervisor admitted privately to me that he had racist feelings toward the woman under his management whom he had denied a promotion. His admission shocked us both. But from that place of brutal honesty we arrived at a solution agreeable to both parties, rooted in their mutual willingness to change and to grow. Experiences like these have proved formative for me. I learned that though people don’t always want to change, they can change at every stage and at any age.

After becoming a lawyer and working at the State Department, my work moved from conflict between individuals to conflict between nations. Sitting in a room at the United Nations or in an international court, I realized that there were always a few people in the room who had the power and the vision to persuade others to change geopolitical history for the better. There’s another aspect to this discussion: diversity. The people who decide whether we go to war and how we make peace must reflect our global community if we are ever to achieve a lasting peace. 


Now, as a scholar, I explore these matters of who decides between war and peace — and why who decides matters. Through the lens of international law and with the aid of neuroscience, my work examines how our emotions, empathy and biases intersect, at the neural level, with the parts of the brain that process logical reasoning. To put it simply, I reject Aristotle’s view that “the law is reason free from passion.” Then again, as my colleague wisely cautioned, we can’t blame Aristotle; they didn’t have neuroscience back then. 

The exercise and enforcement of law always involves emotion. Judges, police officers, military officials, world leaders — these individuals are tasked under the law with making decisions that affect us all. Many of these people believe they can remain impartial, uninfluenced by their personal beliefs in making those choices. I am working to show why they can’t. The key is to understand how who we are — our identities, our biases, our feelings — influences the choices we make.

In the past year, I’ve been fortunate to work with a variety of educators as the assistant vice provost for faculty development and diversity at my university on how to make their teaching truly inclusive and why identity awareness — not color blindness — is the answer. These various experiences have informed my approach as an educator. Law school is tough, and the culture of the legal profession often valorizes power and hierarchy.

In my classroom, I aim to create a subculture that values diversity and inclusion. I design my courses to encourage students to get to know one another beyond stereotypes and to build capacity for authentic, meaningful dialogue. We take up the tough conversations that our country needs to be having about racism, Islamophobia, discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation and gender and more. We learn how disagreement can foster deep understanding while upholding our common dignity. My students inspire me not just to teach but to educate — to help people learn by seeing the other in themselves and themselves in the other. 

In the end, we are all connected. In a world of 7.5 billion people, our collective future depends on humanity’s ability to cooperate and live in peace. I understand my task as an educator to be doing my small part to help us find that peace. Whatever the future holds, we are moving there fast, together. The sooner we can learn to appreciate our differences while respecting our unity, the better off we will be.

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