Wim Laven interviewing Matt Meyer, co-founder PJSA, co-secretary general of IPRA.
Wim: You’re a co-founder of the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) and co-secretary general of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA). Could you describe the relationship and functions of the two organizations, as you see them?
Matt: IPRA has become the leading global network of peace studies for academic professionals and students. When one looks at the study of peace and conflict, IPRA really is the most significant global force that collects people, practices, and knowledge together. We’re just about 60 years old. We have five associations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America. Some of those are fairly new, and some of them, like one predecessor of PJSA, were founded at more or less the same time as IPRA. IPRA really has been a truly international body for decades. That’s reflected in where we’ve had our conferences, who we’ve chosen as our secretary generals and the continuing political direction of the association. One of the points of greatest pride for me is that we don’t leave to chance the question of global leadership. We embody on a structural level that which many international peace organizations are trying to achieve. Our structure depends on a grouping of people that are always going to be at least 50% women. In some ways, my election as secretary general was in spite of that fact that I’m from North America. But I’m also a long-standing Africanist, so my election is very much part of the package of work with Christine Atieno. Certainly, the idea that we would consolidate IPRAs infrastructure, including the African pieces of the association, was on most people’s minds when we were elected. So that’s a little bit about IPRA.
As for PJSA, my role in the founding of this organization is one of the great prides of my life and career. Within North America, sectarianism has meant that organizations and associations split and split into little pieces, but very rarely do you hear about successful mergers. PJSA, though, is a creation of merger. The Consortium on Peace Research, Education, and Development (COPRED) was founded around the same time as IPRA. A couple decades ago, COPRED and the Peace Studies Association (PSA) were doing very similar work and had many overlapping goals, objectives, and members. So after years of talks and conversations, PSA and COPRED decided to merge into what became PJSA. That merger was based on the view that we could be stronger together.
I was the vice president of COPRED at the time of the merger talks. At a certain point, three of us from COPRED and PSA decided that we wanted to take “a walk in the woods,” as we called it. We didn’t want to have an agenda, we didn’t want to have official meetings, but we heard from our memberships that the overlap caused too much competition, and we needed to have a frank and loving conversation. Three people expanded to six, and after several years our conversations led to formal talks, fully authorized by the boards of our organizations. Eventually, we had a joint conference where the membership voted overwhelmingly to merge COPRED and PSA into one entity. We made two really significant decisions early on. First, the new organization would be called “peace and justice”; we wanted to add justice. Second, we would still focus on academics and building peace studies institutions, but would also have a peace activist and peace organizing component. Practitioners would be made to feel welcome both in the association and in its conferences. After close to two decades, PJSA is thriving.
There are two additional things worth noting. First, PJSA needs to liaise with international organizations in a very formal way. In fact, for many years, I was the PJSA liaison to IPRA. PJSA has continued to think internationally and globally even as our mission is regional. Second, from the institutional perspective, PJSA has a continental mandate of only two countries: The United States and Canada. Mexico prefers to work with Latin America and South America. So PJSA remains a North American association, but we talk about being not only part of the US, but being international. For PJSA, we need continuing relations with our Mexican brothers and sisters to the South, but building an organization with our Canadian comrades in the North has been a tremendous priority. For a long time, at least half of our chairs of PJSA have been Canadian and US co-chairs, and the PSJA conferences have been in Canada at least every three years. This is a truly binational Canadian-US group, and it has actually made PJSA a stronger organization.
Wim: What are two or three projects or events that would drive home the robustness of PJSA?
Matt: I don’t know if I can think of a specific project because there have been many over the years, but it’s not so much projects as what I’ve been involved in for years — all of the flashbacks. And the flashbacks are moments of individual excitement and wonder, moments of institutional and academic lightbulbs.
I can remember a few; I can remember that in one of the early conferences for PJSA we put together panels made up of one researcher or university-based academic, one k-12 teacher, and one activist. That model of having this group of people come together as PJSA was a priority. This proved very successful at a conference on disarmament and anti-nuclearism. We created a framework where one could talk about cutting edge issues from an academic perspective, from a k-12 educator’s perspective, and from a peace activist’s perspective. It was a stunning moment.
Of course, later Emily Welty and others who were founding members of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and who had done a lot of work at the United Nations, won the Nobel Peace Prize (2017). So that piece of PJSAs work was part of a movement that went from the academy to the streets and back again. It’s been one point of great pride and great memories. What else to say? It’s hard not to have flashbacks to proud moments.
Wim: As co-secretary general of IPRA, you’ve been visiting the other affiliate organizations around the world. What would you like to point out about what’s happening around the world in that role?
Matt: One of the great privileges of my year so far, has been the ability to attend and present at the regional conferences of PJSA, the African Peace Research and Education Association (AFPREA), the Latin American Peace Research Association (CLAIP), and the Asian Pacific Peace Research Association (APPRA). I didn’t get to the European Peace Research Association (EUPRA) conference, but Christine Atieno, my co-secretary general, was in attendance. The two of us were together at the African Peace Research Association conference. Africa is the youngest of the regional conferences, and it was a glorious. It brought together a small group of leaders from every corner of the continent, people who are really significant stakeholders and movers and shakers. We met at the Nelson Mandela launch site in Cape Town where one goes by boat to Robben Island, to the prison museum that held Mandela and others for decades. So it’s a very important symbolic site for us to gather at. We also met for one day in collaboration with the International Sports and Peace Association. This has been a local conference held in South Africa for many years, and I was honored to be an official part of it. Exploring the mixture of sports and culture was definitely one of the highlights, and we were really able to look deeply at the African context of war and peace at this moment.
Traveling to these conferences, I was hopping from place to place in a rather intensely fast pace. And yet, though it was exhilarating and exhausting, those experiences give me more hope and more energy than anything else. In fact, it was in many ways quite different from my daily realities in the US. People around the world, both from the academy and elsewhere, are not being stopped or stuck with the backlash that continues to take place. There’s no question, for example, that the current government of Brazil right now is not great. And yet, there was no sense of this moment in history being one that they wouldn’t quickly work themselves out of. That in some ways this is temporary. And so that level of energy and that level of hope is what really show through. In Brazil, it’s worthy to note, CLAIP recognized explicitly the need to build a new generation of leaders within the peace movement, and so held a youth camp in the days before the General Conference. I was very privileged to be part of the youth camp. There was no sense that there wouldn’t be significant positive change, radical change in the coming years. The question was how do we learn from history? How do we work better together? How do we create more student to student dialogue? The question was, how do we, as Latin American youth, get a chance to like better and have conversations with young people in North America, or young people in other parts of the world? So those were the questions, filled with energy and intensity and creative vision.