This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Peacemaker teaches conflict resolution on global scale

As the daughter of a pioneering rock concert promoter and a Zen Buddhist psychotherapist, Alexandra Lieben grew up in Vienna, Austria, with a deep appreciation for cultural diversity, an unwavering respect for humanity, a strong sense of humility, the ability to listen and the desire to bring people together.

As deputy director of the Burkle Center for International Relations, Lieben is using her past and present to shape the future for students at UCLA.

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Alexandra Lieben teaches a course dedicated to the exploration of international conflict negotiation and mediation.
She is doing this through her role at the Burkle Center, where she runs a popular internship program and has encouraged the development of The Generation, a new online, student-produced global affairs journal. Her role as a teacher, something she has done at UCLA for the past four years, has also grown out of her drive to promote understanding and harmony.

She is currently taking center stage as the instructor of a new class that melds the theory and practice of international conflict resolution, a topic that has served as an unbroken thread that runs through her professional life.

Her new "Communities and Nations in Conflict" course was created as part of a series of public events, curricula and programs developed campuswide in response to tensions on University of California campuses among those who hold opposing views on politically charged issues. The intent of the campuswide effort is to emphasize the UCLA Principles of Community while continuing to equip students for success in a complicated, interconnected world.

"We have an incredibly international student body that carries within it all the global conflicts," said Lieben, who will lead her final class this week. "A course like this gives students a basic framework for how to understand the underlying issues and how to effectively intervene, if necessary. It gives them a theoretical understanding and practical tools."

Since January, her class of 35 students has been studying global conflicts that have broken out in Rwanda, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, among others. Students' course readings, videos and class discussions provide a thorough introduction into the complex field of international conflict resolution, from the emergence of conflict, to conflict prevention, peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction.
Class discussions can take on a personal dimension, as it did when a master’s student who survived the genocide in Rwanda shared his experience. Students exchange their observation of world news, culled from and framed by local and regional news media in different parts of the world.

Her students have also welcomed a series of guest speakers to their class, including General Wesley Clark (ret.), former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and a senior fellow at the Burkle Center. Adding to students’ understanding of the causes of war as well as the resolution of conflict, Clark spoke of his work in the Balkans during the 1990s and the crucial decisions he had to make there.
"It’s important to thoroughly understand a conflict — no matter the size and scope of the issue — and to understand how its stakeholders perceive it," said Lieben, who studied international conflict resolution in Prague and public policy at UCLA before becoming a certified mediator and a member of Mediators Beyond Borders International. "There are always several sides to a story, and it’s important to make room for and acknowledge all those sides. The resolution emerges most often from within the conflict parties. And it is our role to help facilitate this process, with respect for indigenous agency and humility in the face of human resilience and resourcefulness."

The lessons students are learning are applicable in any setting, she said.

"You don’t have to go to some far off locale," Lieben said. "These lessons can be used in a company, a nonprofit, in government, even in their own circle of friends or in their families. In the end, it is all about people and about helping them understand and negotiate their issues.

Her home country’s difficult history was a catalyst for her interest in conflict mediation and resolution. Growing up, she often reflected on Austria’s history, its legacy as the heart of the Habsburg Empire and its role in World War II.

This interest in politics and policy led her in high school toward student government. Lieben and a group of like-minded friends brought attention to important issues by running a national student magazine, organizing demonstrations and participating in an underground radio station.

Lieben worked as a jazz festival promoter in the music industry and later in film production. But what she enjoyed most in these fields was reconciling competing interests and mediating disputes among performers and vendors.
Following high school graduation, Lieben studied Italian in Florence and French in Paris, where she also worked for a jazz festival promoter. That job landed her a three-month stint in Nice, working alongside notable music heavyweights like B.B. King, Miles Davis, Jimmy Cliff and Dizzy Gillespie.

While working in the music industry and later in film production, she frequently negotiated contracts, mediated disputes among performers and vendors, and established paths for reconciliation.

"Dealing with varying dynamics between people, trying to reconcile their interests — and ultimately helping them resolve their problems — was always the most interesting and enjoyable aspect for me. In those fields, you have to negotiate all the time."

To resolve any conflict, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind, she explained. Don’t come in with preconceived notions, a planned course of action or preordained solutions. Approach the situation with great humility, listen actively and be open for whatever arises, she advised.

"You need to come in as an open vessel and help the parties involved develop their own solutions," she said. "Your role is to help people dig deeper and transcend their emotions and stated positions. Help them explore what they really care about, and help them to develop options for resolving their disputes. It’s a respectful, collaborative and enriching process because you help broaden horizons, bridge differences and reestablish relations between people.
"It all boils down to human beings and a meeting of the minds," Lieben said. "It’s about the encounter and how to do that in the most positive, constructive way."
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