In conversation with peace scholar Dr. Eric Lepp

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Eric Lepp portrait
When Research Fellow and Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) professor Lowell Ewert retired in June, the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement had a faculty spot in the community to fill. In response, the Centre invited PACS Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Eric Lepp to join its diverse community of peacebuilding researchers, activists, entrepreneurs for the duration of his time at Grebel.

Lepp is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, University of Notre Dame, and the University of Manchester, interested in the unexpected spaces where peace is being imagined despite division. Lepp was recently selected for a 2020-2021 Curriculum Development Fellowship with the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Known for his spunky personality and passions for ice hockey and graffiti, Lepp brings an energetic, unique presence to the peacebuilding community.

Centre for Peace Advancement Communications Assistant Victoria Lumax sat down with Lepp to learn more about his research and interests:

Lumax: I see that you have a social work background. What initially drew you to the field of peace studies?

Lepp: Social work and PACS have a lot of intersections—as fields of study and practices. For me, continuing to get my hands dirty and staying active in my studies drew me into social work. It comes down to this idea that the world is not yet for everyone where it can and should be. For my Bachelor of Social Work practicum, I was a Young Offenders Probation Officer for Waterloo Region. This was a very difficult position to be in when trying to consider the possibility of large scale, systems change, which left a mark on me. After that, I decided to go out and see the world and try and learn in some little way how bigger systems linked; I worked in Taiwan, Thailand, and Ottawa before I was accepted into the International Peace Studies program for my Masters at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame. It was here that I was able to really engage with macro-systems and analyze how we can affect change on a larger level.

Lumax: Sounds like you had an interesting journey to finding PACS. I am aware that you study a variety of research topics, such as the ideas of spaces of encounter and coexistence and side-by-sidedness. Tell me more about your research with the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, which you focused on for your doctorate. What did you learn about co-existence and side-by-sideness through it?

Lepp: With my PhD research, I wanted to take a positive look at things. Oftentimes with PACS, we look at the absence of peace. Belfast is a city that remains divided between Catholic-Nationalist and Protestant-Unionist populations are living together apart. I wanted to find an organic shared space, a space where people are voluntarily together. It just so happens that Belfast has a shared professional hockey team which creates a large shared community, drawing over 1500 seasons ticket holders and 7500 fans per game. For my PhD, I conducted ethnographic research and embedded myself in this supporter community. I came to this idea of side-by-sidedness, which I am working on theorizing during my time here at Grebel and at the Centre. What side-by-sidedness comes out of is this search for space on the long road from violent conflict to peace, where people are willing to be share experiences side-by-side one another even when they may not yet be willing to live beside one another. It is easy to find the division, but you can also find those working for peace—which is so inspiring.

Lumax: Seems like a very hopeful project. Another project you are working on is about graffiti in conflict-zones. The Grebel Gallery is a testament to the Centre’s belief that art can be a powerful vehicle for peace. How did this project emerge, and are there any specific works of graffiti that have resonated with you?  

Lepp: I am working on a graffiti project with five other scholars from two major European peace institutes, all of whom have overlapping research interests in art, nationalism, and peace. I have an interest in what graffiti tells us, and in particular, the local voices that are often unheard—who can find their voices on walls. When I went to Cyprus for field research in 2019, I was curious about how the messages would be different on each side of this divided island and what that might look like. There were many messages about the other side in the local languages, Turkish and Greek, but messages calling for peace were mostly in English and near border crossings and tourist sites—as they were designed for an international audience. The world looks at places of conflict like Cyprus and sees an island that is split–almost literally in half–but does not look at the everyday struggles of the common people as they make meaning of their lives. The graffiti on both sides was not singularly focused on historical divisions, it was very much a medium that included calls for human rights on behalf of marginalized people in their territory, such as migrant workers and the transgender population. These pieces reminded me that there are active systems of resistance and advocacy everywhere and that graffiti offers a perspective that is much more diverse than the binaries of conflict. It reminds us of the humanity of those who live there and how their existences and identities are defined by so much more than just territorial and ethnic divide.

Lumax: It is interesting how much graffiti can teach us about the local people and their struggles, as well as help us see how peace may be possible. You were invited to the Centre for Peace Advancement because of your Visiting Assistant Professor appointment with the PACS department. As an educator in peace studies, where do you fit in in the PACS department at Conrad Grebel University College? What do you emphasize in your teaching?

Lepp: Mennonite peace studies programs have a long tradition of existing outside of the status quo, reflecting how they are in the world, in doing so offering a unique way to approach the problems of the world. During my appointment here, I am striving to contribute to Grebel’s long, unique history. When it comes to my teaching, I take an approach that sees my students lived experiences and voices as an incredibly important part of designing and building my courses. As a professor, I hope to be a part of a collective department that empowers and allies with people in our classrooms who might find themselves under-represented in their classes, or at the margins of their learning experiences to centre themselves in their own learning experience. Using the language and theories of the university class there is an opportunity to reinforce students voices to help them cut through the noise and bring real change on issues that matter.

Centre participants such as Lepp are involved in meaningful peace research, shedding light on people and spaces previously overlooked. The Centre provides a community for peace researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs to advance peace in creative, collaborative ways that address local and global issues.