After spending two years earning her master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies—having previously been a visiting fellow at the Institute—Myla Leguro recently returned to her native Mindanao, a violence-ridden island in the southern Philippines. There, for more than two decades, she has been working for Catholic Relief Services to forge peaceful relationships between rival indigenous, Muslim, and Christian groups, as well as the government in Manila. For Leguro, practice comes before theory and the local precedes the national and the global. When she thinks about religion, too, practical, context-specific steps toward getting different communities talking with each other trump concerns about abstract doctrines or clashing civilizations.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Religion and International Affairs.—ed.

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NS: Can you tell me about how you first got involved in peacebuilding?

ML: Living amidst the conflict in Mindanao, if you’re concerned about changing the situation at all, peacebuilding almost automatically becomes a part of your mission. I started early in my university days with student activism work, using music and other forms of cultural outreach. During that time, the People Power Revolution was going on, and I wanted to explore the ways that I, as a student, could take part in it. I became involved in a church-based organization called Citizens’ Council for Justice and Peace, where the focus was on human rights education. Right after college, I joined the organization in order to do justice education with urban poor communities in Davao City. Then, because my degree is in agriculture, I tried to work with a government program assisting farmers in southern Mindanao. But I found that my passion drew me more toward non-governmental organizations, and so I joined Catholic Relief Services after that. My religious commitment and my professional life dovetailed and became integrated at CRS.

NS: How much does CRS, which is mainly an aid organization, see peacebuilding as a part of its purpose?

ML: When I began at Catholic Relief Services in 1991, our focus was on development. I worked on agriculture and enterprise development programs. In 1996 CRS decided to establish a peace and reconciliation program to help support the peace agreement signed between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front. I was very happy about this change in the organization, so I transferred from development to peacebuilding in 1997.

NS: How does CRS approach its peacebuilding work in Mindanao?

ML: We understand our purpose mainly in terms of bridge-building. We’re fostering relationships that, if conflict arises, will offer an alternative mechanism to fighting. This begins with governance at the local level, but we also keep in mind the larger peace process in the region. On the one hand, we help local governments implement the national government’s peace program, which they’re mandated to do anyway. On the other, we assist grassroots organizations in setting up and strengthening conflict-resolution mechanisms. As we understand it, the conflict in Mindanao is not just one between the government and rebel groups—there are also issues at a more local level, such as clan feuds over land and other resources. We try to address these small-scale disputes while, at the same time, helping to resolve problems facing the country as a whole.

NS: What are some examples of particular programs you have been involved in implementing?

ML: The current focus of our programs is making sure that village-level development plans account for the concerns of the most vulnerable groups in the community, which often include Muslims, indigenous people, women, and youth. For example, the indigenous groups don’t have a revolutionary front, so they are not as well-organized as the Muslims or the Christians. We’re helping to create a network of different indigenous organizations that will be strong enough to make their voices heard. We’re also working to promote peace education in schools and madrasahs, as well as in the mass media, in order to help make the peace process more a part of mainstream culture.

NS: And how do you measure success—or progress, at least?

ML: When we begin a particular initiative, one measure of success is whether it can actually sustain itself and grow. The indigenous peoples’ network that I was talking about started with small-level, core-group meetings. A number of indigenous leaders had brought up the concern that it was very hard for them to be heard in peace negotiations with the government and, for some of them, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. We began setting up meetings and doing some consultations, and now it has become a network of its own. Our strategy is to use small activities as catalysts for larger ones. When tensions flared up between Muslims, Christians, and indigenous peoples about the Memorandum of Agreement in 2008, we were actually able to contain some of the violence, and that was only because of years and years spent nurturing relationships at the grassroots level.

NS: So, a little well-placed effort can go a long way?

ML: Yes. Part of what we do is nurturing “peace champions” in certain sectors. It was very hard at first to engage the military in the peace process in Mindanao, for instance. But we had an international peace training program, and in 2005 we invited a military official to attend. Soon, that official became an advocate for the peace process within the military structure. Because we are a small organization, we realize that we can’t instantly transform the whole system in Mindanao, or even the Philippines. But if our approach is to strategically target individuals in particular communities, we can help influence the system as a whole.

NS: Can it become problematic, especially in the eyes of rebel groups, that you’re helping to carry out the national government’s peace program? How can the government come to the table and call for peace without being perceived by some as wanting a peace that is unjust?

ML: We cannot build a sustainable peace if the critical stakeholders aren’t part of the process, and the government is a critical stakeholder. Of course, we have to maintain credibility among the various other stakeholders, which can be difficult. We’re not naïve about the unequal power relations among them. There are times when we need to act as advocates for particular vulnerable groups, as we have for the indigenous; if a vulnerable group is going to engage in negotiation or dialogue, they need to have the necessary preparation to do it.

NS: By the same token, does being a specifically Catholic organization make it difficult to work with other religious communities?

ML: In years past, we had real difficulties collaborating with Muslim communities because of our name. We had to reach out and build relationships with them to show we didn’t intend to convert anybody and that we only wanted to be a partner in the peace process. Over the years, we have been able to win their trust. We began with only a few Muslim partners, and then they became our spokespersons. Now, if we enter a Muslim community, it’s not just us; we do it together with a Muslim organization. We never enter any community without a local partner. This puts on display the kind of collaboration that we want to encourage. As we work with one group of people, we try to help teach them how to work with others.

NS: Is there strong support for what you’re doing within local Catholic communities?

ML: Because of the longstanding conflict in Mindanao, we have to foster this same kind of openness among Catholics as well. We’re continuing to do interreligious dialogue, but now we’re actually focusing more exclusively on bringing fellow Catholics into the peacebuilding process—exclusively, that is, so they’ll become more inclusive.

NS: Have there been secular organizations involved—organizations that aren’t affiliated with particular religious groups? Or do you think that peacebuilding can only succeed through efforts grounded in religious communities?

ML: The conflict in Mindanao is not a religious conflict as such, but it certainly has a religious component, and religious identity is very important for all the participants. But secular organizations might play more of a role in peacebuilding in other contexts. Take, for example, the communist insurgency elsewhere in the Philippines, which I’m also involved in helping to resolve; that conflict is founded in a grievance against the state, and the issues are very secular. But even in that case, religious leaders are taking part as well.

NS: When you say that this is not a religious conflict, what does that mean, exactly? How do you know it’s not, especially if the divisions are drawn along lines of religious identity?

ML: It’s not just religious identity, but ethnic identity also. When we think about the conflict in Mindanao, it’s important to look back to the history of colonization and how it affected the political, economic, and social challenges we’re now dealing with. It led to the marginalization of Muslims and indigenous people, not only at the political and economic level, but also in terms of demography. Religious or ethnic identity becomes a marker, but other factors are really responsible for the conflict.

NS: How has your time at Notre Dame affected how you think about and carry out your work?

ML: Well, I’ve only been back for three months—

NS: So you’re still getting over the jet lag?

ML: Yes, getting over the jet lag and trying to transition back into the CRS peace and reconciliation program. I was away for two years, but it also feels like I haven’t been gone very long. People in Mindanao are facing the same issues now as when I left in 2008. We did just elect a new president, actually, and there are high hopes for him. But part of what I have brought back is the desire to share with my colleagues and our partners the benefits of reflection. For the past decade or more, it has always been work, work, work, and practice, practice, practice. There isn’t enough value placed on stepping back, reflecting, and trying to gather lessons from what we’ve been through. I’d like to do this more intentionally and systematically than it has been done in the past.

NS: Did you feel that what you were studying at Notre Dame actually spoke to the situation on the ground where you are?

ML: Being exposed to various theories of peacebuilding certainly expanded my range of vision. As a practitioner I have always relied on a bottom-up theory of change. But, in the end, there are other ways of doing it too. Getting to know, for example, democratic-peace theory, which is a more high-level, elite approach, has helped me understand how those of us working on the ground can address elites. The experience, however, strengthened my own conviction that I am where I belong. On a personal level, the time at Notre Dame also helped reinforce my sense of identity as a woman and as a Christian.

NS: What does that awareness of identity help you bring to your work?

ML: Being conscious of one’s identity can make one stronger and more effective. I’m convinced that I, as a peacebuilder, need to touch the hearts and minds of people I work with, and part of doing that is being able to connect with who I am. When you do this kind of work, you’re in it for the long haul. You can’t just stop one day and change jobs. There is a lot at stake, and the whole person needs to become involved in order to endure disappointments and keep working for success. Self-awareness also helps me understand the power relations I’m dealing with. As a woman, my gender always becomes a constraint because of how my culture tends to view the role of women. Reflecting on that helps me to understand the constraints others feel.

NS: Are there many women involved in this kind of work in Mindanao?

ML: Many women are involved, but unfortunately not as visibly as men in the formal leadership structures. Women do a lot of work in terms of preparation and facilitation, but it is mostly invisible. The actual peace negotiations are done publicly and formally, and women don’t necessarily have access to them. Part of my own advocacy is to help give women more of a voice in the public processes. My research in the master’s program focused on the role of women in peacebuilding—both visible and invisible.

NS: Are there ways in which being a woman enables you to operate in a way in which, perhaps, a man in your position couldn’t?

ML: I think it does give me a distinct way of looking at things compared to others. I always work for complementation, which comes partly from my standpoint as a woman. Integration comes naturally to me. I’m always asking myself how I can connect people and groups, activities and initiatives. That, I think, has been my contribution as a peacebuilder and as a woman.