Artisans of Peace: An Interview with Jason Ferenczi

In this interview with lead facilitator Jason Ferenczi, we get to know more about the hopes, fears, inspirations and intentions that helped him design the Artisans of Peace program.

Our mission at unRival is to accompany peacebuilders to nurture hope, inspire collaboration, and overcome destructive rivalry.

To that end, we’ve recently started the Artisans of Peace program, which creates space for peacebuilders to gather in an environment of trust and creativity where hope, collaboration, and resilience can flourish.

The inaugural cohort is composed of many in our network from diverse backgrounds and geographies, along with unRival staff. We meet together once a month to:

  • Explore and test core assumptions about the unRival mission, particularly the balance between structure and relational space.
  • Step into an atypical, aspirational space where productive yet tired leaders can build trusting, nonrivalrous relationships.
  • Strengthen a network of core relationships and surfacing additional modes of collaboration/partnership.
  • Identify possibilities for unRival to undergird collaborative efforts with support and encouragement, even as this cohort strengthens unRival’s mission and praxis.
  • Stimulate insight into creative peacebuilding.

In this interview with lead facilitator Jason Ferenczi, we get to know more about the hopes, fears, inspirations and intentions that helped him design the Artisans of Peace program.

Jason, what is the Artisans of Peace program?

Artisans of Peace is a leadership development process. 

One of the things I struggled with in my career was an idea of leadership development in a box: “Let’s come up with the perfect program that gives people the right set of knowledge they need, translate it into 72 languages, and meet all the needs.”  In the funding community especially, there was a kind of bewitchment: who can do that on a grander scale? Who can get the bigger numbers?

It never worked. It didn’t take into account the real magic that happened in life-on-life formation. It rarely went beyond the individual.

I concluded that you go beyond the individual by forming them to be more human in their approach. How do they become less rivalrous? How can they see their strengths and their weaknesses more clearly?

At the end of the day, Artisans of Peace is really an experiment in creating human space. I think if we asked people, most of them would agree there are not many places to share things like that. Especially, for those who are deep in conflict. 

I think that deep, deep desire to be human is just coming out all over. I think Artisans of Peace is an experiment in creating space for people to be fully human.

Increasingly I see this as a co-creative process... a broader process of being more fully human, using all of our channels of creativity. All of those are essential to achieving the big picture of peace.

If this is an experiment in becoming fully human, then what is the inhuman that people are dealing with most of the time?

I think the race to prove oneself, the race to find the technical solution that’s going to make everything work. The race to accumulate enough power, even enough power to do good. I think that’s where the inhumanity comes in.

It’s a fairly common human thing, I think. Yet so many of our professional spaces, our spaces of leadership development, don’t pay enough attention to this. 

I’ve also been reflecting on this process as a leadership development project. Most leadership development focuses on cognitive knowledge or skill development. The “heart” is usually named too, but it always seems to be the lowest priority. 

In so much of my experience with leadership development programs, the heart side has been very cold. Not fully human. The development of your heart and your emotional life and your interior world is a means toward an end and accomplishment. 

It’s hard to completely debunk that, because obviously if an organization is investing in its leaders, or if a leader is paying for leadership development, there should be some means to an end to justify. But it loses something when it only asks, how can this make you better at what you do? How can this improve your earning potential? How can this improve our organizational earning potential? How can this make us better at what we do so we can compete better for grants and that kind of thing? 

All those questions are valid. Absolutely they’re valid. But I think without that deeper level of attention, something is missing.

What needs did we see that this program is designed to meet?

I come back frequently to our interview with Juliana [Tesija]. I think I listed off some of the groups I know she’s a part of and asked, what don’t they give you? 

She talked about how they aren’t spaces where she shows up as her full person. She unquestionably walks away from some of these experiences as a stronger academic. But there’s something different that she’s sensed in the conversations with us. I think we’re a place where she can show up with her whole self in a messier form. I feel like that’s something we’re trying to add.

I also think a lot of people are feeling the lack of creative, artistic elements in other spaces. Even some of those that are involved in the arts tend to get caught up in very pragmatic loops. We’re asking how we express our more creative selves together in a way that’s safe. I think a lot of why this has worked so far is because there’s a trust in us collectively.

This is what [John Paul] Lederach has been saying for two decades is missing from the peacebuilding space. In the last decade, hosts of other people in strategic peacebuilding have echoed that: that need for a more wholehearted, whole life creative act of building peace. 

I increasingly see this whole thing is a co-creative process. I see that expanding to be a broader process of being more fully human, using all of our channels of creativity, not just the ones we have fallen into professionally and honed the most. All of those are essential to achieving the big picture of peace.

 *Pictured above are three participants in the Artisans of Peace program: Andrew DeCort, Julijana Tesija, and Joel Aguilar.

What are we hoping to learn from this program and what do we hope others will learn?

I see this as a pretty fundamental experiment and research project on what leadership development looks like. It will give more form to some key ideas about what truly holistic leadership formation looks like – especially for mid-range leaders, particularly in peacebuilding, but not exclusively. I trust the lessons will be transferable.

I’m hoping we gather enough concrete data and story together that we can give a foundation for why space to be fully human is tactically important. That it’s not just some pie in the sky idea; it actually has meaningful value in terms of leadership formation and peacebuilding that we can describe educationally, psychologically, in the language of leadership and organizational development.

What makes this an unRival program?

Our fundamental question we started with was, What does mimetic theory have to offer to peace building? 

I think we’re also looking at what it takes to have sustainable leadership in peacebuilding, informed by all of these human elements we’ve been talking about. 

Another way to frame those human elements is in terms of a deeper understanding of how rivalry impacts us. Not just cognitively, but holistically, embedded in life. I think that’s what gives this focus and keeps it from being some sprawling question about the formation of leaders. We’re looking at a very specific kind of leader in formation. I think that’s why it’s an unRival program. But I think the impact could be quite a bit bigger.

[It's] an ongoing looping process. It's the fragility of glass blowing. It's the imperfection of painting. It's in that artistry that the magic really happens.

Why are these participants the right people to demonstrate that?

We’ve gravitated toward people who are in the strategic peacebuilding framework. But what struck me as much as anything was how much creativity infused everyone. We are gathering creative peacebuilders. Even some of those who are more philosophical or academic in their approach are still very creative people.

These are folks who are not starting out in their field. Most of them are midlife leaders trying to reinvent, figure out what the next steps are, not holding onto anything too tightly. That’s who I am, too! 

For some, I think it’s a deconstructive process. A lot of my work up until this point in my life has been very faith motivated. But my relationship with my faith is now more ambivalent and ambiguous. It’s still there. I’m still motivated by my faith. But I’m asking, how do you live into  the second half when that relationship is no longer so cut and dry?

Our participants, too, are looking at how to build on what they’ve done up to this point. How do they find others who understand some of the deepest questions they’re asking? 

This group is also aware of emotion. It seems like most of the folks in this cohort are trying to figure out how to bring their whole selves to this work. Some of them lead with their creative edge, but some are trying to figure out how you bring that more creative self into a professional world defined more by academic or nonprofit success? That’s where the leadership development angle really opens up for me.

 *Eds. Mary Ann Cejka and Thomas Bamat. (New York: Orbis Books, 2003). The authors themselves take the phrase from the papal encyclical, Gaudium et Spes: “The gospel message, which is in harmony with the loftier strivings and aspirations of the human race, takes on a new luster in our day as it declares that the artisans of peace are blessed”.

What is behind the name Artisans of Peace?

Artisans of Peace is inspired by an idea from Lederach: peace as a creative act. 

But the title comes from a book, Artisans of Peace.* The introductory article there dives into the idea of peacebuilding as a creative act: “blessed are the peacemakers,” those who make, those who create. It’s the opposite of manufacturing. It’s a much more artisanal approach.

So I think that that name Artisans of Peace just tries to evoke that peacebuilding isn’t a linear process. You don’t come up with the guidebook or the curriculum, and then mass produce that in all kinds of environments around the world and watch good things happen. It’s a much more context-dependent, creative act that requires ongoing observation, attention, imagination.

The world is messier and more complex than some of the overarching narratives we hear, where the end is often predetermined.  We say an idea is worthless because it’s not practical, or else we focus on guarding our theories. If the theory is worth anything then it has to be in constant dialogue with what’s out there in the world proving and disproving little pieces of it. Always growing. We haven’t really been free to explore and seek understandings of what that complexity looks like in terms of organizational forms and project development, analysis and evaluation.  

That’s an ongoing looping process. It’s the fragility of glass blowing. It’s the imperfection of painting. It’s in that artistry that the magic really happens.

Hold onto hope with us.


When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

By contributing as little as $25, you join us in supporting peacebuilders who are bringing creative solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Your donation funds leadership formation programs, research, and resources for those resisting rivalry with you.