In Medellin, Colombia, a group of urban artists taught me the most powerful lesson in conflict transformation.

With colleagues from Columbia University, we recently walked the alleys of a marginal area of Medellín, the  Comuna 13. Like other areas of the city, unspeakable violence marked its life.

Here, people were killed, tortured, dismembered, and disappeared. Decades of dirty war have characterized the social and political life of Colombia. In the collective imagination, Comuna 13 has become a metaphor for Medellin’s horrors.

But it is in this space of death, that hope, creativity, and transcendence have emerged. Comuna 13 has become a space of hope and transformation.

Elephants waving white handkerchiefs.

grafitour medellin

With my colleagues we took the so-called Grafitour in the Comuna 13; an outdoor art gallery of jaw-dropping murals, sharing the residents’ stories of pain and resistance.

One of the murals shared a very dramatic story. When the military in 2002 penetrated the Comuna 13 it turned the neighborhood into a battlefield. The mission was to eliminate the presence of urban militias. Bullets were flying around. In high numbers, innocent civilians were injured or killed in the crossfire.

One day, a bullet hit and wounded a teenage kid. His friend tried to aid him and reach an emergency room. It was difficult and dangerous because the intense fighting would not stop.

Eventually, a bullet hit also the second teenager. The two friends were lying in the street, wounded, bleeding, helpless.

It was at that moment that a woman took a white bed sheet and waved it desperately. She wanted to stop the rain of bullets and reach the two young men and save them. Soon other women joined in and began to wave their white bed sheets.

Thus, the injured and the women, waving their white bed sheets walked across the Comuna 13 and brought the two men to safety.

Today, on a large wall, a colorful mural reminds locals and visitors of the courage of those women. Today the mural has become a symbol of the resistance that the residents of Comuna 13 embody.

Disarm Your Words!

grafitour medellin

When last Fall, the majority of Colombians in a referendum rejected the peace agreement signed with the FARC guerrilla, a graffiti artist, angry and frustrated, wrote on a wall, “Colombia doesn’t want peace. It only wants war.”

But the community didn’t like that writing. Thus, someone erased that sentence and wrote instead, “What we want is peace with dignity.”

Interestingly, that argument on a wall reflects the larger polarization that Colombia lives right now. There is, in fact, a large part of the population that believes their president has sold out the country to the guerrilla. They’d like to see the leaders of the guerrilla behind bars.

But in the Comuna 13, they took the opportunity to transform divergent opinions into an opportunity for dialogue.

In fact, residents and the graffiti artists community came together. They expressed each other’s views. They came to the realization that it matters what words you use and how you use them. “Words are at the root of violence,” told me El Zorro, a graffiti artist and he added, “Thus, words and their use are also at the root of peace.”

That’s why a mural artist painted a beautiful graffiti, capturing that experience of dialogue.“Let’s disarm our words,” it reads.

Thus the community learned another valuable and wise lesson. Now that mural reminds them of that shared experience and the importance of words.

Peace through Urban Art

For the past decade, urban artists have reclaimed the public space at the rhythm of hip-hop, the steps of break-dance, and the colors of graffiti.

With words, moves, and murals,  they share their stories. They dare to speak truth to power.  They articulate a social critic of the power relations that have produced the marginalization in which they live.

But these young men and women, who represent a vast movement across the city of Medellin, are not just singing, dancing and painting their protest. They do much more.

In fact, their storytelling is cathartic. It transcends a reality of violence and terror. It creates a space where a different kind of experience is possible. New attitudes, predisposition, and values are generated and affirmed.

That’s why their artistic work does not comprehend the entire value of their art. Instead,  it stems from a creative process, made up of the conversations, cries, laughs, everyday experiences and solidarities that years of shared pain have consolidated.

The important lesson I got

breakdance b-boy esneider

At the end of the tour, my colleagues and I sat down with a group of urban artists to listen to their experiences and stories. Before a blackboard stood El Zorro, B-Boy Esneider, Mike and Jeihhco, one of the most visible community leaders of Medellín—all belonging go the Casa Kolacho, a hip-hop school, and cultural center.

“Based on your experience, how can urban violence be interrupted and a conflict transformed?”, we asked.

Thus, improvising, like when you freestyle, the four artists generated a list of powerful words, each rooted in a lived experience, a lesson learned.

And these are some of the words I captured:

  • respect for freedom
  • acceptance
  • to communicate
  • sharing
  • improvise
  • creativity
  • memory to take responsibility
  • love
  • learn how to lose

There is so much wisdom in each of this word! So much lived experience!  And it’s possible to appreciate how these words, intertwined, make up a shared ethic of change and peacebuilding. It’s the ethic that is transforming the city of Medellin.

MIT professor Otto Scharmer affirms that innovation is created and discovered in the periphery. In fact, it’s often at the margins, where effects of power are experienced, that alternatives to the logic of violence are found and engendered.

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