Ep. 037: Melanie Greenberg

Melanie Greenberg headshot.jpg


Melanie Greenberg is Managing Director at Humanity United, overseeing the Peacebuilding & Conflict Transformation portfolio. In this role, Melanie develops, refines, and implements strategies to build peace and counter violent conflict. She also oversees HU’s office in Washington, DC.

Melanie comes to HU from the Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP), where she served as President and CEO. Before joining AfP, Melanie was the President and Founder of the Cypress Fund for Peace and Security, a foundation making grants in the areas of peacebuilding and nuclear nonproliferation. She has also served as a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, focusing on issues of justice in post-conflict peacebuilding; and as director of the Conflict Resolution Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Melanie previously served as associate director of the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation and deputy director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation.

In her work on international conflict resolution, Melanie has helped design and facilitate public peace processes in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and the Caucasus. She has taught advanced courses in international conflict resolution, multi-party conflict resolution, and negotiation at Stanford Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, and the Elliott School of George Washington University. She was lead editor and chapter author of the volume Words over War: Mediation and Arbitration to Prevent Deadly Conflict (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), and co-editor and chapter author of Civil Society, Peace and Power (Rowman & Litflefield, 2016). Melanie is a member of the International Advisory Board of the United States Institute of Peace and serves on numerous non-profit boards.

Melanie holds an bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a juris doctor degree from Stanford Law School.

Contact info: mgreenberg (at) humanityunited (dot) org

Show notes

What planted the seeds in you to be a peacebuilder?

Melanie grew up in New Haven, Connecticut in the United States in what was a very sheltered childhood. Her father was a cardiologist and her mother a social worker, but she wouldn’t connect this in anyway to peace building until later on in life. She grew up before the end of the Cold War in the United States and this was before peacebuilding had become a field. She was shaped by the violence she was witnessing, but not directly experiencing, in New Haven during her childhood. (Susan also relates this to her own childhood in Long Island, New York, United States where she was also surrounded by inter-ethnic conflict, but was never directly affected by it due to her sheltered childhood.)

Melanie was a literature major in college and had a deep curiosity about the world and how it worked so she decided to go to law school. She said the law school and the American legal system in particular made her miserable because it is antagonistic by design. When she had to do cross examinations, she had to be coached because the system was designed to get the truth and not be compassionate.

(Susan notes that the American legal system is again “antagonistic.” It is based on the assumption that intimidation and aggression will lead to a form of truth. She doesn’t fully agree with this, particularly when she’s facilitating dialogue. In many cases people will be more honest and authentic with each other when they feel comfortable. In the American legal system, Susan feels that people may inflate, or alter the truth in certain ways that aren’t there authentic experience.)

After her first year in law school, Melanie began working with the prisoners on death row in Georgia, USA. She began working with prisoners and their families understand how law  intersected with people’s lives. When she returned to law school at Stanford, there was a center that had recently opened up the combined business, law,  economics, and psychology through the lens of conflict resolution. She got involved, knowing this was what interested her.

Melanie learned in law school, just as the world was about to change due to the Cold War, that citizens could build peace in their own communities and in their own countries. This was not something designated only for the government to do.

 How did we get to peacebuilding and how do we define that phrase?

(Time: 13:15)

Melanie believes that we got to the field of peacebuilding as we understood it today by a series of movements that happened in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, particularly the anti war Vietnam movement and the anti-nuclear movement. This is when people began to feel personal stake in peaceful societies and understand that peace was not only the work of government. This stream merged with alternative dispute resolution in the legal field. (More US focused). At the same time people were mitigating land and environmental disputes through high-level collaboration. Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the United Nations first started to use the word in the early 90s. The  Hewlett Foundation also began funding programs at universities where peacebuilding would become part of different types of curriculums like social work, political science, environmental science, health, etc. These programs produce students who understood more than just conflict resolution but understood the pillars of a peaceful society.

(Time 15:42) “Peacebuilding” is a combination of the processes societies use to resolve conflict and to do it through negotiation, dialogue, consensus building, and politics. It is not merely the absence of violence. It could include development, humanitarian assistance, education, health, gender issues and more. It can happen at the community, international or any level, but it is the persuit of those positive pillars of peace.

(Susan adds that it is creating infrastructure and processes that allow us to not resort to violence to address conflict.)

Susan says that many of the people she interviewed on the show believe that within our lifetime, we can create a society that doesn’t resort to deadly conflict to resolve our differences. Is this possible? Are you hopeful about it?

Melanie says that she knows that society in many ways has the structures in place to create this kind of peace. Peacebuilders by practice to get to witness this. In the most violent of contexts, people are using creative means to create peace in their own communities. What she does think is missing is wide scale peace education where children are brought up to understand that they have a stake in a peaceful society.

Where is the field going future and what is most exciting about the developments in this field?

  1. She is excited because peacebuilding has been spreading in a vast array of fields including private sector, the military, in education, etc. People are thinking about this work more broadly

  2. We’re recognizing the US as a peacebuilding environment. Tension in politics, the urban-rural divide, elections has pushed us to think of the US as a case in need of peacebuilding.

  3. Understanding the neuroscience of war and trauma

From a neuroscientific perspective, what is working?

There is now neuroscience research on how our brains respond to conflict, threat, and altruism and how we might shape programs that take this into account.

Melanie has an interest in the overlap of peacebuilding, neuroscience and spirituality. She is interested in how ritual around breath, music, and other calming rituals counter the “fight or flight” and “us versus them” mentality to create spaces for receptivity to other values.

Melanie provides an example of how we anchor social norms through language:

At Petrified Forest State Park, the rangers had an issue with people taking rocks from the park. They posted signs saying, “People are stealing rocks; Please don’t take rocks” and the problem increased! When they changed the sign change to read, “Join your fellow park-goers in keeping the park pristine. Please don’t take rocks,” and the issue decreased.

These signs created a social norm for what is acceptable (either taking rocks, or leaving the park pristine). This tactic indicates that norms can be set in all contexts by the language we use.

How do we frame Peace in an exciting way?

Melanie discusses a coalition of major peacebuilding organizations working with marketing and advertising companies to better market peace to see how more people can get involved.

Why is the US a “peacebuilding problem”?

Melanie notes that so many of the red flags that we look for in conflict zones are occurring in the USA, but we use different language and mental models to understand them. The levels of gun violence and weapons from the military being sold to and used by local police and indications of the levels of violence surrounding people in the USA.

Discussion of trauma across generations

You can pass trauma on to future generations genetically. If your parents have experienced trauma, children are more prone. Many peacebuilding organizations now incorporate a trauma healing program.


Peter Alderman Foundation

  • Trauma healing clinics with indigenous mental health experts

  • Peacebuilding can’t happen with trauma because people shut down

Colombia using yoga and mindfulness in schools to ease trauma

What is needed in the USA’s peacebuilding process?

Melanie indicates two schools of thought for this answer:

  1. Resisting - a protest movement to change policy

  2. Resolve conflict and polarization healing one community at a time

    a. Example: Hands Across the Hills

  • The struggle is how to scale this work, how to make it a movement.

  • The processes to do this work

  1. Small groups; Getting to know each other as people to turn from fear to compassion for an “opposed” group

  2. Creating “The Moral Imagination” -Lederach

a. You can imagine a world with this group that you never thought of before

Melanie’s question: How can we model the kind of solidarity we want to see?

She ends with an inspiring invitation to come into the peacebuilding space (Time 46:00)


More work in our own communities

People exist in their bubbles (even children)

Move from easy commonalities to deeper complex issues

Being more self critical and aware of these issue

Links from minor points during the conversation:

Sandy Hook

Jeremy Richman, father of Sandy Hook victim suicide

What the Constitution Means to Me - Broadway

Claudia Rankine

Future Search

Open Space

Replacement Theory

Frameworks Institute