Catherine Admay, visiting professor of public policy at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), was one of around 30 specialists invited to participate in a Smithsonian “Grand Challenges” workshop on cross-cultural empathy sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The workshop, “Confronting Contention: Deploying Culture in Conflict Resolution,” was organized in partnership with the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn.

The event, held Nov. 16-18 in Washington, D.C., brought together cultural heritage professionals, peacebuilding and development professionals, educators and artists to begin a dialogue and model interdisciplinary pilot projects related to conflict transformation and peacebuilding.

During the workshop, Admay (pictured center) discussed how she uses her background in law and story-framing to build two of her courses at Duke: Strategic Storytelling: Narratives of Development, and Human Rights and Conflict. Admay, who earned her JD from Yale and taught at both the Duke and New York University law schools before joining the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, seeks to tap into the skill and creativity of development and human rights practitioners as they become the next generation of peacemakers.

“I’m always asking, ‘What will it take for us to properly understand the problems we think we have identified? And, as we think about what to do in relation to those problems, how can we partner in unconventional and creative ways?’” she said. “This workshop was so encouraging because these were common questions for all of us—we really are a community of practice.” 

The director of the International Storytelling Center, Kiran Sirah Singh, whom Admay calls a brilliant example of the possibilities of interdisciplinary expertise, was a Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Fellow.

Admay also shared her research on how the physical space of the Constitutional Court of South Africa is used to reflect the values of the country’s constitution. She has collected stories from more than 200 South Africans about what being in that space means to them.

“The building itself is a beautiful mission statement,” she said. “It’s not about legal authority and solemnity, but rather about collective self-reckoning and the joy of having a chance to build a better country. Those people taking it all in are the ones who are counted upon actually to enact the new constitution.”

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