From Guatemala to Bosnia and Herzegovina to a refugee camp in Kenya, Michelle Bellino works with youth in conflict-affected sites across the world.
She studies how young people learn about historical injustice, and how their everyday experiences in school influence the decisions they make about their civic participation. Young people are often seen in dichotomous terms, she said.
“During periods of conflict, youth are often cast as criminals or seen as a source of instability, or rendered passive victims. In the aftermath of conflict, we look to young people to be peacemakers. We often tell young people that they’re the generation to build peace and democracy, but we’re not always providing them the tools (to do so),” she said.
Bellino, assistant professor of educational studies in the School of Education, first became interested in social memory and transitional justice through her involvement with human rights movements in Guatemala. Over time, she realized the questions she was asking about how societies transition from periods of violence and rights abuses had a lot to do with education: formal curriculum taught in schools, oral histories passed intergenerationally and youth activist campaigns aimed at public education.
“I became more interested in how young people learned about the history of conflict, and how these understandings impacted their conceptions of their role and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy in transition,” she said.
Since then, her research has been motivated by understanding the potential for young people to see themselves as citizens with active agency in the peacebuilding process. Bellino studies how institutional reforms like changes in the curriculum or professional training for educators can provide a lens into broader justice processes.
Traditionally, transitional justice is framed as a top-down, state-led process, and education is frequently an afterthought. Her research considers transitional justice from the everyday experience of youth in the classroom.
Envisioning education as a “mechanism of transitional justice,” Bellino explains, requires asking “how educational policies, curriculum, and interactions within schools might have played a role in shaping conflict dynamics, as well as what potential they have for creating a more peaceful and just society.”
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As an anthropologist of education, she approaches these questions ethnographically. In Guatemala, she shadowed students from various communities over the course of their day for weeks at a time, from school to home to sites of community activism. She was particularly interested in connecting the various contexts of knowledge and seeing how ideas moved and shifted from one space to another.
“I got to witness a lot of informal conversations in the context of their everyday lives, and this allowed me to examine the ways that knowledge and attitudes privileged in school sometimes contrast with those at home or in the wider community,” she said.
Bellino continues to study the intersection of education, conflict and youth. Her recent fieldwork brought her to Kakuma Refugee Camp in the northwestern region of Kenya. Her research there examines how displaced young people shape educational aspirations and construct civic identity not knowing when or if they’ll be able to return home.
She utilizes a youth participatory action research approach that positions youth as co-researchers, so that the research process is collaborative, responsive to local challenges, and attentive to local assets and practices as ways to respond to those challenges.
Q & A
What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?
Any time I see students grappling with questions of educational equity and justice — and drawing out how particular understandings of teaching and learning are embedded in these conceptions.
What can’t you live without?
Coffee in the morning and Colbert in the evening.
Where is your favorite spot on campus?
Looking up at the vertical wall of plants in the new Weiser building.
What inspires you?
The persistent optimism and healthy skepticism of the young people I have had the honor of working with.
What are you currently reading?
I’m immersing myself in work on peace education as I design my new course, “Education, peace, and conflict.”
Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?
My mother — a lifelong educator and learner.