Sunday, May 17, 2009

Climax man seeks common bonds amid societal conflicts


Many people want to change the world. Steve Olweean of Climax is doing it.

Olweean helps people to focus on their common bonds rather than their differences, particularly people who have been traumatized by war or violence.

“Outsiders provide food, clothing and shelter after the war, but they ignore the trauma that goes with war,” said the psychotherapist and founding director of the Common Bond Institute (CBI).

As head of the institute, Olweean provides training programs to local health professionals and relief workers around the world who then help traumatized victims in their regions. So far, his work has taken him to Russia, the Balkans, Middle East, Caucuses, Caribbean and Basque country in Spain.

To help people cope with the traumas of war, Olweean developed something called the Catastrophic Trauma Recovery training model. It operates on the premise that “there is no bad society” and that when violence occurs, it is regarded as something that has gone awry to make the community extremely inhumane.

In 1998, Olweean joined with the Harmony Institute of St. Petersburg to organize an intensive CTR-training conference for therapists to address war’s inhumane behaviors and seek healing.

Catastrophic Trauma Recovery training has been used in Bosnia and with mental-health groups in Gaza. Olweean also helped establish a children's trauma-treatment center in Nablus on Israel’s West Bank.

Olweean got his start as an activist in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Those efforts were spiritually motivating for him, he said, and they increased in importance during the 1980s when the tensions of the Cold War threatened world peace and security.

His sensitivity to social justice grew out of his childhood where his parents and grandparents encouraged him to become familiar with, experience and appreciate many different religions. As a Muslim, he discovered that people of various faiths were seeking goodness, compassion, wisdom and peace.

He first came to the Kalamazoo area in the 1970s for graduate study in psychology at Western Michigan University. Then he worked for the Douglass Community Association as a community advocate and mental-heath worker. Although he never intended to stay in the area, he liked it and found that he could be involved in global work through the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) and its International Soviet-American Professional Exchange.

The Exchange was intended “to reach commonalities and to introduce humanistic psychology to our Soviet counterparts,” said Olweean.

Humanistic psychology, according to the AHP website (www.ahpweb.org), seeks to “enhance the quality of human experience and to advance the evolution of human consciousness” through the principles of integrity, authenticity, compassion and skill in listening, and respect for all people.

“What we discovered was that we were bridging stereotypes and forming strong bonds,” said Olweean who coordinated several exchanges until he decided to devote himself full-time to the Common Bond Institute in 1992. He then worked with his Russian colleagues to create the Annual International Conference on Conflict Resolution (ICR) in 1993.

“The ICR grew on its own from a half-day annual exchange to a six-day conference and it has continued over the past 16 years with therapists from 65 countries participating,” said Olweean.

In 2006 the ICR began its annual “Engaging the Other” conference in San Francisco, which focused on confronting religious, racial, ethnic, political and national conflicts.

“If we are separated from people, we only go on what we don't know about them,” said Olweean. “This is where prejudice, threat, and discomfort arises. So we get people together and create an inclusiveness where there is mutual honoring of each other. New learning takes place as people realize how they lock themselves into certain ideas.”

Olweean said that the distinction between ourselves and “the Other” occurs from birth when we identify who we are in comparison to everyone else. People who are closest to us are the first examples of who we are not.

This natural psychological process is the means by which we create our internal compass, he said. But conflicts occur when we adopt a belief system where our encounters with “the Other” are shrouded in fear and anxiety.

One key element in this training is that participants learn to focus on their commonalities more than their differences, said Olweean.

They also learn how societies pass on a cultural heritage that typically distinguishes “the Other” by harboring memories of their victimization or victory in war. These memories carry past grudges and tragedies rather than moving people toward a new future.

People who have gone through war and violence have memories that can traumatize them psychologically and emotionally over many generations, which was the case in the Balkans during the 1990s. The Serbs were demonized as perpetrators of the war although they felt they were victims of the Bosnians centuries before.

This is called “inter-generational trauma,” said Olweean. Such trauma is so strong that some Jews have shown signs of being traumatized by the Holocaust even though they were born after World War II.

Recently, Olweean held the inaugural Conference on Religion, Conflict and Peace at southeastern Michigann’s Oakland University upon the invitation of Imam Achmat Salie, founder and director of the Islamic Studies Program there.

“The significance of this conference was that we were openly debating the issue of religion in a public university,” said Salie. “Private universities are doing a good job with such discussions but public universities hesitate because they feel bound by separation of church and state.”

Penny Zago, one of the conference speakers, first participated in a CBI conference in St. Petersburg in 1997. The retired special education teacher trainer and consultant to the Michigan Department of Education currently volunteers for the Shalom Center for Justice and Peace at the United Methodist Church in Lansing.

“Steve always has outstanding presenters who have a great knowledge and passion for what they do. I always come back with a lot of ideas to gnaw on,” said Zago. “His conferences are very interactive and always focused on building relationships among participants.”

For Olweean, it’s all about giving peace a chance.

This article appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette on May 9, 2009.

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