Growing up in the shadow of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Ana Patel came to love the peace of the great outdoors. As a teenager she joined Outward Bound, hiking the mountains near home and later as a student sailing and diving with the School for Field Studies in the Virgin Islands. After college, her family’s strong commitment to public service drew her to join the U.S. Peace Corps where she spent more than two eye-opening years as a forestry volunteer in a rural community of the Dominican Republic.
“I am forever grateful to that community for taking me in,” Ana says. “It was there that I began to think about defining poverty as a lack of options rather than in any material sense and to understand the critical role of education.”
The experience added another dimension to her deep-seated love of nature --an interest in human rights and international peace.
“As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had every intention to change the world for the better - by myself if necessary.”
For the next 20 years, Ana pursued that path, working on development projects throughout the Andean Region of Latin America, earning a graduate degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and moving on to a series of international policy-focused jobs in New York and Washington D.C. She repeatedly saw good development efforts undermined by violence.
“I realized that decades of building schools, investing in health care, digging clean water systems, and other critical efforts can be wiped away in a few weeks by armed conflict,” says Ana.
The true passions of her life were coming into clear focus and coming together in a way that would define a new role for her in the years ahead.
According to the World Bank, 40% of all countries emerging from violent conflict fall back into conflict within ten years. Ana was looking for a way to help change that statistic, to support local leaders and communities that can foster long-term non-violent change.
“As I see the world, peacebuilding and violence prevention is the urgent work of this generation – it effects everything else I care about deeply - environmental degradation, poverty, gender equality and good governance.”
After years of working in conflict resolution at the policy level, she knew it was a daunting goal. But she believed there were possibilities in the program that had given her, as a teenager, challenges that shaped her as a young leader, an awareness of the power derived from collaboration and trust, as well as the peace of wild natural environments -- Outward Bound.
In 2010 Ana was asked to take on the challenge of growing the Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding, a new organization that is part of the global Outward Bound network, the largest and most successful experience-based outdoor leadership organization in the world.
The program is built on the premise that sharing peak experiences, particularly cooperative learning toward the mastery of critical life skills in the outdoors, is especially likely to promote group solidarity and engender trust between former adversaries.
“Outward Bound Peacebuilding focuses on emerging leaders living and working in divided communities,” explains Ana. “Our programs are small, so we try to recruit individuals, usually between the ages of 25-45, who are already showing leadership potential and have the capacity to influence a larger community.”
Local leaders representing various perspectives on conflict are invited to join a wilderness expedition. The expedition, with its focus on building group solidarity, provides leaders with a vision of what is possible between formerly adversarial groups, paving the way for open communication, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.
“I have struggled with the appropriate role for outsiders in internal situations of violence and great need. I increasingly understand that my role is limited - it is local and national leaders that are in the best position to understand and affect change in their own communities.”
That has at times been Ana’s greatest challenge…providing local leaders with the tools and support they need to affect change and then standing back. But it has also enabled her proudest moments, watching Outward Bound Peacebuilding alumni carry-on the lessons learned on the trail or in the canoe and building them into innovative organizations and exciting new peacebuilding projects.
“The solutions and ideas must be owned by the communities themselves. It has meant learning a lot of patience - not one of my strongest traits - and yet I am continually amazed at the way these extraordinary people take new ideas and bring them to life in communities all over the world.”
Outward Bound Peacebuilding’s more than 220 alumni are living and working in more than 25 countries around the world.
This year, Ana was selected from candidates all over the world to receive a 2016 Rotary Peace Fellowship. She spent this past summer at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, studying conflict analysis, program evaluation and non-violent interventions. Prior to joining Outward Bound Peacebuilding, she advocated for human rights and justice issues at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
Be part of an international moment. On September 21st -- the UN decreed International Day of Peace – Outward Bound Peacebuilding invites you to participate in its Raise Your Hand campaign – a 24-hour social media effort to celebrate small steps for peace. Take a picture in advance, send it in, and be part of a global community for peace. Learn more at outwardboundpeace.org/RYH