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David O. McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding

Michael Ligaliga: Peace for the Islands

BYU-Hawaii is unique because it’s position makes it a perfect destination for students to attend school from all over the Pacific. Michael Ligaliga is one such person who came from Samoa to attend Brigham Young University- Hawaii. While attending BYUH, Michael was in the student leadership program and after graduation, he became a professor for the Peacebuilding program. Now, he is a recent graduate with a Ph.D. from the University of Otago, being the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a Ph.D. from his university. We had the privilege of catching up with Michael to hear his Peacebuilding journey of helping the Pacific with the conflicts they face.

He says, “When I took the peacebuilding program it was still in its infancy it was still an Intercultural Studies major. There wasn’t an official Intercultural Peacebuilding program. At the time I was a social work major. I always knew that I wanted to work with people. I was kind of shouldered by Chad Ford (the head of the department) to seriously continue to take peacebuilding and conflict resolution classes. I didn’t even think about it, I switched right away.” As we learn later, Michael is always one to trust his gut. He graduated from BYUH with a major in Political Science along with the Peacebuilding certificate.

Michael’s main focus is to teach conflict resolution in the Pacific. He says, “The conflict style in the pacific is not necessarily interstate conflict, militarization, or any of those traditional conflict lenses that we tend to refer to when we talk about conflict. It is quite different. We are also looking at the loss of land and the loss of culture and how those sorts of things shape who we are… All these interpersonal conflicts are unique to the pacific and it requires to look outside the traditional way of thinking. It is unique to our people and our region.” This uniqueness is what draws Michael or what I should be saying Dr. Ligaliga to want to understand the pacific.

“Conflict in the pacific is a paradox, people don’t really think that we have conflict. In a western perspective conflict is militarization and one country pitted against another. Our biggest conflict is climate change. The biggest hurdle is for the world to be informed and showing the world that climate change is a serious conflict. I am applying peacebuilding theory to the social issues that are impacting pacific communities such as domestic abuse, substance addiction, suicide, porn, human trafficking, and transnational crimes. I am active in providing an alternative lens to those sorts of social problems. Usually, people focus on behavior but I am looking at the application of Galtung's theory of cultural, structural, and direct violence. The cultural ideologies that are factors to these domestic conflicts.”

Dr. Ligaliga was born in New Zealand and raised in Samoa. He feels that working in the Pacific is his calling because it is where he is from. “Although all other conflicts are all important. I feel like it is hypocritical to look to other countries and help them if my own country is still having their own conflicts.”

To Michael Peacebuilding is this, “If we strip it down, Peace and conflict are all about relationships. It is how two people either get along or don’t get along and it is understanding why they do or don’t. And how we can reconcile it. We can grasp the one on one then we can grasp the community. And communities makeup countries and so forth. For me, Peacebuilding provided a language to help me and my conflicts and then it formed how I see my views on how I see different communities. And other people. It provided clarity and now when I see conflict, I can see every edge of why we have it. I have an eye and ear for it.”

Michael continues to say, “I think the biggest thing for me is that I trusted my gut instinct. There are times where things don't make sense. But peace and conflict is such a wide discipline, you can go into policy and making laws, mobilization, NGOs, or in academics like myself. It depends on what level you want to involve yourself. To me, that is irrelevant because the heart of it is to help people. If you have a strong desire to help people then that will form the direction you will take in the future.”

For the students of the Pacific, he highly recommends that they either study or continue to study Peacebuilding because there is a huge need for it back in their homes. Places like Samoa are needing mediators, and the Pacific as a whole is fighting climate change. The Pacific needs to gain defenders of their lands and be able to do it in an effective way. “Mediation is such a huge thing now in Samoa, all law cases now are sent to mediators, the problem is that many of the mediators are lawyers so they always mediate with their lawyer’s head, we need to challenge that. We need transformational mediations, and we need Samoans mediating Samoans.”

It was such an inspiring meeting with Dr. Michael Ligaliga. We learned so much from him and we hope all of you can learn from him as well. Let us know if you would like to hear the whole interview and we can put that up online here on the Peacebuilding Blog.