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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Internship Report: Liza Hester (MA '15)

Building Peace in Myanmar Through Mental Health Advocacy & Awareness

Liza Hester MA '15

During the summer of 2014, Liza Hester (MA ’15) interned with SalusWorld, named after the Roman goddess of state health. Run by Elaine Hansen, former director of the International Disaster Psychology (IDP) program at DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology, and Gwen Vogel, who acts as Director of Clinical and International Services, SalusWorld focuses on capacity-building in the mental health field, training local organizations in conducting mental health work and promoting psychosocial awareness.

Hester, a transfer student into the Conflict Resolution program from the IDP program, was interested in the way the Boulder-based SalusWorld merged the fields of trauma and peacebuilding. For the majority of her internship, Hester traveled as a representative of SalusWorld to Myanmar to work with a local organization, Heal the World, based in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. Heal the World focuses on conducting sharing circles, which are therapeutic empowerment groups that provide psycho-social support to a community which has faced ethnic tensions, widespread HIV, and political repression. 

Liza Hester with the Heal the World Staff in Myanmar

Hester’s internship in Myanmar falls within the context of a huge vacuum of mental health awareness and services offered throughout the country. There is little treatment available; the country does not have a single clinical psychologist. The sharing circles conducted by Heal the World provide assistance to political prisoners, HIV patients, sex workers, and members of the LGBTQ community. Some of the most powerful activities for participants include the life-line activity where an individual traces the highs and lows of their life thus far and the empty chair activity where an individual “speaks” to an empty chair, effectively addressing someone, alive or dead, whom they could not reach otherwise.

At Heal the World, Hester’s tasks encompassed three areas: (1) conducting focus groups on the impact of the sharing circles to capture a fuller picture of the circles’ effects, (2) team building within the organization to create stronger local networks, access to grants, a secure funding base, and general empowerment, and (3) establishing networks among the international NGO community and discovering new opportunities for SalusWorld.

Conflict resolution skills and theory played a major part of her internship with SalusWorld. This was especially evident when Hester had to consider the appropriate role of an external mediator, funder, or manager as she aimed to facilitate empowerment and leadership within the organization while respecting the local culture and encountering tension with the Burmese staff over what her role represented.

Particularly, the course on Organization Dynamics required by the Conflict Resolution program, further assisted Hester in identifying ways to facilitate communication and promote networking among Heal the World’s four Burmese staff members. Her pre-departure training at SalusWorld was also beneficial in exploring how to conduct focus groups and perform substantive qualitative research.

For those searching for an internship, Hester recommends utilizing your networks as she did; her internship was not something simply offered to her but something she sought out by making her professors aware of her interest and abilities. As she states, “It never hurts to ask.” Be proactive and “create your own opportunities…present yourself in a position of service.” Show up and be flexible enough to take on a range of responsibilities. In considering her wider role in conflict resolution, Hester stated that she evaluates her strengths and analyzes where she could add value to the field for her future career.

Following her graduation in summer 2015 from the Conflict Resolution program, Hester hopes to continue work towards developing relationships among different ethnic communities, bridging tension and creating ties among various sectors in society. She plans to use trauma studies to inform this process and further emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of conflict resolution. She believes that combining various disciplines and perspectives will enhance the reach and effectiveness of her work.

Liza Hester can be reached at:

--Rachele DiFebbo