Meenakshi Chhabra has always viewed the world through the lens of conflict resolution.
As a girl, she traveled throughout India with her family as her father pursued a military career. She witnessed the strained relationship between India and Pakistan that frequently broke out into violence.
She was surrounded by stories of conflict. "Whether it was my family or it was our schools, and even movies,” she recalls. “I think one’s identity is informed by the 'enemy other,' when you’re growing up in a conflict context.”
A two-time Fulbright scholar, Meenakshi has dedicated years to building relationships between Indian and Pakistani youth and adults through education, research and advocacy; and she was featured on the cover of International Educator magazine in an article about "Women Peacemakers."
A Lesley graduate and now an associate professor at her alma mater, Meenakshi also engages her students in her peacemaking field work.
“Whatever I encounter in the field I bring into my classroom and share it with my students,” she says. “I’ve always seen my work as both a scholar and a practitioner and I find that my teaching and academic work feeds into my practice, and my practice feeds into my research and teaching.”
'How Can We Engage People on the Ground?'
After high school, Meenakshi went on to earn a BA in political science at Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi University, India. From there, she knew she wanted to advance her studies but first she travelled the world working in the airline industry. It wasn’t until her move to the United States that she enrolled in the International Higher Education and Intercultural Relations program (formerly Intercultural Relations), in which she now teaches.
“Somebody told me about the program at Lesley and I said, ‘Yes! This is something I’d like to do,’” she says. “With my political science major and my interest in peoples and cultures, it just seemed like a perfect fit.”
“I felt inspired to attend Lesley because it wasn’t conventional, like international relations that talked about working in government or with politicians,” she says. “It was really about working with individuals and asking, ‘How can we engage people on the ground?’”
Although her grandparents had moved to India from Pakistan as refugees, Meenakshi herself had never met anyone from the neighboring country, due to closed borders. This situation informed her thesis at Lesley: “What does it mean to understand the other?”
She posed this question to three generations of Pakistani families, interviewing them about their understanding of the conflict in their country. Influenced by her own experience growing up surrounded by the discourse of conflict, Meenakshi knew it was something she wanted to explore further.
Shortly after Meenakshi completed her master’s in 2000, she began teaching as an adjunct in the program while pursuing doctoral work at Lesley. Upon completing her PhD in 2006, she was hired in the Global Interdisciplinary Studies program and continued to teach in the International Higher Education Program.
Peace-Building in India and Pakistan
Meenakshi’s studies led her to connect with the Seeds of Peace program, a non-governmental organization that promotes peace and peace-building skills for youth and educators from conflict regions. In 2001, she began working on a pro bono basis to support a program to bring together youth from India and Pakistan.
She was able to deepen her research in India by visiting schools and working with teachers there. She also collaborated with a colleague from India on a research project related to minority schools in India. As part of her scholarship, she facilitated workshops focusing on the interplay between teacher identity and textbooks, especially related to historical events of conflict and violence.
“The underlying question guiding my research and practice has always been to explore how we can acknowledge and re-story the past towards a narrative of peace.”
She has brought her master’s students from Lesley to the Seeds of Peace program for internship opportunities.
“It’s one thing when you just talk theory and research, but when you can actually share from the field about your blind spots, what you've learned, and the possibilities that exist, I think students can actually see it working, and appreciate the big picture” she says. “It is about being willing to get your hands messy.”
Meenakshi strives to inspire her students through her own history and work, fostering a new generation of conflict-transformation advocates and peace-seekers.
“It’s not just a way of teaching concepts by connecting to real world problems, but also inspiring the students with actual stories and anecdotes, while working in collaborative relationships to impact social change."