An unusual prison encounter inspired this alum to open doors for peacebuilding

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Charles Davidson hiking outdoors with backpack
Charles Davidson being airlifted by the United Nations in the Congo in 2019, after the region came under attack from militia groups in the area. Photo provided.

A cultural immersion trip in 2008 brought Charles Davidson (PhD ’19) inside the walls of San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. What he saw there not only changed his life, he said, but ignited a spark of inspiration that led to peacebuilding efforts around the world.                  

“At the time, children were living in the prison with their incarcerated parents because there was nowhere else for them to go,” said Davidson, research faculty and alumnus of George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. “I felt so deeply this reality that children were paying the price of their parents’ crimes, and I felt there was more to be done to address issues in war-torn countries, especially as a person of faith.”

From that moment, Davidson said he decided to dedicate his life to breaking cycles of violence.

“I came back to the United States and started reading everything I could about what it meant to be a professional peacebuilder,” the Arkansas native said. “I wrote down names of different war-torn countries I wanted to affect change in and nailed [the paper] to my doorframe.”

His dream wasn’t fleeting. Davidson said he spent his early 20s traveling to and living in conflict-ridden countries, including Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Honduras and Uganda, to learn as much as he could about conflicts and peacebuilding.

When he returned home in 2009, he founded the nonprofit, Innovations in Peacebuilding International (formerly ForgottenSong), which has launched or supported 16 peacebuilding projects in five war-torn countries.

“A mountaintop moment for us has been working directly with the demobilization of child combatants [in the Congo],” Davidson said.

In partnership with a Congolese-led organization that works to demobilize young people engaged with militias, Davidson’s group helps offer sustainable futures and peaceful alternatives to children, when and if they choose to leave those militias. That could mean helping fund their education, or supporting their start in agriculture, entrepreneurship, or pursuit of a technical skill, Davidson said.

From left to right: David Bubasha, Charles Davidson, and the late Thierry Shabani. Bubasha and Shabani were former child soldiers who left militias to start AJDC, an organization that works to demobilize child combatants in the Congo, and partners with IPI. 2019. Photo provided.

“What has always impressed me about Charles is his infectious enthusiasm and passion for his work, research, family and friends, and especially for making the world a better place,” said Professor Agnieszka Paczynska. “He does this incredibly important work while remaining modest and humble.”

Davidson said the Carter School, with its reputation for being a leader in peacebuilding, was his dream PhD program.

Davidson and his wife, Abby, in Andorra in 2018. “[Abby] has always backed my ideas, and been the breadwinner for so long as I charged through school,” Davidson said. "I no way would be able to have done any of this [work] without her moral and all other types of support.”

“I got to learn the dynamics about what it means to be a peacebuilder from many different angles, read the great minds, be around great thinkers, attend conferences and meet my scholarly heroes,” Davidson said, adding that what he learned continues to influence his work.

“[The Carter School] helped me respect the agency and identity of people involved with conflict,” he said. “Thereby, it equipped me to go searching for peace in the minds of those who were experienced in the conflict, rather than thinking I possessed all the answers.”

Davidson is also impacting the world, said Professor Susan Allen, as he leads Mason’s Political Leadership Academy, which encourages participants to embrace conflict in healthy ways.

“I really hope that, domestically and internationally, my life and career will amount to people knowing how to think about conflict differently,” Davidson said. “If people are willing to meet one another on the field of their humanity, with kindness, love and respect, in spite of—or even through—their conflicts, I know I’ll have done my job.”

Davidson, and a team visiting the area to explore ideas for expanding peacemaking practices, gather with villagers from Minembwe in 2019, after the area came under attack from militia groups in the area. Photo provided.