Speaker: Susan Collin Marks

Wisdom and Waging Peace in a Time of Conflict

When Susan Collin Marks was growing up in South Africa in the apartheid era, her mother took a stand against the regime. Susan’s mother also took her, starting when she only 5 years old, into Black townships to show apartheid in action.

“It is hard to imagine what it takes to be a dissident in a police state,” Susan now says. “Yet she did it because she couldn’t have lived with herself if she hadn’t. It was also hard to see how apartheid would end, and then it did, spectacularly, with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first democratic president of South Africa.”

As the old system of apartheid broke down as Susan came of age, a new system had not yet been born, and the country was trying to navigate the vacuum in between. Susan stepped into the vacuum, carrying forward her mother's courageous stand, working as a peacebuilder during her country's transition from apartheid to democracy. In 1990, she was the sole woman on the executive committee of Cape Town’s Regional Peace Committee, one of the 11 regional peace committees that kept the country together when everything seemed to be falling apart. She worked to bridge the divide between black communities and government officials as South Africa moved from apartheid to democracy. 

She was literally on the front lines of the transition, placing herself between armed police and angry protestors, once shot in the leg by a rubber bullet. Drawing on a vision of shared humanity and interconnectedness, Susan and her colleagues pushed South Africa to shift from a military-style police force—based on control and aggression—to a community-based police service based on connection and cooperation, a model that in a recent Daily Beast opinion piece she writes can inform America's recent discussions around police reform.

In 1993, Susan was introduced by a mutual friend to a man who would change her fate: John Marks, a fellow peace ambassador and founder of Search for Common Ground (Search), was visiting South Africa to make a television documentary series on building common ground. Within 30 hours of meeting, they knew their lives would be forever intertwined by a "shared vision and shared love.” They became life partners, as well as partners in their lives’ work. Search, a Washington, DC-based organization that works on all sides of conflict to find solutions and end violence, offers innovative and effective ways to bring about deeper change, like retraining police and soldiers, and amplifying messages by working with the media.

Moving to Washington, DC, Susan wrote and published a book about the South African transitional process, Watching the Wind: Conflict Resolution during South Africa's Transition to Democracy (2000). The book captures the story of how an intransigent conflict was transformed by conflict resolution and peace-building that, for the first time ever, was implemented across a whole country through a National Peace Accord. She also became vice president for Search.

Today, Susan Collin Marks is an internationally renowned peacemaker and peacebuilder. For the past thirty years, she has worked in some of the most conflict-ridden places on the planet, mediating in the heart of her native South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy; facilitating ongoing dialogue in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis, Iranians and Americans, Syrians and Americans, within Libya, and multilaterally throughout the region; supporting peace initiatives in the former Soviet Union and Asia; and establishing peacebuilding programs throughout Africa. Her book was published in Arabic in 2004.

In September 2014, Susan stepped aside after 20 years as vice president of Search for Common Ground, which she and John had grown into the largest peacemaking and peacebuilding organization in the world, with 55 offices in 34 countries and over 600 staff from 50 different nationalities. Search innovated peacebuilding tools, including by using pop culture for social change, such as creating soap operas in more than 20 countries that demonstrated peaceful ways of bridging ethnic and religious conflict. She moved from Washington DC to Amsterdam, where she still serves as Search’s Peace Ambassador. Search for Common Ground was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

In recent years, Susan has focused on mentoring and counseling high-level political, institutional and civil society leaders worldwide, including cabinet ministers, military generals, and members of the US Congress. She helps leaders reflect on their experiences and how their inner world shapes the outer world, to help them make conscious choices to ensure that their leadership is for the common good of the whole. She writes, speaks, counsels, teaches, and supports peace initiatives internationally.

Susan holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury. Honors include an Honorary Doctorate from the UN University for Peace; Jennings Randolph Peace Fellowship at the United States Institute for Peace; Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship; President Jimmy Carter’s Waging Peace Award; Marvin Johnson Diversity Award from the Association for Conflict Resolution; Exemplary Leadership Award from the University of Pittsburgh; and the Institute for Noetic Science’s Creative Altruism Award.

What would it mean to have a world of peace and dignity for all? For Susan Collin Marks, it begins with “living that peace every day, in whatever our circle is.” 

Please join Janessa Wilder and David Bonbright in conversation with this visionary peace builder.

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