The Bulletin interviews and welcomes Dr. Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala

Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala

Dr. Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala is the newest member of the faculty at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. She will be heading the conflict and conflict management specialization, while continuing her own research. The Bulletin, wanting to get to know the newest addition to our school, sat down with her for an interview. If you'd like to know more about her and her research, please visit her website here




Thanks so much for joining us! Could you go into a little detail about your past experiences? What got you interested in studying peace and conflict?

It is a very broad question. So, I will pick a particular moment in my career that changed my original pathway. At the beginning of my career, during my bachelor's and master's, I was focused on political behavior and psychology, working on public opinion projects as a research assistant. I was doing mainly quantitative methodologies. 

 In my early 20s, I started teaching undergrads in Colombia, and my best friend from Uni, who was already involved in the field, told me that an army veteran was looking for civilians to work with them. I remember thinking....Oh! This could be a good job experience, along with my mother's voice saying that being outside academia would allow me to create critical lenses toward theories and models we learned in the books. She was convinced that being a practitioner would make me a better academic... She was a school teacher before becoming an academic and now a policy adviser... her advice makes much sense now!

It was 2014, the peace negotiations were running, and this veteran wanted to hire civilians with no preexisted ties with the institution to bring some fresh lenses that allowed them to understand the current context and the potential future scenarios for the Army if the peace agreement succeeded. I did my interview in a big salon full of males in uniform and a couple of civilian women sitting at a higher level than where the other job candidates and I were sitting.

One of the questions was:

Do you think the Army is a conflict actor? 

I was the last one, and all the people before me answered: No, the Army is the heroes and the defenders of the motherland. 

I said: Yes, they are armed actors in the conflict. 

Despite the odds, I got hired, and from that moment, I realized I was in a unique historical opportunity, which changed my career choices and research questions completely. 


Why are you coming to The Brandt School? What sorts of work do you intend to do here?

Why? I think this question is more for the Director and The Brandt School Team. But, I think they saw my potential. 

What do I intend to do here? 

 I will be the head of the Conflict Studies and Management specialization of the Master's program. So, apart from advancing on my research. I wish for two things for the specialization: On the one hand, I would like to create a vibrant network and establish a platform for young scholars and practitioners or people who do both inside and outside the School. I believe that thinking about conflict studies and management requires a collective and multidisciplinary effort. I do not believe in an academic environment that pushes us to compete with each other or work in silos. Being able to talk with sociologists, anthropologists, educators, and people from different fields of my own have enriched my practices and academic work. Then, I want us to be a platform that allows a multidisciplinary conversation to think and rethink theories and methods in this field. On the other hand, I intend to foster a place where people feel safe and confident to express their perspectives in this field. The particular experiences of people would enrich our conversations about topics that are heavy to think about: war, racism, radicalization, inequality, reconciliation, peace... So, I imagine critical conversations in settings where we all could learn from each other and maybe together reimagine new ways of thinking about public policy in the field of conflict studies and management.

Colombia is yet another Latin American country to have swung to the left in its election. Could you go into a little detail about what that could potentially represent for the country? Why is it significant and what challenges will the new government face?

This is the first time in my life that I have seen a leftist president-elect. 32 years ago, my mother was pregnant and the most popular leftist candidate the country had before the current president was assassinated. This is a test for Colombian democracy and hope for many generations. The Colombian irony is the coexistence of democracy and civil war for almost six decades. Imagine what is at stake here! 

About the new government, there are several challenges, and I will mention just some of them: First and very important, avoid big disappointments for a generation that is watching this government closely. Security sector reform is imminent but must be consistent with campaign narratives. A more holistic view of security and its meaning will be important. However, reforming security institutions does not only depend on the institutions and their members; it implies fundamental modification of the social contract. It implies rethinking what we want to prioritize in security issues and questioning the very meaning of security. Another challenge is to deal with the denialist narratives of the armed conflict and the reparation of victims. Heal relationships and recognize the past atrocities of all actors of the conflict, including state forces. Finally, I could mention the negotiation with the active rebel armed groups and how the president will fulfill his promise to stop the war on drugs in the country.


I get the impression that Francia Márquez excites people even more than the election of Gustavo Petro. Who is she, and what does she represent to Colombians?


Francia Márquez marks a revolutionary moment about who can take the public square, the power in a restricted democracy like the Colombian one has been. We were able to put on the public agenda structural violence that has been ignored by the noise of the guns and that explains why, for instance, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people represent the majority of the internally displaced in the country. The intersection of race, gender, and class that explains the marginalization finally takes the voice and that is historic. As she said: “We took a very important step, after 214 years we achieved a government of the people (…) of the people with calloused hands, of ordinary people, of the nobody and nobodies of Colombia,” 


One of the things about your work that really interests me is how the work you do is deeply personal, spending a lot of time with people deeply involved in something so ideological. Could you go into some detail about how you manage to, first, get soldiers to open up to you and secondly, how you manage to maintain the necessary distance to conduct impartial research?

Let me unpack this question.

About soldier’s ideology and how I managed to get soldiers to open up to me.

I reflected on this in my Ph.D. thesis. I relate with Svetlana Aleksándrovna Aleksiévich. She wrote in her book, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (2017),

“I listen when they speak … I listen when they are silent … Both words and silence are the text for me”.

I think that people know when someone cares about what they want to say without judging. I make sure that those soldiers that accepted talking with me feel safe, especially those ones located in the lower ranks or who expressed contested narratives from the institution.

I also follow Lederach's thesis in the book Moral Imagination. My encounters with people from the security sector allowed me to understand that peace-building requires difficult conversations, feeling uncomfortable, brings a lot of self-confrontations and willingness to continue talking, and recognize those whom we fear and about whom we feel strongly ambivalent.

About impartiality:

First of all, it is very interesting how academics like myself from the so-called global south who study our own countries often get this question about impartiality. Our research is viewed with suspicion which makes me wonder, who then is perceived as more rigorous or impartial? 

Let me share something that is also in my thesis: 

When they speak, it is scientific;

when we speak, it is unscientific.

When they speak, it is universal;

when we speak, it is specific.

When they speak; it is objective:

when we speak; it is subjective.

When they speak, it is neutral;

when we speak; it is personal.

When they speak, it is rational;

when we speak, it is emotional.

When they speak it is impartial;

when we speak, it is partial.

They have facts, we have opinions.

They have knowledges, we have experiences.

Grada Kilomba, 2016


I have not yet seen the first interview where an American or European is asked about their impartiality when studying their own context. Ergo, it is worth reviewing where this suspicion comes from. This will be a fundamental part of my introductory course on conflict studies and management. 

In short, I don't think it is possible to be impartial in anything in life, to be honest. What makes our research rigorous is the transparency of our methods and being able to bring to the forefront our biases, and limitations and be vocal about them. 


I've noticed that you seem to have a connection to Daria from the popular animated sitcom! What part of you does she reflect?

I relate to her dark humor and sarcasm. Also, her bravery to be vocal about uncomfortable truths.

She also reminds me of how I used to feel like an outsider when I was younger. Today, I still feel like that from time to time, but I learned to embrace it.

You've conducted research on social issues both in Colombia and New Zealand, in New Zealand, you focused your work on building social cohesion while integrating refugees into society. Could you go into some detail about the challenges and opportunities of both studying something in the place where you grew up and in a foreign country and culture?

My research in New Zealand involved young Colombian refugees and their transition to tertiary education in their new place. I saw very clearly how violence can travel and persist. 

The Colombians I worked with on this participatory research project came from the areas and communities that suffered most from the internal conflict such as Afro-Colombians. They have been struggling for generations against direct and structural violence in Colombia. They are relocated to a country in the so-called global north with the promise of safety and there the violence persists. As one incredible young woman said to me one day "we continue to struggle to survive, in Colombia we fled the war from the noise of the guns, but here the war is in silence." 

Finally, it was precisely my knowledge of the Colombian armed conflict that allowed us to elevate the proposed research. Therefore, the intersection between my expertise and identity meant that we were able to build a relationship with the community that allowed us to build trust with them.

About doing research in a different country, at the beginning of my PhD, it was difficult. I had to decolonize myself first (I am still in the process) in order to understand why some people were so uncomfortable with my presence in the academic world, and that the feeling of rejection that I had was not related to my capacities.

Your work, specifically in analyzing intergroup reconciliation between victims and perpetrators seems to be really linked to movements like the prison abolition movement, which seeks to replace carceral punishment with restorative justice alternatives. Would that be a fair assessment?

Reconciliation in the context of Transitional Justice implies thinking beyond the traditional approaches to justice. So, in the context of reconciliation among former war enemies, we seek reparation for victims, such as acknowledgment of their suffering and recognition from the perpetrators, which is often tricky in the context of internal conflict like Colombia. How to shift the narratives of justification of violence it is a hard job in post-conflict scenarios.

I understand your connection to prison abolition, but I must say that this topic is out of my expertise.

You have spent a lot of time living in foreign countries. A lot of the incoming students to the Brandt School are going to be moving to a foreign country for the first time. Could you give them some advice on how to make the most of their stay in a new place?


  • If you come from a warmer country. Buy vitamin D. It would help a lot during winter.
  • Do not buy winter clothes in your home country; it is better and maybe cheaper here.
  • Ask for help. Don´t let the neoliberal, individualistic narrative of self-sufficiency makes you suffer. Life is hard enough, and asking for help is a talent and an act of resistance. As people say in my country. The worst thing that could happen is that people say no, and you continue until you find someone else to help you.


I want to share a quote from a book that a friend gave me a few weeks ago:

When you leave home for unknown shores, you don´t simply carry on as before; a part of you dies inside so that another part can start all over again.

The Island of Missing Trees Review by Elif Shafak

You will never be the same, and the way that you perceive the world today will change and that itself is a beautiful thing to experience. It could be painful but beautiful.

You wrote last year about concerns you had about how the pandemic might exacerbate already longstanding difficulties of indigenous/POC/global south people to advance in academia. Since you wrote that, you did go through the process of finding a new academic home — did you face difficulties?

When you say advance in academia, do you mean “global south scholars” in the “global north countries”? If the answer is yes, so yes. The struggle is real, and you can add gender and class.... intersectional lenses matter to understand the challenges.  In Latin America, we also reproduce the logic, we don´'t have enough afro-descendants, indigenous people or non-binary people in our tertiary education institutions either. So, there is a clear idea about who can belong or not in this world, and my job is to use this new job as an opportunity to open doors for others and find allies. I couldn't have been here without others. So, this is a collective struggle that we need to solve together.


Funny fact:

I got recommended to include my title “doctor” in my ID card and even in my apartment mailbox. This apparently will mitigate people's biases towards me. Everyday experiences disclose those deeply engrained issues not just in academia but in our societies.

About the interviewer

John McElfresh is a second year student at the Willy Brandt School.

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~