Meet Life & Peace Institute’s new president – Eva Christina Nilsson

In the summer of 2023, Eva Christina Nilsson will take over as the first female president of Life & Peace Institute’s (LPI) board of directors. We met with Eva Christina to hear who she is, what she is passionate about, and how she sees the future of the organization. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Can you briefly describe yourself and your background?

Absolutely, let us take it in chronological order; I was born in Småland on a farm that my family has owned since the late 1600s, and I still have strong roots there. My father was president of the municipal committee which meant that there were a lot of politicians visiting our house. We also received visits from missionaries. Therefore, I quickly developed a strong interest for politics on the one hand, and for international issues on the other. As I was growing up, I understood that the world is much bigger than our small village, that the world is connected, and that even though people may look different, we are all humans living together.

The understanding that the world is bigger has been the foundation for my involvement in international collaborations. When I was a child, I wrote Sunday school cards to children in India and I met a refugee from Chile. Since then, I have continued to be in the international sphere in one way or another as part of my professional career, starting in the Church of Sweden youth movement. At the same time, it has always been important for me to maintain my local roots, and for most of my professional life I have therefore chosen to be based in Sweden. It is only in the last four years that I have worked on a global level as director of the Department of Theology, Mission and Justice at the Lutheran World Federation.

You have a long and exciting career behind you, what are you most proud of?

I have always felt privileged in having very exciting and meaningful jobs, i.e. being part of the youth movement and being involved in building up the Church of Sweden's relations with Eastern Europe after 1989. As director in the Lutheran World Federation, I was leading a department responsible for training of newly elected church leaders, support of the diaconal work of the member churches, theological reflection, as well as policy and advocacy work in order to influence the UN's work with, for example, climate, gender justice, and human rights.

Based on all of this, I find it hard to say what I am most proud of. Rather, I would say that I am grateful to have been in a context where the local and the global function together and where I have had the opportunity to work with very meaningful issues. In the end, I have not done any of this for myself; I have wanted to be in a context that is bigger than myself. This conviction is partly about the belief that God is greater, and partly about the realization that the world is greater than my own context. My work is not a charity, I do my work because it is about all people’s equal human rights. This conviction has guided me through my career and continues to do so today.

When did you first hear about LPI?

I was involved already when the first Life & Peace conference, which became the start of the organization, was held in 1983. I attended the conference as representative of the youth movement and I have thus followed LPI since the organization's inception. I remember that it was a great experience to meet all the people at the conference, who I had admittedly heard of but had not yet had the chance to meet in person.

In addition, I have several personal connections to LPI, partly through my husband who is related to LPI's first president and partly through acquaintances who were among the first employees at LPI when the organization started its work at the Church House in Uppsala. I remember that it was incredibly exciting that LPI was starting something completely new. Since then, I have followed the organization from a distance, but I have nevertheless been involved throughout LPI’s entire journey.

What has been your main motivation to assume the role as president for the organization's board of directors?

My motivation to become president for LPI came from the realization that the world is in a desperate need of peace – and peace that is far more than a slogan, peace that is deep and sustainable. In the church, we usually talk about peace with God, peace with each-other, peace with oneself, and peace with the creation. From my perspective, it is therefore important that peacebuilding is about both values and practice. We need to invest in education and gather good forces to find a way forward. As part of this, it is especially important to invest in young people, both as leaders today and in the future. I see that LPI has a good history and great potential to develop, which I think is exciting.

How do you see your role as president for LPI and how would you describe your values as a leader?

It is important to distinguish between governing and leading, and the board's task is to govern. It is about taking out the direction of the organization, while it is the director who leads the organization’s work. Although we ultimately will constitute a joint leadership, it is key to distinguish between the roles and to avoid micromanaging the work of others - this is an important part of my values as a leader. In addition, I believe that it is always important to listen, to be inclusive and to take advantage of different perspectives. In this way, you can often reason your way to solutions and avoid conflicts. At the same time, it is crucial to make decisions and move forward, because when decisions are not made, it can be absolutely devastating for an organization.

As the new president, you will be the first woman in LPI history to assume the role. How do you see women's participation and leadership in building sustainable peace?

The short answer is that it is absolutely crucial. In many contexts, women are extremely vulnerable in conflict situations. For example, we have seen rape being used as a weapon in conflicts and women in conflict situations carrying the burden of supporting their families alone. At the same time, it is important to not view women solely as victims, but as capable actors. Women have time and again demonstrated an incredible strength. One old example being the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo during the dictatorship in Argentina and a more recent example the female protesters in today’s Israel. Women are thus, evidently, absolutely crucial to bring about change in society.

I would, however, also like to mention the role of men, not least linked to the power issues in conflict situations. To achieve gender equality and reduce women's vulnerability in conflicts, we need to change men's mindsets. To achieve this, I believe that education is important, and religious leaders can play a big role in this by adapting what they preach about in the mosques, synagogues, and churches around the world. In the end, it is about both women's rights and gender justice meaning that men and women take responsibility and change together.

In all its programs, LPI works closely with local actors to transform conflicts using nonviolent methods. Connected to this line of work, what issues are you most passionate about?

I believe that we must always see the possibilities, even though we live in a time characterized by increased violence and conflict in different parts of the world. Today's situation can create a sense of hopelessness which makes it difficult to talk about peace. However, as all of this is going on – no matter if we talk about Ukraine, Tigray or somewhere else – it is more important than ever to believe that peace is possible and to try understanding what the key is for transforming a violent conflict into something peaceful.

Something else that I am passionate about is people's participation in conflict transformation. Of course, high-level negotiations run by the UN and diplomats are important, but when people speak up together, I believe that real change can happen. It may sound very naïve, not least today, but I still want to believe that it is possible.

When I worked with building relations with Eastern Europe, before the fall of the Berlin wall, we talked about 'citizen diplomacy'. This was about organizing meetings across borders and recognising the agency of ordinary people - that it matters what we do as individuals and that not only politicians can engage in diplomacy, ordinary people can do so as well. I think it is important that people meet on the local level to get to know each other, and in this way, learn the tools to build peace. This is of course important in situations of ongoing conflict, but also in other situations to prevent conflicts in the long run.

You've mentioned the importance of working with young people, which is a priority that LPI shares. How should we work with young people in peacebuilding and why is this important?

As a young person, I had the privilege of meeting experienced older people. In this way, I got to feel what it was like to be taken seriously, which has shaped me for the rest of my life. Now that I am older, I have promised myself never to look down on young people. I believe that we need to see young people as leaders here and now, and not just as leaders in the future. We must include young people in all contexts, while recognizing that it is one thing to be young in Sweden and quite different to be young in, for example, South Sudan. By allowing young people to participate in trainings and planning, by counting on young people as actors, we - who are somewhat older - can learn a lot. This is crucial, not because it is “nice” to include young people, but because it can make a real difference.

I further believe that meetings between different generations can be incredibly rewarding. My daughter was once visiting Auschwitz with her church youth group and when they returned home, they met a group of senior people in the church who had been part of receiving those who had been released from the concentration camps in the 1940s. Hearing the conversation between these young people, who had been in Auschwitz, and these older people, who had helped receiving those who had been liberated from there, was incredible.

We are living in an increasingly challenging time globally, which has made the work of LPI and many organizations around the world more difficult. How do you see your role in ensuring that LPI is resilient towards this and any upcoming challenges?

This is the question that everyone asks themselves today and I wish I had the answer. What I can say is that there are several perspectives that are important to maintain in one’s work. On the one hand, I think that we must remember that the world is one, that the world is connected. As an example, we can see how the war in Ukraine affects the food situation around the world, not only in Europe. It is therefore an illusion that it is possible to close-of Europe to the rest of the world - this is not what the world looks like, and we must continue to remind ourselves and others about this.

Another thing that I see as important is to be resistant, which might be easier said than done when funding is reduced. We must ensure that whatever LPI - and other organizations - can do, is of high quality. This means that we need to assess what is strategic, that is, what we can do to cause a positive ripple effect. There is always so many different things that we can do and, therefore, we must be able to prioritize, to plan and to collaborate - meaning that what we do is thought through to the end and that we work together with others to achieve our goals.

At the same time, I understand that prioritizing is difficult. Seeing opportunities for change in society but lacking the means to achieve this can create a lot of frustration. Here, I believe that the board of directors has an important job to keep up the motivation of the organisation and the staff. We need to remind ourselves that what we can do still matters, even if we cannot do everything that we would like. Despite the many difficulties, we cannot get caught up in discouragement, because then nothing will work in the end. Instead, we must continue to be hopeful that change is possible and that we can contribute to peacebuilding.

Thank you so much for taking the time, would you like to add anything before we end?

Over the years, I have come to see myself as a link in a chain, with great respect for those before me. When I have entered a new role, I have thus tried to hook onto what has been, while at the same time being a link forward. When I attend to the new role as president for LPI in the autumn, I will take over from a talented and experienced person, Gustaf Ödquist, who has been president since 2008. It is with great humility that I take on the assignment and I look forward to working with a competent board, executive director, and staff who are in different parts of the world. During the period that I have been entrusted to lead the board of directors, I want to take my responsibility so that whoever comes after can continue to develop LPI in the best way possible.



Alma Estrada
Project officer, Life & Peace Institute

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