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FEATURE

Its Seat Is In the Heart

In honor of the United Nations Decade for the Culture of Nonviolence, we offer practical ideas for making peace a priority in your classroom community.

Circles of Peace

The voices and visions of peacemakers around the world converge on the Web site of San Antonio's peacecenter (www.salsa.net/peace). Building on the momentum of a citywide gang peace summit in 1994, a group of 12 secular and faith-based organizations co-founded the peacecenter in 1997. The partnership has since grown to involve more than 2,000 members in the San Antonio area. The group "went global" in 1998 with its Web site, which invites students, teachers and activists everywhere to "break the cycles of violence through circles of peace."

Among the wealth of informational and inspirational features on the site are a "This Week in Peace History" retrospective; a calendar of peacemaking opportunities; a digest of peace-related news; archives of peace quotes, essays, prayers and other writings; and a section called "Creative Nonviolence Sightings," which highlights the activities of peacemakers in schools and other settings across San Antonio.

Visit the peacecenter online and envision your own ways of nurturing peace close to home and around the world. Here are some suggestions for getting started:

  • Copy the letter on page 19 or download it from http://209.238.73.41/eng/appeal.htm. Attach blank pages and add your signatures to those of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates who sent this appeal to heads of state around the world. Keep your own copy of the signed letter and mail the originals to:

    peaceCENTER
    P.O. Box 36
    San Antonio, TX 78291
    (210) 224-4673

  • Research the lives, work and ideas of the Nobel Peace Prize winners. The peacecenter provides photos and brief biographies at www.salsa.net/peace/timeline/nobelsigners.html. The book The Art of Peace ($22.95) presents their reflections on human rights, conflict and reconciliation, as well as group dialogue from a 1998 Nobel Laureates Conference at the University of Virginia. To order, contact:

    Snow Lion Publications
    P.O. Box 6483
    Ithaca, NY 14851
    (800) 950-0313
    www.snowlionpub.com

  • Conduct a "Peace Check" of your school. Use the student newspaper or a survey handout to identify and highlight "peacemaking tools" already in place (for example, peer mediation teams, diversity clubs, a peace garden, non-competitive games, a "peace table" in the classroom or counselor's office, daily affirmations on the intercom). Ask the principal to provide information on discipline referrals for fighting and other violence over the past five years. Share this information in the survey and gather responses to questions such as: What factors would you consider in measuring the level of peace at our school? Is our current level of peace high, medium or low? What are the strongest influences for peace at our school? What are our biggest obstacles to peace? What can the school do to promote peace? What can you do personally to promote peace?
  • Declare your school "A Peaceful Place." Hold a poster fest. Ask local merchants to donate supplies. Arrange for an exhibit of the posters at the public library or in the school halls. Reserve some for long-term display. Notify the news media. Artwork from San Antonio's "Picture the Peaces" contest is featured on the peaceCENTER Web site.
  • Practice "Popcorn Peacemaking." The peaceCENTER Web site provides a list of recommended feature films with peace-related themes, along with a downloadable group-discussion guide.

 

The Kaki Tree

by Dee Mayes

In the summer of 1999, while traveling in Italy, I visited the Venice Biennale, a prestigious modern art exhibit. When I walked into the Japanese pavilion, I found thousands of orange and green origami objects hanging from the ceiling. Around a small pot in the center of the room, children and adults from many countries were drawing pictures and writing words espousing world peace -- to a tiny twig bearing a few bright green leaves!

Intrigued, I discovered that the exhibit's creator, artist Tatsuo Miyajima, had formed a special alliance with botanical specialist Dr. Masayuki Ebinuma to create the "Revive Time" Kaki Tree Project. The parent of this persimmon seedling had been badly burned by the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Somehow, the tree survived the radiation, but, by 1994, it had become very ill and Dr. Ebinuma was asked to treat it.

After the plant doctor saved the ailing tree, he began collecting and germinating its seeds. Now, I was thrilled to learn, the Kaki Tree Project was making "junior trees" available to schools and community organizations. Dr. Ebinuma hoped educators and community activists would use the kaki tree as the focus of art projects that would transform the horrendous legacy of the bombings into a worldwide peace effort.

Last fall, I applied for a kaki seedling and received word in December that the application had been accepted. Hockaday, our racially and ethnically diverse preK-12 school in Dallas, would be the first school in the United States to receive a Kaki Tree Junior! With guidance from the project's Executive Committee, I obtained an entry permit for the plant from the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and we excitedly received our seedling in March, at a total cost of $70.

A week later, we were honored to host Dr. Ebinuma, Mr. Miyajima and Ms. Sayaka Sonoda, a volunteer committee member and translator traveling with them, at our "Meet the Kaki Tree" event. With our 1st through 4th graders gathered around the potted kaki seedling, we sang songs of peace in Japanese and English, and our three visitors spoke of the kaki tree as a symbol of peace and understanding. Later, Ms. Sonoda and Mr. Miyajima visited classrooms and taught the children to make origami kaki fruits like the ones in the exhibit in Venice.

With the help of interpreters, Dr. Ebinuma allowed two of our 3rd graders to interview him for our student newspaper. When they asked him how we could prevent wars like World War II, he replied, "It is very important to keep a peaceful mind, so that it will become a peaceful world. When you think of countries, think of the people in each country."

Teachers continued the discourse with class discussions that ranged from finding peace within ourselves to learning to respect others by recognizing differences. After watching the video Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Informed Democracy, 800-827-0949), students folded hundreds of origami cranes. We gave some to our new Japanese friends to take home and sent the remainder to the Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima.

The kaki tree project inspired our entire school to focus on peace and tolerance. Fourth grader Irene Gow summed up her new understanding this way: "The making of peace begins deep in your heart. When you open your heart to others, peace makes its way through everyone."

Our kaki tree will be a visual symbol to help us promote understanding, justice and equity during our school's upcoming Year of World Peace. We are planning a Peace on Earth Fair, in which diverse cultures will be explored, and a Children's Disarmament Day to look at war toys and discriminatory playthings. Plans are also underway for A Season for Nonviolence, a program created by the grandson of M. K. Gandhi, Dr. Arun Gandhi, and his wife, Sunanda, cofounders of the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis.

As our little tree grows, we hope that our students' commitment to what it stands for will also grow. I encourage others to bring a kaki tree into their lives and help fulfill the vision Dr. Ebinuma expressed to students, teachers and parents at our school:

I hope the kaki tree will take its role in each community to … motivate us to work toward peace, … to love one another, to protect each other's lives. And, of course, I hope the kaki tree will keep handing down the message of the value of peace and the treasure of life to all the children of the future. It is my hope that you take this message and build peace in the 21st century.

Dee Mayes teaches 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade art at The Hockaday School in Dallas.

 

Caution: Idealists at Work

by Gail Mesplay

On a walk through an aging neighborhood of North Denver, Ivan Suvanjieff turned to Dawn Engle and asked a simple question, "I wonder what Nobel Peace Prize winners do after they win the prize?" The answer to this simple question would change thousands of teenagers' lives across the world.

Dawn and Ivan are dedicated peace workers, lovers of young people, and two individuals who know how to bring dreams into reality. They immediately started making calls.

"Hello, is the Dalai Lama in? This is Dawn Engle from Denver, Colorado; may I speak with him?"

"This is Ivan Suvanjieff, hoping to reach Archbishop Desmond Tutu."

Unannounced, their calls went through, and in a matter of 12 months they had the wholehearted commitment of seven Nobel Peace Prize winners. Thus began the PeaceJam Foundation, an international organization that apprentices teenagers around the world with Nobel Peace Laureates. The elders coach their protegés in both the philosophy and practice of peacemaking, and the youth, in turn, take their new skills and a concrete "peace plan" back into their schools and communities. In the words of Gandhi, this movement linking celebrated visionaries with young activists is "practical idealism" at work.

At the time that Dawn and Ivan were enlisting the PeaceJam board of directors and planning the first retreat, my own life and my students' lives were inching toward monumental change. The first PeaceJam weekend retreat was held in March 1996, at Regis University in Denver, a short distance from suburban Wheat Ridge High School. Our students immediately mobilized so that Wheat Ridge would be selected to send a delegation to spend the weekend with Nobel Laureate Betty Williams, who received the award in 1976 for her work to end violence in Northern Ireland.

At every retreat, each delegation must bring with them a practical peace proposal that can be implemented in their community. At the close of the weekend, each group stands before the Nobel winner and explains the specifics of its peace project. When young people voice these plans publicly and make a promise to one of the world's wisest elders, it is a commitment that must be kept.

For their first peace plan, the Wheat Ridge students designed a teen center and then lobbied the city council to authorize creation of the peaceful gathering place. A related project at the school brought together the most diverse segments of the student body to design, organize and spray-paint a graffiti peace mural on a school wall.

Just a couple of years after our first PeaceJam, we found ourselves in a vortex of conflict and change. In the fall of 1998, our PeaceJam students had been discussing how they could address a serious but unacknowledged problem at our mostly White, middle-class school -- prejudice against gay students. That very October, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was tragically murdered outside of Laramie, a short three-hour drive from Wheat Ridge.

Matthew's murder awakened our students to work for the changes they had been talking about. With the help of similar organizations in the Denver area, they formed a gay-straight student alliance and named it Shepards for Justice, in honor of Matthew. Their careful inclusion of school administrators in the planning process won the alliance crucial support in the face of parent and community questions and controversy that so often surround such groups.

In the middle of this planning phase, in April 1999, the eyes of the world fixed on our neighboring school, Columbine High. Most of us had known people in the Laramie area, and everyone at Wheat Ridge had friends at Columbine. Never before had we felt such a need to put "practical idealism" into play. We knew that PeaceJam was the perfect vehicle for responding to these outbreaks of hatred and conflict.

As we prepared for the opening of school in the fall following the Columbine tragedy, the administration announced that new rules and regulations were to go into place for the safety of students and staff. Not only would all entrances be monitored, but also students would be required to wear IDs.

PeaceJam students attending a late summer meeting knew that many of their classmates would see these new rules as unreasonable restrictions. Their own opinions aside, the PeaceJam members did not want the school year to start with restlessness and conflict. With the hope of heading any conflict off at the pass, they came up with an idea to turn the mandatory ids into an exciting and unusual experience.

Shortly after the opening of school, the students set up a table in the main hall with a big commitment pledge on the wall and tiny commitment pledges to be signed and carried by concerned students. The pledge read: "I refuse to verbally or nonverbally harass another student, and if I do, CALL ME ON IT."

When students signed the pledge, they received a bright yellow sticker to attach to their id with call me on it in bold black letters. The ids became a proud statement of where each student stood on the issue of harassment. Wheat Ridge students understood all too clearly that the only way the halls of their high school or any high school could be safe is if each student would individually stand up and publicly state "I will not do this."

A few weeks later, after a full year of planning, the first Shepards for Justice meeting drew a capacity crowd, made up not only of PeaceJam students but also of other concerned members of the school community. Since that inaugural meeting, a large and diverse cross-section of our student body has attended the monthly meetings.

The changes that PeaceJam has initiated at our school are what G. K. Chesterton would call "tremendous trifles." The important thing is that each of the group's members learned that idealism can so easily be put into practice. They learned that it is the small, everyday acts of heroism in the halls, classrooms and parking lot that make the waves and change the world. I have been a teacher for over 30 years and never have I been so deeply touched and utterly convinced of the wisdom and devotion of teens as I have been since the formation of our own PeaceJam group.

Since that first gathering in 1996, students from Wheat Ridge have spent weekends with Peace Prize winners Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. As I sat and watched my own students clustered around the chair of Archbishop Tutu, listening to one of the grandest storytellers of our century, or receiving a loving hug from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I had only begun to envision the ripple effect these experiences of peace would have on Wheat Ridge High.

By the end of 2000, thirty-eight PeaceJam weekends have taken place throughout the U.S. and around the globe. For more information, contact:

PeaceJam Foundation
2427 Argyle Place
Denver, CO 80211
(303) 455-2099
www.peacejam.org

Gail Mesplay recently retired from 34 years of teaching. She taught history at Wheat Ridge High school for 18 years.

From the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

For the Children of the World 

 

From THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE LAUREATES

 

To HEADS OF STATE OF ALL MEMBER COUNTRIES OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE UNITED NATIONS

 

Today, in every single country throughout the world, there are many children silently suffering the effects and consequences of violence.

 

This violence takes many different forms: between children on streets, at school, in family life and in the community. There is physical violence, psychological violence, socioeconomic violence, environmental violence and political violence. Many children -- too many children -- live in a "culture of violence."

 

We wish to contribute to reduce their suffering. We believe that each child can discover, by [her- or] himself, that violence is not inevitable. We can offer hope, not only to the children of the world, but to all of humanity, by beginning to create, and build, a new Culture of Nonviolence.

 

For this reason, we address this solemn appeal to all Heads of States, of all member countries of the General Assembly of the United Nations, for the UN General Assembly to declare:

 

That the first decade of the new millennium, the years 2001-2010, be declared the "Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence"; …

 

That nonviolence be taught at every level in our societies during this decade, to make the children of the world aware of the real, practical meaning and benefits of nonviolence in their daily lives, in order to reduce the violence, and consequent suffering, perpetrated against them and humanity in general.

 

Together we can build a new culture of nonviolence for humankind which will give hope to all humanity, and in particular, to the children of our world.

 

With deepest respect,

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

 

Mairead Maguire Corrigan, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, The 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel, Mgr. Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Yasser Arafat, Mgr. Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, José Ramos-Horta, Norman Borlaug, Oscar Arias Sánchez, UNICEF, Frederik Willem de Klerk, Betty Williams, Lech Walesa, Joseph Rotblat, Henry Kissinger, Jody Williams, John Hume, David Trimble, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and the American Friends Society.

Visit http://209.238.73.41/eng/index.htm for more information on the Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence.