Healing Communities Torn by Racism and Violence

By Paul Dekar

"There was a time when my esteem and that of my people were very low. We felt marginalized. We saw no solution for our problems." So began Rigoberta Menchú Tum as she opened the annual PeaceJam weekend in Memphis, Tennessee February 13-15, 2004. She explained that when persons know their value, it doesn't matter what their skin color is or where they come from. But when one feels inferior and does not value his or her own knowledge, talent, or integrity, then there are problems.

The third recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to visit Memphis for a PeaceJam weekend, Rigoberta Menchú offered seeds of hope to a generation familiar with bullying, homicides, suicides, and shootings by police.

"What can I do?" asked one of the teens during the question-and-answer period. "Make a difference right where you are planted," replied the diminutive Mayan peacemaker from Guatemala. "Do something to reduce the gap between rich and poor, protect the earth, educate youth, help refugees and oppressed peoples. Bring spirituality to bear on all of life."

Having listened to her, students spent the next day practicing what they heard. They fanned out around the city counseling other teens in a restorative justice program, talking with elderly residents of a nursing home, spending time with child cancer patients, feeding shut-ins, and sharing with other teens how to respond to bullying constructively.

When they are selected for the program, PeaceJam participants agree to a year's involvement that includes leadership training on violence, racism and human rights; studying the lives of Nobel Peace Prize laureates; and implementing service projects in their communities. Since the workshop, PeaceJammers at Hamilton High, a local Memphis secondary school, have been training middle school students in nonviolence.

At Lausanne Collegiate, a private school, all the sophomores in a modern world history class adopted an inner-city, under-funded public school and worked in their after-school programs.

Ivan Suvanjieff and Dawn Engle conceived PeaceJam in the summer of 1994. An artist and musician, Suvanjieff was talking with Latino gang members on a Denver street corner when he learned that these young people knew who Archbishop Desmond Tutu was and appreciated his nonviolent tools for change. From this encounter developed a program to build peace.

PeaceJam has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of young people. Consider five teens, three of whom survived the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Richard Castaldo was the first person shot and the last to leave the hospital after undergoing seven operations. He is now confined to a wheelchair. Shannon and Shelby Myers, fraternal twins born of a white mother and an African American father, were not physically injured but experienced trauma. The other two are Jes Ward, a homeless girl trying to come to terms with an alcoholic mother and her abusing boyfriends; and Rudy Balles, a Latino gang banger whose father died of a cocaine overdose. In PeaceJam, Richard, Shannon, Shelby, Jes and Rudy have helped create projects such as diversity programs, AIDS prevention, conflict resolution workshops, aid for the homeless, violence prevention and meals for senior citizens.

PeaceJam has hosted three workshops in Memphis and over 75 others around the United States, South Africa, Kenya and Central America. Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams of the Northern Irish peace women, anti-nuclear leader Sir Joseph Rotblat, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala, Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma all have given time to PeaceJam.

In its first ten years, PeaceJam has inspired a new generation of peacemakers who are transforming their local communities. Planning for PeaceJam's next ten years points to continued growth of the movement, as hundreds of teens build cultures of peace. Contact PeaceJam's national headquarters at 5605 Yukon Street, Arvada, CO 80002. Telephone 303-455-2099; fax 303-455-3921; email info@peacejam.org; website: www.peacejam.org.

1 Darcy Gifford, PeaceJam: How Young People Can Make Peace in Their Schools and Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. xiv+153 pages (paper) US $22.00. The book lists resources and suggested readings and websites.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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