Mahatma Gandhi once visited Maria Montessori in London. In a speech to teachers Gandhi said, "You have very truly remarked that if we are to reach real peace in this world ... we shall have to begin with children ... if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won't have the struggle, we won't have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering."
Great thinkers and ordinary people still strive to feed that hunger. The United Nations calls it, "The Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World."
What could I do in this small corner of the planet? I've been inspired by teens at YouthWrite, a camp in the Rocky Mountains for writers aged 12 to 18, and by Hetty van Gurp and her organization, Peaceful Schools International.
I wanted a camp for children using the arts to help them discuss peace - not a traditional one with cabins and campfires, but an inexpensive half-day camp created with artist friends. We have just completed our second summer peace camp.
The day 21 children arrived for peace camp in 2006, Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon were firing rockets at each other. The day 25 children arrived for peace camp this summer, a 13-year-old Alberta girl was found guilty of murdering her parents and brother.
I first approached other members of Women in Black, the Calgary wing of the peace group started in Jerusalem in 1988. We hold a silent vigil for peace twice each month in downtown Calgary. Fif Fernandes, an actor, puppeteer and therapeutic hospital clown, immediately offered collaboration and the board of my church offered free space, use of the kitchen and insurance coverage for the children and volunteer leaders. This meant that we could keep registration fees minimal, $50.
As the children entered the church gym they were invited to art tables, where they created a "peace around the world" banner. It will be quilted and displayed at Women in Black events and future peace camps.
Each morning, the ring of a Tibetan bowl, gently struck, called the children into the circle of cushions on the floor. On the first day, we began by acknowledging the rivers that flow through our city and keep us alive, and the territory in which we live. Two of the twenty-five children knew that Calgary is in Blackfoot Territory. The children named other children in the world who are having a tough time and lit a candle in their honour. They named children in Afghanistan, children who have AIDS, children who live in violent homes. We then began a talking circle, a First Nations concept, passing around a beautiful beaded wooden talking stick. We asked, "What is peace to you?"
The mornings progressed through various drama exercises, laughter yoga, a snack, art projects, a half hour of music. On Thursday, the children recorded their writings and songs.
Each day closed with a talking circle to allow kids to express their own reflections. Questions came up, too. "Exactly what is a refugee?" asked a nine year old, "Who are the Taliban?" a ten year old wanted to know. Others offered signs of hope they see in the world. "My dad is helping to build a school for kids in Sudan." Everyone wanted to know more about that school where kids don't have books, pencils or walls, and so nine-year-old Aligo went home and made a display. The next morning he presented the story to 24 kids and six adults. He calmly explained that without schooling, some kids end up in child slavery.
When we talked about making peace with the Earth, several spoke up. "I ride my bike instead of asking for a ride." Others talked about recycling and never using bottled water. Isaac, aged 11, said,
"My friends and I raised sixty dollars last week by selling popcorn and lemonade. If people know it's for a good cause, they are generous. I think we could raise a lot of money for that school in Sudan." On Friday Isaac had printed his email address on homemade business cards and was busy handing them out to kids, parents, anyone. When Aligo's father came to pick him up, several children gave him money from their pockets, "for that school." Junior counselor Ben, whose honorarium for the week was $150, offered half of it for the school in Sudan.
What adults need to do is to provide opportunities for children to talk about various aspects of peace. We need to answer questions truthfully and sometimes say, "I don't really know the answer to that problem. What do you think we could do?"
We can support the work of youth like Hannah Taylor of Manitoba and her Ladybug Foundation for homeless people, and Ryan Hreljac of Ontario and the Ryan's Well Foundation to provide clean water in Africa. Neither of these teens can vote yet, but they are changing the world because evidently no one has told them it's not possible.
Some parents don't want their kids to know about war, conflict, pollution, or high suicide rates. But kids learn about these things anyhow. By not talking about these things rationally, we allow their imaginations to run wild; we breed cynicism and hopelessness. We deprive them of learning about people who are doing something about the problems. We disempower them.
If we acknowledge that we can't do everything but that we must do something, we will be honouring our responsibility. We can feed our hunger for justice, peace and love, one bite at a time.
Carolyn Pogue is a Calgary author and presenter. Seasons of Peace, a resource for teachers and leaders, is her latest book. For information: www.carolynpogue.ca