Thursday, April 16, 2009

Organizing for Peace and Social Justice

“There's nothing magical about organizing people for peace and social justice,” said 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams, but it's a lot of work because it requires logic, planning, follow up, follow through and the constant search for allies.

This is what Williams did in 1992 when she headed the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Five years later she and a team of activists persuaded 121 nations to ban the use of landmines, weapons, which at the time were considered legal in over 80 countries.

Williams is one of several Nobel Peace laureates working with PeaceJam ( to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

Organizing first requires that you figure out whom you can get to build a coalition to work on an issue, she said. Then you find existing laws or treaties and figure out how they can be used to advance your issue. Finally, you find allies in government who share your view and will push through legislation.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) turned out to be her government contact, which was a natural since she, too, was a native Vermonter. He'd seen victims of landmines in the late 1980s and had started the Leahy War Victims Relief Fund in 1989, which is administered by USAID for civilians disabled by civil strife, war and landmines. He also sponsored legislation—the first in the world—to lead a moratorium on the exportation of landmines.

“We got a big boost for banning landmines right at the starting gate,” said Williams. “It energized Europe [who was also involved in these exportation practices] and created a competition among nations to outdo each other.” For example, France upped the ante on the United States and proposed a three-year moratorium. After that, the movement just gained momentum.

Unfortunately, the United States, Russia and China did not sign the treaty, but that has not stopped Williams from continuing her effort to rid the world of violence.

“You must have an outline for a plan of action for the next six to twelve months,” she said. “Most people don't think through strategy but instead adopt yours, if you have one.

The key to the ICBL's success on banning landmines was in forming close partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments, the (ICRC) and United Nations agencies, according to the organization's website ( In order to obtain these partnerships, the ICBL managed the following activities:

· Provide expertise and credible documentation
· Articulate goals and messages clearly and simply
· Maintain a flexible but unified coalition structure that is inclusive and diverse
· Recognize that most of the work is done by a few
· Communicate key developments with all concerned
· Organize people to move an issue forward
· Formulate plans with achievable deadlines and goals to build momentum and excitement

Prior to her starting ICBL, Williams worked for eleven years to build public awareness about U.S. Policy toward Central America. From 1986 to 1992, she developed and directed humanitarian relief projects as the deputy director of the Los Angeles-based Medical Aid for El Salvador. From 1984 to 1986 she was co-coordinator of the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project, leading fact-finding delegations to the region. Previously, she taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Washington, D.C.

Teaching the young about nonviolence is essential, said Williams, who contends that peace is about talking through differences and finding compromises. It takes schools and families to change things and end the continuum of violence that pervades a culture that “glorifies screeching.”

One example of effective education, organization and action Williams cited was a fourth grade teacher who taught a unit about banning landmines. The students then decided to go to the University of West Virginia near their home to teach the college students there about the dangers of landmines. Recently, the students had a tenth anniversary to celebrate their work.

“Those are the ones who blow me away,” said Williams.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

High School Students Flock to PeaceJam Conference

There's no doubt about it: Many of today's youths are highly motivated and very excited about engaging themselves in community-service projects.

What's different about PeaceJam youths, however, is that they are focused on projects that change the world to make it a more peaceful and nonviolent place.

The weekend of March 27, 200 high school students from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio converged on the Bernhard Center ballrooms at Western Michigan University to celebrate their yearlong study of peacemaking at the annual Great Lakes PeaceJam conference. They were treated to an appearance of 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams.

Williams won the Peace Prize for her work in heading up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines ( in 1992. Five years later she and a team of activists persuaded 121 nations to sign a treaty usually called ``the Ottawa Convention'' to ban the use, stockpiling, production and sale of landmines, which at the time was considered a legal weapon for military arsenals.

Although the United States, Russia and China did not sign the treaty, Williams has not stopped her effort to rid the world of violence. She is one of several Nobel Peace laureates who are working with PeaceJam to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

This year's laureate was a passionate advocate for peace whom teens widely admired and appreciated for both her style and her message.

``She's a firecracker,'' said Quinn Stifler, an eleventh-grader from Portage Northern High School who got the chance to interview Williams for her school newspaper, The Northern Light. ``I like her great energy and her easy way to have a discussion. She's very personable.''

Lili Marchak, the eleventh grade managing editor for the Portage Northern newspaper, noted that not many high school journalists get such an opportunity to talk to a worldwide figure.

``(Williams) is someone who's really made a difference,'' Marchak said. ``In this story I want to inspire students to do the same.''

Williams' message focused on substituting national security policies and initiatives with human security policies and initiatives. She contended that the world can no longer sustain military solutions when people are without basic human needs, such as food, water or shelter, or when they lack dignity, employment, health care, education and safety against various forms of violence.

``We can only be secure when justice and the sharing of resources in the world are present,'' Williams said to an audience of nearly 400 at the March 27 public event that preceded the students' weekend conference.

``Human security, not national security, will bring security to everyone in the world.''

PeaceJam has enlisted the help of the Nobel laureates in order to inspire students and serve as models.

``She wasn't afraid of anything and was willing to do anything to get her message across,'' said Eileen Zimmerman, a 12th-grader from Waverly High School in Lansing.

Tenth-grader Ryan Walling, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, found Williams not to be the stereotypical laureate he expected.

``It's kind of boring to hear about being nice and peaceful and that war is terrible,'' he said. ``(Williams) is more realistic. She understands that people get angry sometimes and want to punch out someone. However, peace is about overcoming such emotions.''

A big part of the PeaceJam conference is students' involvement in peace projects during the afternoon session. On Saturday, students chose from among several activities like clearing the brush at a Habitat for Humanity house, demonstrating for peace with the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War, helping youngsters read at the Lincoln School YMCA, making blankets for the YWCA domestic violence shelter.

``We're here to make the world believe that anything is possible and that there's a solution to every question,'' said Kimyahtta Morris, a twelfth-grader from Southfield Academy in Battle Creek. She participated in the peace demonstration in front of the Federal Building on Michigan Avenue.

``It gets you thinking about different issues in the world and how to [promote peace] locally,'' said Zimmerman, who volunteered for the Habitat for Humanity project. ``It's such an easy thing to do to volunteer your time to help people in need.''

On Sunday, students learned how to derive inner peace through lessons in yoga, tai chi, chi kung, poetry, healthy food, conflict resolution, dialogue and becoming ``green fashionistas'' with a recession budget.

Youth volunteer for PeaceJam in an after-school club setting starting in the fall. They study a particular Nobel laureate and the peace issue that she or he pursued.

``PeaceJam is truly a path to enabling youth to make positive social change,'' Nott said. They meet students from other states and ``learn (peacemaking) is happening all over the country.

This article appeared in the City Life section of the Kalamazoo Gazette on Saturday, April 4, 2009.