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 (www.icbl.org) 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.

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