The most recognized example of nonviolent direct action remains the strategy used during African Americans’ civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kind, Jr. and other ministers. King first discovered the idea of nonviolent resistance in the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, whose idea of “soul force” fuelled a 50-year movement to win India’s independence in 1948.
Less well-known is how these tactics continue to be used in many political struggles: working to close the U.S. Army’s infamous torture-training School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia; accompanying union organizers, under attack by death squads in Columbia; attempts to end Israel’s demolitions of Palestinian homes.
But, most of those engaging in this form of political change are over 25 years old — oftentimes elders. The Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), an international organization, with a TC chapter, hosted a Youth Leadership Conference August 19 and 20 to mobilize a new generation to take up this alternative to war and violent conflicts.
“Not many youths — who are the people of the future — know about the nonviolent movement, action or philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. They don’t know about the conflicts going on in countries around the world,” said Omar Fernandes, summer intern at the Nonviolent Peaceforce, and the conference organizer.
Nonviolent Peaceforce member Hindolo Polcowa, from Sierra Leone, now living in St. Paul, initiated the conference when he realized that NP’s Peace Army working to mediate the Sri Lankan civil war, had no youths. “We want to start locally, find youth to inspire, empower and involve them to volunteer with us or other organizations affiliated with the philosophy of nonviolence,” Fernandes says.
The Nonviolent Peaceforce began in 1999 at the Hague Appeal for Peace. Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly declared last April 28 “Nonviolent Peaceforce Day” in Minnesota, citing “the Nonviolence Peaceforce’s reasonable and strategic approach to conflict resolution that saves lives and money.”
The tsunami last December intensified the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka’s north and east regions, home of the Tamil minority group. For two years, NP’s field team there has worked with local peace activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Since December, efforts included working to get international relief where it was most needed. Presence by internationals has prevented violence in many countries.
NP also challenges the recruitment of child soldiers by protecting local activists working to end the practice. NP co-founder Mel Duncan writes about the concrete effect the peace teams are having in the current edition of Rumors of Peace, the organization’s newsletter. “Stories are there: from helping an attack victim…to a son returning from forced recruitment into the military…to a fisherman who was not harassed due to NP presence.” Duncan shared his own wide-ranging experiences using nonviolent direct action.
“We not only provide protection from [military and death squad] violence, but also witnesses. People see what’s happening in these countries and come back and talk about what is happening. As news spreads, more people want to help,” Fernandes says. He notes NP’s future plans to send their Peace Army field teams to Uganda, the Philippines and Israel/Palestine.
“Hindolo Polcowa’s plan for the Youth Leadership Conference is to get youths to discuss what they think nonviolent action is: to get youths active locally, spreading out globally. Also to practice it in their daily lives, hoping to change the world,” Fernandes said.
The conference emphasized active participation with small and large group discussions to give youths a chance to define nonviolence for themselves. Role-playing exercises revealed applications in youths’ everyday experience.
“There are bullies in school and on the bus, neighborhood violence, and arguments between casual friends. We’ll role-play and then have the entire group come together to decide what the nonviolent response would be,” Fernandes explains.
With four Minneapolis shootings in the last month resulting in children being hit by stray bullets, violence is an issue that directly impacts youths. The Nonviolent Peaceforce Youth Leadership Conference recognizes that youths must be part of solving violence in their own communities.
The Nonviolent Peaceforce is located at 425 Oak Grove, in Minneapolis (near Loring Park). For more information, call 612-874-0005 or visit www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org.