“Aren’t they just fantastic?”
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu may have been this weekend’s headliner; however, the real stars were the 350 teens, mentors and advisors attending the April 12-13 PeaceJam conference—the PeaceJammers.
Archbishop Tutu shared his jubilation after watching “fantastic” students from Bridge View School perform an excerpt of their original musical “13 Points of Light,” a play about the Nobel Peace laureates who founded PeaceJam. The Twin Cities teens watching the performance were in full agreement, judging by the applause erupting from the packed auditorium at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul.
Created in 1996, PeaceJam is an international organization striving to “create a new generation of young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates.” The conference was sponsored by PeaceJam’s upper Midwest affiliate youthrive—a nonprofit organization providing youth leadership skills in areas of peace-building, social justice, anti-racism and human/environmental rights. (The youthrive organization intentionally has its name in lowercase.)
Each year, youthrive invites one of the twelve Nobel Peace laureates who founded PeaceJam to attend the conference. Several notable laureates, like the Dalai Lama, have attended in the past. This year, Archbishop Tutu accepted their invitation and, along with his daughter Naomi, traveled from South Africa to take part in the two-day event.
After selecting the laureate, PeaceJammers participate in a yearlong curriculum-based program that emphasizes the teachings and actions of that particular laureate. The curriculum this year focused on Archbishop Tutu’s theme, “Making Friends of Our Enemies.”
“The curriculum is unique to the laureate,” said Joyce Johannson, communications representative for youthrive.
One part of the curriculum requires youth groups to create an ongoing community service project that addresses one of the ten key PeaceJam issues known as the Global Call to Action. During the conference, the groups displayed their project ideas for the Archbishop and his daughter to view. The students will then turn their ideas into actions, by actually working on their projects for the next several months. In November, the groups will reconvene to discuss the progress of their projects at a one-day meeting called the PeaceJam Slam.
In addition to their ongoing project, youthrive participants also perform a service project during the conference itself. This year they focused their efforts on north Minneapolis. Since last August, 20 youth and seven adults from north Minneapolis met weekly with youthrive to develop a peace movement in their community. Collectively, they saw four areas they felt were critical in obtaining lasting peace.
“They decided they needed to feed the body, feed the mind, feed the spirit and feed the community,” Johannson said.
The youth then developed activities around these areas. With the help of Cub Foods, they passed out 4000 sandwiches to area residents on Saturday. Johannsen also said the group asked both youth and adults to sign a “Peace Covenant” pledging to address conflicts in a respective manner and offer encouragement to the community. Archbishop Tutu also spoke to north Minneapolis residents and led a Peace Parade from North High School to Cub Foods. David Ellis, adult co-chair for the event was impressed with the outcome.
“It was the culmination of eight months of planning by young people…and it is a testament to those young people about their resilience, their drive and their skill,” Ellis said.
Ellis sees the project as being more than just a one-day event. As a resident of north Minneapolis, he hopes this could jumpstart a revitalization effort that someday may lead to north Minneapolis becoming a more desirable community for people.
“The hope is that it will now become the movement that makes north Minneapolis like every other community here—where people want to live…where the school systems are good and there’s not a boarded up building every other house.”
Ellis also played an instrumental role in another part of the PeaceJam conference; establishing a unique collaboration with the Men’s Juvenile Correctional Facility in Red Wing called A Day of Peace. Each year, the honored laureate visits the locked facility to work with the 120 incarcerated young men.
In preparation, the young men study a curriculum that teaches them about the laureate’s life and beliefs. During the visit, the men meet the laureate in a more personal setting, and participate in several workshops facilitated by youthrive leaders. This close interaction gives the young men the opportunity to learn first-hand nonviolent methods of resolving conflict. In addition, sharing in the same experiences as other teens helps keep them connected to society. Ellis has witnessed how the words of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate have inspired the young men.
“When Rigoberta Menchu Tum from Guatemala, the first indigenous Nobel Peace Prize winner, starts telling them she too had been incarcerated, that’s when they sit up…These young men realize that things can change.”
Ellis discovered A Day of Peace had an unexpected side effect on the young men housed at MCF-Red Wing. Since establishing the program, the level of disciplinary actions has dropped dramatically.
“It’s an amazing thing. There are virtually none for the month before and the three months after [the visit].”
These results recently allowed youthrive to receive funding from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to expand the program to quarterly visits. This way, youthrive can measure its effectiveness over the course of a year.
“If statistics hold true, we can drive down the amount of disciplinary actions for an entire year,” Ellis said.
Ellis also revealed they are trying to design a re-entry model that incorporates youthrive. He believes such a program would provide a better transition back to society.
“Because youthrive and PeaceJam have ties all over the state, it really doesn’t matter where a person comes from when they go to Red Wing. We can tie them back to mentors, advisors, faith-based communities, employment and housing if they need it. We can help with schooling and tutors. We can provide a secure and safe network.”
The Red Wing inmates are not the only people impacted by A Day of Peace. Ellis heard the laureates who visited the institution praise the program at the PeaceJam world conference he attended in 2006.
“That is the one thing they remember above and beyond everything else…Talk about being able to truly impact some of the most disenfranchised people you will find.”
Ellis hopes many of the youth participating in the local PeaceJam conference will attend the international conference this September in Los Angeles, where six Nobel Peace Prize laureates will address 3000 youth from around the world.
Archbishop Tutu stood before the crowd in the auditorium and applauded the youth for their commitment to PeaceJam. He then turned to the crowd and whispered. “Do you want to know a secret?” A hush fell over the crowd as everyone waited to hear what he would say next. Pointing to different PeaceJammers in the audience, he said. “You…you…you…and you…You give us hope.”
Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.