PeaceJam brings together youth, human rights hero

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Adolfo Perez Esquivel was imprisoned and tortured for 14 months, for standing up for peace and social justice. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. On March 27-29, he brought his message to high school students from around the Midwest for the 2009 PeaceJam conference. The roughly 250 high school students participated in workshops and service projects in the west side of St. Paul, based around concepts of peace-building and social justice.

As part of the conference, Esquivel spoke to the students about his, and others’, experiences working for nonviolent solutions. During the 1970s, a military dictatorship took over Esquivel’s native Argentina. An era of oppression and violence, known as the “Dirty War,” followed for seven years. Anyone who opposed the new regime was imprisoned. Esquivel, who was an architect, sculptor, and teacher, became a leader of the Servicio Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Service), and organized nonviolent protests across the country. In 1977, Esquivel was captured by the Argentinean military and tortured for 14 months. After his release, he continued his human rights work and started an organization for orphaned and homeless children in Argentina.

The weekend conference was organized by youthrive, the Upper Midwest affiliate for PeaceJam International. The purpose of PeaceJam is to bring Nobel Laureates together with youth to inspire them to work for justice and equality in the world and in their own communities.

“We owe [our youth] the opportunity to have role models that can inspire them and have walked through difficult situations,” said Pamela Toole, Vice President of Compass Institute. “Peace is about being able to reach out across boundaries.”

Throughout the year, participating schools and organizations worked with a curriculum designed by 12 Nobel Laureates, including Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. They used the curriculum to develop service projects that address pressing global and community issues like racism, violence, and human rights. Students from Brookwood High School in Ontario, Wisc., are organizing a poverty awareness week at their school in April. “Our goal is to change attitudes and stigma of poverty,” said Erica Kelly, one of the students. As part of the PeaceJam event, students were given the opportunity to present these service projects to Esquivel.

Another part of the event was a series of service projects at Neighborhood House in West St. Paul. Some of these included: assembling welcome kits for new residents in St. Paul, creating magnets and bumper stickers with an anti-hate message to distribute in the community, and painting a mural to honor those killed while trying to deliver a message of peace. “Peace is all about building community,” said Carol Neumann, a volunteer for the conference.

PeaceJam students took away a variety of messages from Esquivel’s address. “(His speech) was not just about peace, but helping period,” said Joe Sauder, a student from Ashland High School.

“All the stuff he said was powerful,” said Tabitha Tate, from Brookwood High School. “You can take it and use it anywhere.”

Sadie Lundquist is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.

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