Correspondent Alicia Fordham shares moments and reflections from her visit to the landmark three-day event, the Newark Peace Education Summit.
A few days ago, I told a friend that I was going to Newark for the Peace Education Summit there, which begins on Friday. “Best Mayor in America” he replied. “Yeah” I said, “he seems pretty cool.”
I got to learn all about the “Best Mayor,” the Honorable Cory Booker, back in January when I did some research for the cover story in the current issue of Lion’s Roar, “Making Peace in America’s Cities.” I was impressed by his work, and excited to find that there are many others like him, champions of non-violence in some of America’s most impoverished and crime-ridden cities.
The urban peacemakers profiled in the piece are different from each other in many ways, but they share the view that the human spirit is worth believing in, and that mindfulness can bring peace to individuals, and maybe even the world.
Learning about urban peace projects, I was inspired and touched. I was also left with a whole lot of questions. Is it really possible to change systemic poverty from the bottom up? The inside out? Can we find peace for ourselves, and if so, is it really peace if it’s not reflected in the world around us?
In hopes of understanding more, I’m on my way to Newark for the Peace Education Summit with the Dalai Lama to hear the world’s peace experts speak their minds. As Earl Best says “Peace is about being relaxed,” so I’ll keep my eyes wide, and my ears open, and I’ll tell you what I find.
Today’s peace panel at the Newark Peace Education Summit was on “peace within.”
It’s hard to say how to do this – I think it has something to do with just being nice to yourself – the peace is already there.
My day began with a rousing speech by Mayor Cory Booker and a singalong with Rabbi Michael Lerner , who taught the crowd to sing this song: “Let everyone ‘neath her vine and fig tree live in peace and unafraid, and into plowshares beat their swords, nations shall learn war no more.”
Later, Peace Laureate Jody Williams talked a lot about violence. “There’s a continuum of violence” she said. “When we think of violence, we often think of war, but there’s also the violence of language, the violence of families, and there’s violence of tax cuts for the rich.”
Wilbert Rideau, who spent 44 years in prison, continued on a similar theme of violence, and about just how painful it can be to harm others. When Rideau was 19, he found himself in solitary confinement and on death row. He recounted growing up poor and underprivileged with a sense of being an outsider. “We (the inmates) cared little about ourselves, that made us care little about others… which made us dangerous.”
I look forward to Saturday and its “Peace In The World Panel,” which might just fill in some of the gaps.
This morning’s panel discussion was on peace in education. The peace being talked about was not vague, or idealistic, it was tangible and urgent, a peace that is needed now in schools and youth culture, peace for kids so they can learn, grow and be inspired.
Cory Booker started off by saying that he didn’t get much sleep last night. “By the time I went to bed at 4 am, my Blackberry went off because a young man had been shot, so I headed for the hospital. Later this morning, I got a call saying that another man in Newark had been set to fire and badly injured. So I sit here with anguish in my heart. I am grateful that we can come together and talk about peace, but no one in this country is stirred when a man in my city is shot in the leg.”
The great disparity between what we imagine our society to be, and what is really going on, can be a disturbing thing. As Martin Luther King III put it later in the panel: “We are a wonderful nation, but we preach peace and practice war…we say we care about our children, but we pay our athletes more in one year then we pay our teachers in a whole lifetime.”
It’s easy to get angry at the injustice of our world, but the underlying message that ran through this morning’s discussion is that blaming each other won’t help at all. In his closing remarks, Booker articulates this sentiment well: “The problems we face are not external. We have the power, and the power of the people will always be greater than the people in power, so let’s be the change we want to see.”
On the train this morning, I chatted with a high school teacher about the Newark Charter School where he works. The charter schools in Newark are part of the public school system, but have more freedom in the designing of their curriculum than other public schools, and are usually much smaller. According to my teacher-friend, almost 100% of the kids in charter schools in Newark get into college, while only 2% of public school kids do. When I asked why this is, he said it has to do with giving the kids attention, recognizing who each of them is, and listening to what they have to say.
This can also be done on a larger scale. On day one of the summit, I went to a workshop with one of my personal heroes, anthropologist Wade Davis, who shared a stage with with representatives of the Navajo, Dene, and Hopi nations. Davis spoke about diversity of culture, which he says is just as important to the health of our planet as diversity of species. A plurality of voices, Davis explained, is needed to solve our problems, and ancient wisdom is of value here because it can tell us a lot about what it means to be a human being.
Before Ishmael Beah was recruited to fight as a child soldier in the civil war of Sierra Leone, he lived in a small village, “… a tight community where I realized that all of our actions are connected.” Talking in Sunday morning’s Peace In The World Panel, Beah said that there are two things that he had in his village that are missing in the world he sees around him now. The first is intergenerational friendships. “Where I grew up, an old person would sit you down, you didn’t have a choice, and tell you the mistakes they’ve made.” The second is an oral tradition, “We learned to really listen to people…to open up, and actively listen. Here in the West, we might listen, but we’ve usually already decided what we are going to think.”
I’m in the lobby now, outside Prudential Hall, as chairs and tables are being put away and people hug goodbye. I still can’t tell you much about peace, but I met some pretty great people this weekend, and saw that there’s a whole lot more to Newark than an airport and run-down buildings. There are inspired politicians, dedicated teachers, and brilliant school kids — who happened to write a song about the Dalai Lama, and I can hear that that song is being sung by someone inside right now.