PeaceJam trip topped by visit with Nobel Laureate
CORVALLIS, ORE. — Simple and strong, personal and profound, the students’ questions inspired hope and a few teary eyes.
Dozens and dozens of students formed a long line for a chance to ask Nobel Peace Prize recipient Betty Williams a question during this year’s PeaceJam Northwest on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. last week.
PeaceJam is dedicated to bringing students together to meet Noble Laureates and create a meaningful, life-inspiring dialogue.
Three students from Langley Middle School — Sommer Harris, Talon Jorgenson and Angelica Janda — participated in the PeaceJam and got a chance to meet with Williams, a peace activist from Northern Ireland. The students are involved in the school’s Learning and Community Engagement Program, which focuses on leadership development, drug/alcohol prevention programs, and making a difference through service projects.
Williams grew up in Belfast, and her life changed forever when British soldiers shot an Irish Republican Army gunman who was driving through her neighborhood during a getaway. The driver lost control of his car and hit and killed three children who were out for a walk in the sun with their mother. Williams was the first person on the scene, and when she left she immediately started gathering signatures in the neighborhood on a petition to stop the violence.
She gathered 6,000 signatures in two days, and she soon met Mairead Corrigan, an aunt of the girls who were killed. The pair started the Community for Peace People to help victims of the sectarian conflict.
At the PeaceJam, students lined up and took turns asking Williams questions that were profound and at times moved some to tears:
Is abortion violence?
What do you think of Cindy Sheehan?
How do you deal with ignorant people?
There is a lot of homelessness. I feel it is an act of violence against people, what do you think?
Do you believe in God?
What are your views on the school shootings in this country?
How can we rise above violence?
What do you say to people who discriminate?
As a victim of child abuse, how can I help other child victims?
Can I hug you?
Why are we ignoring the issues in Darfur?
I have family issues. We have suffered a great deal. What is the main ingredient of non-violence?
Is fast food with chemicals a form of violence?
Can we clap for the first person who had the courage to get up out of the chair and ask you a question?
Can I hug you?
At the end of every question, students enjoyed a hug with Williams, because she said she believes arms are for hugging, not killing.
Committed to peace
Williams has attended 30 Peace Jams in the past decade. PeaceJam Laureates include Archbishop Desmond Tutu (the South African cleric who rose to fame through his opposition to apartheid in his home country), Costa Rican President Oscar Arias (who worked to stop the civil wars in Central America), Jody Williams (a leader of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines), and Shirin Ebadi (the founder of Children’s Rights Support Association in Iran and the first Muslim woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize).
At PeaceJam, students tackled a variety of service projects they could work on.
A good fit with LACEP
It’s the same case with LACEP groups at Langley Middle School, and the work of PeaceJam aligns very well with the purpose of the LACEP program, where students work in small groups and focus on learning about themselves and their ability to make a difference.
One LACEP group, for example, is currently working with the HOPE Horse program, helping with grooming, learning to ride, and making rocking horses to help them sell in an auction. Another group is working on raising awareness about the plight of chimpanzees in the country, and visited the Chimpanzee-Human Communication Institute last year and is raising funds this year to adopt the care of a chimp in a rescue center. Two groups are making puppets and putting together a show for younger students about the impact of alcohol on people and relationships.
PeaceJam itself is really a culminating project, and provides an opportunity to explore values, personhood and creating a positive impact.
The PeaceJam is a two-day event, and kids came from Washington, Oregon, and California. Youth attend the conference as part of a leadership or service group, class or club, and PeaceJams are held on one college campus in 15 different regions of the U.S.
Oregon State University is the host for the Northwest region, and college students in OSU’s PeaceJam Club play a large role in putting on the conference for high school and middle school students.
On the first day of the conference, the students gathered for an inspirational lecture from Williams.
Later, students were assigned to “family groups” for the weekend — small discussion groups where the students met to discus their experiences after every lecture, service project or workshop.
On the second day, PeaceJammers met with Williams again for a discussion about inspiration. Students then went to workshops that covered topics such as injustice, social and environmental activism, steps for peace, and Mexican immigration.
In the evening there was Irish folk dancing – dances that were once considered an act of rebellion. And after dancing, students gathered in the dorm to play games and talk.
Mostly, though, PeaceJam centers on dialogue between the Noble Laureate and the students.
The Langley students said they came away with important lessons and favorite memories, and shared their notes on what they discovered.
“Peace doesn’t just mean ‘no war.’ It means other things, such as living in harmony with the environment,” wrote Sommer Harris.
“People at the Peace Jam were very accepting of other people’s ideas. We met Betty Williams and I got to have lunch with her. When we had lunch, everyone shared something personal and it made me realize how much pain there is and how much peace there is to make.
“All of the students who attended made presentations about what they were doing to make peace around the world. There were many students who have worked very hard raising thousands of dollars for their projects. The projects were about many different issues including child soldiers, invisible children, hunger, and recycling. Angelica and I talked about our upcoming projects in our leadership group (in the LACEP program at Langley Middle School). We are adopting the care of a chimp in a Florida rescue program, we adopted Double Bluff beach, and we are working on an anti-drug and alcohol puppet show to perform for younger kids.”
Talon Jorgenson recalled the rousing reception the students got when they arrived.
“When people got to PeaceJam for breakfast, there were college PeaceJam kids standing on the steps cheering for every person that came in for PeaceJam. I loved it,” Jorgenson wrote.
“Betty Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize winner talked to us about her experiences of peace and world travel. Her speech was followed by Q-and-A where we could go up and ask a question or simply to get a hug.
“We all went out to do service projects in Corvallis,” she added. “My project was to help plant flowers at a retirement home. It was raining really hard and we got soaking wet and muddy but it felt good to help others.”
“I loved the whole experience!” Angelica Janda wrote.
“I got to connect to people on a deeper on a deeper level than I could have ever fathomed before. I am close to tears as I write this. No exaggeration, it was the best weekend of my entire life. It may sound extreme, but it is true. I connected to complete strangers on a new level.
“Although I am a little bit homesick, I am leaving a little bit of home with every PeaceJammer, too. Betty Williams is incredible! The work she has done and the fact that
she believes in the potential of every person. She said that PeaceJams were her favorite thing to go to and that says a lot.
“When she hugged me she said, ‘You are beautiful.’ I knew at that moment that she was able to see into my very core, the depths of my heart. I was proud of that. I love when I can show who I am and everything else is stripped away. I believe that everyone has something to contribute and it overjoyed me to see all those at PeaceJam who were actively making a difference. It is more than words could ever tell.”