(Editor's Note: Hannah Hyde has been an intern at the Scene for two semesters, and she's currently a senior at Belmont. She wrote this post about her experience with last weekend's PeaceJam, which took place on the Belmont campus.)
In September 2006, 10 Nobel Peace Laureates and more than 3,000 young people traveled from all over the world to gather in Denver. It was the largest gathering of Laureates in history, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the PeaceJam Foundation. What started as an idea between colleagues Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff has become an international organization advocating equal human rights for all global citizens.
Belmont University and S.T.A.R.S. (Students Taking a Right Stand), a local organization with programs in more than 50 Middle Tennessee schools and community sites, worked together for almost a year to bring PeaceJam to Nashville. There are conferences and chapters around the world — from Texas to the U.K. to West Africa. PeaceJam sponsors year-round youth programs where students create and carry out service projects in their community. After months of planning and recruiting, and with assistance from Florida State University’s experienced staff and volunteer mentors, their efforts finally came to fruition last weekend.
I learned about PeaceJam Mid-South from a friend last August. She mentioned something about a Nobel Peace Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, and high school kids. I was intrigued but hesitant. I understood the concept of PeaceJam, but really had no idea on how it was going to be carried out. It was difficult to find college students to be mentors, and most likely just as difficult finding student organizations with kids who were willing to give up their whole weekend to do more learning. But somehow, it came together.
Little did I know that by the end of the weekend, I'd walk away with the best experience of my four years at Belmont.
There were about 15 organizations and almost 40 mentors involved. We split into "family groups" to learn about each other, what we could do to make a difference in the community, and PeaceJam's Global Call to Action issues — 10 issues that PeaceJam challenges its students to work toward improving. These include access to water, preventing the spread of global disease, and advocating for social justice and general human rights for all.
The conference started Friday night with a public lecture by Ebadi, who speaks minimal English, so a translator was used. She launched into a passionate speech about stopping the enrichment of uranium used for nuclear energy in Iran, then moved into foreign policy and ended by addressing the general indifference of America’s youth. My head was spinning. I kept wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Nuclear energy? Foreign policy? They had always been vaguely abstract ideas that hadn’t really infiltrated my tiny Nashville bubble. But the indifference? That I had a grasp on.
In a fast-paced technology-driven society, our attention span is about 30 seconds. (Even as I wrote these last few sentences, I looked up to the TV to watch House Hunters and glanced at my phone. Twice.) We’re apathetic. We know it, our parents know it, our country knows it and just about every other country knows it, too.
I have about 70 television channels in my apartment, and I could turn to at least 30 of those and find a violent show or movie or watch any number of news stations and witness the latest kidnapping of a pretty blonde or a roadside bombing in the Middle East. But I won’t. I’ll keep watching HGTV so I can yell at the twentysomethings who complain about not having granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances in their brand-new suburban McMansion. Because those violent things? They happen all the time. I grew into being a teenager and then an adult in a post-9/11 world, where hearing about school shootings, car bombs and gang-related fatalities was just another Tuesday. I think we’re apathetic towards violence because we’re over-saturated with violence. But hearing these kids address the violence in their homes shook me to the core.
The second day of PeaceJam features the “Ceremony of Inspiration,” where students can take the stage and share the the things from the conference that inspired them. We had only been together as a group for 24 hours, and numerous students and mentors shared some of the most personal and precious things I’d heard. In front of hundreds of strangers, people told stories of former abuse, or how someone they had just met had moved them to change their way of thinking. Most of the room was in tears. This moment, this hour of the day gave me hope that the kids that are now 14, 15, 16 — kids who aren’t really children but aren’t really adults — will actually change the world.
At the end of the opening lecture on Friday night, a participant asked what we could do as young people to galvanize our efforts concerning human rights around the world. Ebadi responded that we must become introspective, and stop being indifferent to local and global issues. We must determine what the purpose of life is. Is it to be born, to go to school, to work, to have a house, to grow old and then die? If we look at life this way, life will be meaningless. If we look at our lives as a series of standardized tests, student loans, bounced checks, mortgage payments and retirement homes, it will have no meaning.
There were numerous remarkable moments throughout the weekend — many were obvious, but some were very moving in the most subtle of ways. One was watching Ebadi learn the American Sign Language symbol for "I love you." A pinky finger stretched out for the I, pointer finger and thumb representing the L, and the space between the pointer finger and the pinky creating a U. Ebadi is a Nobel Laureate, a highly educated woman who was able to answer questions on cloning and the dedication or indifference of youth. She looked puzzled, wondering why a few hundred middle- and high-schoolers were putting this symbol in the air. Watching the realization dawn on her face as her translator explained the meaning behind it was one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring moments. In one moment, an Iranian Nobel Laureate and a room full of teenagers expressed what we had spent the whole weekend talking about — love, kindness, compassion and hope belong to everyone.