This article was originally written for and was published by Quartz.com
For the past half century, “peace” has often been practiced through ceremony and symbol. Groups form circles to hum for collective consciousness and sing kumbaya-like songs. Friends gather to paint peace signs upon walls and make flower garlands. Proclamations are printed and stories of historical or spiritual leaders are punctuated with parades of people wearing white and carrying candles.
In the past, Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence and the US civil rights movement have taught us that nonviolence is a powerful tool, and that most humans ultimately have a capacity for compassion. But that was then: Significant polarizing conflicts in America and deadly wars worldwide beckon us to modernize the global peace movement. In the face of a shifting and globalizing society, we must refresh our gaze and rebrand “peace” for the next half century.
Young people are our world’s greatest stakeholders. They will live with the world that is currently being created and they will raise their own children within it. Peace activists of the 1960s and 1970s must trust that these young people can and will build innovative peace movements for today’s world.
They’re off to a positive start. Youth activists of today are audaciously calling for peace in ways that reach well-beyond the ceremony of kumbaya. As a high-school student, Jasmine Babers published her own magazine called Love GIRLS Magazine to build gender equality and lift self-confidence among young women. At age 20, Tony Weaver Jr. founded a new media company dedicated to changing the image and narrative of black men and minorities in the media for the better. Jamie Margolin was one of 12 teenagers to file a lawsuit against the state of Washington for the state’s inaction around climate change, and she also founded a youth-led movement to bring young voices into the dialogue around climate change. And young survivors of the Parkland City massacre are touring the country encouraging young people to use their vote to make change, and then are taking their message global, traveling the world having vital conversations with other youth about how to sustain student-led movements.
I am an unabashed and grateful optimist for the future. Through my work as the director of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii and a co-founder of the nonprofit Ceeds of Peace, I have worked with many young people who are open-minded, courageous, inclusive, and concerned with justice. Together we study war, genocide, and violence in their many forms, and we also learn from the history of nonviolent social and political movements such as Nelson Mandela’s work to end the apartheid in South Africa, the demonstrations for justice by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and the formation of the League of Nations. As an educator and mentor, I hope to create a path for human connection for young leaders who can build upon these successes. I hope to help young people understand cultural contexts, know their own power, find opportunities to practice peace in action, and think creatively about civic engagement.
I believe we can help the next generation of leaders wash their eyes and see themselves as powerful engineers of political and humanitarian action. We can help bolster youths’ confidence by showing respect for their strengths, like their vast new-media networks, inclusive open-mindedness, astute resourcefulness, and their diversity.
A commitment to positive peace should not be reduced to a logo; that’s a benign and ineffectual relic of a past counterculture. (And please don’t call me a “hippie.” ) We build upon the past and honor its many efforts, but peace work is about using new tools to make individuals and communities stronger and better today—or adapting the tools of the past to meet the challenges of the present. Peace-building isn’t passive—it’s hard-edge, get-your-hands-dirty, weight-bearing work.
We often hear the phrase “Peace begins with you,” but it isn’t enough to land there. We must keep going. We must address personal peace, interpersonal peace, and peace in service to the community. If we develop personal peace, we become courageous and resilient enough to look outward, nurturing our relationships and subsequently our communities through our engagement. By coupling courage within with compassion toward another, we can solve problems. By wedding curiosity with careful listening, we can deepen understanding of the other and reduce fear. Then, with a commitment to action, we can build trust.
A contemporary peace movement must bridge family, school, and community. When adults model, nourish, and teach the skills of critical thinking, conflict resolution, moral courage, and collaboration, the young people around them learn that peace is not just an amorphous global goal that lives in the future beyond here, but rather that it can be accomplished each day through manageable, everyday acts of positive peace in one’s own life. Peace can be built by helping a neighbor, planting a garden, practicing active listening during a moment of conflict, educating, volunteering, mentoring, or standing up rather than standing by. Any successful contemporary peace movement must look at peace through different lenses. Peace is not simply the absence of war but the presence of social justice. It’s not just about abolishing inhumane regimes but about establishing human rights.
There are many people and organizations contributing to the modern peace movement through community action. They demonstrate that peace is not a deeply specialized series of tasks by government and activists, but rather that it can be everyone’s priority. Scarlett Lewis, whose son was murdered at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, teaches forgiveness, anger management, and nonviolent communication in the face of rage to proactively prevent school-based violence. Her Jesse Lewis Choose Love movement is not just about responding to bullying, but rather about compassion in action. The group Generations for Peace works in war-prone regions to foster sustained dialogue and build a movement among young people through facilitated community-building activities. Partners Global works to strengthen civil society in conflict zones worldwide through leadership training and actions for community wellness. We can look to their portfolios of active peace work to inspire contemporary peace-building.
A contemporary peace movement should be grounded in grassroots leadership at every age, from every station, demonstrated through consistent action. When the tools of contemporary communication and organizing are paired with the dispositions and skills of ethical leadership, young people can begin action planning and practical problem-solving. Anyone can build peace; there is an entry point for everyone to nourish equanimity, justice, equity, environmental resilience, and intercommunal understanding.
Maya Soetoro-Ng, co-founder of The Peace Studio