Students Unite for a Department of Peace
Watch Rob Atkinson talk about the campaign.
My motivation in doing political and social activism work is rooted in a strong spiritual desire for strengthening community identity and creating a normalization of compassion, which can be significantly furthered through political work. Along with being very involved in the Student Peace Alliance, I practice the Lakota spiritual tradition and am president of a Native American student organization on my campus, I am a musician, painter, and public speaker. I have also studied urban environmental sustainability through a collective I lived at last summer, and am looking forward to a possible internship this next summer working with nonprofit violence-prevention groups in central Texas. For me, it all boils down to political and social activism as a vehicle of spiritual integrity, and the deep joy that emerges when our abstract visions for a good world actualize into realistic and concrete initiatives.
Our generation calls for peace
Last October, the first Student Peace Alliance National Conference—Our Generation Calls for Peace—was held at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Over 300 student and youth leaders from around the country came together to build and define the national youth movement for a U.S. Department of Peace. In addition to university students participants, the conference welcomed a large contingent of high school and middle school students.
The conference was inspirational because it addressed the deep wishes for peace of today's young people on many different fronts: political, social, economic, musical, and artistic. This youth movement understands that these various sectors and experiences are linked and in order to make a fundamental political shift toward nonviolent conflict resolution we need to employ an all-encompassing social paradigm shift of which political action is but one part.
This movement must tap the concerns of the masses, and link them to large scale change, as peace for an individual must be present before it can be for a country, or the world. The open mic night and musical performances by Albeback and the Flobots were so important and its this kind of activism—grounded in a variety of mediums and approaches – that will ensure that we succeed and appeal to growing numbers of youth.
Being at a conference with so many dedicated youth, and among the most prominent peace builders in the country, was an invaluable opportunity to collaborate on best strategies as well as reflect on what hasn't worked. It was a chance to be among people who can confidently stand up to the current framework rooted in violence and propose non-violent solutions that can work—but are often overlooked.
A highlight of the conference was the breakout session called Gang and Youth Violence Prevention: From Idealism to Action. Juan and Kevin's stories about their past gang activity and how they were able to transform their lives could only be described as moving. Juan Pacheco is an immigrant from El Salvador and found comfort and security he needed with a gang. Fortunately Barrios Unidos found Juan and empowered him to use his gifts in positive, beneficial ways at the same time giving him a new sense of community and security. Juan went to jail five times when he was in a gang, but was later able to graduate from George Mason University in the top 10% of his class, and is now on his way to medical school. The U.S. Department of Peace would fund and support programs like Barrios Unidos, and give them the resources and the recognition they deserve. To me, this was an extremely motivating story that not only reminded me of my potential, but also reinforced for me that peace isn't merely political: it includes spirituality, social relations, financial practices, and art. Our country must make an investment in programs that support and empower all youth – it's the only path to a positive, secure, and sustainable future.
After the conference, I came home certain that a culture of peace, and a U.S. Department of Peace are not only possible but inevitable. And the truth is, I am glad it will be difficult because this represents an opportunity to build dialogue and non-violent culture that will sustain this legislation. All of us left the conference motivated to take the campaign back to our campuses and communities. There was consensus among the students that the conference had really solidified and legitimized the Student Peace Alliance as a national movement.
Rob Atkinson is the National Communications Coordinator for the Student Peace Alliance, a youth organization that is part of the National Peace Alliance dedicated to the common goal of establishing a U.S. Department of Peace. Rob is a junior at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas where he studies philosophy, religion, and sociology. Rob practices the Lakota spiritual tradition and is President of a Native American Student organization on campus.
Watch Rob Atkinson's presentation to the 2nd annual Teaching Peace Conference, sponsored by Texans for Peace in Houston on October 13, 2007, about the campaign for a U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence and the philosophies and ideals that motivate his student activism.
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