Standing with twelve thousand women from every possible cultural, ethnic and religious group at the extraordinary United Nations Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985, was a seminal experience for me. After five days of intense conversations about the common issues facing us as women and facing our world, we stood in an enormous circle on the lawn of the University of Nairobi. As I held hands with my new sisters, Adekeye from Sierra Leone on my left, Rena from Indonesia on my right, surrounded by sisters from a rainbow of cultures and perspectives, I felt viscerally that by harnessing the power of women, we could heal the differences that divide humankind. At a very deep level, I knew that the power to bridge and connect was far stronger than the power to divide, and I left with a deep seated feeling that despite the conflicts that plague our world, that peace is possible.
In Cape Town, South Africa, where I worked for change under apartheid in the late 1970s, I had a similar experience of the presence of peace. In a twenty thousand-strong squatter community called Crossroads, extraordinary women such as Regina Ntongana worked tirelessly to protect their community from impending demolition by the apartheid government. Regina, and her colleagues in the Crossroads Woman’s Movement, was able to keep the peace in the growing squatter camp despite crowded and difficult living conditions. They were the peacebuilders who fearlessly protected their families, speaking out, organizing and providing the leadership to unite against demolition. Because of their efforts, and the efforts of others who supported them, Crossroads remains today.
What does this overused, often politicized and misunderstood word ‘peace’ really mean? As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” In my poem, entitled Pathways to Peace, I talk about peace as: “A state of mind, a way of being and a path of daily action. Peace is deep connection with myself and with others. Peace is personal, political, spiritual and practical.” And contrary to popular thought, peace does not mean being passive or that everything is perfect: “Peace means speaking up when we see injustice, and taking a stand when we feel something is wrong. It means speaking our truth with others, and being the change we wish to see.”
Peace starts with each one of us, how we practice love and respect in our families, what we teach our children, and how we listen and speak with love. To lead a peaceful life is not for the feint of heart – it takes courage, patience, practicing forgiveness, learning from each situation, having a positive attitude about life, and respecting the environment. It means developing healthy relationships, living our values in our workplace, and being peace in all parts of life. It means having a healthy media that feeds us nourishing stories and balanced news. It means having soulful work environments in which we can feel respected, creative and fulfilled. It means having socially just societies in which all people have food, shelter and a way to make a living. It means feeling respected.
Developing peace within our selves is the first step of building a Culture of Peace. To quote an African saying: “When there is Peace in the individual, there is Peace in the family. When there is Peace in the family, there is Peace in the community. When there is Peace in the community, there is Peace in the nation. And when there is Peace in the nation, there is Peace in the world.”
The United Nations declared 2001-2010 as the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence. It established the International Day of Peace (IDP) devoted to “commemorating and strengthening the ideals of Peace both within and among all nations and peoples"; and calls on all nations for a day of global cease-fire and non-violence. IDP, celebrated on September 21, is an occasion for all governments, organizations, schools, places of worship and individuals to commemorate this important day. “IDP marks our individual and collective progress toward building Cultures of Peace. Peace Day serves as a reminder of our commitment to Peace, above all interests and differences of any kind”, says Avon Mattison, founder and president of Pathways To Peace, a nonprofit based in Marin that has catalyzed participation in IDP for the past 21 years.
Yet true peacebuilding is very complex, and requires addressing the underlying causes of conflict and in building a consciousness of peace, working to heal the economic and social causes of conflict. It entails changing structures of violence to structures of peace. The UN system works to develop good governance, civil law and order, human rights, reduce poverty and disease, provide education, and build democracy in countries struggling with the aftermath of conflict. It repatriates refugees, provides electoral assistance and humanitarian aid, and helps to rebuild needed services. All of this and much more are needed to create a sustainable presence of peace.
A Culture of Peace is a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations. A Culture of Peace is based on four basic principles, as stated in the Peace Book by Louise Diamond, that promote trust, harmony and healthy relationships:
Community – We come-in-unity first with ourselves, then with others, acknowledging we are interconnected and interdependent. Mutual respect and appreciation of differences are expressions of this awareness;
Cooperation – By finding common ground and working together, we can all win. If we think of ourselves as partners and share our resources, we can find creative solutions to our joint problems and build bridges;
Non-violence – Respect for life and all individuals leads to a commitment not to harm others. We choose not to use force/coercion as a basis for solving problems;
Witness – Peace is a living presence within all of us, and our job is to witness this truth by being the Peace we seek. We do this by relating to the potential for Peace in every situation, and to the seed of Peace in each person.
The issue of Peace embraces the deepest hopes of all peoples and remains humanity's guiding inspiration. I feel there is a strong connection and similar principles between peace, feminine values and spirituality. Feminine principles such as collaboration, partnership, nurturing, accountability, using our intuition as a source of knowing, inclusiveness, long-term thinking (developing longer-term perspectives rather than maximizing short-term gain), focusing on building relationships, and developing our inner resources are key to building peace.
What is needed is a true partnership between the feminine and positive masculine qualities. Riane Eisler in her book the Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, describes the historic development of what she calls the Goddess cultures in which the partnership model prevailed, characterized by feminine principles of collaboration, mutual respect, accountability and partnership. She outlines the global shift to patriarchy, and the rise of the dominator model of action in which men and traditional masculine principles rule. This is by and large the society we have today, in which the overplayed masculine has led us to greed, obsessions, addictions, and disconnection from our true selves. Clearly now is the time for women to step forward modeling new more feminine types of leadership, and for men to learn and value these feminine qualities.
An example of a culture in balance comes from traditional Iroquois society. Its guiding constitution, called the Great Law of Peace, was crafted about six hundred years ago by a Native American prophet called the Peace Maker. Clan mothers were a key part of Native society, and were selected from their community. They, in turn, selected the Chief. Clan mothers were responsible for the welfare of the clan and helped to set policy. The Chief carried out the policies. This balance between masculine and feminine made Iroquois society strong. After centuries of tribal wars, the Great Law resulted in many years of peace, and was a model for the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations. Sadly our founding fathers left out the important role of Clan mothers as a balance in society.
I had the good fortune to travel on a ten-day journey in 1998 on the path of the Peace Maker with Cayuga Chief Jake Thomas, a leading scholar on the Great Law of Peace. Chief Jake Thomas repeatedly said on our journey through Six Nations Territory in southern Ontario and upper New York state, “The women need to get strong again, the women need to get strong again”. He, and the Clan Mothers, felt the decline of true Native society was due in large part to the overbalance of the masculine, limiting the feminine, and that colonization had weakened Native traditions and strengthened the masculine. Yes, it’s time for modern day Clan Mothers to provide the checks and balances in our society that build the foundation for peace.
In many ways women are the peacebuilders. Women are community leaders, often at the center of non-governmental organizations, popular protests, electoral referendums, and other citizen-empowering movements whose influence has grown with the global spread of democracy. Women are adept at bridging ethnic, religious, political, and cultural divides. Social science research indicates that women generally are more collaborative than men and thus more inclined toward consensus and compromise. Women often use their role as mothers to cut across international borders and internal divides.
Women have their fingers on the pulse of the community. Living and working close to the roots of conflict, they are well positioned to provide essential information about activities leading up to armed conflict and record events during war, including gathering evidence at scenes of atrocities. Women thus play a critical role in mobilizing their communities to begin the process of reconciliation and rebuilding once hostilities end. “After the genocide, women rolled up their sleeves and began making society work again.” Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda.
The world is crying out for models of sustainable peace and healthy ways to collaborate, partner and nurture in relationships, organizations and between nations. Violence of many forms is on the rise, including violent crimes, gang violence, school violence, and domestic violence. The problem of violence is a many layered one, and its solution will be, as well. From the growing rate of domestic incarceration to increasing problems of local and international violence, we have no more serious problem in our midst than the problem of violence itself. Domestic violence has skyrocketed, and results in more serious injuries to women than muggings, automobile crashes, and rape combined.
It’s part of what’s called the cycle of violence, which is a pattern of abuse that repeats itself in most physically abusive relationships. It frequently has three phases, beginning with 1) Tension - verbal abuse and minor battering which escalates into 2) Violent Episode - the occurrence of battering, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or other physical abuse, followed by 3) Honeymoon Stage - the batterer is sorry, apologizes for his or her behavior and makes promises that it will never happen again. The more times the cycle is completed, the less time it takes to complete. As the cycle is repeated, the violence usually escalates in frequency and severity.
Fortunately, there are examples of people breaking the cycle of violence. Linda and Peter Biehl, white Americans whose anti-apartheid activist daughter, Amy, was killed by an angry mob in South Africa in 1993, decided to honor her life by participating in what South Africans call restorative justice--to understand and treat the problems surrounding her violent death. The Biehls now run violence-prevention programs in South Africa and in the United States, while the Amy Biehl Foundation funds South African community development, adult literacy, scholarships and job training.
Forgiveness is a healing journey for both body and soul – a powerful peacebuilding tool. If we can forgive people and events that have hurt us, we can let go of the anger, resentment, and other feelings that keep us locked in the past, unable to be fully alive in the present. Forgiveness is something that happens first in our heart. When we’re ready and willing to let go of our anger and desire for blame and revenge, then we can release our self from that burden.
There are many other tools that are important to be able to live a peaceful life, and reduce the incidence of misunderstanding and conflict. Deep listening is very important – how often do we listen but not really hear? Using “I” statements (rather than “you”) when communicating, pausing before speaking when we are tense, watching our tone of voice and body language, making and keeping agreements, speaking up within 1-3 days when something bothers us, checking out our assumptions, and offering empathy are all daily tools for each of us to practice. Yet this is easier said than done, and takes practice.
Beyond these important personal steps, there are many larger steps to creating a Culture of Peace, and I’ve included some of my top priorities:
The campaign to establish a U.S. Department of Peace (House Resolution 3760 and Senate 1756) will coordinate conflict-resolution and peace-building efforts both domestically and internationally, providing the president with a much broader array of options for handling violent situations than are normally presented. Beyond establishing a cabinet level department, it will establish nonviolence as an organizing principle, teach violence prevention and mediation to America's school children, work to rehabilitate the prison population, and create/administer a U.S. Peace Academy. www.thepeacealliance.org.
We need to offer conflict resolution and communication skills in our schools. Schools should be places to learn life skills, not just job skills. It’s time we require a life skills course at each grade level, provide conflict resolution skills for teachers, offer resources/curriculum for teachers that will enable increased calm in the classroom, and establish viable student-faculty run conflict mediation programs. The Institute for Peacebuilding, and others, offer these services. www.kimweichel.org/institute.htm.
We need to have a healthy media if we want a healthy democracy, and we must work for media education and media reform. Because media is the central nervous system of our society, it shapes our attitudes and opinions as well as public policy. Yet our media is being sold to the highest bidder, and a handful of conglomerates now own our public airwaves. The public has the right, and the responsibility, to give effective feedback concerning communications that move through our airwaves. Broadcast TV stations have the legal obligation to serve the public interest. Becoming informed about our communication rights as citizens is fundamental to our future as a democracy. Our Media Voice, of which I am co-founder, is part of a national movement for media reform. www.ourmediavoice.org.
I feel it’s essential to create workplaces that are focused on creating the best for all stakeholders – including employees, customers, the community in which it operates, the environment, and shareholders – a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. I feel that work is an important part of our spiritual path, yet our workplaces have by and large not been conducive to feeling creative, alive and respected. We want workplaces that encourage the best from people, are inclusive and healthy places to be. There is a growing international movement to enhance spirit at work, encouraging business values, practices and leaders to be in alignment. www.spiritatwork.org.
Women leaders are part of this vanguard, a “rising tide” of wise leadership around the world, drawing on their inner wisdom. Women in business today are reconciling a concern for bottom-line results with a concern for people and values, relating their business decisions to their larger effect upon the family, community, environment and world, and placing less emphasis on status, building their authority from connecting to the people around them. These women leaders share rather than hoard information as a source of power, building a web of inclusion and using circles as they set up project teams, staffing or office lay out. It’s time we value these qualities, and bring them into full partnership with the positive masculine. www.wisdomleadership.org.
Ultimately the quest towards peace means that each one of us does our daily best to embody peace, respect others, practice centering techniques and peacebuilding tools, to speak out when we see injustice, to work for change where we feel called to do so. Let’s remind ourselves that peace is a state of mind, a way of being, and a path of daily action. Go in peace.
Kimberly Weichel is a social pioneer, educator, and specialist in global communications, conflict resolution and cross-cultural projects. She has directed international projects over the past 25 years in east and southern Africa, Europe, the former Soviet Union, United States and with the United Nations, particularly with women. Kim is co-founder of the Institute for PeaceBuilding, providing courses, training, mentoring and consulting in peace leadership, and co-founder of Our Media Voice, focusing on media education and reform She is co-author of Healing the Heart of the World. www.kimweichel.org.