Coupling Students and Nobel Laureates to Change the World

PeaceJam Foundation, a Colorado-based international organization supporting young people working for peaceful change, was founded by two Michigan natives, Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff. As Suvanjieff left his apartment to go to work one day in 1996, he saw four young boys carrying guns, which was commonplace in that area at that time. Suvanjieff called them over to talk and discovered that they not only knew who South African leader Desmond Tutu was, but they also appreciated his nonviolent efforts toward change.

This interaction left Suvanjieff wondering; if youth could get excited about nonviolent solutions to injustice, maybe others could, too. And with that, PeaceJam was conceived.

The foundation provides Nobel Peace Prize Laureates with a programmatic vehicle to use in teaching young people the art of peace, inspiring them with the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody. Part of the initial concept from founding Nobel Laureates was to have students carry out one billion service hours, an idea tied to the Billion Acts organization. The two organizations address ten focus areas ranging from environmental protections to conflict resolution. Together, the students and 14 Nobel Laureates build and implement projects in over 40 countries that will alleviate the negative impacts within the focus areas.

Michigan’s PeaceJam chapter, based in Kalamazoo, is a regional affiliate that began in 2002, with its first conference in 2003. Its mission is to “create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities, and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody.”

Todd Bannon, program director for the Michigan chapter, developed a personal interest in the organization when he was a high school teacher. Many of his students came to him after attending a PeaceJam seminar because they thought he would be a valuable advisor. Bannon was hesitant at first due to the three extracurricular events he was already committed to, but he attended a training session and found it to be a great fit.

“What cemented it for me, which sounds cliché,” he said, “is that the next generation has to save the world because everyone else screwed it up. It’s a partnership between students and adults – and yes, young people are inspirational to me because of their passion and drive, but they don’t want to do it alone. It’s an incredible interaction to see because they are so down to earth; they’re normal people who went out and changed the world. That’s what is really amazing about this program.”

Looking forward, Bannon would love to expand the Michigan chapter of PeaceJam throughout the state, and regionally to include Cincinnati and Chicago. He aims to gather more support from grassroots individuals to serve as volunteers or paid employees.

A persistent challenge of this work comes down to, of course, funding. Bannon has high hopes for increasing the budget and expanding the program as the organization has amassed tremendous success in its nearly two-decade existence.

Triumphs abound, ranging from students learning to use their voices to speak out effectively against violence to their ability to mobilize their communities to embrace changes that save lives.

“I see no apathy in our students; they just need to be equipped with the tools to do the work,” said Bannon. Or, in the words of the Dalai Lama, “PeaceJam will help thousands of young people to gain a greater understanding about the world and about themselves.”

PeaceJam hosts conferences throughout the year. Students break into groups and pair up with college mentors, who help plan these projects and maximize their impacts. Some people come away from these gatherings and change their majors because they are so inspired and committed to ushering in a new era of service.

To date, 1.2 million young people have participated in the endeavor, carrying out over a million service projects to implement the change the world needs, and longs, to see most.

Great Lakes PeaceJam

(269) 387-3485 l GreatLakesPeaceJam.com