A small group gathers in the unused conference room of a church in San Diego. The group spans generations and social boundaries — elderly men sporting political buttons on their suspenders, middle-aged mothers fielding calls from elementary school children, and teenage interns writing in spiral notebooks.
“What have we all done this week to change the world?” asks Jan Atkinson, the leader of the group, who stands at the head of the table with her husband.
A far cry from their hippie predecessors, members of Americans for a Department of Peace (AFDOP) combine political action and peaceful sentiment with the power of productivity. The group works toward the goal of creating a Cabinet-level Department of Peace in the United States government.
The San Diego-based group is not alone in their efforts, however — a subset of larger umbrella organization the Peace Alliance, AFDOP and other like-minded groups fight for a peaceful future and legitimacy as a Cabinet department.
A Renewed Fight for Peace
Cultural anthropologist and activist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
These words form the slogan of the supporters of House Bill HR 808, the bill proposing the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace.
The Peace Alliance, which started in 2004, has been working to form the U.S. Department of Peace for the past two years.
“We are celebrating our fifth anniversary!” said John Parker, Peace Alliance’s media coordinator. “[The Peace Alliance] was formed by a group of committed citizens whose goal was to take the field of peacebuilding from the margins of the political and societal dialogue and bring it to its rightful place: central to our policymaking, investment and understanding.”
Peace Alliance members are quick to note that the movement is nonpartisan, further banishing the notion that peace is only a goal of idealistic liberals. Democrats, Republicans and third-party members alike represent the Peace Alliance, and stress the importance of political equality.
A New Department for the U.S. Government?
For supporters of the campaign, the passage of HR 808 means change both domestically and internationally.
Domestically, the new department would address issues plaguing national and local communities, such as drug and gang violence, violence in the school system, prison reform and domestic abuse.
As an international institution, the department would work alongside the Department of Defense, as well as act as an alternative source of conflict resolution, and provide the president with peacemaking strategies for post-war stability. In short, the Department of Peace would not serve to replace the Department of Defense, but instead complement it.
“Many people ask, ‘Don’t we already have violence prevention programs in government?’ There are some, but they are underfunded and lacking both leadership and collective strength,” Parker said. “A Department of Peace will research and develop resources at the local level to stem the tide of violence in this country.”
The spirit of nonviolent communication would transfer into the proposed Peace Academy. The academy would be modeled after the nation’s military academies to train students in peaceful conflict resolution. Upon graduating, these students would serve at posts here in the United States, or in centers of conflict around the world.
The Peace Alliance employs a variety of methods to spread the word about HR 808 to virtually anyone willing to listen. Activists seek the support of celebrities, congressmen, politicians and average citizens to join the cause, through crafty campaigns and innumerable inspired events. Famous supporters include veteran journalist Walter Cronkite and musical group the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Peace Alliance volunteers speak at schools and participate in letter-writing campaigns to local and national newspapers, as well as to politicians in their districts and states. The amount of publicity accumulated by these strategies has turned the heads of many. With the passage of city council resolutions in favor of a Department of Peace, essay contests, a peace library, and a drag show entitled “war is a drag,” new ideas only continue to grow more creative.
“We’re working across this country to raise awareness of peace-building legislation and programming,” Parker said. “This movement is blessed with the most active, smart, and passionate grassroots volunteers.”
Much of the effort of the Peace Alliance comes through its sister branch, the Student Peace Alliance, which includes high-school and college students in nearly 100 chapters in over 30 states to date. The numbers are expected to keep growing nationally.
Student Peace Alliance (SPA) activists campaign in the same fashion as Peace Alliance members, but fashion their efforts to also target a youth audience for support. Students involved with SPA have the opportunity to speak out on an issue close to their hearts while garnering the support to put a political idea into action.
These students place a great deal of effort into making their agenda be heard — the ‘Peace of the Pie’ campaign for Mother’s Day enlists volunteers to send their local district representatives slices of pie, along with a message encouraging the politicians to publically support the Department of Peace and HR 808. On Valentine’s Day, SPA volunteers sent Valentines to these representatives as another method to coax support.
“It’s great being part of a fledgling movement that is still rapidly expanding every day,” said Student Peace Alliance intern Max Berwald, a first-year at San Francisco State University. “You’re closer to the political action and the people in power, and your ideas don’t just get lost in the crowd. They’re valuable and you are valuable.”
Looking to the Children
“Let there be peace, Yeah!”
Children huddle together in Jill McManigal’s backyard in Carlsbad, Calif., where they put their hands in the middle for a declaration of peace. As the Kids for Peace, these elementary-school students are part of something bigger than they can imagine.
Kids for Peace was started by former elementary school teacher and mother-of-two Jill McManigal, along with high-school senior Danielle Gram. Both deeply involved with the Department of Peace campaign, McManigal and Gram decided to bring the messages of peace to students the same age as McManigal’s children.
“We both had been inspired by a quote from Gandhi that [said] if we are to have real peace in the world, we have to begin with the children,” said Gram, now a second-year at Harvard University. “Kids for Peace started with a large goal and local action.”
Two years ago, Kids for Peace was only located in that Carlsbad backyard. Now a rapidly expanding worldwide organization, their mission statement reads: “To cultivate every child’s innate ability to foster peace through cross-cultural experiences and hands-on arts, service and environmental projects.”
Kids for Peace members learn about other cultures through games, stories, songs and snacks, grabbing the attention of the children involved and teaching them about their friends across the world. The children not only learn about the kids in these different cultures, but spend time helping their new friends as well.
“[Kids for Peace] is doing a great thing,” said volunteer Corey Evans, a first-year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “By helping out the community, they are instilling in children many of the values that, if today’s adult had, would and will help shape a better future.”
In addition to the fun and games, the kids participate in letter-writing campaigns to local politicians and work to better their community. Kids for Peace hosts beach clean-ups with environmental lessons, organizes visits to senior homes and veteran centers, and in general, tries to spread their message.
A children’s playwright, McManigal directs the children in her chapter in plays and shows conveying the messages of the organization. The goal is about spreading the word, but letting children have fun while doing so. They help their world and become compassionate human beings while playing with their friends.
Teenagers have also had the chance to help since Kids for Peace added high-school interns to the organization. These students work to put together and publicize events. They raise funding, watch over the children and show much of the same passion as those elementary students.
“The events I worked on had a lot of energy,” Evans said. “Even the pouring rain couldn’t dampen our spirits on those days.”
The most recent endeavor of Kids for Peace is their new book, “Peace Through Our Eyes.” Compiled by children from around the world, the book is a collection of illustrations and messages of what peace means to them. The book is yet another extension of the service these children give to their community.
“Kids for Peace is planting the seeds of peace for the future,” Gram said. “We hope the children who participate will learn valuable lessons about peace and conflict resolution that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. We hope they learn to value other cultures and see the beauty in all people. We hope they become future leaders and change our world.”
For Kids for Peace, the Student Peace Alliance, Americans for a Department of Peace, and all other organizations under the Peace Alliance, working to realize the dream of a more peaceful future will remain their ultimate goal until HR 808 is passed.
Currently, UCSC does not have a Student Peace Alliance chapter. Students at UCSC can get involved with this campaign by visiting StudentPeaceAlliance.org to find out ways to join the cause.