PeaceJam to Celebrate 10 Years With Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

To inspire a new generation of peace activists, educators are turning to such figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Costa Rica President Oscar Arias and the Dalai Lama.

The three peace emissaries are among 10 Nobel Peace Prize laureates who will gather here this week to help PeaceJam celebrate its 10th anniversary.

PeaceJam, a nonprofit educational organization, encourages children and teenagers worldwide to initiate community service projects and work for social change.

Ivan Suvanjieff, PeaceJam co-founder, said the assembly of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Denver is the largest gathering of its kind in North America.

Beginning Friday, the laureates will exchange ideas and join with about 3,000 teens from 31 countries in a three-day festival of unity and commitment to peace.

"It's a global call for action to the youth of the world," Suvanjieff said, sitting in the courtyard of PeaceJam's tiny world headquarters in suburban Denver. "I knew from the beginning I was right about the concept of PeaceJam: young people learning from Nobel Peace laureates, the moral authority of the world."

The laureates will call on youths to perform a billion "acts of peace" over the next decade — from mentoring young children or planting a tree to pressing international leaders for peace.

"At that age, we all want to change the world and do something worthwhile," said Mairead Corrigan, one of the two 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureates from Northern Ireland. "This program actually gives them the opportunity to see that ordinary people can do something ... It's a bit scary if you start out with 'You've got to change the world.'

"It's just important that they start out in their own community. If their gift is gardening, be a good gardener. If their gift is music, be the best musician. That's peacemaking."

PeaceJam's roots date to 1994 when Suvanjieff, an artist living in a Denver apartment, confronted a group of teens, including one carrying a gun. He learned they didn't know who the president was, but they knew Tutu, who won the Peace Prize in 1984 for his fight against South Africa's apartheid.

"They said, 'Oh yeah, man, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, him and Mandela. Tutu stood in front of the guns of apartheid, he got thrown in jail, he never carried a gun, he's all for nonviolent peace action and he got his country back for his people,'" Suvanjieff recalled. "I said, 'Why aren't you more like him, and why are you carrying a gun?'"

Their connection to a holy man on the other side of the globe struck a chord, he said. For two years, he and his future wife, Dawn Engle, worked to create PeaceJam. The first rally was held in 1996.

Since then, PeaceJam has hosted 125 conferences for laureates to interact with young participants and it anchors outreach programs across the world.

This year's PeaceJam is a $2.8 million undertaking hosted by the University of Denver that will involve the Secret Service and State Department because of the participation of the Dalai Lama, the Costa Rican president and Jose Ramos-Horta, now prime minister of East Timor.

Rudy Balles, a former gang member, attended the first rally a decade ago. Five years after losing a friend to gang violence, Balles said he was filled with frustration and anger until he went to meet 1992 laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum, who campaigned for peace in Guatemala.

"I started seeing the successes of Rigoberta's people, and how noble it was, and I saw I couldn't do any less," said Balles, who lives in Denver. "This is a real leader, she's not a pop icon. I needed to make no less of a commitment to peace. Violence is easy."

Balles said he has learned how to channel his energy and said teens' familiar veneer of indifference or aggression often hides curiosity and a passion to make a difference.

Balles said he attended that first PeaceJam thinking it was a hokey, hippie dream. He left determined to change his life and to reach out to help others. Now 30, he is the full-time program director for the Denver-based gang outreach center GRASP.

If young people need role models, they should aim higher than ball players, rock stars and actors, Suvanjieff said.

"We put them with the Nobel laureates and they connect as a real person," he said. "It's not like you get a Nobel Prize and you turn into a perfect person. They're still human. That's what's so exciting to kids: You can make a difference, you can have a positive influence on the world, you don't have to be perfect."

Suvanjieff and Engle, both 59, plan to expand PeaceJam to include a literacy program for younger children, dubbed PeaceJam Jr., and they are excited about the billion acts of peace over the next decade.

"The Nobel laureates, our bosses, think big," Engle said.