The people who most appreciate peace are often the ones who have seen the consequences of its absence. In an early celebration of Peace Day, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution and William S. Richardson School of Law came together to bring former Peace Corps volunteers to its program, “Supporting Peace by Increasing Resilience in Communities,” on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Art Auditorium.
The event drew upon the volunteers’ experiences in countries ravaged by civil unrest to reiterate and perpetuate the need for peace and how it can be achieved.
According to its website, the Peace Corps was formed in 1961 after “the then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developed countries.”
Elene Hertweck, a regional recruiter stationed in San Francisco, reported that having survived millions of dollars in budget cuts, the Peace Corps now operates in 70 countries with approximately 8,000 volunteers each year.
‘NOT JUST THE ABSENCE OF WAR’
During the event, five former volunteers – Gene Ward, Kem Lowry, Sena Pierce, Kevin Akiyama and Bruce Barnes – served as panelists and shared stories from their service in the Peace Corps and took time to talk about the conflicts that they witnessed in their respective countries.
“Now, peace is not just the absence of war,” Ward said to the audience.
Lowry, who served in Malaysia from 1966-1969, told of the uncontrolled riots that broke out due to a power struggle during election time. Lowry, who had achieved a high level of comfort and familiarity with his community, said that “these events were as shocking to me as if they had occurred at the corner of King and University Avenue.”
Akiyama, a UH Mānoa alumnus who served in Bulgaria from 2006-2008, was also witness to the tensions between the majority Bulgarians and the minority Romani, commonly known as gypsies.
But rather than dwelling on the strife present in their communities, the panelists focused on what they did to help set the foundation for peace. Akiyama worked for a nonprofit organization with the goal of integrating the two segregated groups. They established a template for a yearly summer camp where 15 Bulgarian and 15 Romani children would be taken to the Black Sea for 10 days to get to know each other and have fun without the negative pressures of society around them.
“Change … came in the form of trust, relationships being the gel between people …” Akiyama said. That same template is still being used today.
REACHING OUT TO STUDENTS
According to Hertweck, about 30 students are recruited from UH Mānoa each year. Samantha West, the newly appointed recruiter for UH Mānoa, commented that students from the university have much to offer and much to gain from joining the Peace Corps. “I think Hawai‘i is in the middle of everything … and I think that it’s a great place for students to have a more global perspective here, because it’s so multicultural,” she said, “and so I think using that experience and those insights on a global scale is really important.”
Interested students were present for the program to learn more about what to expect from the Peace Corps. Nanami Tomita, a junior majoring in international studies, said, “I’ve always been interested in volunteering, and I like to travel. I just wanted to hear about their experience and what it’s like being involved in an international organization.” She acknowledged that serving is “not all fun. ... It’s a lot of risk, but I think it’s an interesting experience.”
Akiyama joined because he “wanted to help and at the same time kind of soul search. I didn’t want my life to be defined by others, but to define my own.” In the local spirit, he defined peace as encompassing freedom and aloha. “Not just by saying it,” he said, “but the practice – the practice everyday of freedom, aloha and love.”