Written by Lisa Bade
From April 22 to May 7th, I had the privilege of participating in the 5th annual School Of Peace. The School of Peace (SOP) is the major activity of the Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF).
The first SOP was held on the Visthar campus in Bangalore, India in 2006 with the aim of encouraging engagement between peoples of different faiths in Asia. This was done by bringing together 20 young adults from conflict areas of Asia who share different faith perspectives. Through lectures, exposure visits and interaction with one another, the participants are able to learn about other faiths, and the beauty of diversity. Together they develop strategies for building communities of justpeace at the local, national and regional levels. Each year, alumni of previous SOP experiences help to identify new participants, and then include them in a supportive community when they return to their home countries. Max Ediger, a long-time peace worker, MCC affiliate, and SE Asia resident, conducts the SOP activities and acts as a coach and mentor to the participants.
I arrived toward the end of the 3-month curriculum experience to lead a workshop focusing on 3 aspects of art making: 1. art as a socially engaged practice (historic and current examples) 2. personal use of art processes as reflection tools to aid in synthesizing experiences and information, and 3. experimenting with art forms as ways to powerfully present the stories of your community, or to help someone else’s community tell their stories in ways that create connections locally and globally. This included a lot of playing around with materials as well as presentation of concepts and discussion of film, music and visual images.
For a week after the workshops, I was a resource person as the SOP participants prepared installations expressing the issues and struggles faced by their communities to be shown during the Festival of Justpeace (Boomi Haaba) on May 5th.
The Festival of Justpeace was first held in 2007 on the Visthar campus and is a joint program of Visthar and ICF. The day-long festival celebrates the nonviolent struggles for justpeace around the world which are led by marginalized people. The festival attracts thousands of people from the Bangalore area with fairtrade and food booths, a film festival, socially engaged art, photography and poster exhibitions, live music and dance.
The SOP created a variety of informational installations, an interactive game that walked participants through experiences of displacement and conflict, and a graffiti wall where festival-goers could express their thoughts about the earth and hopes for positive change. In the center of our indoor installation space we provided a bare tree and a basket of paper leaves, and invited observers to respond to our work by writing or drawing their hopes and dreams for a peaceful future on a leaf and tying it to the tree.
My experience with SOP at Visthar was, in some sense, an experience of circles – expanding, spiraling circles and cycles. When I arrived the architectural emphasis on curves and welcoming circles drew me in. The learning structures of the School of Peace also repeated circles – our discussions emphasized reflection and then a new iteration of the ideas that had been discussed. Building concepts onto experiences in the field, onto expanded conversation about just peace and the stories of marginalized and struggling communities. Vithar is a place for reflection and ever expanding conversation, searching for a more just and peaceful way to live together with each other and the earth.
The School of Peace and the Boomi Habba theme this year centered on the violence of development. By the time I arrived, the 20 participants from 12 countries (Burma, Cambodia, Southern and Northern Thailand, Papua, Timor Leste, Laos, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Canada’s first nations, USA’s Northern Cheyenne, Mindanao Philippines, Liverpool England) had already been working together for over 2 months and were nearing the end of their 3-month time together.
Our artwork and installations brought together land-rights issues, problems caused by conflict and war, recognition of the dignity of indigenous and marginalized people, the hopes for autonomy, and the yearning for peace, justice and home that all the participants felt. Circles and resonance spread from participant to participant, from group to group as they found the shared elements of their stories and explored ways to work effectively for positive change.
I am drawn back to circles in the form of friendships; against all odds, one SOP participant was a friend and colleague of several of my long-time friends from home. One of our mutual friends is a woman who was heading that very week to the UN as part of a delegation of indigenous communities demanding that a 15th century document called the “Doctrine of Discovery” be officially repudiated. This document was written by the European church of that day in order to explain-away the immorality of the colonization and subjugation of people in other regions of the world. It did this by stating that these were not – in fact – people, and thereby opened very lucrative gates to the business of colonization and exploitation of indigenous people and the earth with the blessing of the Church. The repercussions of this document, and – in fact – the legal references to it, cycle down to many of the land rights struggles indigenous groups have today.
Our circle of friendship and support for this mutual friend’s advocacy was connected when Erica (also an MCC worker) and I met unexpectedly at SOP in India. The cycles of the violence of development are not new phenomena; they rest on old, strong structures of exploitation. But, circles of friendship and solidarity are also old and strong. I found my thoughts about justice and peace were informed and renewed as I listened to and worked with the SOP participants.
At the end of the long days of preparing our installations, we enjoyed a triumphant, beautiful, people-filled day of Boomi Habba, the Earth Celebration of Just Peace. That evening, we gathered at the edge of the enormous central stone well, empty now for at least a decade, due to the same falling water tables that are drying-up the farmlands. We were reminded of the regular tragedy of farmer suicides in India due to their despair and debt brought on by climate changes and the introduction of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. Candles were lit along the spiral stairway, a trail of light leading down to folk singers in the bottom of the well. Music poured out of the circle of stone.
Circles and spirals, learning, solidarity and memory. We are encouraged to hope, to tell the stories of our communities, to hear the stories of others and to continue our work for justice and peace.