Students Gather Tools for ‘Backyard Peacebuilding’

keynoter Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard
Peace Conference keynote speaker Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard (Photo by David Kreider)

When 60 students were asked to name problems they want solved, answers included environmental, immigration and criminal justice reform and eliminating genocide, human trafficking and racism.

Having just posed the above request to the Feb. 19-20 Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship Conference, keynoter Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard followed with a tougher question: “How many of these have you changed?”

After an awkward silence from the mostly undergraduates, he reminded them that frustration with big issues should not entail giving up, but working on a human scale. Personally, Detweiler-Stoddard knew he could not abolish racism, but had helped one boy and his family who suffered its effects.

STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) program artwork created by students during a weekend training seminar. The glasswork was featured throughout the weekend peace conference. The individual pieces of glass (inset) feature words and phrases focused on the process of peacebuilding. (Photo by Amy Schmid)

“Backyard Peacebuilding: Cultivating Peace In Our Neighborhoods” was the 2010 theme for the conference – an annual gathering organized by students from Mennonite schools for more than 60 years. Participants came to this year’s host campus, Eastern Mennonite University, from Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, Ont.; Bluffton (Ohio) University; Goshen (Ind.) College; Hesston (Kan.) College; and Messiah College, Grantham, Pa.

Host students determine each year’s theme, noted faculty member Gloria Rhodes, chair of the applied social sciences department that houses the peacebuilding and development major. A previous conference hosted at EMU chose trauma healing. EMU seniors Kate Nussbaum and Jenny Hochstetler led in planning this year’s event, working in a small campus group since September. The “Backyard” theme emerged in early brainstorming when students called for a localized focus, said Nussbaum.

Feedback from students

Messiah College sophomore Phil Wilmot liked the emphasis on working locally. He hopes to start a movement to resist war taxation.

Peacebuilding Education in Nicaragua workshop
Participants in Vanessa Hershberger’s “Peacebuilding Education in Nicaragua” workshop try to tie a knot without letting go of the ends, an exercise aimed at illustrating how difficult it can be to work in a different culture. Photo by Amy Schmid

Daniel Foxvog is active in a peace club on his Goshen campus, which recently sponsored a workshop on resisting war “from the 1960s to today.” He hopes to advocate for immigrants or restorative justice.

Tannis Schilk liked the emphasis on constructive change. The second-year political science major from Conrad Grebel said, “We spend a lot of time studying government and how it works, but not how to improve things.”

Defining “peace” was another challenge Detweiler-Stoddard posed. To some, e noted, “peace” has negative connotations. Students called out related terms, ranging from “conflict transformation” to “Shalom.”

Caleb Gingrich, in his third year at Grebel, felt peace was not the mere absence of violence, but “living in harmony with each other. It’s not the absence of conflict, but how you deal with conflict; how you value each other.”

About the speaker

EMU 2007 graduate Detweiler-Stoddard, who received the bi-national C. Henry Smith Peace Oratory award that year and later worked with local schools, the Boys and Girls Club and Crossing Creeks facility, is a first-year master of divinity student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

While no more than a third of attendees aspired to careers in peacebuilding, most agreed with Detweiler-Stoddard that “Peacebuilding is something everybody can do.”

He suggested “de-professionalizing” their concept of it. Once traveling to Jamaica, working beside human rights lawyers and other “professional peacebuilders,” he had felt, “Peace wasn’t my thing. Fortunately, my colleagues helped me to see differently. It was something that I as a common person could do.” He now aspires to ministry, perhaps — though not necessarily – in a pastorate.

Peacebuilding activities

Students from each school shared their peacebuilding activities, including gardening, composting, anti-racism training and peer mediation, noted Hochstetler. While brainstorming for new projects, “The students had so much visionary energy and so many incredible ideas, they repeatedly exceeded the time frames,” Detweiler-Stoddard said.

Among the mostly student-led workshops, “Music as a Metaphor” for harmonious interaction was a favorite for Hochstetler. Nussbaum added, “We had a great discussion on Safe Space” – a group for dialogue on sexual orientation. “The majority found a lot of hope in our generation about our willingness to dialogue.”

Two workshops addressed immigration: one titled “Would You Let Jesus In?” and another discussing the proposed “DREAM Act” to allow conditional citizenship for undocumented youth.

Other topics ranged from Palestine-occupation divestment to “Commuting for Peace – Biking in the 21st Century.” Several from the latter workshop wheeled off to ride between lingering snowbanks on a chilled but sunny afternoon.

The conference ended with some hands-on work: students assisted Titus Peachey and Luke Schrock-Hurst, of Mennonite Central Committee, in folding towels for kits containing supplies for shipment to Haiti.

Learn more about peacebuilding and development studies at EMU

Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer living in Harrisonburg.