Old, young work toward peace at home and abroad

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By Brian Goslow

WORCESTER —

Peace knows no generational boundaries as peacemakers of varied ages displayed while waiting for their annual meeting of The Center for Nonviolent Solutions (CNVS) to start.

Like old friends, they chatted, caught up and reminisced.

One of those gathered was Michael True, 77, professor emeritus at Assumption College and one of the organization’s founders. He’s been involved in non-violent protests since 1961, when, as a Duke University graduate student, he joined in a protest against Durham, N.C. theater owners who only allowed black customers to sit in upper balcony areas known as “The Crow’s Nest.”

CNVS board member John Paul Marosy, 66, a gerontologist and healthcare administrator, first recognized the value of non-violence in the fourth grade, when he wrote an essay on St. Francis of Assisi.  The essay won a school-wide award. “It just got me thinking about violence and treating the land and earth in a respectful way,” he said.

When Marosy became eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War, he filed for — and received — official conscientious objector status. “That opened my eyes to other dimensions of non-violence I hadn’t been aware of and I became active in opposition to that war at that time,” he said.

Tim Hutchinson —A Clark University graduate student in international development — was enlisted to join CNVS by True, who he met when True gave a presentation on Mahatma Gandhi in Hartford, where Hutchinson was then attending college.

Hutchinson, 25, now serves on the CNVS board of directors.

Hutchinson also helps oversee college interns at the center and teaches in its educational programs. He hopes his work will contribute to bringing all generations closer, despite what he sees as a widening gap.

Also in attendance during the recent meeting at the Worcester Public Library, was 15-year-old Jeanelle Wheeler, a freshman at Auburn High School, who despite her age wasn’t a stranger to most in the audience. She’s been attending events like this her entire life, thanks to her mother, Teresa.

“My mom was friends with lots of people involved in peace and non-violence activities at the Saints Francis and Therese Catholic Worker House in Worcester and the Agape Lay Catholic Residential Community in Hardwick,” Jeanelle said. “I grew up sitting in meetings and as I learned of the complexity of what they were talking about, I became more interested. Now I want to become involved and make a difference.”

The Center for Nonviolent Solutions opened in 2009 when an increase in violence in Worcester prompted a group of area residents to decide the public needed to be educated about alternative non-violent means of resolving conflict.

“The message that children — and adults — get from the media is that revenge is legitimate and that violence is a reasonable, normal way to resolve conflict when in fact it isn’t,” Marosy said. “Little by little, through education and training and showing alternative ways to resolve conflict, we’re looking to break down that culture of violence here in Worcester and create a culture of peace.”

One way CNVS does that is through “firework” groups of longtime activists and college students that go into the local schools to discuss ways of resolving conflict. Two current 10-week high school classes in peacemaking discuss domestic violence and ethnic and religious conflict.

CNVS also sends speakers onto local college campuses. “The wonderful thing about college students today is whatever field they’re studying, they take a global perspective on life and on issues,” Marosy said. Recent events in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries have only increased that interest. “There’s a growing recognition and interest in learning about non-violent ways to resolve conflict.

“The Internet is fueling or solidifying the recognition of ‘One world,’ ” said Marosy, who pointed out that Egyptian student leaders specifically said they had drawn on the writings of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institute and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, as a guide to staging the protests that led to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

“This was inspirational to a lot of students here in the U.S. and they’re beginning to ask questions as to how they can apply those techniques to deal with difficult social justice issues here in the United States today,” Marosy said.

When True speaks, he uses his five decades of experience in the non-violent movement that includes serving on the executive committee of the International Peace Research Association Foundation, which funds peace initiative projects; the American Friends Service Committee/Nobel Peace Prize Committee; and working with the New England Peace Studies Project as examples of how one person can make a difference.

True said the recent global events have created renewed interest in peace-related activities among younger generations. “Last year, they were skeptical. This year, they’re actually coming to classes wanting to know what you do when you’re confronted with violence, how do you behave and what are the skills,” he said.

True said some CNVS programs focus on helping individuals learn how to de-escalate violence and confrontation that may occur in their own lives, whether with family members, friends, classmates or co-workers. The organization is in the process of establishing a community mediation program.

“The first thing you learn in non-violence is nobody’s the enemy; people change,” said True. It’s important to accept conflict is inevitable — and often good — if it addresses an issue causing tension between two parties, he said. Listening carefully, responding respectfully, not violently, can bring a little peacemaking into what could otherwise be an explosive situation.

In True’s mind, the main thing in peacemaking activities is talking person-to-person and developing a feeling of trust. “The younger generation has a lot of different ways of doing that,” he said.

One of those is conversing with people around the globe via Facebook and Twitter social network websites. But whatever role those outlets may have played in recent events overseas, Clark’s Hutchinson said all the social networking and online reading in the world can’t replace the experience gained by putting all that knowledge into practice face-to-face.

Today’s college activists aren’t necessarily looking to learn from those who’ve gone before them. “I can’t say the fact has been driven home to today’s students that our elders have a vast amount of knowledge to share,” Hutchinson said. “They adapt a rebellious mentality and learn by their mistakes. Elders — which I define as someone over the age of 50 — have made these mistakes before. Their input is welcome but their voices are not always heard.”

That isn’t the case for Hutchinson, who chose Clark for his graduate studies over Columbia University in great part due to a long talk with True. True also invited him to stay at his home to defray costs. Hutchinson plans to travel to Afghanistan this summer to fulfill his final degree requirement, which is to finish his thesis on the culture of peace.

He recently met with Scott Schaeffer-Duffy of the Catholic Worker House in Worcester, who just returned from Afghanistan. “He prepared me for what to expect on the ground and their cultures,” Hutchinson said. “He told me to buy a wedding ring. They get married in their teens there and to not have a wedding ring would be taken as an insult.”

Learning about other cultures is also the goal of Jeanelle Wheeler, who is learning Spanish and French at school and German on her own. “I’d like to travel and be able to understand the cultures of others; that leads to a better understanding of the rest of the world,” she said.

Jeanelle’s earliest peacemaking-related memory is of attending Catholic Worker vigils with her parents. Her godparents, Michael and Diane Boover, helped found Worcester’s Mustard Seed food program and now host monthly readings of the writings of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, which Jeanelle attends.

Her mother, Teresa, 50, and father, Walter, 57, have attended monthly meetings at the Agape Community in Hardwick since Jeanelle’s birth. “(When she was old enough) She would sit on the stairwell and do her reading on her own,” Theresa Wheeler said of her daughter. As she got older and began to write, Agape published some of Jeanelle’s writing in the Catholic Worker’s publications. That encouragement from her elders paid off, as Jeanelle recently received a Gold Key Award at Carnegie Hall for an essay on capital punishment.

“It’s always been part of my life,” Jeanelle said. “I’ve always felt as if the values of the people at peace and non-violence gatherings are a combination of religious and ethical values and justice in general. It’s a big part of who I am.”

Jeanelle sold books for Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, at an Agape event a few years back. While she’s just a young girl among elders, she said, “you know even in a small way, you’re making a difference — I knew the knowledge inside those books will help others make a difference in the world.”

Having young people like her and Hutchinson around is inspirational and encouraging for CNVS’ officers and board members, who average just over 50 years of age. They know the need for fresh faces in the organization. “We baby boomers and older have a job to do in educating and involving the next generation as part of what we’re doing,” Marosy said.

For his part, Hutchinson hopes he can convey the value of having all generations get together to talk. That goal, he said, has become more difficult as new technology and a growth in violence has contributed to a wider generation gap, even between him and those a decade younger.

“The issues we’re dealing with are different,” Hutchinson said. “Their steps to maturity are much earlier than mine were. Theirs are at 12 or 13 while mine were at 17 or 18.”

His message to both young and old is to not take stereotypes at face value — especially those marketed by network news outlets that pit one generation against the other on issues such as the future funding of Social Security.

“The way to know what the other person is thinking is to talk with them,” Hutchinson said. “If you’re older and you see a young person, ask them what’s going on and what they’re feeling (about issues of importance).

“We need to get out and talk with each other,” Hutchinson said. “We have a lot in common but that knowledge can only come from talking with each other.”

More information: Center for Nonviolent Solutions: www.nonviolentsolutions.org or 774-641-1566.