This September 21, people across the globe will celebrate The UN International Day of Peace. In 1981 the day was created by a unanimous United Nations resolution. Since then, each year on that date, individuals commit to building a culture of peace.
“The UN International Day of Peace is significant because it marks a moment in time where every country around the world is encouraged to pause and reflect on issues related to peace,” says Maya Soetoro, PhD, a cofounder of The Peace Studio.
An innovative nonprofit, The Peace Studio was created to give artists and journalists the tools to help restore hope, challenge injustice, and bridge divides. The organization encourages people from all nations to understand that when working together, peace, justice, protecting human rights and having compassion for differences, is possible. Their mission is to offer active peacebuilding skills for those who are integral in shaping our culture. The idea is to shift the dialogue from fear and conflict to hope and possibility.
“It’s really about encouraging artists and journalists to tell stories and to create art that highlights the best of humanity,” says Soetoro. She was also the director of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa where she taught Leadership for Social Change, History of Peace Movements, Peace Education and Conflict Management for Educators.
To that end, beginning September 19, The Peace Studio is hosting a free three-day virtual summit offering panel discussions, workshops and performances. Ending on September 21, the UN International Day of Peace, the summit’s finale explores racism, antisemitism and hate.
The Peace Summit features an impressive lineup which includes Viola Davis, Common, Civil Rights leader Xernona Clayton, Ringo Starr, Dondré Whitfield and Adrian Grenier. Each day begins with yoga and meditation sessions. Panels center about everything from using music for social justice to how journalists can help promote peace through their coverage of world events to contemplating identity through poetry.
“My hope is that the audience will leave feeling they have been given new tools to take on their own journeys towards inner peace, towards caring for our planet amidst this urgent climate crisis,” says Soetoro who is also an advisor to the Obama Foundation. “And they have a better understanding the challenges facing communities of color right now.”
From the time she was a child, Soetoro developed an awareness of the importance of social justice from her mother, Ann Dunham. “My mom would take me along with her to develop mico-finance programs across different communities in Indonesia and elsewhere and would show me that being able to feed one’s family could have a tremendous ripple effect on gender equality or the economic well-being of the broader community,” explains Soetoro whose brother is President Barack Obama. “I learned quickly that every action informs another and why it’s important for all of us to really place front-line lives into our imaginations, to unlock compassion and creativity as we build fair and informed solutions together.”
In fact, as Soetoro explains, her mother always built a sense of community everywhere she went, whether it was via conversations, sharing meals or learning stories from diverse cultures. “Even years after her death, people in the villages where she worked still remember her because she really took the time to get to know and love others,” says Soetoro. “She delighted in everyone and never started from a place of fear or guardedness, but instead always from a place of openness and curiosity.”
Jeryl Brunner: Why do you believe The Peace Studio is special?
Maya Soetoro: We live in a chaotic world. Every hour of every day, a new fear-gripping headline in the news…another mass shooting, an unexpected tsunami, raging wildfires, the toll of Covid-19. The list goes on and on. In our minds, the need for peace— personal peace, communal peace, and world peace—has never been greater. The Peace Studio is a burgeoning nonprofit created to provide resources and a platform to the individuals that we believe are best positioned to be among the first responders to a world in need of greater peace: artists and journalists.
We don’t teach them their craft. The artists and journalists we work with already tell powerful stories, create stunning visual art, and play music beautifully. Our unique mission stems from our desire to train artists and journalists to see their work as integral components of peace and justice—that they come to understand that they have a critical role to play in creating social movements and building empathy even amid chaos. We encourage the people we work with to develop a daily practice of reflection, (journaling, meditation, yoga) so that they are better equipped to serve society. We also ask them, (particularly those working in media), to tell the difficult stories of today in such a way that celebrates the capacity of human resilience in the darkest of times. Our larger purpose is that over time we create a community of brave artists and journalists who believe themselves to be real peacebuilding leaders, which we define as a commitment to creating work that challenges injustice through a lens of compassion and love.
Brunner: Can you give us some behind-the-scenes details on last panel, your Summit Finale celebration, on September 21?
Soetoro: I am super excited to be hosting this year alongside my wonderful friend, the extraordinary actor, Dondré Whitfield. The 90-minute journalistic program will take the audience on a journey through three thought provoking conversations and two performances aligned with our 2021 Summit themes of finding peace within communities, finding peace within oneself, and finding peace within the world. I hope your readers will join us on the 21st at 8 ET / 5 PT at thepeacestudiosummit.org.
Brunner: With the complicated state of our nation and our constant exposure to crisis and trauma in all parts of the world, what are some doable steps people can take to help foster change and be active peacebuilders?
Soetoro: We must start with the things that are closest to us, which means we begin with nourishing personal peace. Personal peace can be found in many different ways. There’s no one-size fits all formula. It could be a process of post traumatic growth, or learning to accept yourself for who you are, deepening your own empathy and compassion towards others. The list goes on and on. After one begins a process of cultivating peace within, then it becomes about being courageous in seeking opportunities to be a leader in the community spaces closest to you.
The reality is that we have an impact in our communities no matter if we want to or not. And so as a peacebuilder you must embrace your own power to impact community benevolently, working to make those around you feel cared for and valued, increasing your awareness around social injustice, and then asking yourself questions like, “Am I widening my sphere of influence in this community where I live and work? Am I expressing myself with honesty and kindness? Am I finding ways to serve others? And am I finding means to change organizational structures that could improve not only my life but most importantly, the lives of others?” As I tell my students, “We all have a voice, you just have to find the right place to enter the stream and then choose to step in.”
Brunner: How do you practice peacebuilding in your daily life?
Soetoro: I engage in a number of daily practices of mindfulness and meditation, which is essential for me. I also work with a number of nonprofit organizations whose missions I value deeply, the three that I cofounded including The Peace Studio, but also others. I do serve alongside the houselessness community in a number of neighborhoods in Hawaii and grow my understanding as we together tend to parks, beaches, gardens, and public bathrooms. I often will bring my children along with me when I’m doing service work.
I also do a lot of work to try to educate and be inspired by young people through the Matsunaga Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii where I teach. I love working with my students to create action plans and to instill in them the skills of nonviolent communication and conflict transformation. I am also very mindful these days of the need to do social justice work in ways that address trauma and the possibility of post-traumatic growth. To that end, I serve on groups like the Council of Allies for the Domestic Violence Action Center and other similar organizations. I am grateful to be thinking this year about embodied social justice and how we can bring a sense of joy into our justice work together as a community. I also think movement and art in peace work can reconnect body, spirit and intellect in the service of greater justice, harmony and human rights.