Paying attention to maintaining individuals’ dignity and quality of life when they are under our care can help ensure the ability of all residents to live more peaceful, tranquil lives. As we consider the following circumstances, remember that we, or those we care about, all might fall within these categories at one point in our lives; and while we are responsible for others they also are responsible for us:
As documented in books such as Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, by Steven Solomon, caring for the earth is essential for being able to live in peace with one another. Many of the most serious conflicts that have arisen, from genocide in the Sudan to the recent fighting in Syria, have stemmed from environmental collapse and resource depletion.
Acknowledging our connections and responsibilities to one another and our world does not mean that everyone needs to take on every issue; but awareness of mutual dependency is an important foundation to acting peaceably. Spiritual traditions offer many ways of safeguarding this care, calling for us to be good shepherds of the earth.
For example, First Nation tradition recognizes that we are all guests on the earth and responsible for taking care of nature for those yet to come. The law of the Iroquois, for instance, guides us to make community decisions that will serve those who will be born seven generations into the future.
In sum, there are few if any situations in which being conscious of respect, inclusiveness, and justice will not help to promote peace. The public health community has recently been embracing the concept of “Health in All Policies,” and this is equally true for peace and justice.
There are many paths to climbing a mountain; similarly, there are many paths through which a commitment to peace can be used to strengthen oneself and one's community. There are approaches one can take as an individual, a family, an organization, or a community, nation, or general society. Some of these are simple, while others require more commitment and resources. Let us consider each approach in more detail.
Many maintain the importance of establishing peace within oneself in order to bring about peace in the world. Quelling the tendency to be at war with oneself, and with those closest to us, can be among the most rewarding, if difficult, accomplishments. You could start by acknowledging your worth and your flaws – we all have both. With that acceptance, show compassion toward yourself, and seek out strategies and supports best suited to you and your circumstances.
In the box below is a story from another member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Antonio Aversano. An artist who works with young men involved in the juvenile justice system, Antonio describes his inward journey and choices.
A Son’s Personal Lessons from 9/11
At the time of this writing – almost 14 years since September 11th, 2001 – it seems effortless to share these words as they are unencumbered by some of the traumatic feelings and perceptions from the day my Dad, Louis F. Aversano, Jr, was killed in the World Trade Center.
The experience of losing my Dad through such a globally impacting tragedy was one of feeling broken open. All that I knew to be “reality” was shattered. And, from this breaking of all that I knew and all I knew myself to be, I believe I experienced what some call Grace – as the Soul of who I am rose to the surface and since has become an integrated and instrumental part of who I am and how I live my life.
It is from this place of new perception that came the main life lesson that I received from my Dad’s death: I HAVE CHOICE! How would I choose to live my life from that moment on? Just the realization that I had a choice was itself a transformation. To both be washed over by grief, anger, and the temptation of revenge, while also clearly sensing that beyond my pain there was another way forward, felt like I was given a huge Divinely-guided gift. Day by day I came to accept what happened in my life and decided to honor the best of who my Dad was, who I am, and who we all are by living a life guided by Love and dedicated to Peace.
In essence, I learned that if I want to live in a peaceful world, the seeds of Peace must first bloom within me. Living in Peace is a process reflected in each moment by what I choose to believe, how I filter my perceptions, and all the ways I then act, create, and live the gift of my life.
By witnessing and having compassion for the impulses of fear, hatred, and ill will in my own mind and heart, I learned that self-awareness and a commitment to personal transformation is the most profound action that I can take in cultivating Peace in my own life. By doing so, the possibility for Peace comes alive in every moment, in every interaction, and in every way I am called to serve others. The Peace that shines from within becomes a beacon for a peaceful way of being that, through its demonstration in everyday life, has a profound and incalculable ripple effect with the potential to reach its waves around the world.
Ensuring Peace within Families
Domestic violence and child abuse are urgent problems that have often been viewed inappropriately as private, rather than as community concerns. Correcting this misperception is an important first step to addressing these too-prevalent crimes that have risen to epidemic proportions in the U.S., and are routine in many other nations as well. A World Health Organization report cites annual costs of child abuse and domestic violence to the United States economy as a staggering 106 billion dollars annually (1.1% of the gross national product).
Nearly one-third of U.S. women have experienced domestic violence, with almost one-quarter reporting severe physical violence such as being strangled, hit with a fist, or stabbed (as reported by NPR and the Washington Post). Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that a majority of homicides of women in the U.S. are committed by a family member or intimate partner, while the World Health Organization reports that internationally this figure is as high as 38 percent.
Author and advocate Gloria Steinem emphasizes that these are crimes of domination rooted in unequal power dynamics. Those perpetrating such crimes in families, she observes, are more likely to eventually commit crimes in community settings linked to dominance as well, such as hate crimes. When these domestic crimes are ignored or inadequately addressed, it places everyone at risk. In her book Conquest:Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith traces linkages in the other direction, from the community to the individual and family. She describes the many arenas in which historic and ongoing violence and oppression waged against Native American communities has segued into violence against women.
Security analysts from Texas A&M, in their book, Sex and World Peace (Hudson, et al., 2012), further trace gender violence as predictive of a society’s use of violent means of conflict resolution, finding gender equality an important indicator of the security of a nation. Despite the scale of such violence, there is evidence that it is neither universal nor inevitable. The World Health Organization has established that effective interventions exist to address individual, relationship, community, and societal factors. Recommended community-level interventions include:
- Reducing the availability of alcohol
- Changing institutional settings – e.g., schools, workplaces, hospitals, and long-term care institutions for the elderly – by means of appropriate policies, guidelines, and protocols
- Providing training to better identify and refer people at-risk for interpersonal violence; and Improving emergency care and access to health services.
Gender violence activists often emphasize that these problems are best solved through empowerment and community strengthening. For example, the organization MASUM, based in India, holds that a “primary belief is that people can resolve their own problems collectively with some amount of external support; thus, rather than create dependence on itself, MASUM focused on strengthening people’s perspectives on democracy, equality, secularism, and social justice.”
While providing counseling for women victims of violence, MASUM also engages women and men in changing the community context. This includes public actions that raise awareness across the community, exerting pressure on village leadership to act on behalf of the victim /survivor, instituting programs from early childhood to prevent violence and discrimination against women, and fostering efforts by young men and husbands to advance women’s rights.
Living Peaceably with Others
As individuals, we need to recognize the extent to which all of us are interdependent. It behooves us to direct our energy and resources toward supporting, not harming, one another. The person we dismiss or even hate today may be connected in ways we don't realize to our own well-being.
You can make a tremendous difference by welcoming others into your life and community. This starts with gaining an awareness of those you may not have thought about who are new to the community, or simply new to you. They may be at work, at schools you or your children attend, down the street, or in isolated pockets of your community.
Thirteen percent of people living in America were born outside the country (American Community Survey 2013 estimate). Rather than being fearful or resentful, learn about those in your area who are following America’s great tradition of immigration and their contributions to its prosperity. What are their cultures, traditions, assets, and needs? How can you draw upon what they have to offer, ease their transitions, and help welcome them into the fabric of your community?
To learn the answer, you may have to reach out and extend yourself. You might start by going to events where you can learn more and offer assistance.
Providing Assistance to New Americans
Need inspiration? Consider this story about Omar Shekhey, a Somali-American cab driver who founded and runs the nonprofit Somali American Community Center, based in Clarkston, Georgia. The Center works to help refugees integrate and adjust to life in the United States through programs and services addressing social adjustment, education, health, and advocacy. Its services help refugees find housing, obtain food, and navigate the immigration process. With after-school programs for youth, the Center also provides assistance with homework, builds math and reading skills, and helps refugee students successfully integrate into the American school system.
Many of us must confront having been harmed, either directly or through a history of harms done to our family or people. There is a choice to be made: to exact revenge, or to seek justice and reconciliation. By separating the deed from the whole person, we can begin to forge connections and to heal. Empathy can arise when we acknowledge that we might have acted in a negative way under the same circumstances, or by recognizing that people are multidimensional and can change and grow.
Below is a poignant example, of someone who chose to honor his fallen family members by forgiving their murderers. The Forgiveness Project has gathered additional stories of victims and perpetrators who have traveled on the path toward forgiveness and reconciliation in an effort to encourage people to consider alternatives to resentment, retaliation, and revenge. The Community Tool Box section on Forgiveness and Reconciliation explores these journeys in more depth.
Father Romain’s Story
Romain Ruringarwa is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. He was away at school, studying to be a priest, when the genocide broke out. He returned to his village to find his parents, all eight of his siblings, and many other family members slaughtered by neighbors whom they had lived with throughout his life. He himself had to hide for several months in the bushes with other youth struggling to survive and avoid the carnage.
In facing his deep loss, his heart would often fill with an intense anger. At night, he would console himself by looking up at the stars hanging so brightly above him in the open air, and thinking of them being members of his family shining above him, a blanket of light and love keeping a safe watch over him. He would get himself to sleep by recounting the many rich stories they would tell him and the other children in the village about the stars.
As Romain thought of his family, all he could remember was people who were full of love, not just for him but for others as well. They made every effort to help their neighbors. When thoughts of revenge came in waves upon him, he felt that such feelings drove away memories of his family. As he weighed the future before him, he made a choice. He would honor his family, not by revenge – acting in kind in the same fashion as those who had committed such horrible deeds – but instead by compassion and working toward peace and reconciliation in the tradition of his family. It was in many ways the harder choice; but it has been deeply fulfilling, as it keeps their memories alive and offers hope for a better future. (Source: Presentation, Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord, MA, May 9, 2007.)
Advancing Peace in Community Building
Under this heading are some practical steps you can take to develop and promote peace in your community or region, and more examples you can draw upon for inspiration. We start with some peace-building actions one can take among neighbors, then consider what one can do to strengthen school programs and workplace initiatives, and lastly suggest ways to support policies that promote peace in your broader community.
Working with Neighbors
Peace with neighbors starts with broader understanding. Simple actions can further such understanding. These can include holding interfaith discussions, organizing films or guest speakers to showcase approaches to peacebuilding, and gathering with neighbors to identify local issues and opportunities.
Residents in local peace groups, whether organized independently or through schools or faith-based organizations, magnify individual efforts by identifying local issues in their community and tying these to an understanding of national and global issues of peace and justice. The phrase “Think globally, act locally!” applies here in crafting your efforts. Below are some activities groups have engaged in to advance peace:
Interfaith Events. One of the most rewarding methods for building community peace can be participation in interfaith gatherings and efforts to end religious intolerance. These types of events vary widely, and include small discussion groups; after-school programs where local youth can meet students from different religions; community gatherings to celebrate unity; and calls for greater religious tolerance issued jointly by diverse religious leaders.
For example, in the wake of 9/11, three women neighbors in New York City – one Muslim, one Christian, and one Jewish – launched what they called a “Faith Club” to discuss their respective religions. It changed their lives. They wrote a book about the experience that has led to Faith Clubs arising in many cities. You can start your own faith club.
At a broader level, many communities and states have interfaith councils or similar collaborating organizations. Such efforts are important, as U.S. law enforcement reported over 6,000 hate crimes motivated by bias in 2014. In Birmingham, Alabama for example, a multi-faith, multi-racial organization called Greater Birmingham Ministries was established to pursue peace and justice in their community. It engages “the poor and the non-poor in systemic change efforts to build a strong, supportive, engaged community and pursue a more just society for all people. To do so, it unites people across racial, economic, political, and social identities to build working relationships among faith communities, businesses, civic groups, and social service networks.”
Among the Ministries’ partners is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, with whom it joins to condemn terrorism and anti-Muslim sentiments. CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.
Peace Gatherings. Whether organizing a local community peace vigil, or larger symposia at universities or major international gatherings, it is important to gather together to advocate and showcase support for peace. In communities strained by conflict, bringing diverse people together to advance peace can offer powerful opportunities for healing and moving forward, as witnessed in events ranging from Healing Conversations to End a Culture of Violence and Intolerance in Harlem, NY to marathons for Peace in Iraq.
Working with Schools
Whether as a student, parent, teacher, administrator, policymaker, or community member, there are any number of creative and powerful ways to support schools to effectively advance peace. Many effective models can be drawn upon. These can be embedded in the design of school systems, initiatives targeted to local needs and assets, ethics and peace curricula, and other services. Elements in school system design can start within a school's mission and vision and then range anywhere from graduation requirements (e.g., a minimum number of volunteer hours before graduation) to a disciplinary system based on restorative justice.
As examples, Quaker schools commonly provide a model of supporting students to follow a spiritual and ethical commitment to peace. The mission of the Friends Academy in Locust Valley, NY, emphasizes that “Global citizenship at Friends is rooted in the understanding that ‘the peoples of the world are one people, enriched by individual differences and united by a common bond of humanity.’ ” The stated philosophy behind the Cambridge Friends School includes being a “learning community that chooses...peaceful resolution of conflict over aggression.”
Bullying. Many schools and states have adopted policies and programs to specifically address the problem of bullying, a form of aggression that can entail verbal, physical, and/or cyber (social media) means to harm others. A review of the nature, extent, and prevention of bullying conducted by Dr. Rashmi Shetgiri, of the Dallas Children’s Hospital, offers several insights (Shetgiri, 2013). Of concern is the widespread extent of bullying and that both bullies and victims are at high risk for negative short- and long-term consequences. Dr. Shetgiri calls on clinicians to play a role in identifying bullies and victims, evaluating them for developmental conditions that might be risk factors, and providing resources and referrals as necessary.
Effective bullying interventions embrace the entire school to create a culture of safety and support, engage and train teachers and parents, and are of enduring intensity and duration. Researchers have found that many types of less intensive anti-bullying programs that at first glance seemed promising resulted in only slight decreases in bullying and victimization. They caution that programs focusing solely on individuals and outreach to peers can even backfire (see Jeong & Lee, 2013 and Farrington & Ttofi, 2009).
Guidance and evidence-based approaches to addressing bullying are also available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on its website: Stopbullying.gov. In addition, this website offers Bullying Prevention Training Modules, with tools and resources to organize effective prevention efforts in your community.
Restorative Justice. Public and private schools of all types are also adopting systems of restorative justice. Punishing and excluding students who violate school rules or harm others may be counterproductive, in that these actions can lead to further alienation and lack of opportunities; they may also hinder education, ultimately leading such children to higher rates of future incarceration.
In contrast, restorative justice has been very effective at improving school safety and safeguarding the futures of young people. It keeps students who conduct offenses in school, ensuring their accountability through restitution, and deals with underlying issues while supporting victims. Many schools use talking circles to bring together students, parents, faculty, and administrators to discuss and address incidents, with written commitments to resolve the harm.
In the words of Fania Davis, Director of Restorative Justice Oakland Youth, “This is a justice that is not about getting even, but about getting well. A justice that is not a battle ground but a healing ground. A justice that seeks to transform broken lives, relationships, and communities rather than damage them further."
In the aftermath of the well-publicized shootings in Columbine, the state of Colorado tried instituting a zero-tolerance school policy for youth who committed offenses, with mandatory expulsions. But they found this policy did not work, and only exacerbated problems among students.
Watch this video to learn why some schools have turned instead to restorative justice for more effective solutions.
Youth as Leaders. How educational approaches are designed can be as important as implementation. Engaging students, families, and faculty in choosing, adapting, and/or designing the approach and in selecting materials makes those materials more likely to be locally relevant and culturally appropriate, and facilitates strong buy-in and momentum.
Students themselves do not just present risks; they are valuable leaders and allies in promoting peace. As a first step to engage youth in peace-building, rather than simply holding an event and hoping that youth will join what you have planned, go to them first and see how you can build upon their interests and ideas. You may be surprised by the resources they offer.
Bookmakers and Dreamers
The sky is the limit in youth creativity and energy, as demonstrated by youth in the Groton/Dunstable school district in Massachusetts. Forming a Bookmakers and Dreamers Club, these young people, many from families in military service, decided they wanted to learn how to promote peace. They then launched a project to create the world's largest book, with peace as its topic.
Working over many years to accomplish that goal, they were supported by a committed teacher, Betsy Sawyer, who helped them enlist others across the community. Parents, businesses, and area universities contributed expertise and resources. The students gathered advice from hundreds of peace leaders, including Nobel Peace Laureates, to include in their book.
Using new technology to print and turn the pages of such a large volume, the completed book has been showcased at the United Nations and other venues. The Club has also launched community peace events; for one event, they invited 9/11 first responders from New York City, who came and referred many times to the importance of educating young leaders who can contribute to a more peaceful future.
In a related and widely-publicized effort, the Groton students also accepted the invitation of young persons in the Afghan Peace Volunteers to engage in peace discussions held via Skype conference calls. That initiative changed the lives of students, several of whom have now graduated and are pursuing careers advancing peace. It also sparked important dialogue across the community on the importance of peace-building as a response to conflict.
Several additional models and resources for promoting peace are available on the Peaceful Tomorrows and the Charter for Compassion websites. Schools can sign the Charter for Compassion and join others in shared commitment and resource-sharing. In addition, The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, teaming up with The WGBH Educational Foundation, has gathered many resources for teaching ethics. Also, the Teaching Tolerance Project offers free lessons, videos, toolkits, and other resources to promote tolerance and inclusivity in the classroom.
Committing Your Organization or Business
Peace-building also involves awareness of the needs and assets of those in your group or organization, along with those in the community where you live or provide services. Devote time to how you may address those needs and build upon existing assets.
As one case in point, important models and guidance for businesses to address domestic violence, many of which can be applied to other forms of violence, are profiled in the workbook Interrupting the Cycle of Violence: Addressing Domestic Violence through the Workplace. Compiled by a team of employers, researchers, public health specialists, and battered women service providers, the workbook outlines strategies including assessing those at risk, providing supports, and working with one’s community, through which “every organization can make a difference.”
To relate this to your own situation, consider the following questions:
- What is your organization’s commitment to social responsibility and community service?
- Does it include a stated policy that focuses on promoting peace, and implementing that commitment, in your own community setting?
- What partnerships do you engage in to support peace and prosperity in your home community?
By exploring these questions, you are likely to find ways to strengthen both your organization and your community impact. Many businesses, large and small, are realizing that a commitment to social responsibility not only contributes to strengthening communities, but also raises employee satisfaction and even increases the bottom line.
Some Examples of Business Leadership
There are several ways that businesses have advanced peace in local and even in international contexts. One is to provide job opportunities for local youth during summer months – this is a proven strategy to reduce local crime and provide community advancement. Beyond that:
- Healthcare Without Harm provides an example of proactive organizational commitments to live peaceably with their neighbors by safeguarding environmental health. This initiative promotes best practices to protect the quality of local air, water, and land, encouraging healthcare facilities to consider their impacts not only on the health of staff and patients, but on host communities as well. This conscientiousness is one way to secure the safety of a community, including safety from the threat of chemical accidents such as the devastating 1984 incident in Bhopal, India, which killed several thousand persons and injured over 500,000 (Varma & Varma, 2005).
Community Civic Leadership
A strong community is one that has integrated a commitment to advancing peace throughout its systems, policies, and initiatives. A strong partnership across sectors – including community agencies, local organizations, and businesses – underlies many peace-building efforts. Any such efforts should be shaped and driven by the contributions of community residents, which require early engagement and capacity-building to maximize their participation and leadership. Below are some examples of community initiatives that exemplify peace-building in innovative ways:
An important focal area of policy to stem violence is policing and the criminal justice system. The U.S. is presently incarcerating over 1,500,000 people, a larger percentage of national population than any other country in the world. We must begin to realize that imprisonment is not where the solution lies. Being “tough” on crime is not necessarily being effective in reducing it. Many alternative models work to bring communities together to reduce violence.
One effective model program for communities is the Advancement Project. Activists working in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, once infamous for gang violence, have worked with residents and all sectors of the community to drastically improve community safety; they have had tremendous success. A few key elements of their approach include:
- Engaging police with youth and other residents to dismantle the “us” versus “them” viewpoints, and instead working together for the community.
- Bringing in all residents and partners into this effort. A priority has been ensuring the safety of all children. As children walk to and from school, community organizations of all descriptions open their doors, with staff standing outside to ensure safe passage. Even former gang members have joined in as escorts through particularly dangerous neighborhoods.
- Learning from residents about their community – what facilitates violence, and where are dangerous hotspots? In Watts, the City had built a new library and playground to improve a very high crime area, yet residents did not use them. The Project learned from residents that the area still had vacant lots, broken street lamps, and a liquor store with couches outside, all fostering crime. By working with the liquor store, the Project helped clean up the area, making it much safer; as a result, the playground and library are now well used.
Restorative justice programs, mentioned above in the contexts of school delinquency, can also be applied to criminal justice as an alternative to incarceration. In a community context, restorative justice works proactively to promote safety across the community. It emphasizes aiding and protecting those who have been harmed, and requires restitution by responsible parties, effectively engaging them to become constructive members of society.
To be most successful, restorative justice strengthens civic participation. This can include promoting truthful crime reporting and testimony, participation in jury duty, identification of factors that facilitate or impede crimes, and other forms of public engagement. As proven crime reduction practices are adopted, safety improves.
Domestic incidents of mass violence in community settings are defined as those in which three or more persons are killed. Such incidents occur almost daily in the United States; according to the American Public Health Association, over 350 incidents were reported in 2015 alone. Some factors associated with such incidents include terrorism, mental illness, and gang violence. Each is discussed below.
Terrorism. Terrorism has been a factor in relatively few, if high impact, cases of mass violence. The Department of Homeland Security is engaged in a number of initiatives to advance community safety. Among these are:
- National Network of Fusion Centers, which gather, centralize, analyze, and share threat-related information among federal government, state, local, tribal, territorial, and private sector partners.
- Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which entails coordination with the Department of Justice to report, track, and provide information “in a manner that rigorously protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.”
Domestic terrorism has been perpetuated by extremist individuals and groups of different backgrounds. It is vital to distinguish violent extremists from the religions they claim to represent. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was conducted by an individual claiming to be protecting Christian principles. Those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 claimed to be protecting Islamic societies. Yet the vast majority of Christians and Muslims do not condone violence, and their adherents and leaders are great allies in combatting domestic terrorism.
Hate crimes against Muslims (as well as those mistaken for Muslim, such as Sikhs), have risen dramatically following terrorist incidents. In the year of the September 11 attacks, the FBI reported 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes; similar spikes have continued to occur. Communities can anticipate and help forestall these responses by educating their residents and holding interfaith activities to help prevent hate crimes and heal communities in the wake of incidents that may arise. Political leaders can also help stem violence through their messaging; after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush reminded us that “Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.” (Remarks to reporters by George W. Bush, Washington, DC, November 13, 2002)
Mental illness. It is often assumed that perpetrators of mass violence suffer from mental health disorders. However, the American Psychological Association (APA) has noted that the vast majority of those suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous; rather it is a history of violence that poses the greatest risk factor for further such acts (see text on domestic violence, above).
Nevertheless, the APA advocates the following, which you can support in your community:
- Greater access to mental health treatment for those at risk for violence due to mental illness, suicidal thoughts, or feelings of desperation.
- Behavioral threat assessment as a standard of care for preventing violence in schools, colleges, in the workplace, and against government and other public officials. In such assessment, teams gather and analyze information to assess whether a person poses a threat of violence or self-harm, and if so, outline steps to intervene.
- Firearms prohibitions for high-risk groups – domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanors, and those with mental illness who have been judged to be a threat to themselves or others.
- Early childhood programs to help parents raise emotionally healthy children, along with efforts to identify and intervene with troubled individuals who are threatening violence.
- Collaborative problem-solving models that bring together various community service systems, which may too often operate in isolation. One example is mental health crisis intervention training for police and other community service providers.
- Extensive public health campaigns on firearms safety, as expanded upon just below.
Firearms safety. 30,000 people die annually from firearms injuries in the United States; these were the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 15 to 34 (Gunderson, 1999 as cited by WHO). The American Public Health Association (APHA) considers gun violence to be an epidemic that can be solved, as with Ebola or other public health threats, given adequate research and resources. While firearms policies are hotly debated, the evidence is clear that gun ownership does not ensure family safety. According to researchers from the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, those living in households with guns are at significantly greater risk of dying from homicide or suicide, even when these households have similar characteristics and live in similar neighborhoods.
The application of a public health approach is at the heart of the initiative Cure Violence, which has reduced shootings 41% to 73% in seven communities studied. Just as in disease outbreaks, hotspot areas are identified. One intervention has been to enlist former gang members, or others with credibility and access, to quell potential outbreaks of violence before they erupt, and to support members in transitioning out of gang activity. Information on these and other well-researched models (also focusing beyond the problem of gang violence, such as removing firearms from domestic violence offenders) is available at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Additional firearms safety policies recommended by the APA and APHA include:
- Licensing of handgun purchasers
- Background check requirements for all gun sales
- Close oversight of retail gun sellers to reduce the diversion of guns to criminals
- Increased availability of data and funding to reduce gun violence through all available interventions, including those from the legal, public health, public safety, community, and health systems. (At this writing, a Congressional ban limits federally-sponsored research into gun violence, forcing researchers to seek private or academic funding. Finding ways to support research on gun violence impact and on promising solutions is another area where one can actively promote peace.)
Gang violence. Gang violence is a specific problem emerging in rural as well as urban areas. According to the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice (OJJDP), gang violence peaked towards the end of the 1990s but has been rising again in recent years.
The Department recommends that communities conduct a gang-problem assessment as a first step, offering A Guide to Assessing Your Community’s Youth Gang Problem to help answer:
- Who is involved in gang-related activity? – and what is the history of current gangs?
- Where is gang-related activity primarily occurring?
- What crimes are these individuals committing?
- When are these crimes being committed?
- Why is the criminal activity happening (e.g., individual conflicts, gang feuds, gang members acting on their own)?
This type of assessment is important to identify youth gangs and youth who are at greatest risk of joining. Keep in mind that counter to stereotypes, youth engaged in gangs are of diverse race, ethnicity, and gender, with studies cited by OJJDP estimating that almost half of gang members are girls.
Gang violence prevention activities recommended by OJJDP focus on:
- Primary prevention – the effort to prevent youth from joining a gang targeted to all adolescents. OJJDP has shown that “youth join gangs for protection, enjoyment, respect, money, or because a friend is in a gang.”
- Intervention strategies aimed at youth who exhibit risk factors for gang participation. These factors fall under the realm of individual, family, school, peer, and community risks. Youth are at higher risk of joining a gang if they “engage in delinquent behaviors, are aggressive or violent, experience multiple caretaker transitions, have many problems at school, associate with other gang-involved youth, or live in communities where they feel unsafe and where many youths are in trouble.”
- Suppression strategies that clamp down on gang activity through increased policing have also been used. However, the OJJDP notes that these strategies have not been proven to be effective. They instead emphasize that “Intervention strategies that address risk and protective factors at or slightly before the developmental points at which they begin to predict later gang involvement and other problem behaviors, are more likely to be effective.” (Institute of Medicine, 2008 as cited by OJJDP)
The OJJDP also offers a Model Programs Guide as an “online tool that offers a database of evidence-based, scientifically-proven programs that address a range of issues, including substance abuse, mental health, and education...” To prevent youth from joining gangs, the ODJJP advises that communities emphasize the following tasks:
Some Actions to Prevent Gang Formation
- Strengthen families.
- Review and soften school “zero tolerance” policies, to reduce suspensions and expulsions.
- Ensure that punitive sanctions target delinquent gang behaviors, not gang apparel, signs, and symbols.
- Provide tutoring for students who are performing poorly in school.
- Provide a center for youth recreation and referrals for services and after-school programs.
- Provide gang awareness, conflict mediation, and other skills training for school personnel, parents, and students.
- Provide interpersonal skills training to students to help resolve conflicts.
Learn if your community has a Peace Commission (or similar institution) specifically dedicated to peace promotion, and, if so, see how you can get involved. If not, assist in forming one. Their aims are to involve local citizens in reducing or preventing conflict by protecting and promoting human rights, ensuring ethnic and interfaith harmony, and encouraging understanding through education on cultural differences.
One model of a particularly active peace commission is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge Peace Commission works in three main areas:
- Addressing violence and promoting peace in the community
- Supporting diversity, building connections and relationships, and recognizing peacemakers
- Connecting with the community and the wider world
Toward these ends, the Commission coordinates responses to traumatic events and violence affecting Cambridge. It emphasizes building trust and relationships among diverse community residents through events such as community conversations and vigils. Over the years it has also sponsored many programs and events to foster peace and has worked with other communities worldwide.
Establishing relationships with other communities can also be a powerful path to peace. There are currently 545 communities engaged in a Sister City program. Sister Cities International is a central coordinating body for those efforts, whose mission is “to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation – one individual, one community at a time.”
These are just a few among many local community actions to promote peace. See the resource listings at the end of this section to explore more possibilities.
Preventing War and Terror: Merging Realism with Hope
It is important to be realistic about the severe challenges to peace in this world and to be prepared for the serious commitment required to face them. Nevertheless, there are proven and effective means of advancing peace to help us take on these challenges. Even one simple action can make a tremendous difference. By merging realism with hope we can move forward to a more peaceful tomorrow.
Researchers have noted that despite the common perceptions that the world is a more violent place, much evidence points rather to a decline in both individual and social violence over time. The book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker documents these trends, laying out many elements that have advanced peaceful coexistence. In general, he notes that our civilizations and societies have evolved toward a greater respect for human rights, acceptance of human diversity, and the development of systems of civil society that help resolve conflict.
Pinker acknowledges that although this progress can regress, and has regressed in many regions, strong forces remain at work to re-establish better-functioning societies, even in the most extreme instances of collapse. Among these is the force of the majority who want peace, no matter what the context.
Just as individuals must choose their own productive path forward, rather than succumbing to fear and hatred, so do we face this choice as a larger society. In this nuclear age, where scenarios of “mutually assured destruction” have emerged, it is reasonable to question whether a more powerful military force offers greater security or greater risks to humanity. Warfare over time has become increasingly destructive, including not only direct loss of life, but also long-term, even irrevocable, damage to the environment upon which we all depend.
As we build ever more powerful weapons with leaps in technological sophistication, we must develop even more powerful means of avoiding their use. So let us consider some of the forces that lead to global instability, along with those that build the foundation for peace, and suggest how you can play a part in shoring up the latter:
Conflict Resolution is a central alternative to warfare. The notion that we can destroy our enemies and even “win” a war is important to question in this age of terrorism. War and terrorism can now extend beyond the bounds of the battlefield and into every corner of our communities. The casualties are predominantly civilians, not soldiers, and very frequently are women and children.
Strengthening Civil Societies
An effective counter to terrorism and other forms of conflict is to strengthen civil societies. The rule of law is a civilizing force that unites members of society to advance productively together. War and terror stress societies, setting in motion a downward spiral. Every societal effort needs to be made to strengthen communities and social structures in accordance with local values and the protection of essential human rights. Three good examples follow:
Much of what we learn in the media about Iraq is about violence. However, the Iraqi civil society organization La'Onf (which means “no violence” in Arabic) is a network of Iraqi activists building a nonviolent movement to resist occupation, terrorism, and corruption in Iraq. We need to promote awareness of organizations such as La'Onf, to remind ourselves that the seeds of peace can find fertile ground in all corners of the world.
Lessons of the Hibakusha
To the Hibakusha, there is no greater mission than to raise worldwide awareness that there are no winners in a nuclear confrontation. The Hibakusha are those few who survived the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a matter of hours. Their advocacy has played an important role in the major nuclear powers steadily reducing their arsenals. They continue to warn that we must never lessen our vigilance over the threat of nuclear weaponry. As more nations claim their perceived rights and needs to develop such weapons, the Hibakusha have redoubled their efforts to diminish this ultimate threat.
Mayors for Peace
One opportunity to help in the Hibakusha’s efforts is to encourage your community to join Mayors for Peace. Formed in 1982, the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki called on mayors around the world "to transcend national borders" and "work together to press for nuclear abolition." As of August 1, 2015, membership stood at 6,779 cities in 161 countries and regions.
Below are three additional pillars to support the development and maintenance of international peace:
Committing to Nonviolence
Nonviolence is central to stemming conflict while effectively advancing positive social and political change. We can easily draw upon many role models who have been committed to nonviolent principles and who have made a tremendous impact on the world stage.
For example, Mahatma Gandhi stands in history as among the most famous proponents of nonviolence, managing to overcome centuries of British occupation in India through nonviolent means. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed these tenets as he led the civil rights movement in pursuit of his dream of a future where when "all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Beyond Gandhi and King, among current practitioners are members of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, comprised of unarmed civilians who enter regions where violence may or has erupted, to foster dialogue among parties in conflict and to provide a protective presence for threatened civilians. The Nonviolent Peaceforce has been so effective at ensuring and re-establishing peace in regions of conflict that the United Nations has recommended that “Unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians.”
It is tempting to assume that a military response to violent conflict is needed. Yet a 15-member panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, which spent 7 months circling the globe reviewing present operations and seeking new strategies, emphasized nonviolent approaches. Its 2015 Report of the UN High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations concluded: “Missions should make every effort to harness or leverage the non-violent practices and capabilities of local communities and non-governmental organizations to support the creation of a protective environment.”
Developing and sustaining peace requires an understanding of the root causes of conflict and insecurity. SIPRI looks at what drives conflict and what drives long-term, positive change by analysing economic, social, political and environmental factors. We contribute to both research and dialogue in order to inform policy and practice to forge a path to peace.
Our work in this field is broad, with topics ranging from marginalization to climate change. Conflicts are rarely caused by one single factor; often several issues play a role as they reinforce and exacerbate each other. SIPRI’s research reflects the complexity of conflict drivers and the relationships between them, as well as how they differ across contexts.
A crucial part of SIPRI’s work on peace and development is the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Held annually, the Stockholm Forum brings together researchers, policymakers and journalists to address the most pressing issues relevant for achieving peace.