I just returned from a program at Georgetown University where I spoke to a group of high school students on peace and justice. In June, Washington is awash with young people participating in programs for aspiring diplomats, policy wonks, and politicians. Most of these programs are well organized, offering students a chance to hear from insiders, visit important venues of policy deliberation, and meet with like-minds interested in working for a better world. These programs can be expensive, sometimes costing in excess of $5,000 depending on the length of stay. Students are often housed at local universities, in the case of this program, at Georgetown University, which by most standards is one of America’s elite institutions. Having taught there, I can attest to the financial and class advantage those arriving as first year students have. Though, I am sure some are of modest means, on financial aid, and from working class backgrounds, it doesn’t reflect the vast majority. An important unspoken objective of a program such as the one I spoke at is recruitment. I’m sure that more than a few of these high schoolers will return home to sing the praises of Georgetown University, and soon return as students.
We are a divided country. Public opinion polls consistently show that Americans are estranged: by geography, by education, by economic well being, by worldview, by politics. As one who lives in the DC bubble, but who spends much time traveling around the country, I can tell you that the division is profound.
I spend considerable time visiting community colleges, considered democracy’s colleges because of their open access, low cost, and student makeup. For many years I taught at a suburban community college. Community colleges represent America’s commons: students from all walks of life and abilities; ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds; economic conditions; and political views. Unlike many liberal arts institutions that might be politically left in their faculty and student bodies regardless of location, community colleges represent their community. Community colleges in “red” communities will reflect that in their student populations, and likewise in “blue” communities.
Because my work focuses on international education and peacebuilding, when I visit I explore with students violence, war, peace, and social justice. Lately I’ve been focusing more on refugees and immigrants and our obligation to welcome them. I am well received regardless of the school. But my audiences are often self-selected or encouraged by faculty to attend. I have long suspected that my opinions might not be regarded well by large segments of a student population.
For those of us in the peace business, we maintain that peace is the prevention and cessation of violence and war (negative peace) or practices and policies that support pillars of sustainable peace: human rights, equal opportunity, respect for differences, environmental wellness, and other like aspirations (positive peace). But we often address the need for peace not in our own communities, but somewhere else where peace is needed like Syria or Afghanistan. Or we single out U.S. inner cities – where we don’t live - (that are usually poor and made up of minority populations) as lacking peace and in need of our help. We know peace, they don’t, and we need to bring it to them. Our objectives are usually more than good intentions, with aid, expertise, and volunteers in tow to get the work done.
If you are living in a part of the country facing acute economic distress, high unemployment, high rates of drug addiction and other health problems, low levels of educational attainment, high levels of gun violence, or where people often live in de facto segregation that limits exposure to different cultures and nationalities, what is the practical relevancy of peace in your life? You might say, very little. Peace is reflective of the Washington liberal elites who are ruining the country; a waste of time and money; and why you voted that way you did in November. Clearly the current occupant of the White House draws this conclusion: why else would he suggest massive cuts in foreign aid, international exchange, community wellness and development, and other efforts generally associated with peace.
Peace has long had a public relations problem. It has been associated with anarchistic activism, and with counter culture: free love, plentiful drugs, and the rejection of core American values like church and family. Some say it is fundamentally political and always on the side of activist liberal politics. In response, the peace community today tends to talk about “conflict resolution”, “diversity,” and “tolerance,” thinking these words to be less politically charged. Lately, there has been a move to use “peacebuilding” as a way of showing the applied nature and deemphasize the political notions of peace. I’m not sure it works with large segments of the U.S. population - like those living between the two coasts.
How can we consider peace so that all Americans recognize that their welfare and prosperity are tied to it? How can peace be democratized in a way that people of all economic, ethnic, and social backgrounds can embrace its aims? Why must peace be something that West Coast Prius owners embrace, but West Virginia coal miners do not? Peace has an elitism problem.
The division tends to be between those who focus on global and future consequences versus those who feel that domestic and immediate concerns are paramount. The argument that pits environmental protection against the coal economy is an example. People on the left argue that the coal industry not only pollutes the environment, but stands in the way of the development of energy alternatives such as wind and solar. Coal industry supporters argue that local economies (particularly in Wyoming, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania) should be the major concern: a vibrant coal industry assures employment and vibrancy for a community that would otherwise fail. Well-intended discussions disintegrate into worldview arguments, competing factual analyses, and emotional pleas that do little to find commonality.
A peaceful society is one where local economies are supported and where family and individual economic security is assured. Increasingly, the peace community focuses on sustainability: supporting markets where the means of production and profits are maintained locally without fear of greedy corporations or governmental interference. Coupled with this is the desire to protect the environment and support fair labor practices including ensuring that human rights protections are in place.
A mining town in West Virginia is vulnerable to corporate whims and governmental changes in policy. Mine workers suspicious of government, might also lack faith in the judgment of mine owners, where a decision to close a mine might be the death knell for their community. As such, the anxieties of a coal town might be no different than that of an indigenous community in Latin America trying to make a go of it with their local coffee economy: fear of governmental controls and big business take over.
Globalists might argue that the greater good demands that we prioritize the environmental hazards of the coal industry. Planetary welfare outweighs local needs. But might there be interests that are shared by both those advocating for the fortunes of a small coal town and the needs of the planet? If a core tenet of peace is preventing violence in all its forms including poverty and desperation, why couldn’t a peace strategy be developed to ensure the success of a community reliant on coal? The key would be in finding objectives shared by those thinking globally and those thinking locally.
Increasingly rural communities are suffering because of young people moving to the city. In communities that are aging, the result is often a hollowed out town that is unable to offer good jobs, coupled with the added stress of supporting an older population. In many communities there is a real need for skilled workers, and young families to replenish and nurture the community.
Recently, some parts of Maine have recognized that their future may rely on the recruitment of refugees to their communities. Consistent with the American narrative, refugees come to communities to take on the jobs and play the roles that others no longer wish to take on. The future of small towns in America might very well rest not on keeping young people in place, but in attracting immigrants to their communities and welcoming them. But often, we have pitted refugees and immigrants against “white” Americans. This comes from the failure to recognize that opportunities and economies can be expanded by the arrival of immigrants: it’s not a fixed pie to be divided, but one that can be expanded. It is up to the peace community though to make this case.
The peace community needs to recognize how the harsh reality that rural Americans face can be improved by a value at the core of peace: self-determination (the local), all the while recognizing the need to be forward thinking in considering long term impact (the global). Helping keep a coal mine community alive can be a peacebuilding endeavor, but it must also include realizing that coal is dying as an industry and workers need new training in industries that work for both local and global economies. Coal communities, like towns looking to bring in refugees, can come to recognize that the peace community is not in opposition to their way of life. Rather, the peace community desires to support them in ways that guarantee healthy and sustainable futures.
Few of the Georgetown students I spoke with came from communities that feel threatened by globalization, the environmental agenda, or refugees. These views are more represented in the community college populations I work with. In order to guard against the increasing elitism of peace, we need to recognize that many Americans come from communities that are suffering and alienated. Peacebuilding approaches that seek to support their way of life can offer hope without the judgment and elitism that can lead to telling them how wrong they are.
David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. David can be reached at email@example.com.