Posted by Matthew Johnsen, Ph.D., Rotary Peace Fellow
"Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day to try and do some good"
 
Three years ago, I traveled around the world.  I was powerfully affected by what I experienced. As a sociologist, I knew about global connectionsand the ways different parts of the world depend and interact with one another.  What I experienced most deeply on this journey, however, were personalconnections. The storiesof students, tour guides, taxi drivers, hosts, friends, random people met in restaurants, border agents, even people I met on the street flooded my consciousness during the trip. These narratives brought the world together for me, one story at a time.
 
I experienced tremendous hospitality, a warm welcome, openness and friendliness on a journey that took me through 19 countries across three continents. I learned that the life experiences that join us together are much greater than the differences between us. I learned to value each interaction as an opportunity to contribute something positive. I also met people who were making a difference in the world: some small and some large. My friend Somit in Varanasi shared a vision based on his own life: expelled from school because his parents could not pay school fees, he now provides schooling to as many children as he can at no cost. He has organized many entrepreneurial efforts (a small guest house, a restaurant, yoga education, travel services and more) as social enterprises— directing the profits from each to teach young children in schools he organizes. His vision of peace is making the world better.
Fast forward to summer 2018, I was honored to be chosen to spend three months in Bangkok, Thailand at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University with 22 other Rotary Peace Fellows from 17 countries, learning from expert faculty from around the world. I have been recording interviews of Fellows for a podcast called “Quest for Peace.” These one-on-one interviews allow Fellows to tell their stories of how they became involved in their work related to peace. We are at different stages of our careers, with somewhat different interests, training, and widely different cultures. And yet, there is a unity of spirit, a mutual desire to learn how to move the world toward peace, in our own way. A passion. A dedication. And a willingness to engage deeply within one another.
 
A few times in our classes, our instructors have given us exercises that have led us in the direction of conflict. Sometimes we have fallen into the trap: fighting fiercely over chairs, or developing instructions about how to train people to kill others in a small group (assuming a military purpose). In the second case, one group couldn’t complete its work because one group member refused to participate. His example of nonviolent resistance stood out as we began our study of nonviolence: One person standing on principle can make a difference.
 
In another elaborate exercise, we were separated into two groups which competed in a simulation for limited resources. It became clear that even with opposing interests, both groups could succeed by cooperating, by coordinating our actions. But, even knowing this, our efforts to communicate our intentions were failing. At one moment, all seemed lost: both groups seemed destined to fail. At this moment however, a transformative act of generosity led to a thrilling last moment agreement which accomplished what was near impossible: Both sides achieved victory! I still remember, as our team entered the main room, we heard the sustained applause of the members of the other team. Our opponents were clapping because they recognized our group’s cooperative approach to the solution of the problem. The sound of that applause still resonates deep within me. This was another vision of peace we shared: of seeking solutions in a situation that seemed hopeless, and finding it!
 
Together, we visited the southern part of Thailand to learn about peacemaking in the real world. In Krabi, we met village leaders, activists and even business people who shared their visions for a better tomorrow with renewable energy, protection of the environment, social enterprise and social justice. We also met two people who had engaged in courageous nonviolent actions at considerable risk to their personal well-being, and were successful. We were deeply inspired by their visions of what was possible through engaged action in the world. 
 
We traveled together to Sri Lanka to try to understand the current state of reconciliation in the Post-Civil War stage of this conflict. We met with people on both sides of the conflict, from Sri Lankan Generals and politicians to former soldiers and family members of the Tamil Tigers. We found a deep desire among many for reconciliation and moving past this conflict, but not yet a willingness to deal with the painful truths associated with this conflict. Conversations with Sri Lankans who had lost family members in the war made it clear how difficult it is to move beyond these losses, and to resume cordial relations with the former enemy.
 
Each Fellow came to Bangkok with his or her own vision of peace.  Over the course of our time together, by sharing, learning from one another, drawing insights from gifted faculty, these visions have been enlarged and strengthened. As I interview my colleagues and they share the paths they have taken to devote their work and lives in the pursuit of peace, their stories touch me but also enlarge my own vision. And move me into action.
 
Prior to World War II, Nicholas Winton was a young stockbroker uninterested in world events. He and a friend scheduled a ski vacation. When his friend canceled due to what was happening in Czechoslovakia, Nicky decided to spend this time in the city with his friend. While there, he witnessed the perilous position of many and saw what would happen as the Nazis moved across Central Europe. He was moved by their plight, moved into action. With no official role, in a very short period Nicky successfully arranged for 669 Czech and Slovak children to travel England. He paid their fees, organized transportation, and found sponsors for each child on the cusp of World War II. The story remained untold for over 50 years: Nicholas viewed his work as a failure, because he hadn’t helped more children. His motto: If something isn’t blatantly impossible, then there must be a way of doing it.”He died in 2015 at 106 years old leaving us with these words: Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day to try and do some good.
 
Wherever we are, we are each called to try to do some good: to act to bring our own visions of peace into the world. Scott Belsky says “It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen.” As Peace Fellows, we came to Bangkok with specific opportunities for peacebuilding in our own contexts. While there, the frames of these visions have been enlarged as we learned to work, share and collaborate with our new friends and colleagues from around the world, and with previous classes of Rotary Peace Fellows. We have learned both of the opportunities for peacebuilding and the desperate need in a time that where some leaders seem intent in sowing discord and conflict. This experience has left me with both an enlarged sense of responsibility, a greater capacity to act as a catalyst for change, and much inspired having seen so many wonderful examples people finding and enacting their better selves each day.
 
I would be delighted to have an opportunity to speak about my experiences as a peace fellow with Rotary Clubs in this district.  Please be in touch if you would like to arrange for me to speak with you club.
 
Matthew Johnsen, Ph.D.
Rotary Peace Fellow, Class 25
Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Professor of Sociology, Director of Center for Social Innovation
Worcester State University
Worcester Massachusetts, USA
Matthew.Johnsen@worcester.edu
Sponsors