by Felicia Latsonf.latson@yahoo.com
Originally posted April 5, 2010

Slam-Poetry. Belly Dancing. Multi-Cultural Drumming. Yoga Mats and more. Somehow, some way all of these elements came together to create an incredible PeaceJam event at the University of Houston this past weekend.
PeaceJam is a two-day gathering of 130+ high school youth who are involved in social activism and peaceful civic engagement. During these two days, youth groups from various cities participated in activities and discussions surrounding the work of Nobel Peace Laureates. From these experiences, they learn how to address human rights issues in their own communities and eventually the world. Each conference is themed after a Nobel Peace Laureate who is a part of the PeaceJam program. This past weekend, PeaceJam and the Graduate College of Social Work had the honor of hosting Dr. Shirin Ebadi from Iran. Dr. Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her struggle in securing women and children’s rights in Iran.

The students may have descended onto the University of Houston campus with sleep still in their bones but after a high energy greeting from our PeaceJam Mentors and breakfast from Café Flores, they were pumped and ready to receive Dr. Ebadi with a huge Texas welcome. On Saturday, Dr. Ebadi inspired the youth with a stirring speech about their responsibilities toward creating a better world. Afterwards, students asked Dr. Ebadi more details about her work in Iran and how they could make a difference. I was amazed at the critical thinking and intellectual depth these students possessed. I surely don’t remember being that deep in high school! After lunch, the students participated in community service projects with various community agencies. One group of students received training from STANDUP FOR KIDS for their “Don’t Run Away” campaign. Here students learned how to talk to younger kids about the dangers of running away from home and how to provide them with safer alternatives. The students then created skits, which will be used as a part of StandUp for Kids training materials. Other students traveled to Catholic Charities and learned about the immigrant and refugee populations in Houston. Another group traveled to SEARCH Homeless Services to learn about how homelessness impacts women and children in our community. Many of the students returned to the campus pumped and passionate about what they could do to make a difference in the lives of others. A final group traveled to the MLK Community Center and learned to build an Aquaponics system for sustainable food production in low-income communities. Dr. Ebadi also visited the MLK center with the students and toured the on-site t-shirt printing business, which helps low-income women achieve economic independence.

By Saturday night, everyone was tired and seemed to be fading with the setting sun. However, thanks to a high-energy belly-dancing trio from Sirrom Studio we were all up and out of our seats in no time. Words can’t describe the experience so I’ll just say that I found new parts of the body that I did not know could shake! The students also jammed on African drums with Bro. Kenyah Shabazz and the Multi-Cultural Drum Society.

On Sunday morning, it was time for the water works. And I don’t mean the kind that involves bathing suits and giant slides. I mean tears. Real, flowing tears that come from seeing kids open their heart and souls to share their innermost personal feelings about how they are inspired to forgive those who have wronged them so they may go forward to live peaceful lives. I had heard others talk about the power of the Ceremony of Inspiration but it was not until my own face was tear-soaked and I was choked with emotion that I really got it.

Finally, it was time for Sunday afternoon workshops. We were very fortunate to have so many community partners that agreed to host sessions. Students attended a variety of workshops covering Yoga, the Islamic faith and the role of women, Refugee Experiences, Human Trafficking, Modern Manhood, Slam Poetry, and the list goes on. Here the students worked in small, intimate groups, learning about issues that they were passionate about from community members with first-hand knowledge.

Sadly, every good thing must come to an end (actually, by this point I was operating on a total of 4 hours of sleep for the past two days so I was pretty much ready for the end). The students began texting their contact info to one another in preparation for the closing ceremony with Dr. Ebadi. I feel so privileged to have witnessed such a profound amount of personal growth in students as comfort-zones were challenged, new friendships formed, and commitments to peaceful living were strengthen.

Thank you to my rock star teammates and AmeriCorps VISTAS Theresa Kelleher and NuSaiba Abbas who I had the pleasure working with in organizing this event. Major thanks to all of the mentors, volunteers, advisors, and community members whose absence would have made this conference impossible. I am truly grateful for my inaugural PeaceJam experience and to have worked at the best MSW field placement on Earth (okay that’s a little extreme but what can I say, I’m biased)!

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