Andrea S. Libresco, EdD
Professor of Social Studies Education, Hofstra University
Susan Cushman, PhD
Associate Professor of English, Nassau Community College
Executive Director, Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives
For the past four years, there has been a unique course offered on the Hofstra campus. There are no grades, but students attend every class and do a great deal of reading. They also attend events outside of class. You might have seen these students on campus, in their colorful T-shirts with the dove logo, or at an intergenerational, interfaith deliberative dialogue program called “Racism, Islamophobia, and the 2016 Election.” Or you may have heard them asking questions of participants at a variety of panels on Globalization Day. Perhaps you stopped by their table on Earth Day, or attended programs that some students were involved in organizing: “100% Human – A Showcase of Social Justice”; the Diversity Listening Dinner; and monthly sessions of Peace Matters, a new campus club. Possibly, you signed one of their petitions on accepting more Syrian refugees into the United States. Perhaps, you’ll join them, as they lobby U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice about the United States’ role in the war in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis.
These students are the Hofstra Peace Fellows. They have been on campus since 2013, when the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives, in collaboration with the Center for Civic Engagement, began the Peace Fellows program on Hofstra University’s campus to work cooperatively with young people on peace and social justice issues. The LI Alliance, founded on the 10th floor of Hofstra’s Axinn Library in 1985, has been working for over 30 years to educate and mobilize Long Islanders on the costs and consequences of war and militarism, as well as on the goals of strengthening international cooperation, conflict resolution, and peacekeeping, so as to avoid military interventions. The LI Alliance advocates for reductions in military expenditures and the abolition of nuclear weapons, with the reallocation of resources going toward education, jobs, housing, health care, the environment, infrastructure, and other basic human needs.
Many in the LI Alliance got started in the peace movement with their successful advocacy for the Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and for a nuclear freeze in the 1980s. As often happens with advocacy organizations that have been around for decades, though, members of the Alliance have recently found themselves asking, “Where are all the young people?” The Peace Fellows program has helped to provide the answer: Youth for peace are among us, but merely need an invitation and an opportunity.
Each spring, the Peace Fellows education and issue advocacy program provides 9-15 students with $500 stipends. Thus, instead of having to take a minimum wage job, the Peace Fellows’ “work” is the study of peace, nonviolence, and alternatives to war and conflict, guided by the nonviolent social change movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. With the generous contributions of guest lecturers, drawn primarily from the Hofstra faculty (including Michael D’Innocenzo, Carolyn Eisenberg, David Green, Greg Maney, Martin Melkonian, and Mario Murillo), Fellows examine – and re-imagine – the United States’ role in the world, in recent history, in the 21st century and beyond, by exploring issues of human security and the global challenges of conflict, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and climate change.
When students become Peace Fellows, they understand that they are making a commitment of five hours per week for the duration of the 10-week program. Their responsibilities include reading materials; conducting additional research on issues; contributing in weekly two-hour discussion sessions; attending lectures and film nights; planning deliberative dialogue sessions; participating in trainings on issue advocacy; developing advocacy plans for on- and off-campus activities; maintaining a journal; and submitting a final written assessment of the program.
The Peace Fellows program is designed with the principles of good curriculum and instruction in mind. As the National Council for the Social Studies suggests, teaching and learning are most authentic and powerful when they are meaningful, challenging, integrative, value-based and active. (NCSS, 2008) Thus, to be meaningful and challenging, the topics are structured around essential civic questions and sophisticated concepts and ideas: What are the costs and consequences of war? What does peace look like? How formidable are the obstacles to peace? How should the United States approach its role in a changing world? To what extent does the United Nations resolve international conflicts and promote peace? What is human security? How much military spending is the right amount? What are the greatest existential dangers to the global community? Is it possible to eliminate nuclear weapons? How are climate change and peace issues interconnected? Do we get accurate information about these issues from the mainstream media? How can we engage people with different perspectives in meaningful, civil conversations about the vital issues of our time? What does effective advocacy look like?
The course of study is integrative. It links past, present and future; the local and the global; the personal and political; and materials drawn from the arts, sciences, humanities, and current events. The pedagogy is value-based, engaging Fellows in experiences that develop fair-mindedness, serious consideration of opposing points of view, respect for well-supported positions, sensitivity to cultural similarities and differences, and a commitment to individual and social responsibility. We use the National Issues Forum materials that promote deliberative dialogue (NIF, 2014) by having participants “try on” positions and imagine what proponents and opponents of those positions might say. Participants discuss who is not in the room and how the discussion might be altered by their voices. Finally, the pedagogy is active, necessitating Fellows to process and think about the lectures, discussions, and rich and varied sources (including special speakers and events on campus); to research and report on issues; to make decisions; and to try to solve problems.
It is clear from Fellows’ journals and evaluations that there is a need for curriculum and instruction in peace studies. More than one Fellow characterized the readings as “profoundly eye-opening.”
The topics that Fellows most often mentioned as new and important included the destructive power and danger of nuclear weapons; the connections of militarism and war to other issues; and the military budget and its priority over life-enhancing social programs:
- “This made me acknowledge more topics that I had not contemplated previously … especially the seriousness of nuclear weaponry.”
- “I have descended into the hell of imagining what a nuclear war would be like, and I am now very inclined to put forth the effort of stopping it from happening.”
- “I had never connected the levels of racism and classism to war, and [to] cycles of violence in general.”
- “The author argues that the United States could provide clean water for everyone on Earth, cover reproductive health services for all women, give every person enough to eat, provide basic health care, and provide education for all people for only $40 billion, but instead the United States spends $200 billion for new fighter jets.”
Moreover, several Fellows expressed frustration at not having been exposed to this material in their high school American History classes:
- “‘War Doesn’t Work’ was just packed with information that a public school history education never gave me.”
- “I had never read one of Dr. King’s speeches in its entirety before this week. The power of his words really made my heart swell, and so much of what he was saying is still applicable today, especially the concept of environmental racism.”
- “In my AP U.S. History course in high school … we never made it past the Cold War era, so I am definitely lacking in more recent history [like Vietnam].”
The Fellows reported being inspired to follow up on topics:
- “After the meeting, I did some research on my own, only to discover there were literally only two years during my lifetime when the United States was not bombing a nation or actively engaged in war. In my 20 years on this Earth, I have truly never known a time of peace, which is definitely a difficult fact to swallow.”
- “I … plan on paying closer attention to the Syrian refugee crisis and the general role the U.S. is playing on the international stage. … This program has shown me that I have a lot more to learn about foreign policy, and it is vitally important to understand what is going on.”
The skills for discussing course topics were new, as well.
Each of the Fellows commented on the usefulness of learning the process of deliberative dialogue:
- “Deliberation teaches me to be more patient and to sometimes distance myself from my own ideology and convictions and, rather, just discuss an issue neutrally.”
- “I’m still going to cry when I get really frustrated about things … but Peace Fellows has helped give vocabulary to the tears.”
- “Previous to this meeting, any time I was confronted with an opinion different than my own … that conversation would basically either turn into a debate or argument, and no one would take anything from that discussion. I would almost immediately shut down and label an opinion as wrong, unenlightened, or simply absurd, and never bother to learn or talk more about it. I realize now, however, that it is important to create an actual dialogue … ”
Others talked about the importance of having the skills to analyze the mainstream media:
- “The media’s intent is to generate views and profit from those views, so … what is [deemed] newsworthy is narrowed down to meet that, resulting in the ‘casualty quotients,’ which is that one freshman killed in off-campus housing [is] covered over the 15,000 killed in a Honduras mudslide.”
- “Honestly, I have never given much thought to just how powerful the media can be at molding minds one way or another.”
- “I was surprised to learn that the U.N. investigation of the use of sarin gas in Syria did not (and could not) explicitly identify which group actually used chemical weapons, despite the U.S. government widely claiming it was the Syrian government. This is an important reminder to follow up on stories, even when they’re no longer in the mainstream media.”
Almost all of the Fellows talked about the importance of having found community:
- “I now have a network of peace activists on campus who I feel so close to and would not have without this program.”
- “I really like the community that this group of Fellows has created; our Facebook group is something I look forward to checking every day so I can see what [issues] people are interested in.”
All of the Fellows were grateful for learning the skills and possibilities of advocacy:
- “Now I have so many tools to do activism at Hofstra and beyond.”
- “This is empowering to think about – that we don’t have to apathetically sit back and wait for those with money, power or political positions to announce that things will change. … We can try to accomplish the impossible every day, until it becomes possible, until it becomes reality.”
- “Grassroots movements of civil disobedience and disruption can have a far more profound effect than one may believe. A small group of critical citizens, who disagree with the status quo and aim to educate others in creative ways, can start a revolution.”
- “I love the idea that Hofstra has been a channel for peace for decades, and that I am one of many peaceful student activists trying to make a difference. This session gave me hope.”
- “[Kate Alexander from Peace Action NYS] made me feel like I could put all of the amazing things I’d learned this semester into action. She made me feel like I could consider activism a serious career, and that I could be a serious adult who was an activist.”
- “This session motivated me to really start being more active on campus. Because it is one thing to be on eboard, to be in Peace Fellows, to talk to people and care about issues. But it is another thing to really go out and try to make a change … Next year, I really want to focus on getting the school store to sell fair-trade products … I now know the resources, the strategies and the people to do so. Most importantly, I now also have the courage, I have the belief that activism works and the hope that I am indeed powerful, if not by myself, then in a network of many people demanding and dreaming of change.”
- “I loved working on the petitions … and walking around to get signatures! It was so exciting and it felt like I was really involved in something that is much bigger than myself.”
Clearly, Fellows regarded this course as an awakening:
- “This program changed my life … [it] made me feel like my voice is valid. I gained confidence to speak out for peace and justice, and I now have the tools to do so more eloquently. I cannot wait to continue to work for peace and justice for the rest of my life.”
- “Everything we’ve done has increased my awareness about my surroundings.”
Ultimately, Fellows were eager for The Peace Fellows Program to be extended and institutionalized:
- “I would make it a yearlong program instead of a semester. I really think more time would not only allow [us] to dive deeper, but also for the Fellows to grow closer and create a stronger peace community at Hofstra.”
- “I hope the Peace Action Matters club becomes a solid thing around campus. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it and continuing the relationships I’ve been able to build through Peace Fellows.”
- “In every single history class I have ever taken, so much time was spent teaching war … I cannot recall a single instance of being taught about any peace movements at all, outside of a brief lecture on Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests. There are so many major peace movements, such as the Vietnam War protests, that just were not taught. The United States was always constructed as a military force in my history classes, never a peaceful one. By teaching students about war, it is just a perpetual cycle of promoting violence … This is why I’m looking forward to the Peace Studies program coming. … Being educated on peace and humanity is just so important.”
In response to these needs — voiced by dozens of students since Peace Fellows’ inception — the Institute for Peace Studies at the Center for Civic Engagement looks forward to launching a major in peace and conflict studies in fall 2018, which will include core courses, electives, internships, and a capstone seminar. Thus, the Institute for Peace Studies can make Hofstra University a key player in constructively transforming local, national and transnational conflicts ranging from hate crimes and gang violence to terrorism and warfare. The institute will also provide our students and communities with the attitudes, knowledge and skills necessary to handle disputes arising in a variety of organizational settings.
One of the Peace Fellows wrote in her journal, “there were sessions that I left feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, but mostly, I left feeling hopeful and excited about the future and the change that my peers and I hope to create.” She was probably talking about taking future political action, but her enthusiasm and commitment, and that of the other Fellows, are already supporting curricular change in her university community.
Another Fellow closed her evaluation with the statement, “Wars end when educated and informed citizens demand them to. Through activism, we can achieve peace and equality. We can shift the paradigm if we come together and work for a better world.” Indeed, if these and future peace studies students do even a fraction of what they say they wish to accomplish, our program was — and will continue to be — a success. Veteran peace activists of the Long Island Alliance can’t help but feel that the movement for a more just and peaceful world is
in good hands.
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2008). A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy. Retrieved from http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/powerful
National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI). (2014). Deliberation. Retrieved from https://www.nifi.org/en/deliberation