Nobel Intentions

Go, Broncos! Promoting peace is serious business.

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the founders of PeaceJam met with the Secret Service and finalized arrangements for the ten Nobel Peace Prize winners coming to town this week to announce their global Call to Action and, in rare spare moments, wondered what they'd have to do to become front-page news in Denver.

Maybe if that photo of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the Denver Broncos hat had gotten national play during the Broncos game Sunday. Ivan Suvanjieff snapped the picture on Valentine's Day 1998, right after the Super Bowl, during PeaceJam's first international event. Suvanjieff had come up with the idea of linking troubled kids with Nobel Peace Prize laureates during Denver's Summer of Violence, when he discovered that kids living around him in northwest Denver knew all about the local gangs -- but also knew about Desmond Tutu. Then Suvanjieff met Dawn Engle, a young Republican aide in Congress turned Tibet lobbyist and grassroots activist, when they were both working on a project at Naropa. She introduced him to the Dalai Lama, who liked the idea of having laureates work with kids to inspire a new generation of peacemakers; the Dalai Lama connected them to Tutu, who also liked the idea, and PeaceJam was born. This weekend, it marks its tenth anniversary.

Ten years of bringing Nobel Peace Prize laureates together with kids from around the globe -- over 250,000 teenagers since PeaceJam was founded -- is a serious record. So what would it take to get some serious attention?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu caps PeaceJam's push for 
peace.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu caps PeaceJam's push for peace.

Maybe if Yusef Islam were really going to play at the PeaceJam gathering at the University of Denver this weekend, singing "Peace Train" at his first concert in three decades. But although the former Cat Stevens has a new album coming out and the foreign press is full of stories about how he's going to be in Denver at the largest gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates ever outside of Oslo, as far as Engle and Suvanjieff know, all of that is talk, just like all the other talk about celebrities who wanted to come here and perform and raise funds for an organization that's on the shortest of shoestrings. But instead, mostly local groups will play at the PeaceJam kickoff concert Friday night, and the stars of the weekend will be the Nobel Peace Prize winners themselves. Which is really as it should be -- except for that money thing.

Well into planning PeaceJam's tenth-anniversary celebration, Engle and Suvanjieff discovered that the weekend they'd chosen coincided with the country's second-largest consumer electronics show, which will pour 30,000 people and lots of dollars into the market. But it stretched that shoestring even further by ruling out donated hotel rooms and other services. "Though I'm not surprised the PeaceJam staff pulled off our conference, I'm surprised at their determination, their ability to roll with the punches," Suvanjieff says. "We're all mildly bruised right now, but the camaraderie is heartwarming.... The generosity of Arvada, Denver and the outlying districts blew my mind. Colorado is the greatest place on the face of the earth."

Engle and Suvanjieff definitely take their work seriously. So do the Nobel winners who are coming here to work with 3,000 kids from 31 countries and plant the seeds for a billion acts of peace over the next ten years. So do the kids themselves. "Both Ivan and I are from very poor families; we're factory-worker kids," says Engle. "That somehow we wound up in the role of putting this together is crazy. The most exciting thing to teenagers is you don't have to be perfect to do something good."

"I've been asked if the conference will be successful," Suvanjieff adds. "Three thousand young people are answering the Nobel Peace Prize laureates' Call to Action this weekend, taking on issues adults won't! This is success. Certain things are not in our control, and we can't do a thing about them. But successful? Prime Minister Oscar Ramos-Horta is flying into Denver for the conference, then heading straight back -- he's not attending the U.N. General Assembly. The Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire are here. Archbishop Tutu! Don't ask me if it's successful. Ask the kids."

Or ask the 270 million people in the audience of BBC World, which aired PeaceJam's first documentary this past weekend, with another five hours of PeaceJam-produced footage set to run soon -- and thirteen more BBC pieces slated for next year. Or the thousands of people who read the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which just gave PeaceJam serious props.

Or the people at the Conflict Center, which next Monday will honor Suvanjieff and Engle with the tenth annual Ambassador of Peace Award at a dinner where Betty Williams, winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, will speak. "It's truly inspirational what they do with youth, connecting them with Nobel laureates and giving peace a real opportunity," says Ron Ludwig, executive director of the center, which does some pretty inspirational work itself across the metro area, working with schools, organizations and families on interpersonal relationships. "If you and I can't get along, we can't expect the U.S. and Iran to get along," he points out. "The skills carry over to bigger issues."

But Monday is a long way off for Engle and Suvanjieff, who already collected the Gorbachev Foundation's Man of Peace award in Rome last November ("A Peace of the Action," November 10, 2005). First, they'll need to make sure that all the public talks and private workshops go well. And if they do, PeaceJam's founders will have won the prize that matters.

"The thing I'm most looking forward to is seeing the lightbulbs switch on in the minds of the PeaceJam participants," Suvanjieff says. "And in the hearts of participants."

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