A few Sundays ago, Julie Imada went to the Heritage Christian Church in Aurora to pass out a bundle of fliers announcing an upcoming visit to Denver by retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The lobby of the large, mixed-race church was lined with glass counters displaying church-related books and videotapes for sale, as well as kiosks stuffed with church handouts. Video screens showed a service in progress in a vast auditorium. It looked like a good place to get out the word.
"I would think religious communities would be unified in bringing such a spiritual leader to Denver," Imada says.
But she was wrong about Heritage Christian.
Two deacons gave her the okay to distribute fliers in the lobby, but moments later, an older deacon approached her, Imada says, "kind of barking at me. He said, 'Do you have permission to pass these out?'"
Imada told him about the other deacons, but he returned with reinforcements. "These big white security guys come over," Imada says. "They've got these big radios, like the CIA. What kind of a church has security cops?"
The guards had guns, too. They took her to the security office. Apparently, no one knew who Tutu was. "I'm like, 'My God, I must be in the twilight zone,'" she says. A pastor was called over the walkie-talkie, and he shouted at her that she wasn't allowed to pass out her fliers anywhere on church property. The pastor didn't seem to know Tutu, either, Imada says.
"It wasn't like they were gonna beat me up, but the guy on the other end was like hellfire," she says.
When Imada reported back to her boss, Dawn Engle couldn't believe it. "It's like they didn't know who he was, and when we explained it, they didn't care," says Engle.
As bizarre as the incident might seem to anyone familiar with the lifework and reputation of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tutu, it's all in a day's work for the people who are bringing him to town.
Engle is the co-founder of PeaceJam Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has spent the last few years bringing together high-school kids and Nobel Peace Prize winners. Between them, Engle and co-founder Ivan Suvanjieff have slept in airports, fended off luggage thieves, worked without pay, had grants dry up and been attacked by soldiers in the Burmese airport. At the same time, they've single-handedly created an organization whose board of directors consists of twelve Nobel laureates: Tutu and South African president Nelson Mandela; the Dalai Lama; former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias; Aung San Suu Kyi, elected president of Burma in 1990 but later placed under house arrest by the Burmese military; Rigoberta Mencha Tum, a Mayan activist in Guatemala; Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, peace activists in Northern Ireland; Latin American human-rights leader Aldolfo Perez Esquivel; Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, activists fighting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor; and American anti-land-mine crusader Jody Williams.
(The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by the Norwegian Legislature, honors individuals who "have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.")
Engle and Suvanjieff have gotten a small taste of the laureates' struggles. So have the high-school kids who come through the PeaceJam program. For two months kids study a laureate, who then visits them for a weekend workshop. The kids eventually present plans for community-service projects in their own schools and neighborhoods.
The program, which is sponsored by Regis University, has already brought four Nobel winners to Denver. Betty Williams spoke at the inaugural PeaceJam in March 1996; Rigoberta Mench Tum came through the following September, the Dalai Lama visited in June 1997, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire came this past March.
In the meantime, PeaceJam kids have helped start two teen centers--one in Boulder and one in Wheat Ridge--and have become involved in everything from cleaning up neighborhood parks to starting their own AIDS awareness programs.
Putting together Tutu's upcoming visit has been a year-long struggle. Not only is there the PeaceJam workshop to organize--the curriculum must be distributed to dozens of participating schools--but, says Engle, "there's the care and feeding of a Nobel laureate. You have to worry about their security. There are logistics with travel. You have to make sure they are fed according to their dietary needs."
And you have to raise money, which most often comes from public speeches--separate from the conference--that the laureate makes when he or she is in town. In Tutu's case, speeches are planned for Sunday, November 15, at Macky Auditorium in Boulder (7 p.m., $25-$50) and Monday, November 16, at McNichols Arena in Denver (7 p.m., $10-$40). "You go from educator to conference planner to diplomat to being like a concert promoter," Engle says.
The work is done out of one half of a gray duplex on West Argyle Place, a curvy, cozy street that, this time of year, is plastered with yellow leaves. Several computers hum throughout the small but neat work space. On the wall are photographs of the Dalai Lama, Mandela and Tutu. In the middle of the room are strung several Tibetan prayer flags; the colored cloths contain written prayers that are supposed to flutter toward heaven on windy days.
Suvanjieff and Engle take turns talking about PeaceJam with Westword, but both insist they shouldn't be the focus of an article. Engle says they're just two "real average, flawed people."
Which only makes their accomplishment more remarkable. "By no means are they average," says Effley Brooks, program director for the Shaka Franklin Foundation, a Denver suicide prevention and intervention program. "Their histories are rich and deep and wonderful."
Engle, 41, is the political half of the pair. She grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, the second oldest of six children. Her father worked for the Ford Motor Company while her mother raised the family. Engle was a dance major at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo when she applied for an internship in the office of Michigan senator Robert P. Griffin, a Republican. "It was kind of a lark for me to put my name in," she says.
Yet the arty 4.0-er found herself in D.C. for three months in the fall of 1976, during the presidency of Gerald Ford, a friend of Griffin's. Although she did the usual menial intern jobs such as making copies, Engle, then nineteen, found the atmosphere "very intoxicating."
Surrounded by interns from Harvard and those culled from the children of the senator's friends, Engle was happy to be there at all. Impressed by Engle's positive attitude, Griffin hired her on full-time when the three months were up. She worked the press office and became a legislative research assistant.
While Engle describes herself as a libertarian, she says the GOP was a good place for women in the late Seventies. The party, she says, had been criticized for its dismal record on women's issues and was looking to promote women. In 1978 Congressman Jack Kemp hired her as a legislative assistant. She wrote speeches and in 1980 found herself on the verge of the big time: Ronald Reagan was considering Kemp as his running mate in the fall elections.
But Reagan chose George Bush--partly because he wanted to attract both Texans and East Coast patricians, but, Engle offers, also because Bush was easier to control than Kemp. After Reagan defeated Carter, Engle went to work for Senator Robert Kasten of Wisconsin. Kasten worked on the Senate Budget Committee, so Engle was in the middle of the supply-side-economics revolution, which was based on the theory that cutting taxes and government spending would generate greater investment and economic productivity. Engle changed majors and finished her bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Maryland in 1979.
It was, she remembers, an idealistic time. "We were gonna bring a change," she says. "Government was bloated and out of touch with the people. We were gonna improve it."
But then, she says, "you see that idealism die."
Early on she enjoyed the political battles and cheered when her party won. But the philosophical underpinning of the Reagan years alienated her as the Eighties wore on. The idea that "you could eliminate the welfare state with the stroke of a pen" struck her as naive. She was also soured by what she perceived to be a lack of concern for social justice.
Engle found herself inside the Beltway while the Reagan administration was pumping money into Central America to help Contra rebels overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Years later, she would listen to Rigoberta Mench Tum describe the violence in Guatemala that claimed the lives of her parents and two brothers.
"You had fighting in a number of different countries, skirmishes in El Salvador, Guatemala," Engle says, addressing the connection. "Because of U.S.-Soviet intervention, it was becoming more regional.
"You're so divorced from reality in Washington," she continues. "It's a complex world, but you realize how everything in Washington gets put in black and white."
Nonetheless, Engle stayed with Kasten from 1981 to 1988 and eventually became his chief of staff. In 1988 she served as director of the GOP Platform Staff, the group charged with formulating the party's national agenda.
She was also looking for ways to rescue herself from the emptiness around her. She attended mass at a Catholic church across from the Capitol, where she met a woman named Michelle Bohana, who got her interested in volunteer work as a way out of the corruptive influence of D.C. "I was trying to keep from becoming a horrible prostitute," Engle says.
Bohana was involved in nascent human-rights efforts to win freedom for the millions of Tibetans displaced from their country by China in the 1950s. In the late Eighties, the International Campaign for Tibet was just an office the size of a bathroom. There were no T-shirts or MTV spots or Brad Pitt movies; Engle was one of just fifty people from America and Europe who met with the Dalai Lama in 1989 at a mountain compound in India.
He left an impression on her. "He has a way of looking at you and seeing your potential goodness," she says. "He was the real thing. The fact there was a real thing was a revelation."
Engle returned to the States a week later; the next year, she left Washington and its eighty-hour workweeks behind. She and her husband and their two kids, ages four and five, packed up for Boulder. Once here, Engle started the Colorado Friends of Tibet, a group whose membership has since swelled to 1,000 members.
While Engle's connection to PeaceJam is one of politics made pure again, her partner's involvement seems to demonstrate the artistic nature of politics.
Ivan Suvanjieff, 41, is the iconoclast, the outsider. He talks fast, and he's always clear about what's on his mind. He's the type who'll leave a cigarette in an ashtray, walk into a nearby shop, buy a soda, then return for the cigarette.
He is a name-dropper, a bit of an egomaniac with a fragile inner nature. "I've always operated on the principle that I'm a loser and nobody wants anything to do with me," he says. "It gets to a point that if I don't talk to the laureates or their reps, I think that maybe they hate the program."
"In Ivan, you see a spiritual force. Sometimes you have to control it," laureate Betty Williams tells Westword. "He's combustible because he's so spiritually alive."
Suvanjieff grew up in Detroit. His Bulgarian father, Christopher, arrived in Toronto at the end of World War II, a Holocaust survivor from Dachau who saw his parents murdered. Christopher married Yolanda, the French Canadian clerk who had stamped his visa, and they settled in Detroit.
Unlike Engle, Ivan did not excel in school. He says he was kicked out of every school he went to, but he finally finished high school and now has hundreds of books in his collection. From his father he inherited a love of baseball; from his mother, a love of art. He used to steal her paints, and what began as idle doodling in the back of class became an outlet, then a career.
Suvanjieff left Michigan and hung out in New York for a few years, working for a while at the rock magazine Creem. In 1983 his brother Richard died of leukemia, brought on from exposure to Agent Orange. "My brother did three tours in Vietnam. He liked it. Maybe I'm the opposite," Suvanjieff says. "I don't want to go to war." He moved to Denver in 1985 to be near his other brother, Chris, and settled into a huge, cheap and run-down loft above a corner store in north Denver. There he got to know the kids in the neighborhood by inaugurating "soul hours" on Fridays, when he'd spin Motown records and sit out on milk cartons playing cards.
Though the appeal of the loft--a wreck, frankly--is hard to understand, Suvanjieff proclaims, "It's majestic in its derelictness." Standing against a ventilation grate in the bathroom is an old painting of his, an abstract geometry of black and white. Most of his works are like that.
"Ivan is a black-and-white painter," says Leigh Christopher, a former curriculum writer for PeaceJam. "He's very staunch in his belief about art. He's not afraid to stick his neck out."
He's also a painter of large canvases. "A canvas, to be big, has to be at least six feet on the short side," he announces. "Anything else is for tourists." But he quickly demurs: "That's snotty." Then he's back to a bold proclamation: "I paint for me. It's one place I get to be me."
If Suvanjieff's big paintings allow him to wrestle with his own outsized ego, Christopher is all for it. "He has large ideas," she says. "It's just like PeaceJam. He never intended it to happen with a small group of kids. He has big hopes and dreams."
In 1990 Suvanjieff founded a monthly literary journal called The New Censorship, an eclectic collection of photography, poetry, artwork and short stories by up-and-coming artists. In 1993 he landed the ultimate insider's gig, writing a society column for the Rocky Mountain News. It was a bad fit, and Suvanjieff was fired within six months. He then worked for a while parking cars at Cliff Young's restaurant.
In 1994 he met Engle. Both had six-month contracts at the Naropa Institute to help promote a conference on beat writer Allen Ginsberg. "I thought she was one of those dingy Boulder women," he says. He teased her often, until one day she told him he reminded her of people she'd gone to high school with.
"Yeah?" Suvanjieff said. "I went to Detroit."
"Yeah, asshole," she responded. "I'm from fucking Detroit."
The two became friends.
PeaceJam began on a Thursday or Friday afternoon in the spring of 1994, at the corner of Wyandot and 30th. Suvanjieff was hanging out with some teenage boys who lived around the block, kids he had known since they were toddlers. Now the kids had guns. "It was really weird here, really scary," Suvanjieff says.
While none of them could name the president of the United States, all recognized the names of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Suvanjieff says, "Their eyes lit up. They knew those guys."
They also knew both men had fought the power without guns, and when Suvanjieff asked them why they were packing guns when the men they admired did not, they grew sheepish. That's when he had the idea: "Put kids together with Nobel Peace Prize winners."
Over a three-hour lunch, he got Engle interested.
What followed was the slow process of trying to contact those laureates they thought might share their idea. (Henry Kissinger was not called.) Engle started with the Dalai Lama, whom she had met five years earlier. It took months. "So many people are trying to get to him," she explains. "You have to work through the layers; it was like lobbying. Nobel laureates have screens...You have to get through the first level, the second level."
But in the spring of 1995, Engle and Suvanjieff were invited to India.
It felt like chaos. The flights into Delhi arrived at three in the morning. The airport was a carnival of tourists and hustlers. The streets leading into the city were like nothing they'd seen. Rickety cabs drove past wandering cows. People slept on the sides of the road. Beggars presented themselves at the window with no hands. In many cases their limbs had been deliberately chopped off at birth. Lepers with gnawed faces were there as well.
"The Western mind is not prepared for India," Suvanjieff says.
From the airport, the pair traveled to the train station, a Dante's Inferno of rising steam and heaped bodies, fires burning from oil drums and young thieves stealing luggage. "You feel like you're descending into hell," says Engle. They were locked in their train cabin, staring out at the dozens of Indian faces staring in.
An overnight train took them to Pathamkot Station, where they drove three more hours into the mountains. At Dharamsala, in a complex under guard by the Indian government, the Dalai Lama lived in a small home with a garden.
It was a warm and sunny morning. "He looked me right in the eye and burst out laughing," Suvanjieff recalls. "He says, 'You're not Buddhist, are you?'"
Suvanjieff said no. The Dalai Lama responded, "That's okay; you look sane."
A scheduled half-hour meeting became ninety minutes. A member of the leader's staff was designated liaison for the group, and PeaceJam was out the door. Two months later, Suvanjieff and Engle began a trip to recruit more laureates.
July 4, 1995, Houston: They met Betty Williams at an airport motel. The laureate was dressed in a "beautiful white Irish lace blouse," says Engle. The meeting went well, but the one problem for Williams was that her old friend Mairead Corrigan Maguire was also on the list of laureates to contact. The two had had a falling-out and had not spoken for twenty years. They refused to be in the same room, let alone participate in the same conference.
The reconciliation began when Engle put the two laureates' chiefs of staff in the same hotel room. The two hit it off. (Plus, it was difficult for the laureates to hold such a bitter grudge while telling young people about the value of tolerance and forgiveness. "There was a beautiful healing between she and I," Williams would say later, after working with PeaceJam. "We told each other we would never let this happen again, and we couldn't imagine why it happened in the first place.")
July 6, 1995: Guatemala City, Guatemala: Rigoberta Mench Tum met Engle and Suvanjieff at her small office in the city's barrio. A year later, she would be eating lunch at Taco Bell in north Denver and conducting Denver's first PeaceJam in Spanish.
July 10, 1995: San Jose, Costa Rica. An aide to Oscar Arias picked up the pair in a rundown Fiat and drove to Arias's hometown, Heredia, where Arias was waving the flag to kick off a local foot race.
July 25, 1995: Engle and Suvanjieff flew from Denver to Los Angeles to Cape Town, a two-day flight two-thirds of the way around the world. An hour after landing, they were standing in the Bishop's Court, at the quarters of Desmond Tutu. On a return visit months later, Tutu and Suvanjieff would sneak away to watch a cricket "test" between India and South Africa.
If the trips to this point had been exhausting but fulfilling, Suvanjieff's late-August trip to Burma changed all that.
Aung San Suu Kyi had been officially released from years of house arrest in July. Foreign journalists were allowed in to visit, but in reality, she still could not leave her home, and Burmese soldiers maintained a guardhouse inside the gates.
Suvanjieff thought he could slip into Burma without arousing suspicion; now he suspects he was followed from the airport the day he arrived. He carried letters of support from other laureates and questions written by children to Suu Kyi (all of the PeaceJam laureates are interviewed with questions written by kids), and he photographed her during their interview.
At the airport heading home, Suvanjieff was detained, and soldiers demanded all of his film. Thinking quickly, Suvanjieff turned over innocuous tourist shots while keeping the photos of Suu Kyi buried in his suitcase.
For his trouble, Suvanjieff was handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten with a bag of fruit. He says the attack was quick, and he knows it could have been worse. "I took one for the team," he says.
What bothers him most, he says, is that the man who arranged the interview was imprisoned soon after and eventually died. "I don't know if I'm responsible," he says, "but it wakes me up at night."
Engle met her partner at the airport on his return. "He was in really bad shape," she says. "He couldn't stand up straight. His body was hurting."
Suvanjieff admits he was traumatized, but he dismisses the whole thing as the grownup-activist equivalent of a schoolyard whupping: "I don't think it was the last it will happen. I just got right back to work. It wasn't that big a deal."
An artist friend, Ray Schelgunov, is less sure. "He was in a lot of pain," says Schelgunov. "That made him a little more humble. It gave him a lot of points for reflection."
Engle and Suvanjieff paid for their early travels themselves.
In December 1995 they got a break. Arthur Zajonc, a friend of Engle's, worked on the board of the Fetzer Institute, a philanthropic foundation started by the late owner of the Detroit Tigers, John Fetzer. Zajonc's young son had seen the Dalai Lama give a speech on a college campus, and since the boy was the only youth in attendance, the Dalai Lama had spotted him and waved. When Zajonc learned that the Dalai Lama had singled out his son, $30,000 was on its way to PeaceJam.
"I thought we could run for twenty years on that," says Suvanjieff. "We were nuts."
But the money was enough for PeaceJam to stage its first conference, at Regis University in March 1996. It was kicked off by Betty Williams teaching a curriculum on grassroots solutions to violence. "The first one was a total experiment," Engle says. "We had no idea whether it would work." Reps from Fetzer and from the laureates were present, and, as Engle points out, "If it had gone badly, we'd have lost our funding and our laureates."
The event drew 200 kids and proved a success. What proved more difficult was setting up a program in South Africa, since Tutu stipulated that a PeaceJam would have to be conducted there before he came to the United States.
Engle and Suvanjieff made several trips to a country that had no infrastructure for their program; there were no youth organizations they could affiliate with to introduce their curriculum. "We talked with everyone but were never able to find the right match," Engle says.
What's more, the presence of American do-gooders was met with skepticism. Engle says some regarded their efforts as a "drop in the bucket so you can go home and feel good about yourself and they're still living in shit."
Engle and Suvanjieff admit they went into South Africa without a lot of vision. They fumbled around and went four times over budget. At the eleventh hour, PeaceJam was bailed out by Hard Rock International--a slightly mixed blessing, it turned out, since it meant that when the event was finally held in February, Hard Rock Cafe banners were hung throughout Robben Island, the former prison of apartheid opponents such as Nelson Mandela.
The stone prison on the island was desolate, Engel remembers. Prisoners had been forced to drink brackish water and work in lime quarries where in summer the white limestones reflected enough sunlight to burn their corneas. Prisoners had slept on cold floors with no blankets.
"It was one of the most oppressive places I've set foot in this side of Burma," Suvanjieff says. "Ghosts of the people who died there are still very much there."
Ironically, the participants stayed in the guards' quarters, and the main events were held in a large hall used for parties.
The event drew 150 kids, and Tutu was magnificent, say those who were there. Betty Williams recalls that Tutu was "bubbling around the room. He said, 'I don't want to read your essays. Sing your songs.'" A little girl approached Williams, hugged her and confessed she had been raped. Williams and the girl cried together. Tutu noticed, and when he was told what had happened, Williams says, he "took her in his arms, like he would a newborn, and rocked her like a father would rock his daughter."
It was a great experience, but it taught Engle and Suvanjieff that there was a serious need for "local ownership" of their idea. Now a PeaceJam office in South Africa is planning another event in 1999. In Costa Rica, aides to Arias have come to Denver to learn the program and then translate it to Spanish and take it home. Costa Rica's first PeaceJam is scheduled for this December, and 1,000 kids are expected to attend.
Kids pay a registration fee to attend PeaceJam events ($75 for Tutu's conference), and Fetzer has continued to support the group, with grants totaling almost $400,000 as of April 1997. The Kellogg Foundation, a nonprofit organization endowed by the Kellogg Corporation, awarded the organization a $75,000 grant, money that was to go toward devising a five-year organizational plan. "It was kind of like a rectal exam," Engle says. "They came in and looked at everything."
The cereal-maker pledged more money, but the unstable stock market has put additional funding on hold. "It was real scary," Engle says. "A number of times I didn't know where payroll was coming from. A lot of times we had to go without. We had to go on faith." Now, she says, "the effect is that it's enhanced our scrappiness."
Because of the financial difficulties, Engle was nervous about facing the PeaceJam board--the laureates--through liaisons or representatives at a meeting this September in New York City. But, she realizes, the lack of money is simply a reality for her organization. "There's not one of them who's not struggled a million times more than we did. The laureates are scraping by."
Still, PeaceJam has spread. Events have been held in Bloomington, Indiana, Amherst, Massachusetts, and Vancouver, Washington. Other programs are getting off the ground in Minneapolis and Kansas City. Next year Mench Tum will be leading a PeaceJam in New Mexico.
Tutu's visit this weekend will be the eleventh conference PeaceJam has staged, the fourth in Denver. It will likely be Tutu's only visit to Colorado. Stricken with cancer, the 67-year-old laureate will attend the PeaceJam at Regis and will speak once in Denver and once in Boulder.
For the last two years, Tutu has served on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which last month released a painful 2,750-page report documenting accounts of violence and torture and death during the country's apartheid era, which ended in 1991. Former president F.W. de Klerk, the man who freed Mandela and with whom Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, tried to censor those parts of the report critical of him and his National Party. African National Congress officials also tried to block the report's publication, unhappy that it claimed the ANC tortured dissidents and killed civilians in its long fight against apartheid.
But Tutu's appearance in Boulder will be its own evidence of reconciliation. In the Eighties, students at CU waged large protests against the university for having business relationships with companies who had investments in South Africa. Students erected shantytowns; 23 were arrested in one 1988 protest. Such struggles against American financial involvement--and implicit endorsement of--apartheid were common throughout college campuses in the Eighties.
The anti-apartheid movement kept a high profile in the Eighties. But the work continues on many other fronts, carried out by everyday people. "There are no famous people in the world," says Betty Williams. "If you really say you're out there in the world of peace and justice and these schmaltzy words--don't keep flapping your lips.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly guide to events in Denver, and never be bored again. With suggestions for every day of the week, our recommendations will keep you busy on any budget.
More Calendar News
- SIA Snow Show
Sat., Aug. 29, 7:00pm
Sat., Aug. 29, 7:00pm
Sat., Aug. 29, 7:00pm
Sat., Aug. 29, 7:30pm
- Clutch Con 2015
- Screw Your Resolution Party