If the world doesn't come to an end on December 21, it could be the start of very big things for PeaceJam.
"We're an overnight success story...seventeen years later," says Ivan Suvanjieff. Actually, he got the idea for PeaceJam almost twenty years ago, during Denver's so-called Summer of Violence, in 1993, when he noticed that four Latino kids living across the street from him on Wyandot were all carrying guns. Despite having had an ill-fated stint as the Rocky Mountain News's society scribe, the fast-talking musician/artist is no fop, and so Suvanjieff went up to the wannabe gangsters and asked why they were carrying guns. Because they had a business, they said, and they had to protect their turf. You have to be smart to run a business, Suvanjieff responded: "Who's the president of the United States?" "We don't know and we don't care," they replied. But as they talked, Suvanjieff discovered that the kids knew all about Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, and what he was doing to end apartheid — peacefully.
That got Suvanjieff thinking about pairing up kids with not just Tutu, but other Nobel Peace Prize winners who could inspire them, teach them a better way to make a difference in the world. It was a wacky idea, especially for someone with $1.79 in the bank, living in a part of town that was far from the hot neighborhood LoHi is today. But he found just the person to help: Dawn Engle, a woman he met when they were both working on a Beat poetry event at Naropa University. Engle, who was the youngest female chief of staff in the U.S. Senate when she worked for Republican Robert Kasten of Wisconsin, had another important credential: a connection to the Dalai Lama. Suvanjieff would bug her every day about his idea of pairing kids with Nobel winners. "He drove me crazy," she remembers. Finally, she agreed to help him come up with a plan for PeaceJam, and even got an appointment with the Dalai Lama in India. They scraped together the cash to make the trip, and the Dalai Lama not only signed on to the PeaceJam concept, but encouraged them to contact other Nobels. By 1996, the year PeaceJam became a reality, they had ten prizewinners on board.
But the intervening years have not been peaceful. There have been money problems, health problems, more money problems. (And along the way, Engle and Suvanjieff were married — by Tutu.) When PeaceJam celebrated its tenth anniversary, bringing a dozen Nobels to Denver for a massive program that included the push for a Billion Acts of Service over the next decade, it attracted more attention than ever before — but then the economy tanked and donations fell off. They sold their office building — and then the City of Arvada stepped forward with donated space.
Doom delayed, Suvanjieff started thinking that PeaceJam should make a movie about the Mayan calendar and all the crazy predictions about December 21 — predictions they knew were wrong because they'd been working with Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the 1992 Nobel winner, who understood what the Mayan elders really believed. "When Ivan gets an intuition, like the one about PeaceJam, he just will not stop talking about it," Engle says. Finally she agreed they should make a movie — Suvanjieff insisted she be the producer, because women producers were hot — and then he talked Westword into premiering 2012: The True Mayan Prophecy on our website last December.
The surprising success of that effort gave them the itch to make a more polished, serious movie, Mayan Renaissance, which tells the untold history of the Maya — 4,000 years' worth — and also describes the work being done today to create the Indigenous People's party in Guatemala. "People were putting words in the mouths of the Maya they never said," Engle notes. "They never said the world would end; they just wanted to get the truth out."
And how. Mayan Renaissance premiered at the United Nations during the World Forum on Indigenous Issues last May, and UNESCO organized both the Latin American and European premieres this fall. The movies caught the eye of the Tribeca Film Institute, which now hosts their online amazon.com sales (2012: The True Mayan Prophecy has been a bestseller for the past six months), and New Dominion Pictures, which is distributing not just these films, but the ten in the Nobel Legacy Film Series that Suvanjieff and Engle are already planning. Next up? Tutu.
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Last week, Engle and Suvanjieff were in Silicon Valley, taking part in the Social Innovations Summit that attracts all the big high-tech firms: Google, Microsoft, Cisco. "People knew about us because of the films," Engle says. "In Silicon Valley, they loved the idea of a scrappy entrepreneur." Even do-gooder scrappy entrepreneurs. And they loved every part of the PeaceJam story: They loved the fact that Engle and Suvanjieff have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize eight times, the fact that thirteen Nobels are on their board, that hundreds of thousands of kids have gone through their programs.
They'll be with some of those kids on the day the world is supposed to end. Engle and Suvanjieff are now in Guatemala, attending a three-day Summit of Young Indigenous Leaders organized by the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation. Almost 6oo youth from around Latin America have gathered just outside Guatemala City, where, on December 20, Engle and Suvanjieff will screen Mayan Renaissance, and then Mayan elders will discuss the film. The next day will be devoted to a sacred ceremony — and then they'll all join together to welcome the dawn of a new era for humanity on the morning of December 22.
It will be a new dawn for PeaceJam, as well. After a few days back in Denver, Engle and Suvanjieff will be off again, for a meeting with the McArthur Foundation, a meeting with Starbucks, meetings with more foundations in New York City.
"For sure, the world isn't going to end on Friday," Engle says. "And 2013 is going to be an incredible year for PeaceJam. We already have a great program, but now we're going to take it around the world. It's pretty wild."