Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Nobel Virtues

Yes, Ivan Suvanjieff has been nominated for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. But he has a bigger concern right now. "I'm going to miss the White Stripes on this tour," he laments.

The artist/musician/former Ford factory-worker/current peace-pusher had tickets for Jack White's New Mexico show in October, but it was moved up to September — and that's when Suvanjieff and his partner, Dawn Engle, will be in Guatamela with PeaceJam, their eleven-year-old educational foundation that brings Nobel Peace Prize winners together with kids around the globe. Their foundation's work has been so impressive that six Nobel laureates — so far — have nominated Suvanjieff, Engle and PeaceJam to receive the same prize that they themselves were awarded.

"To be acknowledged by those people is so fantastic," Suvanjieff says. "I'm humbled. And I'm a humble guy. Just look at us."

He and Engle are sitting on the porch of their house in the hamlet of Idledale, the house they bought last fall after staging PeaceJam's tenth-anniversary celebration — an event that brought thousands of teenagers and a dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates to Denver, where they issued their Global Call to Action for the next decade. After that massive effort, the couple looked around the office in Arvada that also happened to be their home, and they realized they needed to be able to get away, even if only twenty minutes away. Then, miraculously, they found an affordable house in the mountains where they can now sit on the porch, listening to Bear Creek and Harleys passing through the canyon. The world seems very far away.

The world is right here, though, as messages keep coming in. Copies of Nobel nominations from Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, José Ramos-Horta, Betty Williams, Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — the "Arch," as Engle and Suvanjieff call the man who married them a decade ago and so charmed an arena full of teenagers at the University of Denver last year. Calls from the BBC, which filmed the 2006 event and has produced a PeaceJam series. Notes from Penguin, their publisher in New York, which next year will publish the PeaceJam book the two are currently writing together, a book with eleven chapters based on kids' projects for peace around the globe, designed to help other kids figure out how they can get involved. "People care, but the problems are overwhelming," Engle says. "They don't know what to do."

They've just finished the chapter on South Africa, a country where 48 percent of the people test positive for HIV — if they get tested at all. One of the PeaceJam kids who was working on AIDS awareness disappeared, only to be found by another kid, a girl in a wheelchair named Patience, who convinced him that he could — and should — make a difference. "Patience saves the day," Engle says, offering what could be the PeaceJam mantra. "Anybody can do it, and we all have to."

They've worked steadily, patiently, since that day in 1993 when Suvanjieff, who was then living in northwest Denver, realized that wannbe gang-bangers in his violence-prone neighborhood might not know American politicians, but they recognized the name of Desmond Tutu. From that came the idea of linking teenagers with Nobel Peace Prize winners — a concept he shared with Engle when they worked together at Naropa. Using every connection and credit card they had — Engle had once been a Congessional aide (and a Republican!) — they got the Dalai Lama to sign on, and they built PeaceJam from there, adding events, countries, more Nobels.

Whose ranks Engle and Suvanjieff could well join next year. On Thursday, Governor Bill Ritter will hold a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol to announce the nomination. "It's great news," says spokesman Evan Dreyer. The results won't be announced until October 2008 — four weeks before the United States elects its next president, timing that might influence the committee in its choice. Or might not. In their travels, Suvanjieff and Engle have seen how unpopular this country has become. "I hope if we win, it will show people how good the people in America are," Engle says.

Good, but with a punk-rock edge, of course. "If something happened in the universe where we really did win, you have to know that only two countries in the world tax the Nobel Prize prize — the U.S. and South Africa," Suvanjieff points out. The million-buck award, less taxes, wouldn't even cover PeaceJam's budget for a year — but it wouldn't hurt, either. Nobel Peace Prize winners traditionally pour their winnings back into their cause, banking on the increased stature the award gives them, the sort of visibility that helps northwest Denver wannabe gangbangers recognize the Arch. Suvanjieff knows what would happen in northwest Denver if he won: "I'd walk into Pirate, and they'd throw beer cups."

But before they find out if they win, they have a dozen more PeaceJam events to plan and produce. They have that White Stripes concert to track down, and the Go at the D Note this Friday. And next week, Suvanjieff will be back in Detroit, "home of some of the finest rock in the world," where he'll be playing with his once and future band, the Ramrods.

"Only two bands have members that are Grammy winners and Nobel Peace Prize nominees," he says. "And the other is the Ramrods."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun