Peace, in Theory and Practice

September 14, 2016
HDS student Nestor Pimienta, photo by Jon Chase
MDiv candidate Nestor Pimienta. / Photo: John Chase

Earlier this month, I was one of six Harvard Divinity School students sitting in the United Nations’ Security Council chamber listening to delegates from countries around the world talk about how faith and religion were both causes and solutions to peace and violence.

Fellow HDS students Jenna Alatriste, Gaby Chavez, Melissa Coles, Sana Saeed, and I, along with alumnus Tajay Bongsa, MTS ’16, had the humbling opportunity to be a part of a delegation representing the School’s Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative during the United Nations’ High Level Forum on the Culture of Peace on September 1.

The forum aimed to recognize “the need for continual support to the further strengthening of the global movement to promote the Culture of Peace...UN Member states, civil society, NGO’s, media, the private sector, and others interested, have the opportunity to exchange ideas and suggestions on the ways to build and promote the culture of peace and to highlight emerging trends that impact the implementation process.” 

It was fitting that the RPP be present at this forum. Through its monthly public RPP Colloquium, its RPP Colloquium Course, its Transformative Leadership and Spiritual Development  program, and other activities, the initiative brings together faculty, fellows, alumni, and students from diverse disciplines from across Harvard University's many schools, to collaborate on work to advance a culture of peace. Founded in 2014 by Dean David N. Hempton, RPP aims to establish sustainable peace as a central priority for leaders across sectors, and to build the capacity of individuals, communities, organizations, and societies to prevent violence, promote reconciliation and healing, and foster more humane, just, and harmonious relationships. This year RPP is launching a student working group on “Peace Media” as a strategy for advancing a culture of peace by raising the global public’s awareness of peace activities in their own and others’ communities and positive actions they can take.

As another one of RPP’s goals is to serve as a model for other universities, we went to the UN not only to understand relevant activities at the international level, but also to tell people about the program.

During a panel discussion on the role youth play to advance the culture of peace, the moderator Katalin Annamaria Bogyay, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations, asked “Why don’t schools teach peace?”

As soon as the panel ended, our group went up to Ambassador Bogyay and shared with her that RPP is doing just the kind of peace work for which she called. The ambassador was excited to hear about RPP’s efforts, and deliberated with us as to why there are so many programs on war, but so few on peace. Both she and our delegation agreed on the vital importance of these types of peacebuilding programs for all age levels.    

“The forum was important to me because I was able to see where theory is being implemented in practice, and where there is more work to be done,” Sana said. She told me that being at the UN was like a dream come true, as her experiences at HDS and through RPP shaped and guided her lens on being a religious peace builder.

During another panel, Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, said that 600 million youth live in conflict zones—places where the idea of a culture of peace is a rare commodity. Youth in these zones are often seen as the problem, but in reality, they can be a crucial part of the solution. Jenna said that issue is something she wants to continue to explore at HDS and through her participation in RPP.

Our group discussed that it was insightful to witness how different countries’ approaches to peacebuilding are not black and white, and are far more complex than we had imagined. We reflected on the different formalities and protocols that would both hinder and aid peace processes across national borders.

While it was powerful seeing the diplomatic processes at the UN, it was almost as powerful to see the human side of the representatives. There were serious moments like meeting Mogens Lykketoft, President of the 70th session of the General Assembly, and there were funny moments like seeing delegates take selfies. Both instances showed the many sides of institutions and people doing this type of work, and it was humanizing to talk with them and see that they were in many ways just like us students.

In between these serious and funny moments, I reflected with Tajay about a previous HDS trip we went on to the Mexico-U.S. border and how we met with different players involved in the immigration issue and saw the complexities that surround it. That trip helped us bring the same open and critical approach to what we experienced and saw during our time at the UN.

Similarly, I reflected with Gaby about a much different student trip we took to Mexico with other Harvard students. On that trek, we met behind closed doors with political and business leaders, such as the former Mexico president Felipe Calderon, in order have honest, off the record discussions about “how things really work.” Gaby and I used this previous experience to think about all the things that were not being said during the UN Forum. We kept in mind the hidden aspects, the not so fabulous work, and what people need to sacrifice to get to these positions, or to get any real peace work done in their countries. In other words, we thought about the real costs of peace work, not in theory, but in practice.

My other HDS experiences, such as my field education project where I ran my own organization, Tutoring Tomorrow Today, prepared me for the UN because I had to wrestle with navigating powerful institutions, enacting meaningful change in people's lives, and discerning what is, and what is not, non-negotiable for me.

On the drive back to HDS from the UN, I asked Gaby how she felt about the visit.

“It was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve had at HDS,” she said.

I agreed, and told her this is why I chose Harvard Divinity School. The trip allowed us to see where theory was being implemented in practice, and confirmed for us that approaches to peacebuilding are not black and white. This experience is why getting an MDiv at HDS makes me even more confident to handle complex, tough issues needed to create and sustain peace.

We are thankful to Federica D’Alessandra, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the UN representative for the Public International Law & Policy group, a non-governmental organization that advises on peace negotiation and war crimes prosecutions, who arranged our time at the UN.

—Nestor Pimienta is a master of divinity degree candidate at HDS