A new generation of Quaker peaceworkers - Sep 2008

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Peace has been at the heart of the Quaker message since the very foundations of the Society in the midst of the English Civil War. Centuries later, the strength of this Quaker commitment is undiminished and has, over the years, put Quakers at the forefront of the peace movement worldwide.

Today, Britain Yearly Meeting – on behalf of British Quakers – answers this concern in part by funding opportunities each year for new peaceworkers to work with a range of peace organisations. “We want to launch the next generation of peaceworkers,” says Steve Whiting of Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW), “to strengthen the UK peace movement as a whole, and to develop good relationships between the different groups and organisations within it.”

In 2008–09, there will be nine Quaker-funded peaceworkers out in the field. After a two-week induction with QPSW in London and at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham, the nine will be starting work across the globe, from London to Belgrade, Geneva to Bujumbura.

Four people about to start work as peaceworkers“I love the idea that I could help young people find better ways to resolve conflict [than violence],” says Sarah Hulme, 22, who will be working with St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London, “I really, really believe that if everyone pulls together, we can make a difference in the world.”

Sarah’s optimism is borne out by the experience of previous placement workers. Oliver Robertson was a programme assistant at the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva, and says his time there was “empowering”. Very little work had been done internationally on the subject of women prisoners and their children – until QUNO began raising the issue. “The work I did on the children of prisoners fed into QUNO’s ongoing efforts in this area”, he says. “Knowing that you’re playing a part in something which improves people’s lives is so rewarding.”

Meanwhile, another former placement peaceworker, Hannah Pennock, gives an insight into the influence of a QPSW placement on the worker’s own spiritual journey. “It changed me,” she comments, “I learnt many things – humility, that local people know what needs to happen and how to do it… and I learnt too about how I manage conflict in my own life.”

Hannah was placed at Phaphama, a nonviolence training and peacebuilding group in South Africa, which received QPSW peaceworkers each year from 2003 until this summer. Phaphama – which means “awaken!” in Zulu and Sesotho, two of South Africa’s eleven languages – grew from the Alternatives to Violence Programme and a project called Transfer of African Language Knowledge (TALK), which fosters understanding across communities in this multilingual country through language learning.

Joanna Wright has been QPSW’s Africa Programme Manager since 2004, and has seen the initiative develop over those four years. In August, she welcomed the final South Africa-based QPSW peaceworkers home to London. “I’ve been lucky enough to witness several cycles of peaceworkers,” she says, “each leaving the UK with trepidation and coming back a year later with new visions, new skills and strengths.” She says that the peaceworkers have all found that their confidence and ability to relate to people have flourished during their time in Johannesburg. “It’s a credit to the partners with whom we’ve worked in South Africa that they have been such a powerful springboard. QPSW is grateful to have worked with such committed and inspiring people.”

A circular room with rugs on the floorThe work at Phaphama goes on, but from next year QPSW peaceworkers will instead be placed 2,500km further north: in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. This tiny country in east Africa faces a general election in 2010 and local grassroots organisations are working extremely hard to ensure that it happens without violence: if it does, Burundi will have passed a major milestone on its road to becoming a stable, integrated community after decades of conflict. Two QPSW peaceworkers will be working with the American Friends Service Committee to provide extra capacity to help those organisations be as effective as possible.

So that’s how QPSW peaceworkers are building peace in Africa. But while two are working with community groups in Bujumbura, and two more are supporting UN diplomacy alongside QUNO staff in Geneva, there’s even more work going on: in Serbia, where another peaceworker is helping to build positive relationships among young people so that the country can move on from its violent past; and in Britain, where four organisations will receive QPSW peaceworkers in 2009. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has benefited from a peaceworker placement before, but three other bodies are receiving this support for the first time, including Sarah Hulme’s host organisation, St Ethelburga’s.

It’s a big scheme: QPSW peaceworker placements reflect the diversity of the peace movement in Britain and around the world.

Steve Whiting
020 7663 1061

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