More than 2,000 teens from 31 countries have some homework to do: change the world. That was the assignment issued by 10 Nobel peace prize winners during Peace Jam, a rally for social change held in Denver last month. It was the largest gathering of Nobel peace prize winners ever on U.S. soil. The laureates used the opportunity to criticize their host country, while urging their young fans to create a better future through acts of service.
Class presentations are never easy, but just imagine if your audience includes the pastor who helped end apartheid in South Africa. Still, one after another, groups of students calmly parade in front of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the University of Denver, detailing how they plan to provide clean water for Central American villages, offer babysitting for migrant workers, and reduce greed among their own peers.
Devon Anderson is the spokesman for the students from Carver High School in Memphis, Tennessee. "We decided to do materialism," the 17-year-old tells Archbishop Tutu, "because it's a big problem. It causes people to do drugs and drop out school."
He and his classmates hold up a colorful, three-board display, outlining a plan to educate their peers using posters and theatrical performances. It also shows pictures of some extravagant commercialism. Anderson points to a magazine shot of basketball star surrounded by sneakers, drawing laughter when he tells the crowd, "And we got my favorite player up there - Dwayne Wade! What're you doing with like 500 shoes? You only got two feet?"
The Archbishop smiles and nods during the presentations, saying later that he's staggered by the projects. Peace Jam, a small but ambitious foundation run by a Denver couple, managed to convince him and nine other Nobel Laureates to come to Denver to work side by side with teens from around the country. The prizewinning activists clicked with the young people while drilling into their heads the need to question the status quo.
Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a tiny grandmother, gets a reception usually reserved for the rock stars who perform in the University's sports arena when she asks the students, "Can we create non-violent, non-killing world?" The Northern Ireland peace activist, who lost three relatives to violence, urged the crowd to work for social justice and human rights. It's one of ten pressing global problems she and the other Nobel Laureates called on the young people to help them conquer. The others include racism, poverty and the arms trade, an area where the United States can make a difference, says Archbishop Tutu. "You are some of the most incredibly generous people," he says, suggesting, "how about exporting your generosity instead of your bombs?"
The Nobel laureates frequently blast the U.S. government and the Bush Administration for involvement in the Iraq War and alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay. Some, including the Dalai Lama, say the United States and Israel should consider talking to their enemies.
Jody Williams, an anti-land mind activist and the only American laureate in attendance, tells the young people that whining won't change a thing. "Don't come to me and tell me that you are really worried about global warming, gender equality, the rights of gays, because I am going to ask you what you're doing about those issues that you care about? Each of my friends will." Instead, she says, stand up and take action. "Peace is not a rainbow, it is not [about singing songs] and [reciting] poetry. That is not peace. When you talk about a different world, a different kind of global security, you're talking about hard work. As each and every one of these people have said. It's hard work."
And it can be dangerous, as Ana Beatriz Soto-Ostos knows. The 18-year-old from Las Cruces, New Mexico, says gang members harass her for advocating peace. She will take home a message from the Dalai Lama that sometimes violence is appropriate in self-defense -- as long as you later educate your assailant. "Hit 'em with your words," she explains, "with what you have to say, because that is going to stick with them for the rest of their lives, while a wound -- they can heal it and they might forget about it."
The teens certainly won't forget the stories and advice doled out by the Nobel laureates, their new favorite celebrities. Maybe some will put up posters in their lockers of the Dalai Lama or indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchu Tum. Teri Andony of Lafayette, Colorado holds a sign that reveals her crush. "It says 'Tutu, will you go to homecoming [dance] with me?'"
The 17-year-old says she got the idea after the archbishop danced on stage and bragged that all Nobel Prize winners have sexy legs. But her dream of sharing a dance with the Archbishop Tutu dissolved when she lost her nerve to ask. However, it shows the connection forged between the revered laureates and the students. "They seem so holy and big and when they are in person, they are just normal people," she marvels. "And they are so inspiring because you realize that wow, I could be really big like them and it's not such a far away dream."
The teens took the first step toward that dream by committing to their project before their peers and a Nobel laureate. Nearly all Peace Jam participants since the non-profit launched a decade ago have completed their assignments. Organizers say that's because no one wants to have lied to a Nobel Peace Prize winner.