I met Rigoberta Menchú Tum around 9:30 am on Monday in a parking lot next to Shoreline Park in Mountain View, California. It was an overcast morning, not too chilly but not necessarily warm either.
We were joined by Dawn Engle, cofounder and executive director of PeaceJam, along with at least 40 volunteers from Google.
Menchú politely shook my hand and squinted while reading my name-tag, softly speaking my name aloud. It was a surreal encounter, which was partly due to the fact I was half-asleep, but also because of who she is.
In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú Tum won the Nobel Peace Prize for tirelessly and peacefully defending the rights of indigenous peoples in her own country, Central America and beyond. She is an icon in Guatemala, and a globally respected advocate of human rights, non-violence and common sense.
Needless to say, most Monday mornings don't begin in the presence of such notable company.
We were there, in part, to celebrate Earth Day by engaging in a habitat preservation project in the nearby Shoreline Park. More broadly, the meeting was in recognition of the 1 billion acts of peace campaign.
The initiative is spearheaded by PeaceJam, Menchú and 12 other Nobel laureates, including the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi. It's main goal: inspire one billion acts of peace by 2019.
I met with Menchú and Dawn Engle on behalf of Elite Daily to discuss this campaign, and to ask them how young people can be agents of change and ambassadors of peace in a seemingly tumultuous and violent world.
War is not a prerequisite for peace.
Peace is a convoluted and abstract concept, making it difficult to define and comprehend. We typically perceive it as implying the absence of war, or violent conflict. But as Menchú explained it to Elite Daily:
It’s very important to avoid seeing peace as something that always has to come with war attached to it. In my youth, I associated peace with all of the terrible things happening around me: violence, persecution, war, and so much fear. It was all about life or death. If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be to view peace as something that can also stem from creativity and thinking positively, not necessarily as something that simply counters violence.
In essence, war does not define peace. Violence is not limited to armed conflict, but comes in many forms: poverty, disease, famine, injustice, natural disasters, discrimination, racism and inequality. All of these have the capacity to produce human suffering, and it's up to each and every one of us to combat them.
Likewise, as Dawn Engle told Elite Daily:
Peace is not the absence of war; it’s something you need to build. There are building blocks to peace, things like: human rights, social justice, access to clean water, women’s rights. ...We all have greatness and goodness in us, and we can all make a difference.
Thus, peace is not simply achieved by eradicating war, but through addressing the many issues that induce hardships across the globe.
Peace is accomplished "little by little."
Peace is not accomplished through broad strokes, but small actions. Concurrently, it depends on all of us to make a commitment to real change.
During our conversation, Menchú argued all of us have the capacity to engage in acts of peace, stating:
Peace is not just symbolic, it’s something that you act on, something that you can do, right here right now. Little by little, with very simple actions, you can make a difference. For example, a picture can convey an important message or thought. Or, if you’re good with words, even a single phrase can impact an entire generation.
Simply put, peace is a product of turning positive thoughts into benevolent action. And these actions don't have to be drastic or dramatic. Correspondingly, Menchú stated:
There are many techniques and methods to try and live in harmony, and there are so many causes to support. ...We haven’t given enough space for happiness and joy and we need to work to spread it more… Something as simple as young people playing sports, it’s a peaceful way to interact.
You don't have to save the world to engage in an act of peace, you simply have to promote human connection.
Connectivity is our greatest power.
With so much happening across the world, peace might appear a daunting task. In this context, it's important for us to recognize all of the advantanges we currently possess.
War occurs less often and kills fewer people than it did in the past. People do not die from disease as frequently as they used to. Poverty rates have declined drastically in recent decades. And humanity, on the whole, has become more generally progressive in regard to issues surrounding racism, sexism and discrimination.
The daily news might tell you otherwise, but we live in what is arguably the best time in human history.
Social media and the 24/7 news cycle have connected us in such a way that it might be easy to perceive the world as a constant mess, but that's not entirely true.
It's important to address the many issues that confront us, but it's equally important to acknowledge the progress we've made as a species.
We can't allow increased connectivity to convince us things are hopeless. Instead, it's important we use the incredible technology at our disposal as a tool for instituting change and, in turn, peace. In Menchú's words:
Conscientiousness and communication are vital to peace. Show the world when you’re doing good things, or no one will know... Spread the message. We live in the age of technology… An action you do here, it can be replicated elsewhere, and echo throughout the world. It’s important to build on what others have done. There are so many examples of this. There are huge global projects, but also local initiatives. Nowadays we don’t need to send someone on horseback from Guatemala to Africa to tell their story [laughs]… There are so many possibilities.
She also contended we shouldn't view the many issues humanity currently faces as obstacles, but as presenting a myriad of opportunities to get involved.
Menchú argued what we really need right now are leaders, particularly in our local communities.
Millennials are in the perfect position to step up to the plate and accept this challenge, or as she so aptly stated:
Peace doesn’t have to be a lofty concept… It can start with something very close to you. The best part of our current world is how connected it is, because it means that each small action, when combined with others, becomes a massive thing. If there is a young person who takes it upon his or herself the vital step of taking leadership in something small, particularly locally, such as developing his or her community, helping with education, or improving the environment... Those little steps, they are what build leadership, and the youth are what have the power to accomplish this now.
Rigoberta Menchú came from a poor family and faced systemic discrimination throughout her life. She lost her father, mother and brother in a decades long civil war that devastated her country and forced her into exile.
But none of this deterred her from being an agent of change and an ambassador for peace. Even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she continues to advocate for change.
It doesn't matter where you came from, or what you're doing now -- little acts can lead to big changes. Rigoberta Menchú is a prime example of this.
The 1 billion acts of peace campaign is a great place to start in this endeavor. Learn more at: http://www.1billionacts.org/