NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Newark resident Dashaun “Jiwe” Morris, a self-described “gangbanger” turned community activist, says he hopes an upcoming peace summit in his city will bring some much needed attention to the problems facing the city’s youth.
Invited to speak on a panel about youth violence with Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, Morris said he was shocked to learn how much rehabilitation help, counseling and support Beah said he had received after immigrating to the United States.
“We don’t get the title of child soldiers, but I’ve been on the streets fighting since I was nine years old, dealing with death and murder and crime and drugs,” Morris, now 30, said. “We have a war going on right here where we live at … but there’s not enough resources available to us.”
Morris and other city residents hope the Newark Peace Education Summit, scheduled for Friday through Sunday, will shine a light on Newark’s problems and bring added resources to the city for those in the anti-violence struggle.
The summit will feature three days of panel discussions by some of the most famous names in the peace-building community, including the Dalai Lama, two other recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and Deepak Chopra.
“One of the dynamics of the event is to place the global peace laureates with the neighborhood peace laureates — unrecognized as yet — because it’s important for people to know: They are doing the same work,” said Ganden Thurman, the executive director of New York-based Tibet House U.S., which is organizing the conference with billboard company owner Drew Katz, a philanthropist who has made significant contributions to Newark’s anti-crime efforts.
Katz was impressed with a similar conference that Tibet House held in San Francisco in 1997, and wanted to give Newark Mayor Cory Booker‘s anti-violence initiatives a boost.
“Many people might think Newark is tough terrain to be talking about peace,” Booker said at a news conference announcing the summit alongside Katz in February. “But they are wrong.”
The city of 280,000 has been grappling with budget cuts, police layoffs and a rising crime rate — including 28 murders through the end of April, a 65 percent increase over the same period a year ago.
Thurman said the Dalai Lama — who has visited Newark before, most recently in 1990 to consecrate a Tibetan Buddhist altar that is the centerpiece of the Newark Museum’s Tibetan art collection — wanted to do another peacemaking event in an urban area.
“He loved the first event, because had a chance to see a different side of America than is usual for one of his tours, where he meets a lot of students and Buddhists and wealthy, powerful individuals, but doesn’t necessarily get a chance to get a sense of the full diverse flavor of American cities,” Thurman said.
Organizers and city officials have been working to involve Newarkers in the summit in myriad ways.
Students are involved in painting a peace mural in the city, and schools are incorporating peace-themed lessons into their classes, including asking them to perform “random acts of kindness” and document the experience of doing a good deed. A “garbage-to-garden” initiative will transform the yard in front of a homeless shelter near the New Jersey Performing Arts Center where the conference is being held, and the Newark campus of Rutgers University has started a program called “The International Institute for Peace” to carry on the work started with the peace summit.
Though tickets range from $150 to $300 for the three-day conference, organizers at the nonprofit Tibet House say they are working hard to offer discounted student tickets and scholarships underwritten by donors.
Several Newark-based community leaders have also been invited to speak, and organizers hope they’ll take lessons from the conference back to their neighborhoods. Earl Best, a longtime Newark community organizer known as “The Street Doctor,” said young people in Newark struggling with unemployment, violence and limited possibilities could benefit from the conference.
“I’m hoping that you can get a lot of these kids, and a lot of people in Newark that don’t have no hope, they should be there, you know, like free of charge,” Best said. “Hopefully, when they go in, that spirit of something can get them, so they can take it back to the streets.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)