“Better than Christmas” and “life changing” were some of the phrases used by Newtown High School students who attended PeaceJam New England on April 6 at the University of Connecticut Storrs campus.
The ten students who attended the conference were all members of the Newtown Junior Action Alliance (NJAA). The NJAA is affiliated with the Newtown Action Alliance, a grassroots organization created in the weeks after 12/14 to reverse gun violence through legislation and broader cultural change.
The Newtown students met with other students from New England to participate in group workshops that address topics associated with peace building and activism. The students also participated in an art-based service project that brought attention to genocides and atrocities being committed around the world. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams also attended both days of the event and shared her knowledge and experiences with the participants.
NHS junior Tess Murray, 16, said her favorite part of the event was the ceremony of inspiration, an open mic event where attendees shared what inspires them.
“Other people’s speeches brought me to tears. It was cool how you hear people’s stories like that, it moves you,” Tess said.
Tess said the Newtown students were received well by the conference, so well that Ms Williams pledged a $1,000 grant to the NJAA.
“When we presented the whole group ceremony was in tears. They were really sympathetic towards us. It’s not that we needed sympathy, we just wanted them to know what our call of action was and we wanted people to help,” Tess said. “It’s not just about Newtown, it’s about every town and what we’re going to do in the in the future to prevent tragedies.”
Head of the NJAA Sarah Clements, 17, said her favorite part was the global call to action presentations, in which groups of students talked about projects and issues they are passionate about.
“The topics included a free Tibet, ending the sex slave trade, even things like helping the homeless,” Sarah said. “There were presentations on small scale stuff and on the incredibly large scale. People found really creative ways to address these issues.”
Sarah said she and two other members of the NJAA presented a workshop called “Newtown After 12/14 and How to Reduce Gun Violence” that went over well with the audience.
“We talked about what Newtown was going through briefly; we talked about NAA and for the most of the time we talked about how young people can reduce gun violence in their communities,” Sarah said.
NHS junior Mattie Kelly, 17, said her favorite part was participating in the One Million Bones project, which aims to lay out one million paper mache bones on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on June 8 to bring attention to ongoing genocides. The students at the PeaceJam made their own bones and laid them out on a lawn and arranged the bones in the shape of a peace sign.
“I really liked the placing of the bones ceremony, which is where we placed bones made out of masking tape and newspaper. My favorite part was afterwards where we got to do an African dance,” Mattie said. “It was really freeing cause we just read the names of all the people who had died in Newtown so it was kind of like letting go.”
‘Peace Is Not For Wimps’
All three students said they were impressed by Jody Williams, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work in banning antipersonnel landmines.
Mattie said despite receiving such a prestigious award she was very grounded.
“She was really funny,” Mattie said. “You would expect a Nobel Peace Prize winner to be kind of serious, but she was funny, strong, and extremely inspiring. She was very genuine and down to earth, one of the most down to earth people I’ve ever met actually.”
In additions to being humorous and able to connect with the students, Sarah said Ms Williams also delivered powerful, honest, pragmatic messages.
“She would say real peace is not for wimps, which is something I really appreciated, because people think peace means hippies and kumbaya, but what you really saw was people already dedicating their lives 24/7 to help others. People put so much work into it and it’s really outstanding,” Sarah said.
Ms Williams’ action-based message stuck with Tess as well.
“I think I learned that it’s not about what you say you’re going to do, it’s about the action you’re going to take,” Tess said.
All three young ladies said they enjoyed the conference, would recommend it to others and look forward to future events.
“It was a really empowering experience and it was a great way to kick off the Newtown Junior Action Alliance,” Sarah said.
“I would implore people to find out more about it,” Mattie said. “It was a life-changing experience and it’s just something that everyone could benefit from and everyone would enjoy it I would think.”
Those interested in getting involved with the Newtown Action Alliance can visit the website http://newtownaction.org or find it on Facebook by searching for Newtown Action Alliance. The Junior Action Alliance also has a Facebook group, JR Newtown Action Alliance.