In late September 2013, 130 young people from eight Guatemala City communities attended AFSC's camp, "Experiences Inspired in the Peace Exchange," to share lessons from their efforts to create a culture of peace in their communities.
In Guatemala, younger generations have grown up with the legacy of 36 years of armed conflict. Social and political exclusion and inequality put a strain on many young people, especially in urban areas. In the midst of the violence, the majority of firearm victims on the street are young men.
William Saul Siebenhor Perez, 21, wants to see a change: Instead of joining gangs, he wants young people to find self-expression through art, as he has done through stilt walking and juggling.
He talks about how a default to violence and disconnection gets interrupted when people see the alternative sense of belonging and expression from performance: “Other people see what you do, and if you’re good at it, they copy it, then they change violence for art.”
William is part of a grassroots group that is attempting to bring peace back to his home in Guatemala City's Zone 12, a neighborhood called La Esperanza.
Their approach involves using art and public performance to capture the imagination of others and invite them to consider a positive approach to resolving conflicts that inevitably arise between neighbors.
The group is one of Guatemala City's 14 "micro peace platforms"—each with an average of 15 members, who regularly meet to build understanding among neighbors and plan activities to promote nonviolence. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) supports each group with financial resources for meeting space and activities as well as guidance through lessons learned from similar work to reduce violence in Central American urban spaces.
In the past year, 207 young people across the eight sections of the city took workshops on building peace, transforming conflict, assertive communication, and leadership. With these new tools, they then analyzed the roots of conflict in their own neighborhoods and planned activities that engaged their neighbors in considering nonviolence.
One group in El Mezquital painted a mural of a magnifying glass over the world map, with the message, “looking for peace in the world.” They involved 42 people in the process.
Other groups have cleaned up and restored public parks that have deteriorated over the years—across the eight communities with micro-peace platforms, nine public parks have been cleaned and restored, involving 360 people.
Camp brings together peace builders across communities
At the end of September, 130 people—all members of micro-peace platforms—gathered together to exchange experiences and best practices on building peaceful communities.
Over the course of three days, they talked about the activities and conflict analyses they've carried out, as well as the changes they've gone through personally during their time promoting peace.
The group from Barcenas talked about how they are building a sense of community by using a variety of artistic activities, including theater, drumming, stilt walking, and juggling.
The participants said that the project has allowed them to be more confident in themselves; to put into practice values such as personal responsibility, respect, collaboration, and cooperative problem-solving; and mostly to understand that peace is a process that never ends.
They mentioned that this is just the start, but that they are willing to go through the process and to continue building a peaceful community.
William, for his part, thinks the personal transformation he's undergone by learning to be an active listener has had a big impact on his role as a peace builder.
"If someone who has a problem comes to me; I can advise them. Thanks to the meetings, now I know how I should react to support somebody," he says. "I like it when I can help, and if someone needs it, we as a group support them."