As President Barack Obama struggles to resolve conflicts around the world, his younger half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng focuses on teaching young people how to live peacefully in their own communities. She is coming to California State University, Sacramento, on Thursday to share her thoughts on building peace from the ground up.
Soetero-Ng is a professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and director of community outreach and global learning at the university’s Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution. She co-founded Ceeds of Peace, a Honolulu-based nonprofit that holds workshops to educate young people on building a more peaceful and just society.
Soetero-Ng was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Obama’s mother, cultural anthropologist Ann Dunham, and her then-husband, Indonesian businessman Lolo Soetoro. She and Obama grew up together in Indonesia and Hawaii, and their families still spend Christmases together. A former high school history teacher, she received her master’s degree in secondary education from New York University and her doctorate in multicultural education from the University of Hawaii.
She also wrote a children’s book, “Ladder to the Moon,” inspired by her two daughters and her mother.
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She is coming to Sacramento State at the invitation of her friend Boatamo Mosupyoe, a South African immigrant who chairs the ethnic studies department.
Q: What can each of us do today to start building peace?
A: It begins with everyday leadership. Everyone has a role ... even if we can’t make a discernible impact on world peace in a grand way, we can certainly begin to impact peace in a small way. I define peace very broadly, inclusive of alternative dispute resolution, negotiation and mediation, but also social justice, human rights, equity and empathy, personal wellness, mental and physical health, resilient communities, environmental stewardship as well as what we normally think of, which is disarmament, pacifism and nonviolence.
It’s also diversity and tolerance. We see peace as action. Try to read the newspaper or listen to the news from multiple perspectives. Even if I’m not a fan of a certain politician, I work very hard to try and understand why he is popular and try to see the world from the perspective of his supporters and what they want and need. We all need security, a sense of ownership. We all need to feel empowered to have a voice and feel safe. We may disagree on how to achieve those needs, but if we can stay focused on understanding what the universal needs are, we can begin to usher in a much broader conception of the truth and find a common language for people to work with in order to collaborate and make things better.
Q: How do you bring people from opposite points of view to the table?
A: In my Leadership for Social Change class, students will argue one side with force, compassion and commitment using everything from data to poetry, and in the next breath we will argue the other side with as much vigor and commitment – write a poem, op-ed or journal entry from the reverse position. Then and only then, after they explored multiple sides, do they begin to negotiate an agreement to see how we can move forward. I’ve had Bernie Sanders supporters and tea party people, indigenous activists and the U.S. military. We’ve explored controversies around seemingly intractable problems such as immigration, universal health care and military spending.
For example, we looked at the migrant situation in Europe, talked about Syrian refugees and then honed in on migrants from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands here in Hawaii adversely impacted by U.S. nuclear weapons testing between 1946 and 1958. They’re struggling with finding homes, jobs and getting health care ... Hawaii now has one of the largest per capita homeless populations in the U.S. It’s a very challenging issue. There are those who believe the homeless are destroying tourism, that they want to be homeless, and generally the state has done all it should. Others feel that the state hasn’t done enough, hasn’t provided enough transitional housing.
Regardless of our position on public policy and government responsibility, we were able to agree they needed shelter, community, education for their children, freedom of movement and some culturally responsive solutions. By focusing on their universal need, we were able to deflate some of the hostility some people had toward them. We had teams look at architects building transitional homes, such as the Kahumana farm, offering wonderful nutrition, community and interfaith gatherings. Our workshop will look at some of the issues you face in Sacramento.
Q: What do you plan to focus on here?
A: Boatamo and I have come together around issues of forgiveness and healing from trauma. I’m trying to promote social and emotional learning that will help reduce violence, looking how we can build empathy by looking at history from multiple perspectives. We can teach math through “ethnomathematics,” basically repositioning mathematical learning into community projects addressing equity and social justice. My hope is both listeners and participants will feel a renewed sense of commitment to integrating social, emotional and service components into their daily lives.
Q: Do you ever discuss your ideas with President Obama?
A: He has certainly asked me my thoughts on education when it comes to things I know something about. He’s a hard-working and thoughtful man. He’s working on things from the top down by virtue of his position as leader of this country. I’m much more focused on a community-driven grass-roots solution. Everyone has something meaningful to contribute, and he would never argue that the solutions of the world can be found through government alone or leadership from above. He has always maintained that solutions need to be multifaceted and multidirectional.
▪ On Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Soetoro-Ng will speak on leadership and conflict resolution at Sacramento State’s Harper Alumni Center.
▪ At 10 a.m. Friday, she will speak in the University Union’s Redwood Room.
▪ For information: Boatamo Mosupyoe, firstname.lastname@example.org, 916-278-6646