Peace activist and professor Maya Soetoro-Ng addressed hundreds of students at Sacramento State on Friday morning, displaying an eloquence reminiscent of her older brother, President Barack Obama.
Soetoro-Ng is a professor and director of community outreach and global learning at the Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii at Monoa. She is also co-founder of Ceeds of Peace, a Honolulu nonprofit that teaches young people how to mold a more peaceful society.
Friday’s event at the University Union – one of two highly anticipated lectures given by Soetoro-Ng on the California State University, Sacramento, campus this week – aimed to challenge and encourage student leaders to examine and redefine peace. Throughout the lecture, Soetoro-Ng paused to invite student discussion and response to questions regarding leadership and conflict resolution.
“Peace is not just a utopian idea or a logo on a T-shirt,” Soetoro-Ng said. “Peace is undulating process, not something where you see complete linear progress. Peace is difficult, and it’s something we continually need to invest in.”
She invited students to approach peace-building at a local rather than a global scale and encouraged students to identify barriers to peace they recognized in their everyday lives: at home, at school and within their communities.
“I want you to think about the future you want to see – not just in a global sense, but for your community and in your own lives,” she told the crowd. “The idea is not to overwhelm you, but to help you understand that reaching towards peace is something that will take commitment.”
Despite a familial connection with President Obama, Soetoro-Ng reminded students they need not be in a position of high power, such as the president or a government official, to be a leader. Instead, she identified herself as a “proponent of the everyday leader” and challenged students to take steps toward making peace.
“Leadership is about the stuff every single one of us can do,” she said. “If you want to be a leader, act like one immediately. If you want to be empowered, claim power and speak with authority and charisma.”
Through Ceeds of Peace, Soetoro-Ng encourages students to consider and embrace the ideas and values of those from differing backgrounds. She suggested Sacramento State students begin by identifying organizations and events that serve to connect community members and “invite those who are often uninvited.”
“The idea is to become aware of who is at the table with you,” she said. “It’s not just about having a vision but determining how people can fit into that vision in a personal, practical way.”
Boatamo Mosupyoe, a longtime friend of Soetoro-Ng and professor of Pan African Studies at Sacramento State, organized Thursday’s and Friday’s speaking events. She said her friend’s lecture came with good timing for the Sacramento State community, just months after a widely publicized confrontation between a Native American student and a professor over the use of the term “genocide.”
“You can’t be a community and not have disagreements,” Mosupyoe said, concerning the conflict. “As one of the most diverse campuses in the state, we need to take leadership in showing people we can agree to navigate (conflict resolution) without hate and disagree without being disagreeable.”
Students in attendance, who represented a diversity of clubs and student groups, said they felt the event encouraged personal growth, in addition to community development.
“This talk helped me better understand how to incorporate peace and equality into my everyday life,” said Elena Galvez, a member of College Assistance Migrant Program, an organization that supports first-generation college students from low-income and farmworker backgrounds through their first year of college.
“As a Latina, I don’t see many other Latina individuals in leadership,” Galvez said. “After today, I want to take steps towards being a leader – a knowledgeable, compassionate leader – for my community.”
Flin Wilson, a Sacramento resident who works as an interpreter for the deaf and blind, said she had attended the lecture to see the president’s sister but walked away with fresh insight.
“As a woman of color, it’s easy to see so many negative things in the news and become angry,” Wilson said. “I came out today because I’m on a personal journey to find peace within myself. Today, (Soetoro-Ng) helped me envision what I want for myself and gave me positive tools to get there. What else is there to do but be peaceful?”