Jamil Simon was always passionate about peace—at 19, he became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. He later became a filmmaker and a communications consultant. He even won the Luxembourg peace prize last year along with Jane Goodall and Thich Nhat Khan. In the mid-1990s, Queen Noor of Jordan engaged him to create a program to teach conflict resolution skills to children. The experience opened Simon’s eyes to the larger world of conflict resolution education and peacebuilding.
In 2007, the United Nations hired him to travel to Geneva to videotape interviews with the world’s most successful peacebuilders.
“I set up a small studio next to the conference,” Simon recalls, “and interviewed one amazing person after the next. It was a life-changing experience to meet these individuals committing their lives to help people reconcile violent conflicts.”
One of the people Simon interviewed was Howard Wolpe, a seven-term U.S. congressman and head of the Africa subcommittee, who led the effort to pass the sanctions that ended apartheid in South Africa.
Wolpe’s mother was a psychologist, so he knew about techniques that were used to help people reconcile conflicts. As Clinton’s ambassador to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Wolpe helped write the treaty that ended the violent civil war in Burundi. But he realized that just because two leaders signed a peace agreement, the leaders themselves hadn’t changed.
Wolpe wanted to change the way the leaders approached conflict by training them in conflict resolution skills. He mobilized money from the World Bank and USAID, and brought together former combatants from all sides of the Burundian conflict to learn critical skills.
Over an 8-year period, the programs he created with his Burundian partners, trained the top leaders in every sector in conflict resolution skills, they helped the army integrate Hutus and Tutsis. They and other peace organizations succeeded in extending the training to the rural areas, working with mayors, police chiefs and local leaders. Simon recalls. “The experience had a profound effect on the whole country.” He and Wolpe decided to make a film about Burundi’s attempt to move past the ethnic hatred that killed 300,000 people.
The more he learned about peacebuilding, the clearer it became that peace efforts are essentially invisible to the public. Simon realized that reaching out to journalists to help them see peace efforts as a story was critical to building public awareness of the practice.
To paraphrase the playwright, Tom Stoppard, if you want to change the world, start with journalists!
Simon put together a conference in 2018 called War Stories Peace Stories: Peace Conflict and the Media at the New York Times Center. The conference was a remarkable success. Journalists began to recognize that you don’t have to carry a gun to be a hero, moreover, reporters began to see peacemaking as a story.
“In creating these conferences”, Simon says, “we hope to change the way news organizations report on peace and conflict. We’d like to see peace efforts covered more frequently and war more thoughtfully. In order to have less war, the global public must learn how peace is made. We need to make peace visible.”
Simon and his team plan to replicate this unique conference in many other regional media centers—Brussels, Bogota, London, Nairobi, Mumbai, Sydney, Tokyo. They want to reach journalists all over the world.
Simon acknowledges that education, healthcare, and infrastructure are all critical issues, but as he puts it, “Peace is the ingredient that makes all of that possible.” The world spends $1.8 trillion a year on the machinery of war and militarism, but it’s not making us any safer. Peace is a better investment.
“War and violence are part of our media landscape.” He points to TV ads during Sunday morning news shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation that promote war as a solution to conflict. He thinks we need to change our priorities.
Shaking loose money from foundations to implement his vision hasn’t been easy, but he’s hoping that will change.
“Foundations have varying missions,” he says. “But at heart, they are all about making the world a better place. I’m hoping foundations will recognize the enormous role they could play in bringing peace to a divided world. Changing the way journalists approach peace is a first step towards changing the way everyone thinks.”