Rebranding Peace for the 21st Century: ICP Co-Founder, Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng, Remarks for Talks at Google

Dr. Soeotoro-Ng spoke with Lyn Mehe‘ula about her work as an educator of peace, the founding of many organizations sparking radical social change, and the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act. Rebranding Peace for the 21st Century, a feature with Talks at Google, took place in a virtual format on September 21st, 2022. Talks at Google is a global Google-hosted internal talk series providing influential thinkers, innovators, makers, and doers a platform to speak about their work, life, and what motivates them to shape our world.


Maya on Peacebuilding

Lyn Mehe‘ula: Peacebuilding has so many different definitions to different people, whether it’s restoring Indigenous lands, ending violent wars, finding internal mental calmness. Can you share with us your own concept of peacebuilding, especially as it relates to the difference between positive and negative peace?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: For me, peace is about activating each individual’s potential for bringing about collective good and in doing so, enlivening that community energy. I really believe that each of us has the capacity to impact our immediate surroundings but also to play at least a small role in working towards positive systemic change. But I think a lot of us are focused too often on what we don’t want rather than building a creative, collective vision of what is desired, strong and healthy. So we focus on negative peace, in other words. Negative peace is not necessarily negative, but it’s insufficient in my view. Negative peace essentially means the absence of acute violence or conflict. So it’s not necessarily the presence of a loving, productive, just community. It focuses on what is not rather than what can be and can be nourished by all the upstanders.

Whereas positive peace, in contrast, is the aggregation of a lot of individuals acting together and bringing in their talents, their networks, their resources, and their interests. This matters because if all of us commit to thinking of ourselves as positive peacebuilders, as justice seekers, and movement builders, and whatever small ways we can activate, then we’ll naturally and proactively plant the seeds of peace to ensure that culture becomes more just, to ‘wash our eyes’ is what I like to say. To shift to a strength-based approach and see ourselves as culture creators and powerful potential agents of positive change. So we can’t stop at conflict avoidance and expect that all will be well; we have to have the courage to see peace as a call to action and as everyone’s responsibility, or kuleana as we say here in Hawai‘i. And we can, if we do that, I believe impact our families, our organizations, our neighborhoods, communities and cultures as upstanders.

So we can’t stop at conflict avoidance and expect that all will be well; we have to have the courage to see peace as a call to action and as everyone’s responsibility, or kuleana as we say here in Hawai‘i.

Lyn Mehe‘ula: As an Indonesian-American based in the Pacific Islands, you spent your formative years among various peoples, places, cultures and environments. How has this multicultural upbringing shaped the way you think of peacebuilding, especially when it comes to thinking of efforts on both the local and the global scale?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Indonesia is a highly populous country, the fourth most populous in the world. Which of course means there is going to be a lot of religious and ethnic tension and there’s going to be a struggle in resourcing everyone. When I was seven and nine years of age, I witnessed a lot of anti-Chinese riots there in Java. My neighbors would be generous, kind and loving and give me sugar cane one minute and then be throwing stones in Chinese shop owner windows the next, or turning over cars and setting them on fire. Really terrible actions motivated by bigotry and anger. Recalling and processing these events a few years later, I really came to realize that we are complex creatures. We can become vehicles of violence one day and then show a great deal of courage and rise to heights of heroism the next.

Indonesia’s motto is Binneka Tungal, which means ‘unity in diversity’. And in many ways, Indonesia has proven itself to be a really powerful exemplar of that aspiration. Hindu pilgrims now go visit the grounds of the Islamic University in Yogyakarta to visit temple ruins that were found while excavating the grounds for a new library. So rather than ship off the temple remains, the Universitas Islam Indonesia became guardians and stewards. I’ve also seen a Muslim school in Eastern Indonesia create a shared space for gardening, and they crafted plans for spiritual gardens and then planted each other’s gardens. These kinds of things were frequent and reliable for me in childhood, this notion that cultural respect and generosity was possible. Even in the midst of ethnic violence, we always witnessed a certain syncretism and civil and sustained dialogue. For me this means that we have to water the good, we have to nourish the best in ourselves, we have both destroyer and creator in us. And so we have to stay vigilant about our shadow selves. We have to commit to getting uncomfortable enough to grow moral courage.

The Institute for Climate and Peace

Lyn Mehe‘ula: At the blurb at the very beginning, it’s like you have started so many different initiatives, which is incredible. I’d love to hear more about one that you’re the co-founder for, which is the Institute for Climate and Peace out of Honolulu. So how are the concepts of climate and peace integrally tied, and how did you decide to create an organization that serves communities at this unique intersection of practice?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: My co-founders and I really wanted to think about moving away from technical solutions and moving towards community source solutions. Not that the technical solutions aren’t necessary. But we really saw that an ideology of change centered on cultivating positive peace and frontline community source solutions was necessary, in fact urgent. So ICP was established on the premise that communities with low levels of positive peace experience a natural catastrophe death rate 13x greater than those with high levels of positive peace, for instance. And the greatest method to build real climate resilience is to cultivate peace locally. This helps people to know how they can get involved, how they can make different decisions as consumers, as family members, and as community leaders. And climate resilience persistently is thought of in simplistic ways and in top-down ways. And so we want to show the resilience, brilliance, resistance and the ingenuity of communities as we experience the worsening impacts of climate change. Our hope is that this will empower communities of the world. And we have great examples of peacebuilding climate-forward actions all over the world. We work primarily in the Pacific-Asia Region, but we also connect globally and nationally.

The Inflation Reduction Act

Lyn Mehe‘ula: I was so excited when I saw the Institute for Climate and Peace because as a Polynesia person, I feel like the two are so integrally tied because the islands are very much affected by climate change. And so one thing that I’ve been following in the news, the U.S. Senate recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act which aims to both limit the devastating effects of climate change, and also to increase healthcare affordability for Americans. In the wake of this passing, what changes do you and the Institute for Climate and Peace expect to see in the near future?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I think that we need to recognize that it was passed to initiate major changes through fund allocation with environmental and climate justice block grants, clean energy, emissions reductions, and nature-based solutions. And so we see in the aggregation of these efforts, support given to Native Hawaiians and others for climate resiliency, and we see conservation efforts and greater environmental justice. The bill recognizes the disparate environmental consequences that certain communities experience by placing a priority on climate justice, which is what we care about. It also progresses in the right direction with its investment in nature-based solutions that offer a critical opportunity for fostering resilience from the ground up. When you’re looking at nature-based solutions you’re often looking at community-based and grassroots solutions. And obviously there is still work to be done to reconcile policy and commitments with just action and investment objectives. But we are hopeful that what we care about, this achievement of just outcomes for those who are experiencing climate change firsthand, will really begin to happen and that we can all collaborate with communities and execute programs and initiatives, and collaborate and engage in policy transformation with government as well.

The Peace Studio

Lyn Mehe‘ula: The Peace Studio equips artists and journalists with resources to tell restorative narratives, find community, and become peacebuilding leaders. And so my question is, could you tell us more about Peace Studio and how it came to be?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I co-founded The Peace Studio a few years ago with my literary agent Jennifer Gates and her colleague, Todd Shuster. They both came to hear me speak at the Gandhi-King conference in Memphis, Tennessee in 2016 and at the end of my talk, I asked everyone to consider at least one way that they could commit to becoming active peacebuilders going forward. Todd really took this to heart and approached us about building an organization that would resource artists and media makers with the support needed to become peacebuilders themselves. And so those were the early seeds and building out Peace Studio was his way of contributing. But we all agreed that this was important and timely and so the next year, we were underway and brought together incredible leaders and storytellers.

Lyn Mehe‘ula: Why do you see artists and journalists at the forefront of this peace movement?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: For me, the connective tissue there is storytelling. Every social movement needs stories to help people imagine what could be — what a more peaceful and just and verdant society could look like. They need to feel a sense of hope. They need to feel empathy to reduce fear about the others. Storytellers motivate people to jump into the stream to take action as positive peacebuilders. So we want to make sure that every artist and journalist across the United States and eventually the world has what they need to create the change they wish to see in the world. And they can utilize their medium and their storytelling capacity to invest in their communities with that strength-based mindset. Rather than focus on what is broken, they can think about where there are people who are doing brave things and tell restorative narratives that have solutions embodied in them. We also want to help artists to sustain their livelihoods and to imagine their professions as pragmatic and meaningful gifts to all of us.

Ceeds of Peace

Lyn Mehe‘ula: Ceeds of Peace is an organization that you co-founded with the mission of raising the next generation of peacebuilding leaders. And now this name stems from ceeds, C-E-E-D-S, that you spread, the strategies and tools for peacebuilding that you develop and share with other community leaders. So a question I have about this program is, could you give us a couple of examples of these specific ceeds programs?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Ceeds of Peace starts with a ‘c’ because we work on peacebuilding values like courage, critical thinking, compassion, conflict resolution, commitment, collaboration, connection — and in each of our programs we teach these, we model these. We have a really large assemblage of innovators, tools and strategies to facilitate this to raise peacebuilding leaders. We have workshops for educators and other adults in our communities to give them the tools and strategies to wrap around the youth. Then we focus on topics like social-emotional learning, trauma, sensitive care, activating youth voice and leadership, leading from beside, behind, as well as in front. And so we also run youth programs where youth have platforms to be activists and community organizers as they tackle things like climate justice, gun reform, mental health, discrimination, and many other topics that they choose. We serve a number of different schools and work in several schools to develop the concept of community schooling, where youth are wrapped in support and resources from their community, local health centers, theaters, sports, programs, food pantries, transportation services, etc.

The Bravethrough Series: Courageous Conversations on Community

Lyn Mehe‘ula: I am a huge podcast fan, and one of the most powerful ways I think to reach people nowadays is through podcasts. There are podcasts everywhere. And I was not surprised to see that you are also using this podcast medium to amplify changemakers voices. So in 2021, you launched the podcast ‘The Bravethrough Series: Courageous Conversation on Community’ and this was in partnership with KTUH Honolulu. So could you tell us more about the ‘Bravethrough Series’ and its goals, and maybe even a story about an especially interesting guest you’ve had?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Definitely, yes. Zephanie who produces it and I started this podcast last year called Bravethrough. And that’s, of course, a bit of a play on words. This idea of ‘we can break through seemingly intractable problems and find solutions by being brave and creative’. And so we feature guests who are incredible solutionaries and courageous ones. I guess I’ll talk about my first two guests, Liam and James, they are both working on pressing, complex problems. Liam’s conversation was about restorative justice and the community task force he co-led in Oakland to reimagine public safety and policing. And all of the recommendations emerging from these task force community sessions ended up being financed and implemented and will be so instructive for the rest of the nation. They are being implemented now slowly, the first dozen I think at least.

And James is one of the leaders of Hui Aloha. And Hui Aloha works to bring together houseless and housed communities, to give back to the community and do work cleaning up parks, beaches, and bathrooms, and building canoe gardens — gardens that feature the plants that the Kānaka Maoli, the Native Hawaiians, brought over in the canoe originally. And so this non-profit, Hui Aloha, works with the houseless community now in Wai‘anae creating a village and using this village model of community to show how the houseless can teach us all how to build community and family from the ground up. So I really see the goal of the podcasts to be about finding these ingenious efforts that can be scaffolded and adapted and adjusted for other places, so that we can all support one another in moving through the storms and untangling the seemingly untangleable issues that we are facing today in our world.

Ladder to the Moon

Lyn Mehe‘ula: You authored a children’s book called ‘Ladder to the Moon’ in 2011 which I recently purchased for my own children. The vivid imagery seems so personal to your own upbringing and the deep connection that you’ve shared with your family. So I’d love to hear what inspired you to write this book, and also do you have any other literary works on the horizon?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: So Ladder to the Moon was a way for me to think about what lessons mom would have shared with my daughter had she been alive to do so. She died nine years before my eldest daughter, Suhaila, was born. She loved the moon because she said everywhere you are, the moon is the one thing that’s the same. The constellations change in the sky, but the moon on any given day in Lahore, Pakistan and in Spain, and in Hawai‘i, it’s the same moon. So it was a connecting force, also because it governs the tides, so some of the lessons I sought to impart in the book for parents and teachers to share with their kids, their keiki, are seeing things from multiple perspectives and shifting perspectives — that ‘washing of the eyes’ that I spoke about earlier, as well as the importance of servant leadership and embodying an attitude of service towards one another.

The book imagines Suhaila being invited up to the moon by her grandma, and from there they look down on Earth and see much that is beautiful and brave. They also see suffering and they begin helping others to climb to the moon. And the moon becomes a restorative place of connection, where people who speak different languages become mutually intelligible, and people of different faiths find a common pathway. And they sip on moon dew and build spiral staircases of moonlight. And I do have a young adult novel that I am working on. I am trying to do the final edits right now, but I only ever do it a day here or a day there. But it’s about a teenage peacebuilder in this book called “Yellow Wood” and it utilizes a lot of the stories and motifs from my childhood in Indonesia. And I hope that everyone will enjoy it when it gets published.

Commitments to Active Peacebuilding

Lyn Mehe‘ula: How can we at Google commit to active peacebuilding, especially in this modern world with such busy schedules?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Well I’d encourage the Googlers to ask themselves that question, ‘how might I see and lift up the gifts in my own heart, the gifts of my colleagues, friends, family?’ And ‘what are the small steps that I can take to make a positive difference in my community and the organization?’ If you’re an artist, make us feel something expansive. If you’re a storyteller, tell stories that are not yet known. Spotlight those that have too long been in the shadows. Bring important stories from the periphery to the center. If you’re a designer or architect, build physical and digital spaces that deepen people’s personal peace and interpersonal connection. Think about how you can nourish wellness all around you. Make people feel optimistic about the future of our planet so that they’re not mired in grief, and activate their sense of agency. All of us are influencing this next generation and helping to shape culture, so we might as well seek to engage in positive peacebuilding as much as we are able. In spite of the craziness of our day-to-day lives, resilience is our resistance. Resilience is our resistance. So if there is something that is oppressive, if there’s something that’s messed up, grow your resilience as an act of resistance. And this doesn’t have to be something you’re dedicating exorbitant amounts of time or resources to. In fact, I encourage you to start small and reflect on what you can do in your own home to create sanctuary, or the other places in your community to grow good.

All of us are influencing this next generation and helping to shape culture, so we might as well seek to engage in positive peacebuilding as much as we are able.

. . .

Maya Soetoro-Ng is Co-Founder of the Institute for Climate and Peace in Hawai‘i, where she also serves as Chairperson. An award-winning educator with extensive teaching expertise as a faculty specialist at the Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences. Maya previously founded the community non-profit organizations Ceeds of Peace and the Peace Studio and works to amplify the voices of changemakers in her recent podcast series, “The Bravethrough Series: Courageous Conversations on Community” in partnership with KTUH Honolulu.