Peace happens: Professor plants peace around Charleston

Reba Parker, a professor of Sociology at the College of Charleston and The Citadel has stemmed a movement based on peace building (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

Reba Parker, a professor of Sociology at the College of Charleston and The Citadel who created a movement based on peace building. (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

Reba Parker is not your ordinary sociology professor, she is an advocate of peace.  Since fall 2007, Parker has been creating a movement that has transformed the Charleston community. It has improved two college campuses through education and community action.

Parker’s movement is all thanks to a coincidence.  When Hollywood Video on East Bay was closing and getting rid of merchandise, Parker visited in hopes of finding documentaries that sparked her interest.  She had just returned from visiting the UN headquarters in N.Y., and in a pile of DVD’s, the one with a UN symbol that read “Peace One Day” caught her eye.  Little did Parker know,  this documentary would inspire her to teach a class focusing on peace and lead a nonprofit organization, Charleston Peace One Day.

The documentary was created by Jeremy Gilley, founder of Peace One Day, a worldwide nonprofit whose mission is to create an annual day of ‘global unity.’  The film documented Gilley’s strive for International Peace Day as he met with governments all over the world in order to reach an agreement on a day of nonviolence and ceasefire.  His dedication and hard work led him to establish an annual International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.

After viewing the film, Parker, who had always been deeply influenced by social justice, was able to connect her background of sociology with a discipline of peace.  As the summer was drawing to a close and Parker began organizing her curriculum, she decided to open her sociology classes with a viewing of Gilley’s documentary.

It was to no surprise that students had the same reaction to the film as Parker.  She said students eagerly asked questions like, “Why don’t we know about an international day of peace?” and “ Why doesn’t the U.S. do anything about this?”

As the first Peace Day approached, Parker and her students agreed to inform the campus and spread the word of Gilley’s creation of Peace Day.  Parker assigned her class on a mission to put up posters around campus to promote the annual day.  When Peace Day rolled around, the class set up table in Liberty Dining Hall and gave out peace cookies while the documentary played behind them.

Parker found that students truly enjoyed the experience of spreading the word of peace.  The next year, she said they wanted to do something even bigger, aiming high for a peace festival in Marion Square.  The class wanted vendors, a stage and music. It quickly grew into a large process involving planning and fundraising. Parker had to run the idea by the city’s parks and recreation committee, who suggested Brittle Bank park instead.  Together, the students managed to raise over 8,000 dollars to fund the first International Day of Peace festival in Charleston with a turnout of over 600 people.  Together, attendees from the community celebrated Peace Day, through education and community action.  Live music, guest speakers and food provided a good time as well as a real and  tangible experience of peace.

This successful learning movement became the impetus for a class on the topic of peace.  Parker launched her first SOCY 109: Sociology of Peace class in 2009 at the North Campus of College of Charleston and since has created over 35 classes, 110 community peace building student-led projects, a nonprofit, an accredited Peace Lab, 15 internships, a sister class “Women as Peacebuilders,” and courses in Sociology of Peace and Restorative Justice offered at the Citadel.

Reba and Sociology of Peace students posing for a picture with the peace pole they planted at James Simmons elementary (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

Parker and Sociology of Peace students posing for a picture with the peace pole they planted at James Simmons elementary (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

Each semester, Parker has students in her Sociology of Peace class collaborate on a group project that enables students to engage in the community through the promotion and education of peace.  Parker found that the most popular group project was planting a peace pole in the Charleston area.

But what exactly is a peace pole?  A peace pole is a hand-crafted monument of peace which proclaims, “May Peace Prevail on Earth” on each of its four to six sides in a variety of chosen different languages.  There are tens of thousands of peace poles located in over 180 countries worldwide, each link together those who visualize and pray for a world of peace.

Parker explained, “As cultures have artifacts and objects, peace poles are a symbolic thing.  They are artifacts of peace instead of monuments of war.  They are tangible objects that help people remember and not forget, a glorified simple way of life,”  which Parker finds to be beautiful.

“Peace poles are a personal and global reminder of peace.  It is something that people do to remind themselves to stop and chill and reflect.  These poles are going to be here forever and outlive all of us.  By planting peace poles in various locations, it is something that the class can personally give to the city.  “It is a way of planting those ideals in our community so that we can pass on the word,” Parker continued. This semester, Parker is working with her students to plant a peace pole at Memminger Elementary School on April 22..

An example of a peace pole displaying the message "May Peace Prevail on Earth" (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

An example of a peace pole displaying the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

Parker continues her community peace building by volunteering.  She takes coloring books designed by students to to local elementary schools to inform children about peace.  She has engaged with children in numerous schools, having them draw images of what peace means to them and has shared the drawings throughout the city.

Parker has reached out to several schools, meeting with vice principals and teachers to discuss the scheduling of an entire week dedicated educating students about peace.  At North Charleston High School, Peace Week consisted of peace cupcakes in the cafeteria, peace mentorship by pairing upperclassmen with freshmen, library books about peace and classroom curriculum surrounding peace as a discipline.

Other schools have begun following the trend by offering a Peace Week of their own.  One teacher at Buist Elementary personally reached out to Parker requesting more about peace week, so of course, Parker hooked her up with Gilley’s curriculum.  Now, first graders are planting peace poles and practicing yoga in the classroom.  Peace Week at Buist even made the news.

Parker continues to donate Gilley’s book written specifically for adolescents to school libraries because, “it’s good to start young.”

Thanks to Gilley, Parker has demonstrated community peace building  in Charleston.  Last semester, over 150 students from both the College of Charleston and Citadel joined her to sit down for a Skype session with her peace mentor and hero: Gilley himself.  They asked him questions about his achievements and his long-term goals.  Parker was impressed that someone with such notoriety was so genuine, “he was the real deal,” she said.

Students skyping with Jeremy Gilley, founder of Peace One Day and creator of International Peace Day at the College of Charleston last fall (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

Students skyping with Jeremy Gilley, founder of Peace One Day and creator of International Peace Day, at the College of Charleston last fall. (Photo courtesy of Reba Parker).

To Parker, peace is a verb.  It is tangible, it is movable and, like violence, it is a choice. “I get worked up when people say violence isn’t a choice.  You sit there and you think about it, and you do it,” Parker explained.  “Hunger, sex, aggression…they are all natural instincts, but, violence is not.  You choose to be violent towards certain people.  You are making choices.  It is all about the choice of humanizing one and dehumanizing the other,” she continued.

Parker, who says she wishes she didn’t have to grade her students, brings peace in the classroom through the partnership model, choosing ‘power with’ instead of ‘power over.’  She does not focus on authority, but on relationships, dialogue and understanding.  Instead of a classroom divided between a teacher and students, Parker makes it a community of coming together to learn within a safe place that has a sense of trust and compassion.  “With this method, students can have healthy discussion.  Communication, dialogue, and compassion are critical for a culture of peace and classroom must have that,” Parker said.

When asked what peace means to her, Parker explained,  “As I tell students, peace is the artful continuation of the existence of humankind and the natural world.”

Don’t miss out on Sociology of Peace’s journey of planting peace.  Like the class Facebook page “Charleston 4 Peace” and follow them on Instagram @charleston4peace

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