Photo courtesy of the Nonviolence Center | Karen Housley, the art director of the United American Diversity Peace Flag, works in preparation to hang the flag in downtown providence

“We’ve learned that if we were to simply advertise an event that encourages students to come by and discuss various methods of nonviolence and the topic of peace, not one person would attend,” Paul Bueno de Mesquita, director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island said. “There needs to be more excitement than that to draw students in.”

It’s clear from the jam packed schedule of projects and events underway at the Center that this revelation has truly affected how they operate. Hidden deep on the second floor of the Multicultural Center, their office is filled with enthusiastic scholars eager to advertise their upcoming endeavors: essay contests for local middle schoolers, collaborative art projects that bring in over three hundred participants, new ideas brought to the program by the Tibetan monk they have in residence and even new research being conducted that affects the very nature of how college students interact with one another.

The Center itself was born out of the work of Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr., a renowned activist during the civil rights movement who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, one of the last conversations he had was with LaFayette. The conversation revolved around a plan that King had to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence education and training. LaFayette took this idea as his life’s mission and in 1998, he and two other colleagues developed the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies that would continue the work that King envisioned.

The current Director of the Center, Paul Bueno de Mesquita, said that one of the main projects of focus at the Center right now is the research being conducted on the topics of mindfulness and compassion.

He said that in the past few years, one of his colleagues, Thupten Tendhar, a former Tibetan monk, has been conducting research about inner peace and what creates a healthy mind.

“Thupten has been focused on researching the importance of being more compassionate to yourself. He found that when you are in a stressful modern lifestyle you lose track of things and engage in a lifestyle that is not compassionate to yourself,” Paul Bueno de Mesquita said.

Paul Bueno de Mesquita went on to further explain this dynamic by giving this example, “Say you are in a hurry one day and you either don’t eat lunch at all or you only have time to eat a lunch made up of all the things that you’ve been telling yourself you shouldn’t be eating— because of your weight or your health or what not.” Going further on the topic he said, “All of these things build up inside of us and distract us, but more importantly than that they also create this sense within ourselves that we are not being as good as we should be. That’s a self criticism, and Thupten’s study shows that attitudes like that, that don’t have compassion for oneself, lead people to be less likely or less able to be compassionate to others.”

Much of the work that is done at the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, and much of the research they are conducting, focuses around a very complex term: mindfulness. Paul Bueno de Mesquita defined this concept as “the practice of awareness.” He explained the idea as a method of being more in touch with what is happening directly in front of you. To be mindful means to live in the moment rather than being distracted and mentally caught up in thoughts about what the weather is like outside, what you are doing next, and what you were supposed to do yesterday. This way, Paul Bueno de Mesquita says, “you can actually experience and appreciate what is in front of you.”

Another employee of the center, Kay Bueno de Mesquita, who acts as an education coordinator and nonviolence trainer, said she had just heard a URI faculty member speaking about a moment of mindfulness she had. “During an event we hosted today regarding a collaborative art project we are putting together, called The United American Peace Flag, a faulty member came in and spent maybe twenty to twenty five minutes simply working on her contribution to the project.” Kay Bueno de Mesquita said that when the woman was done she approached her to say how wonderful the event had been for her. The woman said that she had been stressed out all day, and that her commute to campus from Providence where she lives was awful because of the weather. She said she had so many different problems going on that when she walked in the doors to the event all of it hit her. Through the flag project though, she told Kay Bueno de Mesquita that she was able to step away from it all for a little bit and just focus on the task at hand. The woman toldKay Bueno de Mesquita that “through that small task of designing something small that would then go into a larger whole, she was able to feel peace and that peace carried her through the rest of the day.”

The event the Center was hosting that day was in regards to a creative mission they have recently set out on that will combine the work of over three hundred Rhode Island residents. The project is a follow up to an effort they had been involved in from 2015-2017, called “The Great American Peace Flag.”  According to Cathren Housley, the art director of that project, “the goal was to reconstruct the American flag with flags of peace.” People from around the state were asked to decorate a small piece of fabric with what peace meant to them. When the pieces of that first project were sewn together to create the flag, it was a great success. It was brought all around the state to be shown off at different venues, and Housley said it was even the backdrop of a concert by folk singer Caroline Cotter.

As a result of this success, the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies was given a grant from the Rhode Island Council of the Arts to do this next piece, which Housley calls “the United American Diversity Peace Flag.” Housley said, “The flag will be 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall, the same measurements as the first, but this time we’ve given the flag a rainbow color spectrum to represent the cultural diversity of Rhode Island.”

Housley explained that the participants at the event on campus this past Wednesday were asked to provide “their own personal image of peace.” She said that “some people wrote a word or a phrase and some people drew an elaborate picture, it was completely different for everyone.”

The completed flag will hang for a month in the atrium gallery at 1 Capital Hill in Providence, the building opposite the State House.

Housley was proud to say that even the mayor of Providence contributed a peace flag to this project, along with many prominent Rhode Island officials and artists.

“We want to gather as many different people from Rhode Island as we can to contribute their voices to this project,” said Housley. “The idea is to combine the energy of peace into a single unit that will have a tangible impact on the people that come near it.”

Paul Bueno de Mesquita commented that this project, “attempts to humanize the symbol of the flag.”

Housley expanded on that thought by saying that, “This is a flag that is representing all of the people in the country. You look at it and every single part of it is different. Yet we find a way to make them all coexist on that flag so that they can all occupy the same space together and make a singular impact.”

The Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies attempts to spread this message of unity even further than the United States this summer when they will host the 19th Annual International Nonviolence Summer Institute. That program is a two week intensive workshop that is open to people all around the world. The summer institute trains people in the methodologies of Kingian nonviolence and certifies them to teach others on those topics.  

In Paul Bueno de Mesquita’s office there is a large map of the world plastered on the wall. On this map, stabbing through various countries are hundreds of tiny toothpick flags that serve a very interesting purpose. The flags represent the diverse range of people that have completed Kingian nonviolence training here during the summer institute. Paul Bueno de Mesquita said, “We have trainers in 45 different countries, people who trained here with us, who are using the same methods and programs. Some people who trained with us set up centers of their own, some work with schools, some have community programs, but all of them are now certified to go back to their homes and teach the same kinds of programs we teach here.”

Kay Bueno de Mesquita said that the center is currently accepting applications to be a part of the 2018 summer institute. She said, “ The program is open to URI students, but it’s not exclusively URI students. It’s open to people all around the world, which often times provides wonderful and unique connections for URI students. It really opens up our small campus here to a very diverse group of people coming together through common goals and an interest in peace.”

Paul Bueno de Mesquita talked about one student in particular he was amazed to have as a part of the summer institute back in 2015, Azra Jafari, who was Afghanistan’s first ever female mayor.

He encouraged URI students to go onto the Centers website, uri.edu/nonviolence, and apply to be a part of the summer institute as the training is relevant to everyone and the experience is one of a kind.