Pema Peace Project Teaches Nonviolent Strategies

Leif DeJong '13 and Benedikt Urban '14 with students from the Lower Tibetan Children's Village school in Dharamsala, India. DeJong and Urban conducted workshops on active nonviolent action at four TCV schools this summer as part of the Pema Peace Project.

Two Earlham College students conducted workshops on nonviolent strategies this summer at Tibetan Children’s Village Schools in Dharamsala, India, in the memory of Pema Norbu ’12.

“In the future, we’re hoping to find Tibetans who can take this project into their own hands because ultimately, it should be Tibetans empowering other Tibetans for these methods to be successful.”

– Leif DeJong,
project manager,
Pema Peace Project

Leif DeJong ’13 and Benedikt Urban ’14 say the workshops were designed to empower students to apply active nonviolent action to achieve peace in their lives whether the students lived in exile, abroad or directly in Tibet. Active nonviolent action means using techniques like protest, resistance and intervention without violence to achieve change.

Pema Norbu’s ’12 goal was to erase what he believed was a misconception by Tibetan youth that active nonviolence was passive and ineffective in achieving peace with the Chinese. He sought to acquire resource books on nonviolence, translate them into Tibetan, and ultimately, lead discussions to connect the ideas from the books with Tibetan exile communities.

Norbu died in a car accident along with fellow student Mark Christianson in the summer before what would have been his senior year.

“I saw how big of a step he had made in his life,” Urban says of his inspiration for implementing the project. “He fled from Tibet, came to Dharamsala and worked his way up to a prestigious college in the U.S. and made it so far in life. There was so much potential.

“So partly as a friend but partly as someone that was born and raised in a Tibetan community, I felt a sense of obligation to give back to the community that cared for me as I have a good sense of their situation and what they’re going through,” he says. “I also saw it was an amazing learning opportunity that comes once in a lifetime.”

The project began when DeJong and Urban took a draft of Norbu’s Kathryn Wasserman Davis For Peace program application from 2011 and rewrote and expanded on it before submitting it for funding. Earlham College provided them with $10,000 to implement the project. The college funds peace projects annually in the tradition of the Davis For Peace program.

More than 130 students were engaged by the workshops funded by the Pema Peace Project, which took place from June to July 2013. The students were mainly high-school aged students with an interest in learning about peace and active nonviolent practices. However, at one school, DeJong and Urban worked with students at a transitioning school attended by people age 18-35.

DeJong and Urban also worked with Norbu’s younger brother, Wangchen Tsering Lak, along with several instructors from local a local non-government organization called the Active Nonviolent Education Center (ANEC). Instructors from Students For a Free Tibet (SFT) and other friends also joined them in the effort.

More About Pema

Pema Norbu ’12 fled from Tibet to Dharamsala, India, to escape the Chinese occupation at the age of 10.

He attended the Tibetan Children’s Village Gopalpur school and arrived at Earlham College by first attending the Mahindra United World College on full scholarship.

Before his death, Norbu had planned to carry out a similar peace project and was determined to purchase and distribute books on nonviolent strategies to TCV schools.

“He was serious about everything that we were doing in class and he was immediately making connections with the situation in Tibet,” says Professor Emeritus of History Carol Hunter, Ph.D., who worked with Norbu in a course on nonviolence. “He could see that people around the world have been able to use nonviolence in very powerful and effective ways.

“People were thinking of ways to honor the students and a clear one for me was the idea that this was something that was close to his heart,” she says. “I thought we could at least raise some money and send some of the books that Pema had listed as ones that he wanted to get into these schools.”

With the help of a contribution from Lilly Library, three sets of 16 books were purchased in 2012 and delivered to the TVC schools that Norbu intended them to go to.

Benedikt Urban ‘14, who grew up in the same region that Norbu fled to from Tibet, delivered the books to TVC schools with the help of an ex-TCV student.

The curriculum was developed in collaboration with Earlham Professor Emeritus of History Carol Hunter, Ph.D., and Rabbi Everett and Mary Gendler, who have advocated for nonviolence in India and developed a relationship with the Dalai Lama.

Experiential learning empowers students

The Pema Peace Project is an example of the kind of projects that will result from Earlham’s new Center for Integrated Learning.

“That’s an example of the kind of work we’re trying to do,” says Jay Roberts, director of the Center for Integrated Learning. “We expect the Center for Integrated Learning to be the hub for experiential learning. We are hoping that the Center for Integrated Learning allows students to live out the Liberal Arts experientially.”

A central goal of the center is the cultivation and development of the “10-Year Mindset” whereby students can build a comprehensive and long-term plan of action to make the most out of their post-Earlham experience.

Promoting culture of equality matters

DeJong said they were most successful in implementing the project when they promoted equality and were informal with the students.

“That was one of our most effective strategies because it immediately changed the scene and created this active participation, this feeling of equality and this lack of fear for expressing ideas,” DeJong says. “We based it on Earlham’s principal of awakening the teacher within that has deeply changed the way people can approach more complex ideas. A lot of it was finding that balance of being disciplined while maintaining an open and comfortable environment as our time frame was very limited."

Feedback from the schools that benefited from the project has been positive.

“They gained self-confidence and had the opportunity to express their views freely with no fear and judgment,” Upper Tibetan Children’s Village School Principal Namdol Tashi says. “Students also recommend that such workshop should be held again in the school for building strong character of students so that they don’t become impatient and believe in the importance of active non-violent methods as right form of action for resolving the Tibetan national cause.”

Project not finished

The project will continue primarily through the www.pemapeaceproject.org website.

“The website is designed to be a place for people to come and join an active community that discusses these issues in more detail,” DeJong says.

Because the students in Dharamsala expressed an interest in conducting their own workshops, DeJong and Urban plan to post their teaching materials on the site to extend the conversation about nonviolence.

Additional funding has also been left behind for Tsering Lak so that workshops can be conducted for additional college and high school students in other communities like Delhi, India.

DeJong and Urban are also fundraising so that they can conduct additional workshops with the Tibetan exile communities in south India next year.

“In the future, we’re hoping to find Tibetans who can take this project into their own hands because ultimately, it should be Tibetans empowering other Tibetans for these methods to be successful,” says DeJong. He added Norbu would be satisfied with the project’s turnout.

“We feel satisfied knowing that we’ve accomplished something that Pema wanted to do, and couldn’t,” DeJong says. “It’s very healing in many ways and also is a way of keeping him as a memory at Earlham.

“It’s also a reminder to students that these kinds of projects are possible by students and you can execute them with quite a fair level of quality, success and effectiveness if you really put your mind to it,” he says. “You don’t have to be in an institution or company to do professional-grade work in a different country for a cause like this.”


This article was written by Brian Zimmerman, director of media relations. Brian recently joined Earlham's Marketing and Communications Office. Contact Brian at zimmebr@earlham.edu or 765-983-1256.

Print Friendly and PDF