With one of the most divisive election campaigns in history coming to a close last week, it's easy to look upon the way it was conducted as illustrative of our world today. For most of us, it feels as though the world has become deeply polarised and divided, with clear frustrations all over on the way society works. But, looking deeper, there are many signs that we have far more in common than that which divides us. There are many people working on strengthening and growing the things that unite all people, regardless of nationality, race, religion or wealth.
London Peace Talks
It was against this politically charged backdrop that the first ever London Peace Talks was held at City Hall this month, an initiative to promote the peaceful and inclusive actions of individuals from all over the world. The format was simple: each speaker had eight minutes to talk about their lived experience that peace is possible; from civilian volunteers working in Syria to rescue injured people, to digital activism for justice, and community building right here in the UK.
One of the most profound talks came from Rehana Faisal, a Muslim community activist based in Luton, UK. Rehana explained that Luton has become a "flashpoint for pockets of extremism"; pockets which seek to create divisions between Christian and Muslim groups in the community.
Rehana read a poem written about life in Luton as a young Muslim:
Walking through a crowded place,
Apparent on every face,
For actions taken in my name,
You think that I am a disgrace,
You refuse my hand
You ignore my embrace
What did I do to deserve this hate?
I wear a headscarf,
My dad has a beard,
You mock me and say I'm weird,
Yet still I am unwelcome here,
Practising my faith in constant fear.
Terrorists deface Islam
As they ravage and ruin the common man,
This is not my faith and not Islam,
Don't assume it is,
We're about salaam.
Please, don't hold me accountable for the insane,
As all around,
you'll see the same.
The poem, written by her teenage daughter Anna Kayani, offered a powerful symbol of modern day Britain; where a person's religion, race or nationality can profoundly change how that individual is treated in society. Rehana was speaking alongside Peter Adams, a community activist from the local Christian church. Rehana and Peter have been working together in Luton to build understanding and cooperation between the Muslim and Christian communities. From supporting each other through tough times, to working together to stand up to hatred, their talk brought to light the need for better dialogue between communities.
You can watch Rehana read the poem via this link.
The power of fashion
During the talks, social artist and designer Helen Storey also showcased her iconic Dress For Our Time garment. The compelling dress, made from a decommissioned UN refugee tent, uses the power of fashion, science and wonder to communicate two of the world's most pressing and interlinked issues of our time: climate change and the refugee crisis.
Helen explained that in giving the tent a second life, she wanted to give this public art installation an unbreakable bond to humanity, and represent the importance of nurturing and protecting all people and safeguarding generations to come. The dress is a powerful symbol of what it means to be human and the precarious nature of our existence.
We can all be leaders
The host of the Talks, Lliana Bird spoke of her experience founding the charity Help Refugees, a grass roots organisation that has become one of the biggest provider of aid to Calais and Dunkirk, and the role we all have to play in peace:
"I've learned that it is all of our responsibility. We had no experience. So many of the young people that volunteered and changed people's lives had no experience. I urge anyone... to think about what more you could be doing and how you could be helping because you really don't need permission from anyone to go out there and do your bit."
When most people think of peace building, they consider war-torn and far-flung regions of the world. But being a peace builder can start anywhere. Each and every one of the speakers could describe the moment when they decided to stand up for the type of society they believed in, one in which peace is possible.
Changing the narrative
Our challenge today is to let hope, peace and love emanate from all areas of society. We need a wide range of people standing up for these core beliefs, to inspire others to take action and create a movement of individuals and organisations who truly believe that peace is possible. A few inspirational short talks may not seem impactful, but it will be words and stories rather than government policies that inspire these movements to create social change.
Peace Talks were organised by the international non-profit Interpeace and supported by Ben & Jerry's, financial institution Mirabaud, and the embassy of Switzerland in the UK. The event brought together a series of inspirational speakers to share their stories of modern day peace.
You can watch the best of the London Peace Talks, and all the speakers, at peacetalks.net/watch-peace-talks-videos.