“Ask yourself what you can do to make a difference, then take that action, no matter how large or small.” — Graça Machel
There’s a lot of people out there who care deeply about some social issue (or issues), but aren’t sure what they can do to make a difference. For many of us, it is hard to know how we can help. It’s easy to become disillusioned, and perhaps cynical.
The systems and structures that govern the world don’t seem to be working. There is war and poverty. There is discrimination, inequality, and violence. The issues are big. They are complex. It can be overwhelming.
The good news is that everyone can do something to make a difference. Sure, the problems are complex, but to be effective in making change the solutions must be simple. I hope the ideas shared below will inspire you and many others to take some action for peace and justice, no matter how large or how small.
How to build peace in your life and the world around you
Based on my personal experiences collaborating with peacebuilders around the world, here is a list of the ten things you can do to build a more peaceful and just world.
1. Calm your mind
Whether a seasoned advocate for peace or a young person aspiring to make a change, it’s always good to start with yourself. Calming your mind will help you be more patient. It will help you be present for those who need you the most. It will help you engage with challenging people. It will hone your intuition. It will allow you to moderate feelings of anger and other strong emotions when they arise. It will give you more insight to analyze complex issues associated with conflict and inequality. It will help you be more focused and creative in your efforts to build peace.
Here are some things you can do to calm your mind. Learn simple mindfulness practices. Embrace quiet time. Observe your emotions. Spend time in nature. Be mindful of your media consumption. Breathe. Find and use contemplative practices that work for you.
2. Simplify your life
Living a simple life will help clear your mind. You’ll have fewer distractions and be more able to focus on finding ways to address an issue (or issues) you care about. It will help you live your life with intention. And with a minimalist lifestyle you will reduce your carbon footprint. That’s a bonus!
Here are some ideas you can consider. Minimize your possessions. Don’t take on too many work commitments. Let go of social engagements that are not meaningful to you. Enjoy the simple things in life. Detach yourself from the idea that you have to be ‘busy.’ Reduce physical and mental clutter, let the distractions fall away, and focus on what is important to you.
3. Educate yourself (and teach others) about injustice and inequality, and about peace.
Systems that produce injustice and inequality rely on their ability to remain invisible to the general public. Those not directly harmed by injustice and inequality often have a difficult time understanding these things, let alone acknowledge their existence. To truly build a more just and equal society we need to bring these issues to the mainstream.
Educate yourself about the structures that produce injustice and inequality, and their historical legacy. Learn about historic struggles for justice and equality, about social movements, about critical events where progress was made, and of the real heroes that made it happen. Use this knowledge to generate creative and strategic ideas for action. Teach others and inspire change.
4. Orient your professional life towards peace
Are you a teacher? Are you teaching your students to critically analyze war, conflict, and inequality? Are you a healthcare worker? What are you doing to make the healthcare system more just? Are you a police officer? How is your department addressing the harmful effects of common policing practices? Are you an entrepreneur? Are you applying your skills to address a social cause? Are you working in the global aid industry? What are you doing to decolonize aid?
Consider the ways your work contributes to injustice and inequality, or the potential for it to contribute to peace and justice. Clarify what social issues you care about the most. Spend time to reflect and find ways to address these issues in your work and professional life. Seek opportunities to make change, or create new ones. Practical actions will be unique to each profession type.
5. Transform interpersonal conflicts
If you are working to build peace, you must become adept at transforming interpersonal conflicts. On principle, transforming conflict in relationships allows everyone to live happier, more fulfilling (thus peaceful) lives. At the same time, working to make change can be stressful, and you will likely encounter conflict with persons on your team who have different ideas about how to move forward. Also, when rattling the foundations of injustice and inequality, you will certainly come into conflict with persons who benefit from these. You must then be well prepared to engage constructively to transform these relationships, to mitigate opposition to your efforts to build peace.
When you encounter interpersonal conflicts, whether you are directly involved or if you are a third party, take them as an opportunity to develop your capacity to manage conflict. Develop techniques to transform these relationships, to make opponents your allies, and to build strong, cohesive teams working together on issues of shared concern. Develop and practice listening and communication skills. Learn techniques to open constructive dialogue. Mediate a conflict. Find ways to build trust. Search for common ground. Create opportunities for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.
6. Transform community spaces; or use them for peace learning and action
Transforming community spaces is a unique, often overlooked way to build peace and justice. We often neglect how community spaces contribute to inequality and promote war culture. How are people divided in your city? Does your city have a history of segregating minority communities? Do some communities have better schools or health facilities? Who has access to parks and natural spaces? In which neighborhoods are the waste facilities, power plants, and factories? Where are the museums and cultural sites? What about public monuments? Do they glorify war ‘heroes’ or do they inspire peace?
Here are some ideas you can use to transform spaces in your community or use them for peace learning and action. Preserve, protect, and promote diverse cultural and historic sites. Make community spaces accessible, inclusive, and family-friendly. Reclaim parks, plazas, and walkways. Create shared spaces. Use community spaces for peace learning. Do a community art project. Remove monuments to war ‘heroes’ and bigots. Build monuments to peace heroes.
7. Transform structures tied to the dynamics of war, violence, injustice, and inequality, or withdraw resources and support for war.
Warfare is not possible without a high degree of organization and immense amounts of resources. If we are to abolish war, the structures and institutions of the State that create war abroad and state violence at home must be transformed. Money and resources that feed war must be removed. Likewise, inequality and injustice are a product of government institutions, public policies, and economic systems. To create a more just and equal society requires substantial structural and policy change that strikes to the core of how our societies operate.
Here are some ideas to transform the structures tied to the dynamics of war, violence, injustice, and inequality. Depending on your position and level of influence, your actions may range from voting, to advocacy, to direct policy/institution reform. Demilitarize defense and policing. Use military and police for peaceful purposes. Mobilize for incisive criminal justice reform. Divert funds for war and allocate them for education, health care, social services, diplomacy, peace, arts, and culture. Create laws that regulate the production and sale of weaponry at the national and international levels. Divest from companies, governments, individuals, and institutions that promote/profit from war. Resist paying taxes for war.
8. Disrupt narratives that justify war and rationalize inequality.
As children, we learn a history littered with stories glorifying war. We learn that violence is justified, even dignified. We are inspired by war heroes we read about in history books. Our religious leaders provide the military with their blessings. Political leaders craft lies that justify war, and media outlets provide an echo chamber. Likewise, these institutions produce countless rationalizations of inequality. Historic injustice and inequality are whitewashed in schools. We create the illusion that people become rich and successful only from their own volition. We obscure the vast inequalities that provide easy pathways to success for some while constructing barriers to advancement for others. Poor people are blamed for their condition.
These narratives must be disrupted. People must be educated about the reality of war and of systems that produce inequality. Here are some ideas for action. Transform the teaching of history in schools. Discredit war propaganda and myths that justify violence. Demystify threats. Promote an understanding that violence is not innate; war not inevitable. Expose motivations and deceptive tactics of corrupt leaders who rationalize violence. Deconstruct nationalist ideologies and the politics of division. Combat hate speech and humanize marginalized groups. Speak out against the misuse of religion for discriminatory purposes, especially within your own faith group.
9. Leverage the power of music, art, and culture for peace
Music, art, and culture can be powerful tools to make change. They can inspire us. They can unite people. They can heal. They can change hearts and minds. They can help us see things in different ways. There is infinite potential in art and music, and in the use of culture to make positive change. And with social media, messages spread fast, and can reach far and wide.
Here are just some ideas for leveraging the power of art and culture for peace and justice. Use music, performance, poetry, comedy, or storytelling to raise awareness of issues or imagine peaceful futures. Dance or craft for a cause. Build characters and storylines that break stereotypes. Use sports to bring people in conflict together. Celebrate days of peace, human rights, and social justice. Involve cultural icons in peace actions. Join or create public prayer, meditation, or vigils for peace. Create peace imagery or re-imagine symbols. Create or use rituals to promote peace and tolerance. And don’t forget to amplify your message on social media.
10. Create (or support) structures for peace and justice
When so much of our time is spent struggling to change systemic problems, sometimes the best approach we can take is to create structures for peace (or support existing ones). This can be refreshing because it shifts the focus from the problem to the solution. It creates new potential for peace because a structure for peace by its nature is creating something new. It is not chasing the problem. It is exploring new solutions.
There are many types of groups or structures that you can create or support. Here are some ideas. Start or support a community organization, non-profit, or social enterprise working on issues important to you. Create or support mechanisms to report, prevent, or respond to violence. Support the creation (or existing work) of government departments dedicated to promoting peace and justice. Create or join platforms, forums, or networks for peace. Launch a podcast, a blog, a vlog, or other online platforms for peace, or specific to an issue that is important for you.
I hope these ideas have been helpful for you. For more ideas about practical actions you can take to build peace in the world around you, download my free handout 198 Actions for Peace.