There was a graduation ceremony recently in Springfield. Nothing unusual about that, especially this time of year. But the setting -- the back yard of 830 S. College Ave. -- was remarkable, as was the school holding it.
The occasion was the conclusion of the first year of the Heartland Peace Academy, sponsored by the Heartland Peace Center. About a dozen students and their friends gathered to celebrate the beginning of what Academy founder Liz Moran hopes will be many years of teaching activism and social justice.
Moran, who just completed her junior year in the Capital Scholars program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, conceived the program in response to classmates who expressed interest in becoming active with peace and social justice issues, but who didn't feel they had the skills or knowledge to do so.
"I thought more people would do something if they felt empowered," Moran says.
Moran brought her idea -- a school teaching about such things as globalization, sweatshops, vegetarianism, and nonviolence, with "no grades, none of the bad stuff about school" -- to a Peace Center board meeting this past fall. Heartland agreed to sponsor it.
The Academy faculty consisted mainly of UIS faculty, such as Proshanta Nandi, professor of Sociology; Terri Jackson, director of Minority Leadership in Public Service; Ted Matula, professor of Communication; and Karin Cotterman, coordinator of the university's Student Volunteers Program.
The faculty also included fellow Capital Scholars Dana Goodrum and Carrie Bauer, and longtime peace activist Diane Hughes.
Classes began in February, meeting once a month for two hours a session through May. A visit to Goodrum and Bauer's class, "Sweatshops and Globalization," offers an example of the type of program presented. Both women have been active in the UIS chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, and Bauer has visited sweatshops in Nicaragua and observed conditions there.
A recent class began with how globalization affects Americans, as well as a definition of the term "country-jumping," in which multinational companies shift to whatever country offers the cheapest labor at a given time. Indonesia and Thailand are currently the worst offenders, according to Goodrum and Bauer.
But they added that sweatshop conditions are by no means limited to Third World countries. "Seventy-five percent of U.S. garment shops violate standards," Bauer says. "They exploit undocumented workers, especially in New York and Los Angeles. Among the tactics companies use are recruiting people from Third World countries with promises of transportation to the U.S. and employment once here. What they [mostly women, young teenaged girls in particular] end up with is being forced to work long hours at low wages until the costs of bringing them here are paid off, which can take well over a year." The consequences of globalization, she says, are lowered wages and lost jobs.
Goodrum adds, "People think [sweatshops] are either helping the workers, or it's 'coming out of my pocket.' They accept it because they think they can't afford to shop somewhere else," referring to stores such as Wal-Mart and Old Navy, who contract with sweatshops for many of their products.
But the two students also provide examples of how it's possible to make and sell clothing under humane working conditions. While in Nicaragua, Bauer visited the "Women's Sewing Club," which began with 50 women (now down to 12) who run the place and make T-shirts and other articles of clothing.
It interested one student, Rachel Powers, enough to want to start an anti-sweatshop club at Springfield High, where she just completed her junior year. Goodrum and Bauer offered the support and assistance of USAS. After class, Bauer noted, "It was a small group [three students on a regular basis], but our discussions are more engaged. Everyone had a chance to talk. Dana and I learned from our students just as they did from us."
Another course offered by the Academy was "Food for Thought: The Environmental Impact of a Meat-Based Diet," taught by Gloria Ferguson, of the Springfield Vegetarian Association. Ferguson says that not eating a pound of beef would save more water than not showering for a year. She offered other examples of the environmental costs of processing and transporting not only meat, but non-local food.
The goal, Ferguson says, is to increase awareness of the environmental costs of such a diet, not necessarily to eliminate meat completely, and she noted the Chinese use meat, but as a very small part of their diet compared to most Western countries.
"You describe yourself as environmentalists," she told her students. "What do you sacrifice or give up in order to do that? If not, are you really an environmentalist? That's one of the things I wanted you to think about." The message appears to have resonated with her students, many of whom said they eat fewer animal products today than they did when the course began.
But the awareness doesn't end there. One student said he's eating only whole-wheat bread. Another has started buying organic meat "because I know how it's raised and prepared, in a more humane way for the animals." Ferguson considers herself a vegan, meaning a vegetarian who doesn't use any animal products, not even honey, or wear anything made from animals.
As with any other school's graduation, the ceremonies marking the end of the Academy's first year were a time to look back at the school's accomplishments, as well as those of its students. Perhaps none could have been more serious than Rachel Powers and Allegra Panichi, both whom took four classes -- more than any other student. Both were enrolled in "Food for Thought," the class on sweatshops, Nandi's "Conceptualizing Nonviolence," and Hughes' class on participatory democracy.
At the ceremonies, Nandi was presented with a "Light for Peace Award," which included a candle, by Sister Beth Murphy of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield. In accepting the award, Nandi said, "Be always on the lookout for how you can better the lives of your fellow human beings. I'm confident these students will do so much better than I ever did."
Goodrum and Bauer received the "Shaping Our World" award (a twin-pack of Play-Doh), and Academy students Powers and Panichi each received an award named for the late Alan Port, a longtime peace activist killed in an auto accident two years ago. That award consisted of a plaque and day planner.
Academy founder Moran told the students, "You still have homework, and it's community work -- taking what you've learned and sharing it with the community. This is your responsibility as a citizen."
Afterwards, Moran reflected on how the first Peace Academy turned out. "I was a lot more ambitious, but what's happened with the people involved, their excitement and enthusiasm, has made up for it. I couldn't have asked for a better start for what I hope will be a community tradition. This has the potential to reach out to more than just activists."
It will take a lot of fund-raising to bring Peace Academy back for a second year, Moran says, but she is optimistic it'll happen, and definitely sees a need for it.
"With Iraq, Afghanistan, and the general world situation, there's no better time for a program to empower people to make a positive change."
Will Burpee is a regular contributor to Illinois Times.