In conflict-ridden areas, sometimes the best way to guarantee a more peaceful future is to find the most promising young local leaders, and then teach them how to be even more effective. In 2012, actor Forest Whitaker made it his mission to do just that, spearheading the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative–an organization that attempts to link peace-building with community-building.
“When I started the foundation, I decided that I needed to have an on-the-ground arm to continue my work,” he explains. That on-the-ground arm, the Harmonizer Program, has launched in Uganda, South Sudan, and now Tecate, Mexico, where Whitaker has teamed up with Ericsson, the Swedish Postcode Lottery, and other organizations to train promising youth in everything from conflict resolution and yoga and meditation to IT and communication skills and community-building. Harmonizer is part of a larger program called the Youth Peacemaker Network.
“I’ve always had an affinity to Mexico because it’s on the border of our country,” says Whitaker. Tecate, located on the Mexico-California border, is in an area that has been plagued by drug-related violence in recent years.
Before setting up shop in a new city, the Harmonizer program workers investigate local life, making partnerships with local nonprofits and interviewing young leaders. The three to five year Harmonizer training program (in Mexico, it will be with 34 people between 15 and 23 years old) begins with a five-day intensive program, which Whitaker is attending.
“I work on the action plans, the goals, understanding groups, and how to cope with group communication. In Uganda, I worked a little bit more on the meditation, but I haven’t done that in the Mexican program,” says Whitaker. “Most of the Mexican program is more about dealing with conflict, understanding the psychology of groups.”
In the Sudan program, Harmonizer joined with Ericsson to put up small computer computer centers, developing capacity and bringing connectivity into small areas that don’t have it, according to Whitaker.
After the initial training session, participants meet monthly with on-site trainers and specialists who come from out of town (in the Mexico program, they’re mostly driving down from Los Angeles). Three-day intensives happen twice each year.
For now, the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative is focused on its current programs. But Whitaker has a larger vision. “We’re continually looking at different places and conflicts around the globe. We’re trying to create a global network of people working for peace all over the world,” he says.