National Expert on Peace and Conflict Studies Says Time Was Right for Kent State Peace Conference

Peace expert says her ‘love affair’ with Kent State began decades ago

Barbara J. Wien was fresh out of college when she made her first visit to what was then, Kent State University’s Center for Peaceful Change. 

“My origin story started at Kent State,” she recalled. 

Wien is a senior professorial lecturer in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., where she teaches alternatives to war and violence. Her storied career waging peace has spanned more than four decades and includes serving as co-director of Peace Brigades International; stints on the faculties of Columbia University, Georgetown University, the University of Maryland and George Mason University; and serving as academic director for the World Policy Institute, where she worked to establish 280 college programs on the study of peace and conflict resolution.  

In 1981, as Wien was about to embark on her career, one of her first stops was Kent State. 

She was just beginning her work for an alliance of five foundations and research institutes, where her role was to promote the establishment of university degree programs in global peace. Her mentors, at the time, told her to visit Kent State before going anywhere else. 

“They told me to go to the Center for Peaceful Change and see how they turned a tragedy into a triumph,” Wien said. “I was 22 at that point. It was the Kent State folks who oriented me. I spent five days with them learning how they shaped the curriculum there.” 

The center was established in 1971, as Kent State’s official response to the May 4, 1970, shootings on campus, in which the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, killing four students and wounding nine others. In the 52 years since the center was founded, it has evolved into Kent State’s School for Peace and Conflict Studies, within the College of Arts and Sciences.

So, when the School of Peace and Conflict Studies and the Gerald H. Read Center for International and Intercultural Education within the College of Education, Health and Human Services made plans earlier this year to host a global peace conference in Kigali, Rwanda, Wien was one of the first to be invited and sign up. The conference was co-sponsored by the University of Rwanda and the Aegis Trust, a nonprofit agency that works to end global genocide. 

Wien was both a keynote workshop presenter and an active participant in the conference, Peace Education in an Era of Crisis, which took place July 11-13 in Kigali. 

Barbara Wien, senior professorial lecturer in the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., leads a workshop in Kigali, Rwanda at Peace Education in an Era of Crisis, global peace conference.

“The reason I accepted the invitation is that I have a long love affair with Kent State,” Wien said, “and I was briefed in February 2023 by Neil Cooper [director of Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies] and Sarah Schmidt [assistant director of global education initiatives at Kent State University at Stark] on the richness of the proposals submitted [for the conference].” 

Wien said the conference theme resonated with our current moment in political history. “Peace education is an anchor, a grounding or valuable compass, in a very chaotic world,” she said. 

Since her early days as an organizer of peace studies on college campuses, Wien has spent her career working to move to a world without war, including writing and editing dozens of books and articles on the study of peace and conflict resolution. 

Peace education is more important now than ever, she said. 

“It can be a very important, steadying influence. Students have told me they feel morally adrift. They do not find enough role models for ethical, moral reasoning. Taking classes in peace education was so grounding and centering for them,” she said. 

Teaching peace as a foundation of their education can be transformative for youth. Wien said that proven peace-building strategies are too rarely discussed outside of higher education. 

“Politicians have a lot of power, but teachers hold in their hands the power to shape future generations,” she said. “I feel that young people need a moral compass or a moral rudder in the world today. They are getting so many different conflicting messages. The commercial media glorifies violence and praises vast amounts of wealth as what you should aspire to. Schools, community groups and many families are trying to teach a different set of values. It is the height of hypocrisy when our leaders bomb and invade other countries, and then turn around and tell kids, ‘Don't fight on the playground. Don’t bully,’ What kind of contradictions do we see there?”   

Rwanda, the site of the conference, has embedded peace education in its school curriculums, following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, when the government-backed Hutu tribe murdered more than 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe.  

There are other examples of countries trying to transform their violent past, Wien said, citing Colombia following its 52-year civil war, efforts between Cypriot Turks and Greeks to overcome their divisions and Northern Ireland.  

The U.S. has many issues that could benefit from practical evidence-based peace building, including racism, gender equality and climate issues. 

“There's a whole body of literature that shows nonviolent struggle is 56% more likely to succeed than armed conflict. So that's why we are building up a storehouse of knowledge to graduate tens of thousands of young people, who will challenge oppressive power relationships and forge alternative peace power. They are the other superpower,” Wien said. “If we made children the priority for our security, then the military would have to hold a bake sale to raise their funding, not the schools.”  

Though the fate of the human race may seem uncertain, particularly with the ongoing climate crisis, Wien said she remains hopeful for many reasons: innovations in green technology to help heal the planet, the work of civic and faith groups who are trying to set a great example for civic virtues and values in communities, and more than 500 university programs in the U.S. and Canada dedicated to educating peace builders. 

Barbara Wien, senior professorial lecturer in the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., signs the registry at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda.

“We have much more empirical evidence about what works in peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace building. We have a great many case studies, a lot of data, rich research, and of course a huge cross-pollination, cross-fertilization of knowledge and storehouses of empirical scholarship, about what actually tips the scales of justice in favor of peace,” she said.  

“So much of that research and evidence has come out at this Kigali conference on Peace Education in an Era of Crisis. I love the title of this conference because the organizers and sponsors both acknowledge the horrors of what we're living through with the climate crisis and wars, but also the possibilities of peace.” 

Wien said she had been considering retiring, but her interactions and encounters with peace educators from more than a dozen countries at the conference have left her feeling humbled, re-energized and totally inspired. 

“I can’t retire. I still have so much to learn! And there’s still so much work to be done,” Wien exclaimed. 

Bottom Photo: Patrick Ndayishimiye/The Aegis Trust 

POSTED: Wednesday, July 19, 2023 12:21 PM
Updated: Friday, July 28, 2023 02:41 PM
Lisa Abraham