On 2 December, a terrorist attack killed 14 people and wounded more than 20 others in San Bernardino, California.
Less than two months later, an event nearby focused on peace: the Rotary World Peace Conference. The two-day meeting on 15-16 January brought together experts from around the world to explore ideas and solutions to violence and conflict.
The conference was the first of five Rotary presidential conferences planned for this year.
San Bernardino County official Janice Rutherford, a member of the Rotary Club of Fontana, California, told attendees at the opening general session that the conference couldn’t be timelier.
“Now more than ever, we need to come together and create peace and reduce human suffering,” said Rutherford, who declared 15 January 2016 Rotary World Peace Day and a Day of Peace for San Bernardino County. “We appreciate your commitment to exploring these options and taking them back to your community and the rest of the world.”
More than 150 leaders in the fields of peace, education, business, law, and health care led over 100 breakout sessions and workshops. Topics ranged from how to achieve peace through education to combating human trafficking to the role the media has in eliminating conflict.
Hosted by Rotary districts in California and attended by more than 1,500 people, the conference is an example of how Rotary members are taking peace into their own hands, said RI President K.R. Ravindran.
“We can’t wait for governments to build peace, or the United Nations. We can’t expect peace to be handed to us on a platter,” said Ravindran. “We have to build peace from the bottom, from the foundation of our society. The valuable information you leave with at the end of this conference will aid you in managing conflict in your personal lives, local communities, and potentially around the world.”
Actress and humanitarian Sharon Stone urged conference attendees to find tolerance within themselves as a way to develop compassion and understanding for others. Noting that today’s technology makes it easy to learn about diverse cultures and beliefs, Stone encouraged Rotary members to embrace differences while learning about others’ work.
“The more we understand the darkness of our enemies, the better we know what to do, how to respond and behave,” said Stone.
Rotary is inching the world closer to meaningful change, said the Rev. Greg Boyle, executive director of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based gang intervention and reentry program.
“Rotary decided to dismantle the barriers that exclude people,” said Boyle, a bestselling author and Catholic priest. “You [Rotary members] know that we must stand outside the margins so that the margins can be erased. You stand with the poor, the powerless, and those whose dignity has been denied.”
Rotary’s most formidable weapon against war, violence, and intolerance is its Rotary Peace Centers program. Through study and field work, peace fellows at the centers become catalysts for peace and conflict resolution in their communities and around the globe.
Dozens of Rotary peace fellows attended the conference to promote the program, learn about other peace initiatives, and help Rotary clubs understand the role they can play.
Peace Fellow Christopher Zambakari, who recently graduated from the University of Queensland in Australia, said the conference is a chance to increase awareness of what others are doing to achieve peace.
“Some people have only a local view toward peace,” said Zambakari, whose consulting firm in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, provides advisory services to organizations in Africa and the Middle East. “An event like this, with so many diverse perspectives, can open up connections and different possibilities to how we all can work towards a more peaceful world."
Other speakers included Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the U.S. Peace Corps; Judge Daniel Nsereko, special tribunal for Lebanon; Gillian Sorensen, senior adviser at the United Nations Foundation; Steve Killelea, founder and executive chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace; Dan Lungren, former U.S. representative; and Mary Ann Peters, chief executive officer of The Carter Center and former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.