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Forest Whitaker: “Empowerment has become central to my vision of the future”

This year's honorary Palme d'Or award at Cannes Film Festival will be given to Forest Whitaker, UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, in recognition of his filmography and his humanitarian commitments. On this occasion, we went down memory lane and asked Mr. Whitaker about his tireless activism and charity work in the service of the community.
Forest Whitaker

Interview by Mila Ibrahimova

What made you get involved in educational projects for young people living in areas affected by violence or conflict?

I have always believed in the power of education. Growing up in a neighborhood of Los Angeles that became overwhelmed by gangs, I saw many of my peers faced with a choice: join the violent drug wars, or become victims to them. I escaped this fate thanks to my parents. I was privileged because my parents had an infinite faith in the power of education, and supported me to get an education in a different environment. From this, I learned that  children and youths need to have people who care for them and advocate for their education. Most of the time, these people happen to be parents, guardians, or neighbours – but sometimes, for many reasons, such concern for education is absent. This will often be the case in conflict and violence-affected areas – where many institutions are failing. This is probably why my humanitarian work started with former child soldiers – many of whom have no family and have lost educational years not just to war but also to social rejection. I realized that there was a need to fill this educational gap. This is one of the motivations behind the overall strategy of my organization, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). On the one hand, we provide training of trainers to young aspiring community leaders who will in turn teach other young and vulnerable people at large. On the other hand, we establish Community Learning Centers in remote and under-serviced areas, where local residents can access educational online resources as well as in-person courses in topics like conflict resolution, information and communications technology (ICT), and social entrepreneurship. This is how I try to ensure that youths from such fragile places are supported by people who care for their education.

I was privileged because my parents had an infinite faith in the power of education
Forest Whitaker

One of your main priorities as the UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation is to highlight education as a means of promoting peace and reconciliation between and within communities. Do you feel that your voice is being heard?

I do feel that my voice – and that of other people championing the power of education for promoting peace – is being heard. But peace and reconciliation are not values that only a handful of individuals – or even one large organization – can promote on their own. We need to have a much larger chorus, one that builds on the voices of civil society and, above all, on the voices of hundreds of thousands and millions of people at the grassroots level. This is what I seek to accomplish through WPDI. Last year, for instance, we launched a program in partnership with the Education Above All foundation to train pupils and children of South Sudanese and Ugandan schools about peace education. The objective is to provide them with conflict resolution skills that they can directly utilize in their schools and their personal environments. We want them to work at peace from the inside out. But the novel aspect of this project is that we are also training these children and youths to conduct advocacy campaigns on the power of education and other human rights. Our hope is that they will be the ones championing the role of education for peace in their communities. If a project like this succeeds, I will truly consider that our voices are being amplified in support of peace and reconciliation.

What have you learned from your commitment to promote peace and reconciliation?    

My work to promote peace and reconciliation has revealed to me that these are universally shared values. Wherever I go, I find that countless people are committed to them. However, what I have also found is that many conflicts and tensions are very local in their origin, but  people often lack tools and opportunities to take action to address them. This is the gist of the programs I develop with the teams of WPDI. The program I just described, for example, is part of a long-term effort to empower children and young people so that they have the means to promote peace and reconciliation at their own level, in their own local contexts.

It is important to combine efforts on the ground with action on the global scene
Forest Whitaker

What were your greatest successes in terms of raising awareness?  

Different moments come to my mind. I have been working on the issue of child soldiers, which is a very difficult matter with complex ramifications, for many years. But there have been times when I felt that progress could be made. For example, I went to South Sudan in 2014 with the Special Representative of Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and we convinced armed groups and national authorities to demobilize children and help them reintegrate into society. This was a very concrete result. In terms of advocacy, I had the opportunity to address the Security Council twice on this same issue of Children and Armed Conflict. These experiences have taught me that it is important to combine efforts on the ground with action on the global scene. In this respect, I consider my greatest successes in raising awareness to be when I could manage to get young people from conflict and violence-affected places to take the floor directly on the global scene, most notably at the United Nations and UNESCO. These have been uniquely emotional and rich moments, for peace is best served if those who work at it at the global level – sometimes a bit abstractly – can learn from those who tangibly work at it in the field.

Finally, how do you see the future? 

Our present is clearly marked by global risks and challenges that are very diverse, such as climate change, biodiversity losses, or mounting inequalities within and between countries. I have to admit that our world is far from immune to conflict, even on a global scale. There is much work ahead for governments and organizations like UNESCO to counter the scourge of war. A major uncertainty is that no human institution was ever designed to cope with such challenges. This is, in my view, one of the messages behind the Sustainable Development Goals agenda — which was signed by governments at the United Nations but which recognizes that the objectives cannot be achieved by governments and intergovernmental agencies alone. We can only hope for a better future if civil society and the private sector are on board. The lesson I draw from my work every day is that people at the grassroots level can be empowered to come up with solutions. Empowerment has become central to my vision of the future: people should have the capacity to dream, and receive support to enact their own vision of the future.

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