Peace Talks

In early 2009 Minneapolis photographer and frequent Voice contributor John Noltner began a documentary project that explores the meaning of peace through art and storytelling. Titled “A Peace of My Mind,” the project asks people simply: What does peace mean in your life? How do you work toward it? What obstacles have you encountered along the way?

To date, Noltner has interviewed and photographed more than 50 people from diverse backgrounds nationwide. Here we present excerpts of seven of his nine interviews with Carleton alumni, students, and faculty and staff members.

“Too often we focus on the things that separate us in this world, whether that is politics, religion, or ethnicity,” says Noltner. “ ‘A Peace of My Mind’ asks us to consider the common humanity that connects us all.”

Read transcripts of all nine interviews, view additional photos, and listen to audio clips at

“We miss his voice still. Our work is not to find the next Paul Wellstone, but to carry on his work through people who step forward and get active in politics and public life.”

Jeff Blodgett ’83 

Jeff Blodgett ’83 is executive director of Wellstone Action, an organization created to carry on the legacy of the late Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila Wellstone, by igniting the leadership in people and the power in communities to create progressive change.

Politics has become a dirty word for a lot of people. There’s a lot of corruption and dysfunction in our government today—and in elections. But to me, democracy is the finest form of governance and it needs to be cherished. Democracy requires involvement; people hold the power to actually make change. Even a small group of people who are organized, focused, and determined can make a difference. Yet people are turned off and cynical, and the result is that half of the people in the country who are eligible to vote don’t vote. Voting is critical to ensuring that democracy functions properly.

The money that powerful economic interests have channeled into elections and into lobbying for certain policies has skewed the notion of representative democracy: one person, one vote. Economic interests end up having more power than an equal number of citizens who are actively engaged, and that’s an enormous barrier to a properly functioning democracy.

We have a polarized political culture in this country currently, but that’s okay. Democracy is about the clash of different ideas, and the best ideas win with a majority of the vote. If those ideas don’t work, then the other side gets to come in. In a democracy that transference of power happens peacefully, but you also have to figure out how to function as a country with divergent viewpoints. Right now we haven’t figured out how to find common ground or compromise, and that’s another barrier to a well-functioning democracy.

But I’m hopeful, because young people see involvement as important. They connect with one another through social networking and new media, which makes them more powerful. Also, the new generations are more accepting of people who are different from them, and I think that will help shed some of this country’s old baggage. I’m optimistic that when the next generation of leaders gets into office—and part of me feels like we can’t get some of these old leaders out of office fast enough—we will see a dramatic change in this country.

 “My role right now is to promote understanding rather than fear.”

Luyen Phan

Luyen Phan was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States in 1975, when he was six years old. A Lutheran church in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, sponsored Phan’s family, and his parents have lived in that town for 35 years. He is associate director of the Office of Intercultural and International Life at Carleton.

Peace is an absence of war. The reality is that in the past 35 years, there have been very few periods of peace. People said that what happened in Nazi Germany wouldn’t happen again, and then it did happen in Cambodia and Darfur. The cynical side of me says that peace is a dream. It’s great to live for and hope for, but we don’t learn from history. I can only speculate that we get greedy. We want something we don’t have, or we want more of what we already have. It’s human nature. There are good people in the world, but sometimes there may not be enough of us to balance things out. Or we may not have enough real power—political, economic, cultural, linguistic, social—to stop these things.

As international student adviser, my role right now is to have students from all over the world meet each other, to promote understanding rather than fear and intolerance. The kids here are from various cultural and religious backgrounds, but they care for and support each other, and they speak up when they feel that someone is mistreating
their friend.

Whether we are fortunate enough to visit another country or whether we get a chance to meet someone who is in our own country as an immigrant, a refugee, or even a high school exchange student, we can get to know people from other parts of the world. Small exchanges where we chat with people, maybe even learn how to pronounce their names, can grow into deeper discussions about their families and friends. Hopefully, over time, those relationships continue to build. It may be years or decades later, but when we read a story about a place and whatever bad thing is happening there, we will think about our friend who is from there, or about the student who went back there. I believe those small experiences will help people work toward some sort of world peace.

 “When we talk about peace, we think about war. But we have to begin in our own land, in our own families, even in our own lives.”

Hudlin Wagner 

Hudlin Wagner is vice president for student development and dean of students at Carleton. 

Integrating the discussion of peace into our lives early on through our learning systems would help us consistently envision peace as achievable. Instead, our society has romanticized warriors: Genghis Khan, the Zulus, the Iroquois.

I believe in the goodness of human beings; a large percentage of people around the world do share a deep desire for peace. But we don’t often exercise a means of achieving it.

My fear is neutrality. I’m hopeful because I’m seeing more and more individuals step forward. Neutrality won’t be an option. We are living in a time when the impact of not working together for peace leaves us only the alternative of destruction. We need to hear from the leadership of the next generation coming up around the world. We’re ready for it. We are accustomed to thinking about addictions as abusive and destructive. I would love to live in a society with people who are addicted to peace. Wouldn’t that be one hell of an addiction?

“As a culture, we have a skewed idea about the worth of things, about value. We say the most expensive thing is the best thing. Or the bigger thing is the best thing. To me it’s the relationship between you and the object that is more valuable.”

Kelly Connole 

Kelly Connole is an assistant professor of art at Carleton who teaches ceramics and metalsmithing. She describes herself as an artist, a teacher, and an avid gardener. 

A number of years ago I was teaching at a seminary a course called “Pottery and Proclamation,” which is a lofty title. The folks in the class were, for the most part, working toward becoming ordained within their faith communities. I appreciated how thoughtful they were in trying to make sense of the world within their belief systems. One woman had recently lost her partner to cancer and was mourning the loss of someone who was incredibly important to her. As she learned how to make pots, she decided it would be powerful for her to make a pot to hold her partner’s ashes.

There is an understanding in Native American cultures that you’re making pots out of your ancestors. We all become part of the earth, so when that earth is used to make pots, the pots actually have bits of our ancestors. So she and I talked about sifting some of her partner’s ashes into the clay to make the vessel that would then hold the rest of them. We decided to meet at Northern Clay Center to make this vessel in the middle of the day, because we thought it would be a quieter time. In fact, there was a children’s class in the next room and we could hear their laughter.

While we listened to the noise of children, we sifted some of the ashes into the clay and threw a simple container on the wheel. The woman had only been working with clay for a few weeks, and it was as though the clay just threw itself, as though our hands were barely there. The vessel took shape in a wonderful, peaceful way. And now it’s in her house—this container that is made of this person whom she loved so much.

To hear those children’s voices while I was making a piece with someone whom I didn’t know well, yet was sharing this intimate part of her life, I felt like, “Oh, this is peace. This is a perfect moment.” Perfect in a messy, confusing, emotional sort of way, and I guess that that’s what makes the most sense to me.

“I’m a privileged white kid, and I revel in bonding with people who are completely different from me. I’ve made strong relationships wherever I’ve gone, and I’m passionate about getting to understand people.”

Roy Martin ’10 

Roy Martin ’10 is a history major from Brooklyn, New York, who worked with ProWorld Peru on its Cleaner Burning Stoves project, which seeks to slow deforestation by installing fuel-efficient wood stoves to curb consumption while simultaneously reducing illnesses related to smoke inhalation.

I’ve always wanted to do something internationally. I am idealistic, and I like to work hard. I’ve never felt better than when I was living in the homes of rural Peruvian families. We come from such different worlds, but we were on the same wavelength. Mixing mud with mothers and smiling and making faces at kids. Trying to learn their indigenous language. Teaching them English, which was a futile effort, but fun nonetheless. We laughed and joked. It sounds cheesy, but every day was inspiring. I was doing work with a purpose that I was passionate about. And that’s how I want to live every day of my life.

Peace to me lies in people’s ability to connect with one other—the power of caring and how that is manifested. It doesn’t happen on a political or a spiritual level for me; it’s on a human-to-human level. It comes from a touch or showing someone compassion and genuine love—these are deep and valuable human capabilities.

Peace is a compassionate interaction with anybody at any level. Opening up your mind and being willing to look deeper and see a side of someone that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise is the right thing to do. I think the only way to live a happy life is by doing the right thing.

“Barack Obama is not the realization of Martin Luther King’s dream. That’s bullshit. Barack Obama is a politician. Martin Luther King was a prophet. And the offices of the prophet and the offices of the politician are distinct.”

Harry Williams Jr. 

Harry Williams Jr. is the Laird Bell Professor of History at Carleton. Among the courses he teaches are “African American History;” “Black Atlantic History,” focusing on the relationship between Ghana and the United States; and “U.S. History from 1865 to 1945.”

I’m 61 years old. How I define peace is a function of where I am in chronological age and probably historical age, too. At this juncture, I’m seeking and striving after personal peace. At 61 years, one starts thinking about legacy, and I’ve also started thinking about the opposite of that,
of the future.

I want to make peace with my great anger at America. I want to make peace with myself. I want to make peace with the people I hold dear and close—my bosom-buddy friends, my thick-and-thin friends. I’m defining peace as a more humane and positive orientation toward self and others.

But I don’t think I will ever become peaceful if that means accepting the horrific things that have happened to people of African descent in the United States. I don’t ever want to make peace with that. I see the world as it is, and I believe evil marches in the world. I believe that people do evil for any number of reasons. I don’t like it, but I accept that. And as it pertains to the historical experiences of black people in the United States, my reading of history, and my living for 61 years, I can no longer afford to be an internal, unabashed, unaltered optimist. I must make peace unwillingly with reality.

There is a great richness and a great complexity to life. I tell my students, “Life is dirty. Life is messy.” The birth process is messy, and I saw my mother dying of cancer. I wasn’t there at the moment she died, but I know that she suffered. I have to come to terms with that, and that’s all part of the peace process. Shall I dare use that term in this sense? That richness, that variety, that complexity, that complicatedness is what gives us our humanity. I may fault Americans for being too optimistic, but then you may come back to me and say, “What are the benefits of pessimism?”

Striving after peace is complicated, dirty, but ultimately rewarding—and perhaps elusive. 

“Is it our responsibility to promote peace globally? How far should we go? As a 22-year-old woman, I would say to do whatever makes you happy without making others unhappy. A simple answer to a very complex question.”

Khant Khant Kyaw ’11 

Khant Khant Kyaw ’11, a special major in international studies, was born in Burma (officially known as the Union of Myanmar) but lived in Singapore for 10 years. She recently received a $10,000 Davis Project for Peace grant to use community photography as a tool for education and development of youth in Burma.

I was born Buddhist. My grandma is very religious, so I was exposed to Buddhism when I was young through folklore and temple visits. When we moved to Singapore, I lost that connection. I don’t have a sound foundation of Buddhism yet, but it’s something that I’ve recently started exploring again. There are three Buddhist principles that I live by to foster peace within myself. The first is awareness, the second is understanding, and the third is contentment.

Awareness is being open and having the ability to communicate in terms of expressing oneself as well as listening—knowing where someone else comes from.

Tolerance or understanding happens on a deeper level when you try to gain an insight into the other person’s perspective, and perhaps even embrace it if that resonates within you.

Contentment says “Follow the middle path or the middle way.” Giving in to your desires too much is not a good thing because you’ll be overwhelmed. Being content is a remedy to console yourself when you don’t get something that you want. That may stop you from engaging in negative actions or words that could promote conflict.

Web Extras:
View John Noltner's entire project and listen to audio interviews.
Read transcripts, see additional photos, and hear audio clips of all nine Carleton interviews.

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