By Joy S. Jones
“I am proud to be one of the 12 founders of the Peace and Justice Institute some six years ago. Several of my peers, spearheaded by Rachel Allen, professor of humanities and coordinator of the Peace and Justice Institute, felt that we could transform the culture of conflict, violence and intolerance to a culture of peace,” said Subhas Rampersaud, West Campus professor of political science.
Initially, the group focused on their students. Some of their peers had already introduced peace courses, which were met by overwhelmingly positive responses from many students.
“I am pleased that this initiative began with faculty and staff, initially endorsed by Dr. Shugart and supported by individuals from the larger community who saw the value of our vision and work. We believed that we could teach conflict resolution skills through insightful and inclusive conversations across the College.”
It wasn’t long before several staff divisions began expressing interest in the Peace and Justice Initiative, asking to be included in the conversations.
“Again, it was our focus on students who, at the end of their classes, re-enter the larger community and have to confront all its challenges. We were confident that we could teach and equip our students with effective tools to negotiate conflicts and exclusions, whether personal or not. After all, it is about transforming culture and providing alternative visions and choices to our students,” Subhas explained.
His years of teaching have taught him that in order for effective teaching and learning to occur, that the process and the lessons must extend beyond the scope of the four walls of a classroom. Evidence of this is the huge numbers — upwards of 200 students per session — in the Conversation on Race workshops during Global Peace Week this past September (2015) on West Campus.
“And, this is not a one-off situation. We have been attracting large numbers for several years at these events. These are also important platforms upon which to introduce our culturally rich and diverse student population to peace traditions from other disciplines and cultures such as environmental science, films with social justice messages, Yoga and Ayurveda,” he said.
Additionally, these out-of-the classroom learning and teaching sessions afford a rare opportunity for Valencia students to experience collective/team teaching across disciplines.
“Isn’t that a powerful message of interdisciplinary partnership to communicate to our students? I firmly believe that there is a hunger for this kind of learning that is not necessarily curriculum-centered. At PJI we strongly believe that each of us must become an ambassador of the culture of peace and therefore embody and model the behavior.”
To put some of this into practice, including nurturing the spirit of giving back, PJI has sponsored a Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida visit twice yearly for the past six years, with students and faculty from East and West Campuses. Several of the students volunteer and engage with the children who reside there in an activity-rich, outdoors event, he said.
The student club, Human Rights Empathy Rights Organization (HERO), for which Subhas serves as club advisor and mentor, also has participated. The club, which focuses its attention on social justice issues, meets weekly and has addressed such intractable issues as minor sex trafficking and poverty. And at each event, the grand finale is a movie with socio-political and human rights themes.
Within the bounds of HERO (which was named by a student) Subhas helps the students cultivate the “soft skills” they’ll need as they encounter the twists and turns of life that are inevitable.
“Suppose you make a commitment and you can’t deliver — what is your backup plan? It’s important to learn to network, form partnerships and contribute to teamwork, and that there is value in associating with each other outside the classroom and away from one’s immediate circle of friends,” Subhas said. HERO participants learn to navigate these real-world scenarios as they engage in the life of the club.
Subhas is also deeply committed to diversity and inclusivity.
“It behooves us to look at how we include students and ask ourselves, ‘Am I aware of my students’ diversity and is my curriculum reflective of same?’ I’m constantly negotiating mentally and cross-culturally, as there are multiple ways of learning and of knowing, and none of us has a monopoly. We must recognize the power that exists in all cultures, because when we don’t practice inclusivity, we diminish the value of other cultures.”
Subhas was instrumental in wordsmithing the Principles for How We Treat Each Other, which form the foundation of the Peace and Justice Institute; and the belief that “All voices matter,” is paramount.
“When a student doesn’t feel free to voice his or her truth, or if we are shutting down voices or opinions that make us uncomfortable, we cannot say that we are democratic. Truth telling takes courage and sometimes requires encouragement and even cajoling — my voice is but one of many,” he said.
The work of compassion, and of communicating one’s purpose through mindful and peaceful living, is, for Subhas, the antidote to regret.
“The work I am doing is very important to me because I am living my values. Peace work and social justice issues, which is not for cowards, allow me to infuse my passion into what I do; and I have arrived at the place to do what I like and to experience that passion with my students. My spiritual values guide who I am. And when you live, breathe and do your work to the greater purpose –without attaching rewards or values — if it is good work, it has its own payoff.