Jessica Newfield

The Non-Violence Project: From Art Piece to Social Movement

Jessica Newfield
The Non-Violence Project: From Art Piece to Social Movement

The Non-Violence Project was born out of Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s famous work of a knotted gun, “The Non-Violence Sculpture”, to commemorate John Lennon’s passing on December 8th, 1980, and his vision of a peaceful world. The knotted gun has become an international symbol of the non-violence movement. It is currently displayed in front of the UN Headquarters. The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated: "The Non-Violence Symbol has not only endowed the United Nations with a cherished work of art; it has enriched the consciousness of humanity with a powerful symbol. It is a symbol that encapsulates, in a few simple curves, the greatest prayer of man: that which asks not for victory, but for peace."

The Non-Violence Project Foundation’s mission is to prevent violence through educational programs so as to change attitudes towards recurring violence. Margareta Barchan sat down with the co-founder of the project, Jan Hellman, in Verbier, Switzerland. Here is an extract of her interview:

Margareta Barchan:  Why did you start the Non-Violence Project?

Jan Hellman:  The project was founded in 1993 in Stockholm, Sweden.  The reason why we started was a coincidence. I was working with the artist that created a symbol, the gun with the knotted barrel and he asked me one day if I wanted to do a world tour with the symbol but as a piece of art. So, we went around the world and we started in Berlin in 1989, at Alexanderplatz, just by the wall, on the day where it was torn down. And we had more than 160 TV stations that followed the inauguration of the symbol. And then we continued around the world. We were in Moscow during the Perestroïka. We were in many other countries and after this tour, I realized how big of an impact the symbol had on people in general.

Barchan:  So it was an aesthetic tool before it became an ideological statement?

Hellman:  It was definitely a tool but both Rolf, the co-founder, and I had the feeling that we wanted to do something else with it. I had been in the commercial world for many years. We wanted to do something and we saw here a chance to make it happen.  The late Reuterswärd, who designed the symbol and is still probably one of the most famous Swedish artists, was very supportive of our initiative and allowed me to buy the rights to his art for our project.

Barchan:  During your time working on the Non-Violence Project, did you witness acts of bravery?  

Hellman:  Yes, I witnessed bravery at two schools down in the southern part of Sweden called Rosengard where we were trying to implement our program. They have more than 170 different nationalities there. There are multicultural tensions and even occurrences of pure violence such as stealing and stabbing.  No prevention program seemed to be working. The headmaster agreed to try out our program that we told him was more interactive and fun.  

Barchan:  Do you know why he was brave enough to say ‘‘I will let you do it”? Do you know why he trusted your program that much?

Hellman:  He saw it in action. He saw that it was different. I can tell a story there. If you go to the United States today and you go into any school and you ask the headmaster or the teacher, ‘‘Do you have any violence prevention programs?’’ They will all say, ‘‘Yes, of course.’’ ‘‘Where are they?’’ ‘‘Oh, it’s up there.’’ And they point up to a shelf somewhere. ‘‘Ah, is it good? Does it work? Do you work with it?’’ ‘‘No, no we don’t work with it.’’ ‘‘Why don’t you work with it?’’; ‘‘It’s much too theoretical and much too complicated, written by a person who probably has a lot of theoretical competence but has never ever seen the reality of our schools.’’ ‘Why do you have it then?’’ and they said, ‘‘We are forced by the school system to have it but we can’t use it.’’ That is why I think the headmaster said, ‘‘This is a different program, this can make a difference.’’ He’s also inspired other teachers in Sweden to implement it. He’s working now at a national organization within education to implement this thinking. He’s also on the board of the Swedish Non-Violence Foundation.

Barchan:  Can you tell me about how you engaged more people around the project?

Hellman:  The people that we find are mainly the people that want to be involved but don’t have the economic freedom to do it. They don’t even have the network to do it but they see how important it is to do in their local context. And other times, there are heads of countries that want to be ambassadors of non-violence. We were approached about half a year ago from a group of top Japanese business leaders to tackle domestic violence and mobbing issues.

We also worked on a project that is called the University Project that we started about 2 years ago. That was very well received. We started it in St. Andrews in Scotland where we educate first year students to become our Master Trainers in our curriculum. We’ve also implemented the project at the New School in New York and at UNAM in Mexico, which is Latin America’s largest university.  They have almost 400,000 students and they really stood up for this program. They said, ‘‘This is really what we need in Mexico and this is also what we need in South America because the level of violence has come to a level that we can’t control anymore.’’ We trained 200 teachers from that university and those teachers trained themselves 30,000 more! By 2014, we reached 1,000,000 students all around Mexico.  Our objective is that by 2020, we will have reached 1 billion young people. That is our objective and we know that it’s not a figure that we have taken out like that; we know that it’s realistic. We have reached today almost 8,000,000 in face to face training.

We’re now focusing on developing a virtual platform for online learning around non-violence. It takes time to develop, but fortunately, we had some major international companies that have sponsored us in providing technical work. We will be able to reach out to all these old schools which we have worked with and promote our online campaign called ‘‘Imagine 1 Billion Faces for Peace’’ where you load up your name and your face on that campaign. When you do that, you’ll immediately receive our information packet, which is called ‘‘10 Ways to Stay out of Trouble.’’

What is also unique about how our program has evolved is that each project around the world shares the same principles such as “Schools for Peace”, which is the same in Uganda as it is in New York but we adapt it to local requirements and local ways of teaching. We also have two new programs. One of them is the entrepreneurship program. Social exclusion linked to poverty often leads to crime and violence in some form. We believe that social entrepreneurship will keep people out of the cycle of poverty. For example, in Kampala, Uganda, we have a program for young adults to make their own soaps. The program has grown to 200 entrepreneurs. Moreover, we’re providing young women with micro-loans under our “Pick Up Yourself” program to get Ugandan women out of sex work.

Barchan: Going from symbol to full movement, your work has without a doubt demanded extreme courage from you to make the organization grow.

Hellman: I realized that running the organization was the most important thing I could do. We see a bright future in what we’re doing and we see also that we have a high success rate. We are changing the world and we are changing the world in a subject that is so important.

We’re not working with violence that is related to wars. We don’t have the competence or capacity in our organization; we are working with society-related violence. There is a lot of research that has been done now, at the university level, that shows that if you start early enough with violence prevention,  you can prevent other systemic dysfunctions that could lead to exacerbated acts of violence and conflict.  

I will also tell you about a project we’re working on to tackle juvenile crime: ‘‘The Juvenile Program’’ in California. We offer to the juvenile court system an alternative to going to prison. The judge says,‘‘You have two choices: you go three months to prison or you go through this three month online program.  And you have to have passed a high-level test accepted by all different authorities. If you pass that test, you don’t go to prison.’’ This incentivizes young people to do well on the test to avoid prison. They feel more empowered when they have a choice.

Barchan: Have you ever had any doubts about the project- if this is the right thing to do?

Hellman: Sometimes when you realize that what you want to do is not enough. You understand that so much more could be done but you don’t have the capacity to do it.

Barchan:  What are the signs of a brave leader?

Hellman:  I think that a brave leader, first of all, is someone who dares to stand up and say they believe in things that may not be accepted yet in his or her surroundings. He or she dares to do it from A to Z and doesn’t give up easily. I think that we can all be brave people on many levels. It could be within a small organisation, or on a city level. It doesn’t matter, as long as you stand up and try to change something that you believe in changing for the better.

Barchan:  So, where does courage and braveness come into play for you?

Hellman:  I think it comes from different sources, both from us and from the people that we educate. Violence is today a very tough subject. You need to be a brave mother, you need to be a brave father and you need to be a brave CEO to take a decision, ‘‘Okay, I will support you money-wise’’ or in the case of parents, ‘‘I will support you by letting my kids go to your courses’’ or ‘‘I will support you at schools that have it as their curriculum.’’              

Barchan:  So what you are saying is that all those people who are involved in some way are more or less brave people because they are standing up for something too?

Hellman:  Absolutely and we see that everyday. We are working currently on five continents and in sometimes, more difficult situations than others. We have just ended a 2-year long project in fifty favelas in Rio and Sao Paolo which received an extremely good response. The teachers were worried the gangs would kill them or prevent them from doing the program - so they had to demonstrate even more bravery.  Even the young people had to be very brave, very brave just to stand up and say: ‘‘I’m tired of this, I’m tired of being scared of being shot or stabbed tomorrow. I’m tired of not knowing if my father or my mother or my sister will not come back home tomorrow.’’

Barchan: What is your one piece of advice for becoming a Brave Leader?

Hellman:  Be open to the new and unknown, and be prepared for changes, while never letting go of your values.

This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.