Maya Soetoro-Ng

Pacifism’s Last Stand

Air Date: August 29, 2015

Maya Soetoro-Ng considers how to build a more peaceful society.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Non-violence – in theory and practice – is rooted deeply in the American aspiration. But the pursuit of, or right to, domestic tranquility as America’s constitutional forbearers conceived it, appears increasingly scarce. When the non-partisan New America Foundation reports that inbred terrorism, Charleston for instance, threatens the nation’s livelihood more than foreign enemies, the call for an American satyagraha or Zen seems ever-justified.

Thus, we embrace today’s guest, a champion of non-violence, founder of the Ceeds for Peace campaign, sister of President Barack Obama and founding board member of his presidential library and foundation.

Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng is professor of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace at the University of Hawaii. In a recent TED Talk, she defined her objective to grow a generation of resilient peace builders. Soetoro-Ng and her colleagues have embarked on a campaign to plant seeds of peace within the America family and people. And now as the Affordable Care Act appears to be unbreakable law, I’m wondering if her mission doesn’t start there. Ultimately, universal care and the kind of universal care that will produce the health and peace of the society that you so push for and press for.

SOETORO-NG: Thank you for having me, first of all.

HEFFNER: Thank you for being here.

SOETORO-NG: It’s so nice to be here and it’s a really interesting question. And, I mean, you point to the fact that peace is something that we need to see more broadly than we have before. I think in the past we think of it in terms of the Civil Rights movements and non-violence and that’s still a really important component of peace studies and peace building and peace work. But, on top of that, I think we need to think of peace as pragmatic work that extends to, you know, equity issues, wellness, environmental stewardship and … certainly the features of conflict resolution and negotiation and facilitation …are very important ongoing manifestations of sort of the practical components of peace.

But something like universal healthcare matters a great deal if we don’t have healthy bodies, if we don’t have opportunities to look after our families then we can’t have peaceful societies. And so, we need to think about those components …as being sort of instrumental tools for, for peace.

HEFFNER: In working with students at the University of Hawaii and being a teacher’s teacher, if you will, you’ve had insight from on the ground. Do you think it’s understood amongst these students that it starts with a breakfast, a sound mind, and sound body?

SOETORO-NG: I think that they’re certainly coming around and beginning to understand that and they’re seeing that, you know, the work of peace is not just about the slogans. It’s not something that’s simple, facile, simplistic, one dimensional. And they’re seeing that, you know, the understanding that peace begins with us means that there’s a lot of work that we as individuals need to do in terms of non-violent communication and mindfulness and, and a sound body. They get that I think in ways that perhaps people a couple generations ago didn’t. They have, I think, a more holistic understanding, I hope so at least.

And what I will say is that, you know, part of the work that we must do in moving forward is helping young people with issues of, you know, anger management. We need to infuse social and emotional learning into our schools. We need to, you know, think about service work and commitment to community and the development of, you know, imaginative and, you know, courageous projects that, you know, connect world and build bridges as an important part of our mission and mandate, you know?

HEFFNER: And do you think it’s more difficult than ever in this climate? Or do you think there’s more opportunity?

SOETORO-NG: I think it’s both, I think we have obviously a globalized world. We have new media that can offer us so many tools for use in planting those seeds of peace, if you will. We can engage in global collaboration. We can have shared campaigns for social justice. We have an understanding of our symbiotic relationships, our interconnectedness. And in that sense, we also know that the stakes are very, very high.

But, it is hard because, you know, there is a high probability of feelings of overwhelmed. Sort of feeling like this is more than I can manage. It’s difficult to understand the various facets of conflict, and we need to have multi-faceted solutions. But that can be daunting as well.

HEFFNER: And you’re teaching, in this fall of 2015, a course on leadership and social change.

SOETORO-NG: Yeah, so leadership and social change is basically a participatory leadership class that takes a look at, you know, how we can be transformative leaders more than charismatic or transactional. So, sort of removing things from the hierarchy, it’s something that all of us can do. And I have to work hard to persuade students of that, because when I ask them initially what, you know, how many of you are leaders or in what ways are you leaders, many of them will say, I’m not a leader. You know, I don’t really have the power to impact this environment or to change people’s minds or I’m not the boss.

And so part of it is just doing what I call washing of the eyes. “Cuci mata” they say in Indonesian. It means to wash the eyes and to sort of see things differently, approach themselves with a new sense of empowerment and a different lens. As well as sort of looking at others differently.

HEFFNER: You did take a leave and work for the President, your brother’s campaign. Looking at it now, as a successful two-term presidency with the Supreme Court recently reaffirming the universal, the movement towards universal care with the Affordable Care Act, do you see the potential for such a grass-roots mobilization to, to energize the, the nation—

SOETORO-NG: When I campaigned for my brother, I have to say that what was so impressive and so interesting and uplifting for me was just the amount of participation. And it was again the multi-faceted nature of that participation. Some people were, you know, creating art. There were, you know, examples and models of civic engagement. People were uplifting their voice and, you know, raising it in song. And there was much of substance and style. And, you know, design was a big part of that campaign and sort of— thinking about…

HEFFNER: You did see the poster in our green room.

SOETORO-NG: I did. The Hope poster, which pleased me to see. But I do think that it was very energetic and I felt terrific. I could not have anticipated how challenging, you know, the work of being at the helm would be for my brother. But I do see that part of his legacy has been and will be to increase levels of participation and that, you know, and, and sometimes there’s disagreement there. There’s, there’s real conflict. But I, I do have a tremendous amount of hope for the possibility of, you know, alternative, sort of, conflict resolution and, you know, alternative means of addressing disputes and again, non-violent communication and civil discourse becoming elevated. And in his post-presidency, having young people really take leadership on movements that mobilize millions. I think that a big part of the presidential library will be to think about new ways and opportunities to engage and to, you know, harness the energy of the multitudes in this country for that very purpose and to have young people think about how they’re going to inherit the, the movement of the past. You know, Selma was a great speech I think that my brother made, and there have been in recent days decisions in the Supreme Court and as well as work on the ground that indicate that people are very much invested in kind of taking the opportunities, the advancements, and the diversification of this period and continuing to do work that will enhance that and to improve our democratic participation.

HEFFNER: How do you weld seeds of peace that are gonna nurture the health of a society?

SOETORO-NG: We can’t think of the seeds, these qualities, that are so essential for, I think, peace-building, healthy societies, as being separate. I think the success comes in beginning to integrate them. So, when I work with teachers and schools and students, the idea is how do we integrate the seeds of peace into math classes. Well, we use, you know, mathematic projects, ethno-mathematics and basically give students a chance to think about, you know, equity and looking at, you know, analysis and of, you know, poverty issues or how they can kind of rebuild communities that have faced disaster. You know, so, in English classes, we really think about how to have students be writers, entwine their voices with the voices of, you know, the literary greats. But also think about being multilingual, not simply as having facility and agility in Mandarin and Spanish. But, rather in understanding, you know, the language of different vocations and the language of civic participation and the languages of intimacy and, you know, understanding, and so, you know, in history classes, we definitely show, you know, history and, you know, contemporary events from multiple perspectives. And we get students to switch perspectives and to move more comfortably back and forth very hard but very important, you know, between perspectives and to make room for discomfort and for the upending of assumptions.

So we literally, in structured academic controversies or in playing the doubting and believing game, we have them argue quite vehemently one side and then in the next breath they have to argue the opposite side and then do the very hard work of negotiating between the sides and, or finding their own positioning that draws from more than one perspective. So I, I think, you know, that is important, we need to practice that and, and, and we can’t expect adults who are working in, you know, sort of congressional spaces or other leadership positions to be able to do that readily without having had an opportunity to practice, we have to start when they’re young. And, you know, same with science and environmental stewardship and, you know, looking at, you know, climate issues. We really need STEM education that is very deliberate about real world application while still embracing the elegance of theory and idea and all of those foundational concepts that are so important to the fields.

HEFFNER: So which of those peaceful proclivities are being modeled for society?

SOETORO-NG: I think that we need to have a 360 degree approach connecting family, community, and, and, you know, leadership and with educators. Because, I think that we need to have consistent messaging and I think that, you know, certainly in our schools, we are not doing necessarily always a good job of connecting with the needs of the community and bringing that community in, or of giving young people an opportunity to go out and so that community engagement, I don’t think, is being always well-modeled. Sometimes education is still about beyond, you know, it’s still about, you know, working within the walls of the classroom or within the pages of a textbook and isn’t really challenging the students to think actively about moving beyond either intellectually or physically. I think that we’re not seeing a tremendous amount of, you know, courage or, you know—one thing I was saying in a recent graduation speech is that we need to think of courage a little differently. I think—

HEFFNER: How so?

SOETORO-NG: Well, we still, I think, teach courage as being something that is about making a bold leap, you know, making a big decision. You know, skydiving, which requires a certain kind of courage. But I think the courage that we need to envision and model now is the one that allows young people to think about setting aside their, you know, gadgets or their rapid-fire imagery and, you know, preparing themselves to take a sort of long and arduous road that shows, you know, commitment and persistence, ‘cause we have these problems that are really intractable and there’s, you know, they, they don’t get solved in an instant and I think that, you know, right now, a lot of young people want really rapid results and are not necessarily, you know, harnessing the courage that will allow them to, you know, kind of really move past the frequent barriers that arise with problem solving.

HEFFNER: Do obstacles arise from the nature of warfare today? Because the movements that gain traction, the pacifistic attitude in response to wartime has kind of died out.


HEFFNER: You don’t see contemporary pacifists. You’re one of them.

SOETORO-NG: I try. But it’s very hard, you know, in the face of, you know, sort of pragmatic, you know, concerns and realities and I try to, you know, sort of live my pacifism as, as, as best as I can. In a way that’s, you know, both intimate and public. But the truth is that, you know, it is, it is challenging. Because there are a lot of people who would argue, for instance, that, that pacifism is weak, that it’s impractical. That it is something that, that is, you know, comes from a position of entitlement and, you know, I understand that perspective on some level. But I don’t agree. I mean, I think it’s, there’s real power in taking something non-violent and taking something soft and using it to combat something hard and for instance, there’s this guy named Paul Chappell who comes from West Point and he talks about the military and how the military is comprised of lots of individuals who would love the opportunity to work for peace and to engage in peace building on a daily basis as a critical component of what they do. And he says, you know, none of these guys want to kill, you know? But, but they, they’re seldom kind of trained or educated with that as being the priority.

HEFFNER: The challenge of pacifism is real, it’s intimate. You live it, your brother lives it. Expound on that, that tension. Because you want, you both want to practice it.

SOETORO-NG: On an individual and intimate basis, yes. My brother doesn’t always have the luxury of making decisions that are just about, you know, his beliefs. He has to sort of act in accordance with the wide range of opinions, with a lot of information, to which I don’t have access. And, I struggle with, with it as well. And I don’t know that he is a pacifist. I mean, I think you, he, you know, in his, in his, was it, peace, Nobel Peace Prize speech, talked a lot about, you know, Just War. I, I do know that he’s a great admirer of people who have been proponents and leaders of non-violence and he believes in the power of non-violence very much.

I have a luxury which he does not. Which is basically I can live on a daily basis in the decisions that I make and things that I do kind of just for myself. I live, you know, far away from the corridors of government. And, in, in my work in schooling, I’m never really asked, I’m never really challenged in, in ways that he and others are. I do think there is room to kind of engage in transformational work, for instance, in the military, there’s that guy, Paul Chappell who talks about the value of the military as peace builders and how we need to spend more time emphasizing the military’s role and he does a lot of work with anti-nuclear proliferation and that sort of thing. But I think there is room to, you know, kind of push to the next frontier of peace in all respects, but yeah…

HEFFNER: There was a Department of War that was then converted into the DOD, Department of Defense.


HEFFNER: There’s a Department of Veterans’ Affairs.


HEFFNER: Do we need a Department of Peace?

SOETORO-NG: I think that’d be terrific. You know, I think that there have been people who worked hard for it, among them Sparky Matsunaga, the senator whose name was taken for the Institute of Peace in Hawaii. Matsunaga was also instrumental in the creation of the United States Institute of Peace, which is where I’m a visiting scholar this summer. And they do important work in the conflict zones. They work with military personnel with all facets of civil society as well and do important negotiation and peace-building and education on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and Burma and—but they also have an educational component here, the Global Peacebuilding Center and the Academy, which does training for people who are in this field but also K-12 schools are being given resources and opportunities to explore peacebuilding in an integrated way. And they, they have wonderful simulations, they have great resources, free online peacebuilders toolkit. And, you know, they bring a lot of, they do a lot of bridge building between civil society and military in all parts of the world which, that are kind of facing serious conflicts, which is important.

HEFFNER: Where is there the opportunity for the peacebuilding internationally?

SOETORO-NG: I think that organizations like the United States Institute of Peace are really important. They’re not alone. They are unique, I think, in, in that they are sort of an independent, non-partisan, Federally funded entity. But there are lots of, you know, non-governmental organizations as well as governmental initiatives to help internationally.

But I think that we definitely both grass-roots and governmental diplomacy. And we need to have, I think, individuals in all sort of sectors of society begin to develop a certain global competence. As barriers are lifted or boundaries are blurred, you know, we need to have an engaged populous that has an understanding of global issues and who’s, who are prepared to kind of struggle with kind of their identity in terms of being both, you know, local and global at this stage. My feeling is we are all kind of hybrids. We have to think about the fact that the things that we do are impacting others. We have to think about the fact that what is happening in other parts of the world, you know, all of that is impacting us greatly. I think that part of that is ensuring that we don’t get myopic, we don’t get insular, we don’t get narrow. And so, you know, government can’t and military, they can’t, certainly address all of the, the problems. So we need a lot of mechanisms of international exchange. We need education. We need people working on infrastructure. A couple years ago, I went with University of Hawaii, we did the APDR3, it’s for disaster risk-reduction, resilience, brought together governmental organizations, non-governmental corporations, educational institutions and spent time working with people on the slopes of Mount Merapi, which is the most destructive volcano, I think, right now, and atch people rebuild. And those efforts are really critically important. Worked with Hope Worldwide. APDR3 has now turned into Ready Asia-Pacific and it kind of emerged from APEC but, you know, the, that integrative work and that collaborative work, I think, is really, really gonna be critical if we’re gonna impact the international community. I did a lot of work with the East-West Center in Asia.

HEFFNER: It sounds like, and we are beginning to wrap up, you’re on a mission to build the human capital, the interpersonal, transnational human capital that will transcend the barriers that will transcend an attitude of conflict—

SOETORO-NG: The idea is to, is to offer real alternatives that are engaging, that are viable and, and wherever you are to, as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a culture, as a school, to try to offer, you know, your, sort of, contribution as, as passionately as possible.

HEFFNER: Maya, I want to thank you so much for being on The Open Mind today.

SOETORO-NG: Thank you. Thank you, it was fun.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook at OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.