Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections on world citizenship

I had the distinct honor of being recognized last night as the World Citizen of the Year by the United Nations Association of Greater Kansas City. This was my acceptance speech:

Mayor James, distinguished guests:

Ever since I received word that I had won this most prestigious honor, I’ve been busy trying to figure out exactly what a world citizen IS… I googled “define world citizen” and got 3.7 million hits! Many of the definitions were really bad….like the one that was 139 words long that started with…”The term 'world citizen' can be better understood with a negative definition than with a positive one…” Gobbledygook… I did find one that I like, from Farleigh Dickinson university president Michael Adams. He said, “A world citizen is someone who appreciates the interconnected nature of our planet. A world citizen is committed to acting on behalf of humanity everywhere.”

If that’s true, that a world citizen works on behalf of humanity, then I’m most honored to wear the label world citizen.

Now that we have a working definition of world citizenship, perhaps a better way to bring this concept into focus is to spend a moment examining some inspirational folks who exemplify the principle of acting on behalf of humanity. Some of these world citizens you already know—celebrities like Bono and Sting and Angelina Jolie, and philanthropic rock stars like Bill and Melinda Gates or the Hall Family. Most world citizens, however, are just like you and me…people doing what they can to make a difference. Many, like Clara Sinclair, gladly toil in anonymity. I’ll tell you more about Mrs. Sinclair in a moment. Others, like me, have been fortunate enough to be honored for their global citizenship.

One such world citizen honoree is a nurse--Lisa Fernandez , whose world citizenship is reflected in Nicaragua.

Lisa made her first trip to Nicaragua in 1999 when she delivered 52 wheelchairs to children in areas devastated by Hurricane Mitch. When she returned to her home in Wisconsin, she founded The Wisconsin/Nicaragua Wheelchair Project. Her wheelchair project partners with Familias Especiales - an NGO in Nicaragua that serves handicapped children and their families. Familias Especiales provides a full service shop where wheelchairs and other mobility devices are repaired, fitted, and distributed free to needy Nicaraguans. Since its founding, Fernandez and her partners have distributed over 11-hundred wheelchairs. Lisa Fernandez is a true world citizen.

One more world citizen honoree is Dr. Denis Mukengere, who is the founder of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As child, Denis accompanied his father, a Pentecostal pastor, while visiting sick members of the community. This inspired Denis to become a doctor. He decided to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics , since the need for good OB-GYN’s is especially acute in the Congo. In 1998, in the middle of a civil war, he began the construction of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which has become known worldwide for the treatment of survivors of sexual violence and women with severe gynecological problems. Dr. Denis Mukengere is also a true world citizen.

My contributions as a world citizen are certainly modest in comparison to these heroes. I’ve taught abroad in about a dozen countries, and the focus of my work in the last 6 years or so has been peace journalism. Peace journalism is the idea that journalists can make choices that improve the prospects for peace….These choices include what journalists report, how they frame their stories, and the words they use…The idea is that journalists can either inflame conflict and violence or create an atmosphere more conducive to peace.

My peace journalism work started in 2007 with seminars in Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia…I’ve been lucky enough to teach peace journalism to young people through People to People International in Jordan and Turkey. My biggest project—10 months long—sent me to Uganda, where we taught over 30 seminars and traveled 14-hundred kilometers. Our message—that journalists must not fuel sectarian fires…that instead, they must use their influence to help Ugandans improve their communities. We succeeded in meeting our principle goal—to prevent media induced or exacerbated violence around the time of the Ugandan presidential election in 2011.

I have written about my Ugandan mis-adventures in my new book, Professor Komagum… Komagum, by the way, is an Acholi name given to me to some journalists in Gulu, Uganda who attended my seminars. Komagum, I was told, means lucky. I do indeed feel lucky to have these opportunities to exercise my world citizenship, and lucky to have had outstanding personal support from family…and tremendous professional support from Park University, whose delegation is led tonight by our president Dr. Michael Droge. All this support has made all of my peace journalism work a reality.

Of all my supporters, however, one definitely stands out…Mrs. Clara Sinclair, who I mentioned earlier. I got a nice letter from Mrs. Sinclair a few months ago praising Park University for establishing a Center for Global Peace Journalism, which I direct. Mrs. Sinclair went on to say that she is a proud Park graduate, class of….1942. She writes, “I was deeply concerned about the coming war. I had come to the realization, as a child of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, that killing was wrong…Our college president, Dr. L. Young, shared out concerns. Several speakers on non-violence and pacifism spoke to the student body….Much of the inspiration of my life came during my days at Park. I am glad to know that such an effort toward world peace still continues at Park.”

Here’s the kicker…what makes 92-year old Clara Sinclair a true world citizen in my eyes. Mrs. Sinclair writes, “My concern for peace continues. Each Saturday morning, I stand on the corner of a busy intersection near my hone and hold a sign that says, “War is not the answer.”

Thank you, Clara Sinclair, Lisa Fernandez, and Dr. Dennis Mukengere, for showing me what it truly means to be a world citizen. I will do my best to liveup to your high standards. Thank you.

Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn and order my book about my adventures teaching peace journalism in Uganda at .

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