On the Record With ... Forest Whitaker

This Oscar award-winning actor spends his time off-camera working to end violent conflict and fostering peace among American and international youth.

Posted: 02/27/2014 12:00 AM EST

I view my humanitarian work as the continuation of a personal journey that started when I was 7 years old with my cousin Charles. He taught me about art and fueled my imagination through the tip of a pen as we drew cartoons. At that time the country drafted its youth into the army. My cousin would be the first touch I would have with war and the traumas it creates. I remember the day that he arrived back home. He was broken inside. He would not be able to reconcile with his home, his society or himself. He was taught to be a soldier, that’s all he knew. He turned to alcohol and a life of day-to-day living to drown out the guilt he carried for his deeds on the frontlines. Later, in a quest for understanding, I would listen to the child soldiers speak about their experience and watch as they tried to reenter a community that they no longer understood or that no longer wanted them. The same but different stories would come from the mouths of gang members. I recognized that for many of them, the life-and-death battle was fought inside. That’s why I founded The Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth, men and women overcome these battles and share their individual stories with the world.

I try to help people live in peace in areas crippled and depressed by epidemics of conflicts, violence, and economic turmoil. Connecting, empowering and inspiring young people across the planet — from South Sudan to South Central Los Angeles.

When you work with child soldiers and their innocence lost to tribal wars; when you work with urban youth and their innocence lost to gang wars, you learn one thing: that violence in our environment and violence in ourselves feeds on each other, reinforce each other. When you seek reconciliation and transformation, you must work from the inside out. This is true everywhere. I grew up in South Central LA where tribal warfare is called gang violence. It was the Crips against the Bloods, not unlike the Hutu versus the Tutsi in Rwanda. It was brother against brother and it was fighting for power, for control and for survival and I struggled most of my life try to understand how it happens, how to stop it and one thing I do know helps is education.

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I have spent time with child soldiers, refugees and orphans in Uganda, South Sudan but also with gang members children in the US or Mexico. Few people realize that for kids growing up in urban ghettos extreme violence is sometimes a daily fact and often a way of life. Their traumas are sometimes graver than those experienced by children exposed to international conflicts or civil wars, because those hardships are perceived, at least most people around them, as a breach in a normally peaceful existence. What I’ve come to understand is that youth across the globe share similar stories, and have the same hopes — a life filled with joy, harmony where they can thrive endless opportunities.

I created WPDI to make a difference on the ground by helping communities help themselves. To achieve this, we focus on youth, not just because they are the leaders of tomorrow, but also because they are key actors in the present. Youth have a potential for openness, energy, creativity, connectivity, which can be harnessed to benefit their communities. I am convinced that connectivity will be increasingly recognized as a key lever for peace and reconciliation processes. This philosophical point comes with material consequences, though: you need access and hardware to be connected. To overcome that hurdle, I develop partnerships with companies such as Ericsson, who provide phones and computers to the youth of our programs, notably in Africa. This is how I work with my foundation to offer a platform where people can learn, connect and share their stories, their progress and challenges.

I view Peace as an active investment; it calls for leadership that starts within everyone. Today, this cannot happen without powerful educational values and a progressive media environment. In many conflict-affected countries, over 60% of the population is under 25 years old. 57 million children remain out of school today and 42% or close to half of them are affected by conflict. It is estimated today that tens of thousands of children – some as young as eight years old — are involved in at least 15 armed conflicts around the world. The physical and psychological impact on children and their communities across generations cannot be underestimated. It deprives them of their rights and their childhood. Education is a core component of my projects. Education is first a transmission of knowledge and skills that can be useful throughout life but it also entails a “human citizen” dimension that consists in the development of attitudes and behaviors fostering peace, non-violence and dialogue. Thus, when I develop a program in a country, the aim is to build a youth avant garde of peace-leaders who will encourage reconciliation, peace-building, non violent conflict resolution, mediation in areas affected by conflict. This is why it is important for us to offer certified trainings through a unique mix of peace-building, conflict resolution, mediation, life skills, vocational training, ICT skills.

All in all, my career as an artist and a humanitarian has taken me to a number of places on the different continents of this planet. Everywhere and every time, I have been impressed by the energies and commitment of ordinary leaders who are nothing but extraordinary. I am moved everyday by so many people who selflessly dedicate their own lives to the betterment of others’ lives. As human beings, we have a collective destiny. Every moment must be an opportunity to connect people, to create links of solidarity and to celebrate generosity.

My hope for the future is that every individual has the capacity to understand that peace starts with our daily efforts in local communities, to understand that our communities are part of a nation that each of us contributes to build and rebuild and to understand that we are all more and more connected to the world, the so-called global village.

With this, I will have done something if I can be remembered as an artist whose quest for truth could not be separated from an humble respect of people’s energies and a consciousness that the human condition can be bettered by dialogue and commitment.

Award winning artist, Humanist and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Forest Whitaker has dedicated most of his time to extensive humanitarian work. In 2011, he was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation for his personal dedication and work in the field of conflict resolution and his commitment to promote humanitarian ideals. He founded the Los Angeles based Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative in 2012, and in partnership with Rutgers University, he co-founded of the International Institute for Peace under the auspices of UNESCO.

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(Photo: Gabriel Olsen)

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