Interview with Jim Handley, Nonviolence Trainer by Ali Amani

Jim HandleyInterview by Ali Amani, December 2015

Jim, overall, how do you feel about what you’re doing in the area of nonviolence?

I feel like I’m doing valuable, meaningful work. Teaching peace studies and conducting nonviolence training is rewarding in so many ways.  I feel like I am making a real, tangible contribution to building the Beloved Community.  I feel hopeful that the Peace Studies program I developed at UW – Stout is making a valuable contribution to students’ lives and moving us closer to creating an education system that promotes and teaches peace, justice, and nonviolence.  Importantly, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for all the people that have worked and sacrificed for justice that I can hold up as models and say, “Peace is Possible!”

 What is your opinion of the people you’re working with?

In my experience doing peace work, I have had the opportunity to work with amazing, inspiring people.  Paul and Kay Bueno de Mesquita are great role models and have helped shape how I approach my role as a nonviolence trainer.  I serve on the Executive Council of the Wisconsin Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies and have built wonderful, productive relationships with people from all over Wisconsin that are teaching peace.  In my more immediate surroundings, I work with many people on my campus at the University of Wisconsin – Stout that are teaching, promoting, and creating an atmosphere of peace, justice, and nonviolence.  I’m grateful to have the opportunity to work with so many peace educators, scholars, and activists.  Finally, I have had the honor to work with incredible students that are dedicated to the principles of nonviolence.  I have no doubt that over the years students have shaped my thinking much more than I have shaped theirs.

 What is your motivation for doing the work with nonviolence?

There is a saying that “You can’t stand still on a moving train.”  Since very early in my life, I have believed that one is either engaged in making things better or else supporting the current conditions.  There is no middle option.  When I started this process, I was very focused on environmental justice. I received my B.S. and M.S. degrees in Environmental Policy and Planning and worked for a number of organizations that were aligned with my passion.  Eventually, my views broadened to building peace through nonviolence.  I am motivated by my firm belief that as a society we could do so much better.  I’m motivated by my belief that if enough people were dedicated to it, we could build communities that help all of us come closer to reaching our full potential as human beings.  I’m motivated by my belief that nonviolence is both the means and the ends for creating such a community and the more people that are trained in nonviolence the better chance we have of building such a place.  As a nonviolence trainer, I believe that I’m helping construct the framework of the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King envisioned.

 What’s the hardest part about the work you’re doing?

As a peace educator, the hardest part of my job is helping students understand and appreciate how much power they have to create positive social change.  They can learn to identify the various manifestations of violence and oppression in our society.  They can also develop the skills to creatively and imaginatively use nonviolence to change social conditions.  But in order for them to actually put nonviolence into practice – with all the associated discipline, sacrifice, and hard work involved – they need to know it has the real potential to make change.  Creating peace is a project that is larger than our individual lives and can seem daunting and impossible sometimes.  Empowering students and helping them understand that their actions can make a meaningful contribution to creating a society built on a foundation of peace, justice, and nonviolence is often very difficult.  Through hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and training a person can truly make a difference.

 Was there anything that surprised you during your time doing peace work?

What has surprised me most is how many people agree with me that our society is too violent, too oppressive, and too unjust and still don’t get engaged in making things better.  I guess I thought that people were just completely blind to the oppression and violence that is so pervasive in parts of our society and that’s why they weren’t getting involved in creating solutions.  That turns out to be untrue.  People are aware of the oppression and suffering in their communities but choose not to get involved.  I do not believe someone can be neutral when it comes to injustice.  You either struggle against it or, by doing nothing, you implicitly support it. Empathy and compassion are natural human characteristics and I’m surprised they don’t compel every person to work toward peace.

 What would you say has been your biggest contribution?

I led the development of an Applied Peace Studies minor at UW-Stout.  This has given me many opportunities to teach, discuss, and create peace.  When I first started the process, I contacted a local group named the Red Cedar Peace Initiative.  It created enough excitement in that group that they have hosted social events, housed visiting peace scholars, and even attended some of my classes.  It also has led to the creation of a student organization called Students UNITE that is based on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 50 years ago.  The organization has Kingian nonviolence as its guiding principle and is uniting students around developing a peaceful, just society.  The Applied Peace Studies minor has also given me the opportunity to teach hundreds of students the principles of nonviolence.  It has made peace education a “normal” part of what we do here at UW-Stout.

Tell about anything significant you’ve done in the area of peace studies.

Along with developing an academic minor in peace studies, I am also conducting research on pedagogical methods to help students learn to ask important meaningful questions.  I was chosen as a Wisconsin Teaching Fellow this year and am combining my commitment to peace education with the scholarship of teaching and learning with the idea that students need to be able to ask important questions in order to address issues of social justice.  Too often our higher education institutions become “know how” institutions that are focused on instilling industrial and technical skills.  While those are certainly important, there is also a place for “know why” institutions that create a space for teachers and students to question the status quo social structures that cause violence and oppression and then develop the skills to change those structures.  Ultimately, we need to create communities based on justice, nonviolence, and peace.  That will take creativity, imagination, and hard work.  All that starts with asking meaningful questions and I don’t think we are currently doing enough to help students use questioning as a way of thinking.

If there’s anything else you would like to mention, feel free to explain.

The Wisconsin Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies has decided to support a series of Nonviolence trainings on several public and private university campuses throughout the state over the next two years.  I have been asked to lead that project and serve as the coordinator and lead trainer.  The idea is to increase the knowledge, skills, and capacity on college campuses relative to nonviolence.  I feel fully prepared to undertake this project because of the training I received at Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at URI.  I feel like this is an excellent opportunity to mainstream the principles of nonviolence and look forward to conducting these trainings. It has the potential to bring hundreds of people into the struggle to build peaceful communities.