My name is Martha Ines Cortes Biojó. My roots are African and that last name, Biojó, comes from a man who fought to liberate his brothers and sisters during the age of slavery in Colombia. I’ve always been someone who defends justice and fights for others. I don’t mean fighting with weapons or anything, but fighting in a good way: to defend people’s rights, to defend others against abuse.
It’s something I learned when I was growing up. I come from a big family. There were eight of us kids, four boys and four girls, and we were a normal family — there were a lot of arguments and of course sometimes we behaved really badly! But we had to learn to do the right thing so we could get along with everyone else in our home.
I spent 13 years working as a missionary in other parts of the country. I saw the conflict between the guerillas and the paramilitaries. I saw how families were being extorted, I saw armed confrontations. You would go to sleep and when you woke up in the morning there would be bodies in the street.
When I felt like it was time to return to Cali, my hometown, I went back to the Mennonite Brethren church I had attended from the time I was young. I began as a volunteer with Edupaz, a church ministry whose name combines the Spanish words for education and peace. In 2004 the church asked me to be a provisional pastor while they looked for someone more permanent.
"These young people aren’t just building peace at school, they’re building peace at home. They’re building peace in their neighborhoods."
In 2012, Edupaz was looking for a director and called me up. For a while I was both a pastor and the director of Edupaz, but eventually I decided I needed to do either one job or the other.
One of Edupaz’s key programs is working with schools. We train students, teachers and parents on peace and conflict resolution, then observe how schools are implementing the program themselves.
When you educate for peace, you can educate people to think in a different way, to think more about humanity, society and a better world.
It’s important to work in schools because students bring their problems with them into the classroom. You might have two students, for example, who are part of rival gangs, and then, just like that, it’s war.
With these students, we want them to understand that, despite the conflict, they’re still good people, and that they have leadership skills that they could use to be agents of peace instead.
So we do workshops where we encourage students to reflect on their self-esteem and self-image, and later share their findings with the group. They work together to evaluate what they’ve learned and identify opportunities to put it into practice and share it with others. That helps them feel useful, capable and in charge of their relationships.
Then, we might ask them to work together to choose some kind of symbol to remind them that they’re at peace. What that symbol is depends on the students. Some students have drawn up a peace agreement that they all sign, others have planted trees around the school to mark it off as peaceful territory.
"When you educate for peace, you can educate people to think in a different way, to think more about humanity, society and a better world."
We also work with the teachers. They look at their teaching manuals and find the approach to dealing with troublesome students is just punishment. We offer courses in peacebuilding for these teachers, and we help teachers and administrators evaluate their manuals and come up with tools, like games, that can be used instead of punishment.
We do workshops with parents to encourage healthy relationships at home and may provide counseling or other accompaniment.
I remember one day a student’s mom showed up at the school asking what we were teaching her son. He’d had a lot of problems, and no other school would accept him. As soon as she showed up, I was thinking, “Oh no, what did he do?”
“Do you know what my kid said to me?” she asked. “He said it takes two people to fight, and that he had decided he wasn’t going to fight with me anymore. So, please, tell me what you’re teaching my son, because I want to learn it too, I want to share it with the other moms.”
Wow, right? These young people aren’t just building peace at school, they’re building peace at home. They’re building peace in their neighborhoods. That’s what we call a culture of peace — where everyone is on the same page about respect and nonviolence. That’s education.
Edupaz has been doing this for 22 years, changing and perfecting our approach every year. It’s a whole process — it’s not like we just do a couple of workshops. We’re in these schools for years, we’re there every week, every two weeks, monitoring and analyzing the process.
Sometimes people wonder why we bother doing this work. After all, the situation in Colombia is still very bad, even after the peace accords. Young people and social leaders are being killed every day.
But over these 22 years, we’ve seen that peace education has been worth the effort.
These days, when someone is killed, young people know it’s not okay, and they take to the streets to defend their right to life. That didn’t happen before. We can see that’s it been worth it to invest our resources in young people, because the culture of resignation to armed conflict has changed. Education is helping us build a better future where, instead of taking up arms, young people take a stand for peace.
Martha Ines Cortes Biojó is director of Edupaz, an MCC partner organization in Cali, Colombia.