Octavian Report: When did you first realize that development and conflict resolution were fields of absolute necessity in the modern world?
Forest Whitaker: I would start by telling you that 408 million young people live in conflict-affected areas. But my interest in conflict resolution and development did not start with this figure. It has been a maturation process rather than a single moment of realization. Some of my earliest memories are of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965; they happened about two miles from our home. As I got older, gangs became a stronger and stronger presence in our neighborhood. I lived in South Central for the birth of the Bloods and Crips. So many of the kids I knew back home got drawn into these lives of gangs and drugs and violence, and I saw how it robbed them of their futures.
Martin Luther King visited Watts right after the riots and captured very well the nature of the problem. He wrote, “The violence of poverty and humiliation hurts as intensely as the violence of the club. This is a situation that calls for statesmanship and creative leadership, of which I did not see evidence in Los Angeles.”
This is the soil from which I grew and from which many of my ideas grew.
Experiencing these things, it is not difficult to conclude that development and conflict resolution are an absolute necessity — that they always will be. This said, the modern world creates a new emergency because with the internet and worldwide transportation, a conflict somewhere can spread to many other places in a very short time. Preventing conflict and violence is more important because, I believe, the world is more flammable. This is why the message of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that no one must be left behind is so crucial. Letting children live in poverty and hunger, letting women be exposed to discrimination and violence, letting young people stay mired in joblessness and purposelessness, letting our environment degrade — all of this creates embers of violence, conflict, and war that irrational people will be tempted to set ablaze.
OR: How did you get inspired to start the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI)?
Whitaker: I came to create WPDI for various reasons. Working to empower young people from conflict-affected places has a lot to do with my personal history. I think that I fully realized the extent to which these experiences and thoughts had shaped me when I met with former child soldiers in Uganda on the set of The Last King of Scotland. Their stories resonated with a strength that surprised me. I could not help seeing some parallels with the kids I knew back in L.A. The places, the countries, and the societies were very different, but I could see what they had in common: there was no energy in their eyes and hearts. When individuals and communities have been touched by darkness, when they have been shattered by violence or poverty, they lose their energy, their capacity to rebound. The issue is that such energy can only be rekindled from within. This is a classic problem in humanitarian and development action. People need assistance to get their energy back; they cannot be helped because in the end they need to help themselves — which does not happen because they lack energy. How do we break that negative circle? The idea behind WPDI was to mobilize youth to do the work. Empowering former child soldiers taught me a lot. In particular, it taught me that while young people from places affected by conflict and violence are often considered to be only victims or perpetrators, we should treat them as doers, as drivers of change. The daily work of WPDI is to train young people so they can become mediators and entrepreneurs or so they can find a job. We also help young women and men undertake peacebuilding initiatives and develop small businesses in their communities. Communities benefit from these actions and they witness firsthand that young people have an amazing potential that they can tap. This is my way of breaking the cycle of negativity, by taking young people seriously and giving them the tools to re-energize their communities.
OR: What are the biggest hurdles you and your organization face in your work?
Whitaker: WPDI operates in very complex terrain where there is a long history of conflict and armed violence. This is obvious with South Sudan, where we have been present since 2012. This is a country where conflict is chronic: it has experienced a form of open conflict for more than 40 of the last 60 years, not counting the colonial era. It is not that surprising that experts consider South Sudan to be the most dangerous place for aid workers. In Tijuana, our youth develop their projects in a city that has been rated the most violent in the world. One big hurdle is that many international institutions are actually very risk-averse and will not invest in such places. Most people will acknowledge that such places have serious needs — but, at the same time, they will shy away from stepping in for fear of risk. To some extent, this is inconsistent. To some extent, however, there is reasonable ground for this attitude. Their perception of risk is mostly informed by the assumption that peace and development activities are conducted by people who do not belong to these communities. This is where WPDI is different. We consider that our mandate for peace and sustainable development is universal and should, therefore, be implemented by local people and youth in particular. We have a very effective and efficient solution to drastically reduce the risks of working in such places — by trusting and training young people to do the heavy lifting.
Nevertheless, this is where we often run into another roadblock: training young people so they can be effective mediators, teachers, and entrepreneurs takes time — at least a year. This is a real investment that many international institutions are not ready to make. But short-term actions cannot hope to address the roots of chronic conflict. Our approach is to seriously invest in young people because they have a unique energy today and will be in leadership positions tomorrow.