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Message from Forest Whitaker on the occasion of the International Day of Peace, 21 September 2016

September 21st was chosen by the United Nations as the International Day of Peace, an occasion for citizens in every country of the world to reflect on the meaning of peace in their lives and in their communities. This year’s theme, “The Sustainable Development Goals: Building Blocks for Peace,” directly expresses a deeper truth formulated in the 2030 Agenda adopted by world leaders last year, that “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” The message is simple: the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are tributaries merging into a future based on shared values and equal opportunities.

Behind the 17 Goals are numerous obstacles and bottlenecks that keep us from successfully addressing negative trends in poverty, health, education, gender equality, migrations, employment, environment, and climate. Too often, our collective incapacity to address these obstacles results in tensions, conflicts, and sometimes wars. The countries and people most impacted by violence and conflict are the same ones most impacted by poverty and lack of opportunity. When we fail to act upon this fact, we fail the people who live in communities that cannot escape dire cycles of fragility where insecurity and poverty feed on each other. But when we work for shared prosperity, we dig stronger foundations for lasting peace—and vice versa. Peace and prosperity are two sides of the same coin. The question is: what can we do to maintain these two sides together.

Of course, many approaches are possible. Through my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), I have undertaken to foster positive change towards lasting peace and sustainable development by tapping the potential of youth. Young people are often victims and perpetrators of conflict. But, if trusted and mentored, they can become a force that emerges from within communities to transform them into safer and more prosperous places.

With my teams and my partners, we select groups of young women and men who have directly or indirectly experienced conflict and violence, and we empower them to become vectors of peace for the long-term benefit of their communities.

In South Sudan, Uganda, and Mexico, our “Youth Peacemaker Network” aims to support young women and men as social entrepreneurs and community leaders. We train them as mediators and project managers who can develop projects to promote peace and sustainable development in their communities. In Uganda, one of our trainees has opened a hair salon and hairdressing school. In Mexico, trainees teach conflict resolution in schools. In the State of Eastern Equatoria of South Sudan, the governor has enrolled our trainees as a taskforce of mediators.

These examples—where youth peacemakers are taking the initiative to lay the foundation for peace—remind us that our efforts for peace start at home. The SDGs can be global building blocks that connect all of these local efforts in powerful and transformative ways.