USD Honors Actor and Humanitarian, Forest Whitaker, with the Medal of Peace

Forest Whitaker has an impressive list of credits in a successful Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning actor, producer and director career, but Thursday night at the University of San Diego, the honor he received was due to the role of a lifetime — his interest in peacebuilding and helping people, notably youth, around the world.

The university's Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies bestowed its distinguished Medal of Peace to Whitaker in recognition of his international work as a humanitarian, peacebuilder and UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation.


“I thank the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies and the University of San Diego for honoring me … and for presenting me with the Medal of Peace,” said Whitaker, whose roles in movies such as “Black Panther,” his Oscar-winning role in the “The Last King of Scotland,” and “The Butler,” have brought him considerable fanfare.

The Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative

Away from the bright Hollywood spotlight, though, is the work he’s done through the 2012-founded Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). This non-profit, non-governmental organization has an international scope and reach. WPDI seeks to develop peace-building programs, initiatives and campaigns that foster peace and reconciliation in disadvantaged and fragile communities throughout the world.

“To create real change — whether it’s for a child soldier in Uganda or a troubled youth in Los Angeles — you can’t simply step in, fulfill your mission as an outsider, and expect to see results. You have to engage that person as an active partner in his or her own development,” Whitaker said. “Considering youth as partners of peace and justice is a fundamental dimension of my work. This can make a significant difference especially in contexts marked by conflict where it often seems impossible for young people to be anything else than victims or perpetrators of violence. Our work fights against that belief.”

The Medal of Peace, created in 2007 as part of the Kroc School’s inauguration, is awarded to extraordinary individuals who’ve contributed significantly to build peace with justice at the local or international level and have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of shaping a better world. Past winners are then-president of Catholic Relief Services, Kenneth Hackett; actor Martin Sheen; Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, former Assistant Secretary of State, East Asian and Pacific Affairs; and His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. 

Powerful Presentation

Thursday's program in the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre began with a stirring performance of John Lennon's "Imagine" by USD graduate student Khea Pollard, USD undergrad Patricia Cosulich, and Lanee' Battle Johnson, a professional gospel singer and executive assistant for USD’s Center for Inclusion and Diversity.

USD President James Harris welcomed the IPJ Theatre audience and an overflow room of guests. Kroc School Dean, Dr. Patricia Marquez, spoke of her school’s 10-year peace education milestone, praised Whitaker’s changemaking contributions and spoke of the continuing need for "peacebuilders everywhere." She showed a video of WDPI’s work.

After receiving the Medal of Peace, Whitaker gave an inspiring speech. He touched on his upbringing, challenges and influences. He shared stories from the field in places WDPI operates such as South Sudan, Uganda, South Africa and Tijuana. He spoke of individuals who’ve inspired and contributed to his knowledge on working for the greater good in some of the toughest conflict war zones in the world and how peace is contagious.

“It spreads like a wave once people know and feel that they can do something about it,” he said.

Whitaker’s engagement in peace-building and reconciliation came after shooting “The Last King of Scotland” while visiting an orphanage in Northern Uganda.

“This was in the mid-2000s in Northern Uganda, a region still convalescent from the civil war fought between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army. It was a conflict of extreme violence. One of the ugliest parts of this conflict was the systematic enrollment of child soldiers by the rebellion. Thousands and thousands of them witnessed violence, suffered from it and even perpetrated it — sometimes against their own families."

“While working at the orphanages, in IDP camps, in different villages,” Whitaker reflected, "I spoke with many of them and recognized their voices — in those voices, in those eyes — the same traumas I had seen many years ago in the eyes of gang members I met in my youth."

"This was a period when my character was tested. I knew at this point that I had to take action and do something for young people who had lost peace to the point that they had lost the ability to even hope for peace. Character is often depicted as a form of determination — or its absence thereof — but it also has to do with knowledge of oneself."

His message about character was something he especially wanted young people in the audience to hear.

"Peace is about character. This is a powerful idea to reflect upon. Our character is a strange mixture of our ingrained identity and our response to circumstances," Whitaker said. "These formative years you are currently experiencing — those of you who are students of this incredible institution — are probably the most defining in a human being's life. You are learning new things — and not just academic subjects. You are learning about yourself; your potential; your strengths and your weaknesses. Your character is being shaped. But as I said, character is a strange thing: it is not about just your strengths and weaknesses. It is about your awareness of them and your determination to act upon them. In this sense, your character will be tested throughout your life. You will be tasked to find in yourself the courage and the imagination that peace and justice require to become tangible realities for your fellow citizens.”

Inspiring and Inspired

Simone Baptiste, a USD behavioral neuroscience major, said Whitaker’s talk resonated clearly.

“I was impacted by Mr. Whitaker’s sharing that peace derives from our character, which is defined by how we react to the world around us,” she said. “We as students, especially holistically cultivated USD students, have the power to not only desire peace and justice, but to implement, restore, and create space for it in any circumstance. I felt empowered, knowing that positive change starts with me. It starts with first being able to identify my vision for the world, my strengths, and my weaknesses, and second, being able to act upon these core principles to inspire others to act towards my vision for peace and justice.”

Whitaker said peace, through character, is for everybody to understand. “Peace springs from character. This means, to me, that true peace cannot be outsourced. It is not a business reserved to cops and diplomats, to soldiers and politicians. It is everybody’s business – and young people’s in particular because the world belongs to you twice: both today and tomorrow. As a humanitarian activist, my belief is that, if we want to end the intractable violence and inescapable poverty that persist in too many communities, adults must embrace the next generation as our partners in the discharge of our duty to peace and justice, and we must empower them with the tools they need to reverse these vicious cycles of conflict.”

Following his speech, Whitaker answered questions from USD Vice President and Provost Dr. Gail Baker. One centered on how being an actor informs his peace work.

“When I went into acting, I was always trying to understand the other person. You put yourself in the shoes of someone else. I have to go through a process and take away what happens in someone's life, try to understand what happened to them, what made them feel this way, what were their problems and their joys until I get down to the core that connects me. I put those things back on, see the cracks through all of those things, the light that still comes through. It's there where I need my empathy, my understanding. I think empathy is one of the most important things you can have when dealing with mediation and trying to understand how to mitigate conflict. You have to put yourself in someone else's shoes, you have to care about their point of view, you have to find a place, even if it's a place of co-existence, that works for you both.”

The night concluded with two performances. Khea Pollard returned to the stage and led members of the Bayview Baptist Church youth choir, Expression of Joy, and others in an inspiring rendition of "Rise Up/Stand." Performance artists 40 Corners, which included USD students Khemal Johnson, Alexis Wilburn and Alannah Bleedman, took the stage to raise the energy level and share impactful words about being present, being focused on change for good for making the world a better place.

Baptiste said the program was a wonderful opportunity for the campus community to share in something special. “Mr. Whitaker’s presence at USD brought the community together and allowed for an opportunity for voices to be heard, discussions to be sparked, and compassion to be reinstated in the hearts and minds of attendees.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photos by Rodney Nakamoto

None of these photos can be copied, repurposed, or reused without the permission of Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative officials.


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