April 24, 2019, Published in Rotary International

A Q&A with Al Jubitz and Dennis Wong

Since its creation in November 2012, the Rotarian Action Group for Peace has helped Rotary advance the cause of global harmony. Six-plus years later, Al Jubitz and Dennis Wong, two of the group’s founders, talked with senior editor Geoffrey Johnson about the group’s goals, its Peacebuilder Clubs and other peace tools, and how the RAG for Peace had its genesis in a Rotarian article.

Q: How did the Rotarian Action Group for Peace begin?

Wong: In January 2012, Rotary President-elect Sakuji Tanaka announced his theme: Peace Through Service. The following month, The Rotarian published an issue dedicated to “Making Peace.” It included an article by David Sarasohn about Al Jubitz’s passion for peace and his support of the Rotary Peace Fellows program. That is when I had my “aha!” moment — that peacebuilding could be the key to Rotary’s future accomplishments and growth.

Al Jubitz at the Peace Pole in the Grotto, Portland, Oregon. Photo by NashCO

Jubitz: After the article about my peace work was published, I received a phone call from Dennis Wong, a Rotarian from Connecticut. He asked if I had ever considered starting a RAG. I asked, “What is a RAG?” He told me, and I said, “Let’s do it.” I called Erin Thomas, who lives in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. She was a member of the Rotary Peace Fellow inaugural class. I hired her to make the RAG application and then, once it was approved, to run the RAG, which she did for three years. She and Dennis were key to the establishment of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace.

Q: What were your goals when you started the RAG for Peace?

Jubitz: Our goal, then and now, was to create a place for peace-minded Rotarians to meet, serve, learn, and teach peace. As our website says, we “engage, educate, and empower Rotarians” interested in peace. We raise the profile of the science of peace and explain the practical practice of peace for Rotarians.

Wong: We shared the goal that Rotary International and Rotarians should be known as peacebuilders working to fulfill our Rotary mission, “to advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace,” and to end wars and all forms of violent conflicts.

Jubitz: The ultimate goal is to educate humans away from violence and toward cooperation as a survival strategy on Earth. We are interconnected. We live or die together on this planet.

Wong: We’re also making the case for Rotary to allot more resources and grant dollars for the peace and conflict prevention/resolution area of focus. Imagine the return on that kind of investment. Imagine Rotary’s impact on people around the world, when the 2 million members of Rotary, Rotaract, Interact, and Rotary Community Corps, as well as the alums of Rotary programs, are engaged in peace actions in their daily lives in their communities and in the world. And imagine the number of people who share our vision and would want to join us to build a culture of peace.

Jubitz: As the banner we display at RI conventions says, “Imagine a world beyond war built by Rotarians.”

Q: Did the two of you initially have different ideas about the group’s direction and priorities? How did you resolve them?

Dennis Wong at the United Nations Secretariat, New York City. Photo by NashCO

Jubitz: We had no disagreement initially nor since. That is not to say we didn’t converse, debate, dream, and decide together. I remember many conversations where we asked, “What does peace mean to you?” Answers would span the gamut, from personal peace to world peace and everything in between. It soon became apparent that we needed to make space for all definitions of peace.

Wong: We had differences, but fortunately that meant we had a diversity of ideas. Even when we had differences, we agreed the more ideas, the merrier. We agreed to align our ideas and actions with Rotary’s. I see the Rotary principles — the Rotarian Code of Conduct and The Four-Way Test — as the core of Rotary actions and peacebuilding programs.

People from academia and business also influenced our thinking, and we brought different peacebuilding ideas from our different Rotary experiences. Al was an early supporter of the Rotary Peace Fellow program; that was new to me in 2012. We decided to focus on and promote the peace fellows program, and I think we’ve been successful here.

I saw Rotarians like me working at the club level to start a grassroots movement. That became part of every effort, particularly in social media. Rotarians are jumping on the peacebuilding bandwagon at peace conferences, in Peacebuilder Clubs, and online.

Jubitz: A key part of our early relationship was to meet in person, which we did whenever we traveled to each other’s neck of the woods. As a team, Dennis and I work well together. While I am a more practical “doer” or “executor” of ideas, Dennis is a forward and deep thinker. At times I tell him I can’t answer all his provocative questions due to time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them. Just as when he reached out to me in 2012, he is thinking way ahead to the possible ways Rotary can help foster world peace.

Q: You’ve used the phrase “conflict transformation.” What does that mean?

Wong: It’s important to recognize and acknowledge that conflict and change are natural and constant. As opposed to conflict resolution, which puts an emphasis on simply resolving disputes, conflict transformation focuses on understanding and ameliorating the underlying causes that spark conflict to begin with.

Jubitz: To paraphrase Patrick Hiller, the executive director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation, we seek paths to transform destructive conflict into constructive conflict. How often in life has a conflict, when examined and understood through dialogue, led to a deeper understanding of root causes that then led to a resolution in unexpected ways? Peace is like that. The surface emotion is but a symptom of deeper issues. Our challenge as Rotarians is to seek out the root causes and to act to heal those wounds. Often, in the process, unanticipated friendships will result, and that in itself can help transform the conflict.

Q: How can conflict become a catalyst for constructive change?

Jubitz: To quote one of my mentors, the ambassador and peace professor John W. McDonald, “The only way to solve a conflict, at any level of society, is to sit down face to face and talk about it.”

As an example, there was a great story out of southern Oregon in the December 2016 issue of The Rotarian. It was about Jim Root, a Rotarian who catalyzed talks to try to resolve a long-standing fight over water in the Klamath River Basin. Relying on his tenacity and an experience he’d had at a Rotary convention 20 years earlier, he led discussions among the various stakeholders until they felt compassion for one another. Friendships were made, minds and hearts changed, and the conflict was transformed. A remarkable water conservation agreement resulted — which, unfortunately, got hung up in Congress. But the stakeholders, working with state and federal officials, continue to look for other paths forward — and there are tangible signs of progress.

Wong: Constructive change can occur when people look to attitudinal, behavioral, and contextual aspects of conflict and its root causes. It is not a zero-sum situation, but one that results in agreements “beneficial to all concerned.” Rotary principles and conflict transformation are complementary approaches for constructive change leading to a sustainable culture of peace. After a while, this approach of stressing constructive change can become a way of life whenever confronted by conflict. As second nature, Rotarians begin to incorporate conflict resolution and mediation strategies into projects. Within their communities, they can identify factors that trigger or accelerate conflict and work to mitigate them.

Q: What specific impact has the RAG for Peace had?

Wong: In recent years, there have been more peace conferences and symposiums, more peace groups and social media sites, and a greater recognition that there are peace elements in everything we think, say, or do. By our presence and outreach, there is more interest among more Rotarians on the specifics of peace in the Rotary world. Now peace is more than a word and a vague feeling. It’s a definable goal that can be measured and achieved.

Jubitz: Each of the Rotarian Action Groups has provided Rotarians an opportunity to pursue their interests beyond the club structure. We believe the Peace RAG provides technical expertise for peace and conflict resolution practices. We translate the science to mainstream Rotarians with the hope that civil society will realize that nonviolent solutions work and are far superior to violent methods of resolving conflict.

Additionally, the RAG for Peace provides peace-interested Rotarians a place to congregate and share information and ideas. Our website is full of peace science, which differentiates 20th-century peace from 21st-century peace. Our close affiliation with the War Prevention Initiative allows us to share academically generated peer-reviewed research with our members. That can further embolden Rotarians to dream of a more peaceful and nonviolent world. We hope our online peace map encourages clubs to find peace speakers, initiate peace projects in their communities, and partner with international clubs for large peace projects. And the idea of Peacebuilder Clubs has caught the imagination of many Rotarians; we now have more than 85 clubs on four continents.

Utilizing these tools, we believe that Rotarians can advance peace beginning in their clubs. Through positive engagement with their communities, they can help resolve conflicts that are persistent or endemic in the places where they live. Rotarians are great at promoting and supporting co-created solutions to community problems. That’s what we do naturally.

Wong: And we can do all that while living up to my personal slogan: Do Good. Feel Good. Have Fun.

Q: Why is Rotary well-positioned to make a positive impact toward world peace?

Jubitz: Rotary has a history of bringing people together, yet too many Rotarians are unaware of this history. For more than a century, we’ve engaged in peaceful endeavors around the world. Rotary’s contributions are evident in its participation in the creation of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international peace parks, and polio eradication. That history gives members the credibility to do their work, as well as access to decision-makers. It’s also worth noting that, in 1959, Rotary International published a book called Seven Paths to Peace. It’s still highly relevant today.

The structure of the club system, with districts transcending political boundaries, is but one clever approach by Rotary to bring people together in the spirit of friendship, goodwill, and peace. Rotary’s aversion to being politicized or religiously identified is further evidence of our tolerance for differences and our basic human identity. Also, part of RI’s genius is that ideas and projects come from the clubs. The lab is the club, and the scientists are the members who initiate, experiment, and reinvent solutions every day. When I decided to spend the rest of my life in the pursuit of peace through Rotary, it was after I had concluded there was no other organization on Earth as capable of actually creating world peace.

Q: What kind of resources does your organization provide peace-minded Rotarians?

Wong: The Rotarian Action Group for Peace can serve as an information resource for peace activities. In the future, we hope to provide greater support to clubs with Rotary Foundation grants to pursue projects that address the underlying causes of conflict, including poverty, inequality, ethnic tensions, lack of access to education, and unequal distribution of resources.

Jubitz: The RAG for Peace is Rotary’s technical expert on peacebuilding science and practice. We are well-connected to the academic community — as is The Rotary Foundation through the Rotary Peace Centers — and to peace research associations. Our membership is diverse and connected to civil society wherever we live. The combination of Rotary and the RAG for Peace can become a global leader in peacebuilding.

Q: You’re both based in the United States. How does the Rotarian Action Group for Peace make an impact beyond U.S. borders?

Wong: The Rotarian Action Group for Peace is more than Al Jubitz and Dennis Wong. As an international organization, we engage a global audience with shared vision, stories, and programs. We have touched many Rotarians at the annual Rotary conventions, district peace conferences, and through social media.

Jubitz: In addition to the United States, we’ve had board members from Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Wales. Our honorary board includes members from Argentina, Cyprus, Mexico, and New Zealand, among other countries. Our executive director, Reem Ghunaim, was born in Palestine and now resides in Portland, Oregon. Additionally, our board has been debating how to expand our international influence even more, and we may establish a global council structured utilizing Rotary’s 34 zones.

Q: What are the characteristics of members of the RAG for Peace?

Wong: All our members share the desire to build a culture of peace within their local community and in the world. There are differences in interests and priorities, such as gender equality, peace literacy, human trafficking, the Middle East, and the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Jubitz: I don’t pretend to understand all nuances of all locales, but the concept of peace resonates with all people no matter where they were born or where they live. We understand that peace is tenuous in some locales, but aspirational everywhere. As for numbers, we have more than 600 dues-paying members from 74 countries, and we send our biweekly e-newsletter to more than 2,300 Rotarians.

Q: The RAG for Peace website says that you are “working together to bring about peaceful societal systems to replace the machinery of war, aggression, and coercion.” How are you doing that?

Jubitz: At our core, we are in the business of education. We believe in Rotary’s ethics and The Four-Way Test. We believe in the Rotarian Code of Conduct. We believe humans have far more in common than not, and we believe we have the technical know-how to deliver peace. We provide vast educational resources that begin with each person’s “piece of peace,” as well as their personal peace journey. Reem, our executive director, is a Rotary Peace Fellow and a member of the IEP Ambassador Program for one of Rotary’s partners, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). As such, we educate many audiences both within Rotary and beyond Rotary on the alternatives to war, including strengthening the Eight Pillars of Peace defined by the IEP.

Wong: As Al asserts, the concept of “peaceful societal systems” allies closely with the principles espoused by Rotary and the IEP. We know what to do. The question is, do we Rotarians have the will to do it?

Q: We live in contentious times. What can the members of the RAG for Peace do to help foster civility?

Wong: Groups such as Rotary are especially needed in difficult times. This is an opportunity for us to stand up and stand out as trusted problem solvers for the benefit of all concerned — for all 7.7 billion people in the world.

Jubitz: Peace-minded Rotarians are natural mediators and conveners of disparate groups. The RAG for Peace welcomes Rotarians who promote conversations and mediate conflicts. Within the contentious U.S. body politic, Better Angels meetings are taking place all over the country, often led by Rotarians such as Dan Sockle of District 5100 [see “Putting Civility Back into Civil Discourse,” page 34]. Our website and newsletters promote these actions and encourage our members and Peacebuilder Clubs to pick up the baton and lead more of these conversations. By convening, supporting, and attending these listening sessions, Rotarians will find their stride as leaders in their communities. In the end, it will take all hands on deck to change the trajectory of recent history, so we welcome all players.