Philanthropist helps students give peace a chance

100 Projects for Peace provides seed money for conflict-resolution programs.

Courtesy of davis projects for peace
Founder: Kathryn Davis launched 100 Projects for Peace in 2007.

Kathryn Davis decided to give a gift to celebrate her 100th birthday: $1 million to galvanize college students' pursuit of an elusive goal – peace.

A philanthropist with a lifelong interest in international affairs, Mrs. Davis launched 100 Projects for Peace last summer. She was so pleased with the creative, practical proposals the winners came up with that when she turned 101 this year, she put out a call for 100 more.

"I started Projects for Peace because I was really a little discouraged about our world," Davis says in a phone interview from her winter home in Hobe Sound, Fla. "I got tired of feeling sorry for the younger generation.... I thought maybe [they] would come up with good ideas if I gave them the opportunity."

Rather than focus on wars and military policies, Davis says, many of the projects addressed "the fundamentals of life," such as the need for clean water in a village. "You can't expect people to be interested in peace in the world if they can't get water to quench their thirst," she says.

Colleges see the need to prepare young people for a borderless world, but very few can provide grants large enough for such projects outside the United States, says Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., one of the schools that ran competitions for the peace grants. "This is an experiment in encouraging students to be individual social entrepreneurs," he says.

Significant contributions

About 15 percent of the peace projects took place in the US, with the rest spanning the globe from Zimbabwe to Brazil. Solo or in teams, students taught conflict resolution through soccer games and theater workshops. They made their mark on everything from health to sustainable development.

In Dafna Ashkenazi's experience, one weekend can be enough to start a person on the path to peace. She's an Israeli student at Wellesley College near Boston, where Davis will celebrate her own 80th reunion in May. The school is one of about 80 US colleges chosen to run the peace grant competitions because of their affiliation with the Davis United World College (UWC) Scholars Program, a group that fosters cross-cultural understanding and is funded by Davis's son, Shelby Davis.

With their $10,000 grant from Mrs. Davis, Ms. Ashkenazi and her twin sister, then a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, set up weekend Arabic courses in Arara, a small Arab village in Israel about 50 miles outside their hometown of Tel Aviv. The cultural-exchange weekends were subsidized so a wide variety of Israelis could attend. One group included soldiers, Orthodox women, and a grandfather-grandson pair. A nonprofit is continuing the first-of-its kind program in Israel because people want to cross barriers, Ashkenazi says.

One participant wrote that the weekend bridged "the gaps which are filled with stereotypes, stigmas, ignorance and fears.... [It] filled my heart with joy and hope." Participants returned home, Ashkenazi says, "with eyes open and a willingness to ... increase the cycle of change."

Davis's penchant for peace stems partly from Quaker schooling as a child. "They didn't believe in fighting; they would just keep working toward a compromise ... And I think that's what we all have to do," she says. "Many people are very cynical about peace. They say it's in man's nature to fight, and I say, man has to get over that nature because war has become so dangerous."

A family trip to England after World War I launched a lifetime love of travel. Davis earned a PhD at the University of Geneva and visited Russia more than 30 times

"She understands geopolitics; she understands leadership.... She also understands that governments don't do everything in the world, and she was looking for more initiative and fresh ideas," says Philip Geier, who oversees the peace grants as executive director of the Davis UWC program.

Now, in addition to her philanthropy, the golden-haired centenarian enjoys painting (she took it up at 96 when she stopped playing tennis) and visiting swans near her Florida home by pedaling an adult-sized tricycle (she can turn on a motor if she needs a little help getting up hills).

A manifestation of justice

Derron Wallace used his grant to launch a peer-taught literacy program for rural and special-needs students in a violence-prone area of his native Jamaica.

A graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., he says the most humbling and rewarding moment came when a sobbing mother embraced him and declared of her son, "He can read." Before, the boy had repeatedly failed fourth-grade reading tests.

"These children were often the most violent in their schools.... Many of them are from poor families; many were not given equal access to education.... If afforded education, they, too, could be peacemakers in their own communities," Mr. Wallace says in a phone interview from Uganda, where he's working with refugees as a Watson Fellow. "True peace for me is about an active manifestation of justice and a disruption of inequality, and that was what this project enabled me to do."

Such sparks of inspiration encourage Davis, especially as she longs for a peaceful future for her seven great-grandchildren. "I hope it's not just a dream on my part – I hope it's a reality," she says.

To that end, she envisions funding 100 Projects for Peace for at least five more years. "I would like to see what's going to happen in those next five years," she says with a chuckle.

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