Interview: Joe Underhill debriefs Nobel Peace Prize Forum


The Nobel Peace Prize Forum (NPPF) was hosted at Augsburg University this year. In an interview, Dr. Joe Underhill reflects on his time programming the NPPF:

Blair Stewig: What motivated you to become involved with the NPPF?

Joseph Underhill: One of my first experiences when I arrived at Augsburg in 1998 was the NPPF. I was really impressed with the educational and inspirational value of the event. I have been studying war, peace, environmental and justice issues since I started college. The Forum is an amazing opportunity to educate students on these issues while connecting with local and global speakers and changemakers.

BS: What were your initial goals for the forum? Were they met, or did you exceed these goals?

JU: We wanted an increase in student participation compared to last year. Last year, something like 100 students participated. This year, it was about 1,000. We wanted a diverse set of speakers and panelists, and we were very happy with the wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. We had Nobel laureates, internationally recognized peace makers and powerful local voices who are working on social justice, environmental sustainability and violence reduction right in our neighborhood.

BS: Do you have a favorite event from the Forum?

JU: Yes, particularly a few moments where we weren’t just talking about peacemaking but engaged in it ourselves. Some of the most powerful moments involved ceremony and music, such as the tree-blessing ceremony and the closing ceremony where the Tunisian laureates gave olive branches to a group of peacemakers. I think these are moments when people’s lives can be changed. They stick with people, move them and sustain them. Also, at the closing ceremony, we had the Honduran band, Cienaños, play this great song called “La Rolita.” Everyone was on their feet dancing and clapping, and it was a really joyous moment. Unfortunately, as an organizer, I don’t get to participate or attend almost any of the talks or panels. Being there for the closing plenary was really gratifying.

BS: Are there going to be any significant changes to next year’s Forum?

JU: We don’t see major changes in next year’s event. Mostly working out some kinks, building on the momentum and success from this year and expanding our partnerships and fundraising efforts.

BS: With planning this event you travelled all over the world. where did you travel and what was your favorite place to visit?

JU: I was fortunate in the last year to travel several times to Oslo for meetings with the Norwegian Nobel Institute and to attend the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony last December. In addition, I visited New York and Washington, D.C. for meetings with foundations, partner organizations and members of the diplomatic corps. I also had the chance to travel to Vienna for a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Ministerial Meeting. That was my first time in Vienna and I had the chance to meet with some very engaged and interesting participants in the work on minimizing the risks from nuclear weapons or other nuclear materials. But the highlight would have to be attending the Nobel Award Ceremony in Oslo and meeting with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos. We invited him to attend the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and he said he would be honored to attend. We are very much looking forward to having him on campus next year and learning more about the peace process in Colombia.

BS: Do you feel the student involvement due to this year’s forum being on a college campus was beneficial? How did location differentiate this NPPF from previous years?

JU: The robust student engagement made all the difference. The NPPF is all about connecting students with global leaders in peace and justice work. This year, there were a myriad of opportunities for students to meet with and learn from these leaders We want to make the event as accessible and locally relevant as we can, so having it at Augsburg, which is grounded in the Cedar-Riverside community, made a big difference. Last year the event was held at the Mall of America Hotel, which we were not comfortable with. What kind of message does it send to have an event that is focused on social justice and human rights at a center of consumerism? This location was much better suited to our goals and values.

Overall, this forum has been considered a success due to large student involvement, world-renowned guests and jump-starting conversations about peacemaking in both local and global communities.

This article first appeared in the Friday, September 29, 2017, Edition of The Echo.