Peace Lab Debuts at Butler

photo by Carissa Hawkins

by Dan Carpenter

There was no lacking for enthusiasm, ambition, credentials, or programs when the Desmond Tutu Peace Lab was formally unveiled Sept. 17 at Butler University. Compared with the debut of the project’s predecessor, the Desmond Tutu Center, the contrast was stark.

The Tutu Center opened on a September evening in 2013 before some 2,000 attendees at Clowes Memorial Hall, who were regaled with oratory from the presidents of Butler and Christian Theological Seminary and from two global giants of human rights advocacy, South Africans Allan Boesak and Emeritus Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.

Almost five years to the day later, the Peace Lab made its debut at lunchtime in a classroom in Jordan Hall with roughly a dozen stalwarts, including several undergraduate students and four faculty members who played key roles in the Center’s work.

To be fair, the stated missions of the two enterprises are not of equal breadth. The Peace Lab focuses on Butler students rather than promising wide community influence as the Center did. Nevertheless, the community and world are much within the new project’s sights all the same, making the disparities something more than academic.

The Peace Lab, Butler’s 2.0 version of the five-year partnership with CTS that constituted the Tutu Center, won’t have the Center’s star power. The Lab’s $15,000 operating budget is less than one tenth that of the Center, which employed three staffers with its joint Butler–CTS funding and philanthropic grants. At this point, the Lab doesn’t even have an office.


Siobhan McEvoy-Levy

What the Peace Lab does have, for starters, is Siobhan McEvoy-Levy, its director, a professor of political science and peace studies with long experience and world-class credentials in teaching, publishing, public speaking, and activism around issues of conflict resolution, social justice, and nonviolent change, with special attention to children and teens.

Holder of a doctorate in political history and international relations from the University of Cambridge, she founded Butler’s peace studies major and minor programs. She comes to the Peace Lab having worked with the Tutu Center. So do several colleagues, including Chad Bauman, professor of religion; Terri Jett, associate professor of political science; and Fait Muedini, director of international studies.

All speak passionately of the need to continue the legacy of two towering peacemakers and to maintain the momentum Butler has built, especially in recent years, as a vehicle for social progress, not only in teaching and research but in community engagement and student initiative.

For McEvoy-Levy, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the late 1960s and early ’70s, it’s personal. “I was fairly lucky to have lived in a town where we did not see extreme conflict, but sectarian and nationalist violence nevertheless were part of daily life,” she reflects. “People in the U.S. and many parts of the world have not had an opportunity to gain a deep understanding as to why we have conflict. That’s one of the driving principles of my work as a professor and researcher.”


Terri Jett

The Center offered a variety of events and programs, playing host to community forums on issues ranging from religious bigotry to sex trafficking and arranging exchange tours between Indiana teens and their peers in South Africa. Outreach was dramatized by a “Books and Breakfast” series created by Terri Jett, in which directed discussions of writings on grave issues of the day—such as police shootings of African Americans—were held in the nearby Martin Luther King Community Center.

Beyond the lack of dedicated space at CTS for the Butler Faculty Fellows and Faculty Advisory Board, there was scant communication to Butler from CTS before or during the Tutu Center’s short existence, Butler sources complain. They admit Butler was burdened with some preoccupations, including a $258 million fundraising drive and major construction projects. Meanwhile, CTS had its own problems with finances and falling enrollment, leading to Butler’s recent purchase of its land and buildings. CTS continues operations as a lessee, while its former main building is occupied by the Butler College of Education.

“They never got the Butler fundraising apparatus behind [the Center],” a close observer said. “It could have been really cool—cooperation between the university and CTS again for the first time since the beginning” in 1855, when they were founded by abolitionists under the same roof. “The moral authority and resources were there.”


Now, at least, the road is clear. Charlie Wiles is executive director of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, a nonprofit that partnered with the Center and will do likewise with the Lab. He calls Peace Lab “an inspiring thing” despite its bare-bones funding, what with its emphasis on student empowerment and the channeling of its global authority on peacemaking into youth connections at local pulse points such as the MLK Center and the grassroots Kheprw Institute, both within walking distance of campus.

Peace Lab’s student interns Mikayla Whittemore and Julio Trujillo.

Julio Trujillo, a senior from Chicago’s south side and one of the Peace Lab’s two inaugural student interns, has envisioned a research project focused on inner-city kids. He’ll cover “a lot of profound questions: missing fathers, loss of a loved one, drugs, incarceration.” Yet he will be alert to “both positive and negative consequences” of growing up with adverse experience, and in the words of Siobhan McEvoy-Levy, “We’ll avoid the savior model.”

Mikayla Whittemore, a freshman from Indianapolis’ south side, has a special interest in mass incarceration, a problem-ridden practice in which the United States, by the numbers, leads the world. “I’m glad to have this institutional platform,” she says.

The centerpiece of the Peace Lab will be a student think tank, putting the pledge of student prerogatives into concrete form. “Young people have been left out of the process” in the past, McEvoy-Levy observes. “We think of ourselves as such a child-centered youth culture, but we don’t really engage them.”

Engagement with the Peace Lab was off and running in September with a visit from Ian Manuel, a poet who took up his craft in prison, where he was sent at age 13 for shooting a woman who later befriended him and helped bring about his release after 26 years behind bars. The writer-activist is slated for meetings at the MLK Center and the Indiana Women’s Prison along with Butler classroom sessions.

Another highlight: Next spring, students and faculty will visit the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., built on the site of a slave trade warehouse and dedicated to showing slavery, Jim Crow, and modern mass incarceration as a racist continuum. Also planned is participation in reenactment of the 1965 Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing in Selma, a pivotal and bloody moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

Meanwhile, the Peace Lab will gather and disseminate information about peace and its necessary component, justice, close to home. The plan is to operate on both micro and macro levels, from classroom studies to support efforts on behalf of children of prison inmates. Lessons will cover South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the U.S.–brokered Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

“We want students to be trained as mediators of conflict, interfaith dialogue facilitators, and social justice writers,” McEvoy-Levy says. “And we want it to apply to their own lives.”

Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis native, longtime Midtown resident, a survivor of 36 years at The Indianapolis Star, and the author of four books. A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of the magazine.