Worcester State University Associate Professor of Sociology Matt Johnsen

Johnsen Named Rotary Peace Fellow at Chulalongkorn University

November 7, 2017
By: Nancy Sheehan

Matthew Johnsen (Sociology) says world peace is a dream, but it is one we can move toward with every action we take. His ongoing efforts to that end at Worcester State University and around the world have resulted in a new honor that should help further that noble goal. The Trustees of The Rotary Foundation have selected Johnsen to receive a 2018 Rotary Peace Fellowship for studies as part of the Rotary Peace Centers program.

He has been assigned to the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, to attend the June 2018 session, which will end in August. He will participate in a certificate program that brings in people who are involved in many areas, including peace building, nongovernmental organizations, education, and law, from across the world.

The Rotary Foundation and its university partners considered candidates for the Peace Fellowships in a highly competitive selection process. The program “develops leaders who become catalysts for peace, and conflict prevention and resolution,” according the organization’s website. The program will dovetail with Johnsen’s work as the director of the Center for Social Innovation at WSU.

“One of the things I’m looking forward to is being in a group of 25 fellows—men and women—who are from 24 other countries and learning from that experience,” Johnsen said. “Among the things that I loved when I went around the world was just coming to understand different cultures, where other people were coming from, and fundamentally kind of recognizing the need to be world citizens.”

Johnsen said he believes this new honor aligns with work he did on sabbatical last year, when he travelled to 19 countries looking at social enterprises around the world. Over four months, he visited Europe, Africa, and Asia, where his last stop was in Dakar, Bangladesh. There, he had an opportunity to do some sight visits associated with the Muhammad Yunus Centre and got to meet Yunus, an economist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who pioneered the anti-poverty concepts of microfinancing.

After Johnsen returned, a local Rotary Club invited him to talk about his trip, and he was encouraged by one of the club members to consider applying for the Rotary Peace Fellowship.

So, what does he expect to learn? “It’s really something to kind of build on your knowledge about conflict resolution and things like that,” Johnsen said. “We’ll be involved with a couple of site visits, one international site visit, and one site visit in the country, that will allow us to use some of the things we’re learning.”

Some of the work Johnsen is doing with the Center for Social Innovation can be linked to efforts to create a less conflict-riddled world. Again, he draws inspiration from the visionary Yunus who, in a new book, talks about a world with three zeroes—zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon footprint.

“I do believe that those three things are linked and that if we can find a way toward a more just and sustainable world, we’ll be closer to peace and a world in which the exploitation we see all around us is reduced,” Johnsen said.

One of the things Johnsen wants to do is bring what he learns back to Worcester State and perhaps offer new courses related to peace and conflict studies or conflict resolution. He also hopes to share his new knowledge with local institutions and other colleges and universities.

“We have a Center for Nonviolent Solutions here in Worcester, and I’m hoping that there will be opportunities to bring a greater focus on these kinds of things here at Worcester State,” he said.

For those who think peace is an impossible dream, Johnsen might answer by recounting a particularly moving experience he had while on sabbatical. When in Rwanda, he went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place for 250,000 victims of the inter-tribal mass murders of 1994.

“To stand in a ground where that many people died—and they were part of more than a million who were killed, sometimes at a rate of 10,000 an hour over a period of 100 days in Rwanda…” (His voice trails off here, then a brief pause before continuing) “How do you recover from a situation where a million people were massacred over a very short time? But one of the things they talked about there was what happened after the genocide and how they achieved a lasting and sustainable peace. In Rwanda, they’ve been pretty successful, so a message I got was one of encouragement and that it is possible to move beyond these conflicts.”

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