“Solidarity Today For a Better Tomorrow:” Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum speaks to young activists on how to grow into their power



Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum visited Kent State and spoke to how the pandemic has affected poverty and human rights and provided guidance on how young activists can take control of their situations and pave paths toward the future. She also shared her perspective as a Mayan indigenous activist. 

On April 30, President Todd Diacon welcomed Menchu with an anecdote about his experience as a recent college graduate in 1981. He spoke about his journey to improve his Spanish at Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquín, Antigua’s oldest Spanish school founded in 1969. Today, the university is run by a nonprofit foundation to preserve indigenous languages and culture. 

Diacon said, “I spent two months there, two months that were magical in that I was afforded the opportunity to experience an indigenous population in a way that I had never experienced.” 

Diacon also spoke of his experience learning about the conflict in Guatemala when civil war and corrupt government ran rampant in their oppression of indigenous peoples, which he said led him to become a scholar and historian of Latin America. 

Diacon continued his story by connecting his son and the PeaceJam Great Lakes organization that hosted Rigoberta Menchu to mentor students in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2005. He said his son returned home speaking nonstop about what a fantastic person Menchu was and how inspired he became by her work. Diacon addressed Menchu, saying, “You have been a major part of two generations of our family, and your work has inspired not just me, of course not just my son, but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people.” 

Neil Cooper, director of the School of Peace and Conflict Studies, said in his opening statements that, “Given that legacy of May 4 at the school, and given our ongoing commitment to peaceful change, it’s particularly appropriate that we’re co-hosting this event along with the May 4th Visitors Center and the Kent State Leadership Center and PeaceJam Great Lakes. It’s doubly appropriate that we are able to host today’s talk by the Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum. Not least because her life’s story epitomizes that commitment to peaceful change that it as the heart of our own mission.”

Menchu fought tirelessly alongside the Committee for Peasant Unity to secure fundamental human rights for the poorest and most vulnerable populations of Mayan people in Guatemala. From 1980-1981 she participated in nonviolent demonstrations to secure those rights and resist military oppression. In 1983, she told her life story through a series of interviews that evolved into her memoir: “I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala,” which garnered national attention. This led to Menchu’s recognition as a world leader for Indigenous rights.

In 1992, Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts throughout the ’80s. In 1996, when the 36-year civil war in Guatemala ended with a peace accord, Menchu continued to advocate for Indigenous rights as she fought for the former political and military establishment to be tried in court. Since then, she has helped establish the first indigenous-led political party. She has also joined fellow “sister” Nobel Peace Laureates to form the Nobel Women’s Initiative that continues the fight for women’s and children’s rights worldwide. She has also been a member of PeaceJam since 1996, mentoring young activists on working toward peace and equity, no matter the new and different challenges they face. 

Menchu spoke about her connection with PeaceJam and how much she cherishes the opportunities she has had to connect with and work with young people through the organization. She said she wants to teach young people how “to be able to say you can pick yourself up, you can cleanse your own body, you can share your ideas, you can start again.” She also spoke of solidarity.

“Youth are really called to renew our spirit of solidarity, and solidarity doesn’t just mean giving to people. It also means showing people that we can get ahead; despite the problems, we can get ahead,” Menchu said. “Solidarity is not just about giving; it’s also about teaching which is why I think that the leadership that our humanity needs comes from schools, from universities, from the academies, but also from politics and from social activism. We all need to have a stronger sense of self and a stronger sense of creativity, to really let other people know what we’ve done. Don’t wait for others to look for you. Do your best to let others have the opportunity to learn from you. These are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.” 

Menchu responded to a question asking how young people might teach solidarity and peace to people who are not on our side in the polarized world we live in today. She said even if others don’t understand us and our purpose, we can seek out people who do align with our values or at least people who are willing to listen. She also advises that we challenge others about what they’re doing to solve the problems they believe others should magically fix and look for alliances in unlikely places.  

She said, “I am a woman who looks to create alliances. And that’s why I work so much with young people, with Peace Noble Laureates, PeaceJam, and with people who are constructing options in the world with the leadership so that we have a livable world. So don’t worry. There are always millions of people who are compatible with your ideas and with your efforts. You just have to seek them out. 

Menchu advises that all “look for the people who are going to understand your work, who understand you, who will animate you, who will give you strength to move forward. These will be your companions as we travel over time because we are on Earth for a short amount of time, so what’s best is to have the most beautiful people surrounding us as we are on this journey on Earth.” 

Finally, Menchu urged young people to pursue their passions, to inspire each other as well as the next generation and above all things to learn. She said, “Please, write your novels that talk about your lives, write poetry, do research! Together, let’s do extraordinary research.” 

Brianna Camp covers diversity. Contact them at [email protected].