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Ryan Knight

Ryan Knight is a Whitworth peace studies alum and Peace Corps volunteer who taught English in Ukraine.

Interview by Jacob Schmidt, May 2014

   Human beings tend to erect these arbitrary walls to separate one group from another; walls of racism, classism, etc. Peace is all about breaking down these divisions which exist between people. If we are going to be peacemakers, then we must take the time to learn about each other, about the barriers which divide a community. Then we can begin to bridge those divides, tearing down the walls that kept people apart.

   While I was studying abroad in China, I saw something which helped me truly understand this. I saw two students holding hands, one Pakistani, the other Indian. This sight nearly moved me to tears. Here was embodied the uniting of two peoples who have been declared enemies. Back in Spokane, I had the opportunity to see similar moments of peace. I participated with House of Charity in a series of Urban Plunges in which I really engaged with Spokane, learning about the problems of the community I lived in. My experience serving in the diverse and impoverished communities of Spokane taught me a lot about peacemaking.

   Among the most important things that any student of peace can learn, are: flexibility, humor, and caring. I took all sorts of classes in politics, law, and sociology, however looking back there are two classes in which I learned more about peace than I ever would have expected. These were Soul Care and Improv Acting. Humor has the power to break down barriers unlike anything else. It eases tension and allows us to see the common humanity we share. Improv also taught me to be creative and think on my feet, which was absolutely necessary in Ukraine. Lastly, the basic counseling skills I learned in Soul Care are something that all students of peace should learn in order to care for children and the elderly.

   In Ukraine, I taught classes in English in the village of Sasavo. Through these classes I was able to make connections and share American culture. Part of teaching classes was to introduce ideas about problems which the community faces. For example, anti semitism is very prevalent in Ukraine. After the holocaust and mass emigration to Israel, what used to be a large Jewish community is now a marginalised population. I heard a lot of jew jokes. With two other English teachers, I worked to restore an historic Jewish cemetery that had been ignored over the last few decades. Something as simple as this provides an example of restoring the dignity of marginalised communities. We also taught about Martin Luther King and others to try and work past the deep seated mistrust that exists between Hungarians, Slovaks, Gypsies, and Ukrainians. Essentially I was working with my team to try and undo the damage that the Soviet Union had done.

   Sadly, I was called back from my village after only 3 months and only 6 months in Ukraine. I have a one year window in which I can be placed in a different country, or returned to Ukraine (sorry to say, I don’t see Ukraine improving in time). I have my fingers crossed about getting a new placement soon. In the meantime, I will be working for California State Parks at Grizzly Creek. I’m really starting to get into the environment. I’m beginning to see the connection between peace and preserving natural spaces.

   If I could sum up my prescription for peace, my one bit of advice for the world, it would be this: drink more tea together. It’s stupid and idealistic, but people really just need to sit down and talk more often. If Ukrainians and Russians would just sit down and talk over a cup of tea, then maybe they would all put away the guns and see what they have in common. It’s a little thing I learned from Ukrainian culture, you drink tea for a long time, and then you talk about the problem.