I interviewed co-founder of Peace Culture Village, Mary Popeo, to understand how her organization is cultivating the next generation of peace culture leaders in Hiroshima, in a time when the number of atomic bomb survivors are rapidly declining. She discusses some of her self-reflections, motivations, and what advice she can give to aspiring peace educators of today.
Hello Mary! And thank you for accepting this week’s interview! To start, could you share with our readers a little bit about who you are, and the kinds of social activism that you are doing?
Hello Phoebe! Thank you so much for your time today! As a college student, I had opportunities to visit both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meeting atomic bomb survivors, called hibakusha in Japanese, and learning about the atomic bombing for the first time changed my life. After graduating from university, I decided to dedicate my career to peacebuilding. In 2016, I moved to Hiroshima where I co-founded Peace Culture Village (PCV) with a team of American and Japanese colleagues.
PCV is an international team of young professionals dedicated to creating a sustainable peace culture through peace education, social entrepreneurship, and youth empowerment. We provide peace education programs each year for thousands of people from around the world, who want to learn about Hiroshima and peace culture.
What inspired you to pursue this social movement?
Up until college, I had never learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school. But when I became a college student, I traveled to Nagasaki to learn about Christian history and persecution in Japan. As a Catholic woman, this was a topic of great interest to me. While in Nagasaki, I had the opportunity to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum, where I saw rosaries that had been fused together by the heat of the bomb. They looked just like the rosaries that my family and I use to pray. Learning that my home country of America had decimated the largest community of Christians in East Asia at that time left me utterly shocked. I felt guilt, embarrassment, and disbelief. For the first time, I thought seriously about my responsibility and role as a global citizen. This experience and meeting hibakusha motivated me to get involved in the peace movement.
How has your experience working for peace influenced your leadership style?
Through my work in Hiroshima, I have had the privilege of meeting many hibakusha.
I have been so impacted by their dedication to ensuring that the horror they experienced will never be repeated. Many of the hibakusha have dedicated their retirement to volunteer peace activities and speaking to thousands of people a year about their traumatic experiences. The hibakusha have inspired me to be a servant leader, or at least to try (laugh). From the hibakusha, I hope to learn how to serve and forgive, to practice peace both within myself and with others.
Are there any personality traits or habits you think every leader should have?
The willingness to understand diverse perspectives is a must for a peace culture leader, as is the desire to contribute and collaborate. Skills in dialogue and communication, especially intercultural communication are also quite important. All these skills are like muscles. The more you exercise them, the more adept you will become. At PCV, we have an online school called Peace Culture Academy where youth learn these skills. Graduates are afforded opportunities to practice what they have learned by facilitating our peace education programs as paid work. To truly learn peace culture skills, you need to put them into practice. It’s a combination of learning and action.
Who inspires you, and why? Who do you admire?
There are many hibakusha who inspire me, but one, in particular, is Toshiko Tanaka. Out of all her classmates, she was the only one who survived the atomic bombing. She lost family members, and she became very sick and weak. But she survived. When she talks to children about her experience, she urges them to “live life to the fullest.” She is always smiling and joyful, and as a survivor, she has taken every opportunity in her life and gone on so many adventures. In fact, she has traveled around the world four times!
I am inspired by Toshiko to reflect every day that life is a miracle and to appreciate every person and opportunity.
What are some of the major challenges you face at in your work at PCV? And what keeps you motivated to solve them instead of quitting?
A big challenge of working at PCV is working in a culture, context, and language different from my own. When working in an intercultural team there are often miscommunications or disagreements and it can be a struggle to understand others and be understood. It’s also very difficult to live so far away from my family.
What keeps me going is my belief in PCV’s mission, to create a peace culture and empower the next generation of peace culture leaders. I also believe that the challenges we face as an intercultural team are opportunities for us to practice peace culture. The process itself is peace culture training, and ultimately makes us a stronger, more loving force for change.
Lastly, I love the people I work with! There are so many amazing, inspiring, young people in Hiroshima! It gives me a lot of hope and excitement for the future.
If you were to start all over again, would you have done anything differently?
As a person of faith, I believe that everything happens providentially. Even our struggles have an important role in forming us. I am still amazed that my career path has brought me to Hiroshima. As a student, I imagined myself working in academia. But I am so grateful to have met the people who helped me, to get to where I am today.
So, I wouldn’t change a thing.
If you weren’t working on PCV, what else would you be doing?
I would probably be going to graduate to learn about social entrepreneurship. I am also very interested in using video game technology, for social good. So perhaps I would go into the video game industry!
What advice do you have for youth who also aspire to take action for peace like yourself?
To make a difference in the world, you do not have to live abroad or leave your context. The hibakusha often say that creating a peace culture starts with cultivating inner peace. Try to reflect on your own values. Then, listen to the people around you and find ways to use your unique talents, connections, and passions to contribute and serve. It may sound simple, but I believe this is how all change begins.
I believe that PCV is my vocation. Right now, our work is very focused on Japan. Over the next few years, I would like to see our work extend outside of Japan. I am thinking a lot about the power of the story of Hiroshima and its potential to provide hope and inspiration to the rest of the world, even after the survivors are gone.
I received a mission from the survivors, and that mission is to continue to tell their stories in English, to people from around the world. I hope to work together, with all of you reading, to create a peace culture within our own communities and beyond!