Rita Marie Johnson: Sustainable Education for Peace
Rita Marie is the creator of BePeace, a practice that allows individuals to access their natural wisdom and compassion, and the founder of the Rasur Foundation in Costa Rica, whose main project is the Academy for Peace. She also founded a US nonprofit, Rasur Foundation International, which has initiated BePeace in many states and offers it as one of the courses in the certificate program of the National Peace Academy. Rita Marie teaches at the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica and has introduced BePeace in Japan, Canada, and Europe as well as Central America.
How did your peace education project begin, Rita Marie?
Inspired by Costa Rica’s national model of peace, I moved there in 1993 and spent several years just getting to know the culture. I started a small school in 1997, the same year that Costa Rican law mandated peace education in the public schools. Robert Muller was my mentor. He received the UNESCO Peace Education Prize and my school, the School of Rasur, used his World Core Curriculum. Soon after that I discovered the Institute of HeartMath and brought their director to Costa Rica for a seminar. HeartMath teaches how to achieve coherence between the heart and the brain. We taught it to the children to help them achieve the social and emotional intelligence needed for peace.
In August of 1999, I went to work for the UN University for Peace and spent two and a half years there learning many conflict resolution models and meeting international peacemakers. However, my goal was to train teachers to build social and emotional intelligence in their classrooms. I resigned to do my own work and soon after attended a Marshall Rosenberg training in NVC (Nonviolent Communication). I loved how he modeled connecting to each other through language that flows from the universal needs we share. I came to understand that the deep connections I experienced through empathy and honesty in NVC were the secret to conflict resolution.
I got home, thought about combining HeartMath and NVC, and soon I’d stumbled onto something that would change my life. I took the essence of these two methods – coherence from HeartMath and connection from NVC – and tried using them together on an issue. I had the Aha! of my life when I realized how they work synergistically. That “Aha” evolved into the BePeace practice, which is now at the center of my life.
I have great respect for both HeartMath and NVC, and they teach far more than we cover in BePeace courses. We focus on the bare essentials and combine their power – that is the BePeace niche in contributing to peace education. When we achieve heart-brain coherence, we can consistently and efficiently tap into our best intelligence. I remember a conversation with a teacher early on where we had a strong difference of opinion. I said, “Let’s stop & get coherent so we can listen to our intuition.” Moments later we were on the same page! The HeartMath motto is “A change of heart changes everything.” It’s the way I connect with my wisdom.
But tapping my wisdom was not enough. I needed to find the path to compassion. When I connect to my needs and another person’s needs, my heart opens magically and often theirs does too. Connecting in this way takes me home to my compassion in the same way that getting coherent opens my wisdom. As I access both at will, I can be more conscious in the choices I make in every moment.
Wisdom needs compassion to keep it humble, to know we’re not the only ones who can be wise. Compassion can sink us into misery; it needs wisdom to lift it up. Together they’re a way to make life more enjoyable, more enriching. Knowing what to do and how to do it gives me confidence. BePeace is the profound made practical.
So, what’s going on in Costa Rica’s schools?
After 1997 people were trying to comply with the peace education law but implementation was piecemeal―a little program here and there. I saw that the Rasur Foundation could contribute by creating a national Academy for Peace that would train public school teachers in BePeace. The Ministry of Education was happy to have our Academy work to implement BePeace nationally. They sent us 600 teachers for 40 hours of training on paid time over three years, 2007 through 2009. We impacted 18 schools and about 18,000 students. In each school, we trained a teacher as a “Rasur”, the one who would pass BePeace to new teachers and insure the continuity of the program. Then an economic downturn came along, and the donor who had funded our work was not able to continue. The Academy for Peace was put on pause until I could figure out how to make it sustainable.
I went home to Texas and started a BePeace pilot at Oakley Elementary near Houston, with very satisfying results. You can learn about it here. The successful pilot resulted in presenting an in-service training on the BePeace curriculum to 61 teachers and counselors in that school district. Later that week, I presented the same in-service to 28 teachers in another school, St. Rita’s in Fort Worth, and they’ll immerse grades 1-8 in BePeace this year.
Meanwhile, I owned a property called Quizur in Costa Rica that I had been using as the headquarters for the Rasur Foundation and the Academy for Peace. It has a large open-air bamboo training center, classrooms, cabins, and other amenities, and is valued at close to a million dollars. I didn’t want to be in a situation again where everything depended on one donor; I wanted long term sustainability. I did my BePeace practice on the question of how to achieve this and, over time, realized I was to give this property to the University for Peace as their second campus. I knew it was the right thing to do and I’d be OK if I did the right thing, even though the property was my only major asset. In exchange for this property, UPeace has agreed to host the Academy for Peace over the long term at Quizur, at no charge.
The next challenge in getting the Academy off pause was funding for salaries. A longtime supporter made a generous donation to Rasur International and we loaned that money to the Rasur Foundation of Costa Rica so it could hire staff for their Academy. That foundation owns a property that is valued at $385,000. The Rasur Foundation will sell it and then have the money it needs for salaries until other income streams get going. With the sale of the property, they will also pay back Rasur International so both foundations become financially solid. With these steps in the works, my dream of sustainability for a national BePeace model in Costa Rica is well on its way and my dream of bringing it to my own country is gaining momentum. This progress flowed from my BePeace practice and from supporters who want to pass the power of BePeace on to as many people as possible.
Nancy Marin, the new director of the Academy, will take a course at our Texas headquarters this month and I will travel back to Costa Rica with her in October. I’m writing a book that tells this story, with sustainability for the Academy as the happy ending. My book will share how to practice personal peace and expand that to peace in a nation in a grounded, practical way.
What special skills and capacities did you bring to this endeavor?
I’d say perseverance and willingness to keep learning about the depths of peace. I’d never say BePeace is the only answer. Let me share an experience I had one 4th of July when I was 10 years old, growing up on the farm in Missouri. I was sitting on the front porch with my sister and brother waiting for dark and the fireworks. I got bored and started walking down our country road. I saw a glorious sunset before me, I was filled with beauty and peace, and my inner voice said, “You will work for peace.”
I never felt drawn to protest. I never felt drawn to politics. I wanted to work for peace without being against something. That voice said, “You will work for peace.” It’s work to embody peace; it doesn’t just come naturally. But it’s BePeace, not BePerfect. I had to learn lots of self-acceptance. I am human; I make mistakes. I’m always learning, and then I pass it on.
I initiated a Ministry for Peace bill that passed in Costa Rica in 2009 and I’ve created positive change in the world, but my greatest joy is my inner work and desire to empower other peace teachers. My highest intention has been long term sustainability, to leave something that goes on beyond me. The vision of Rasur International is a world where every person practices peace and passes this gift to the next generation. That’s the profound made practical, made permanent!
Can you describe some high points of your career?
The moments that have touched me most are when I’ve heard students and teachers telling stories about how they found peace, expressing the wonder of discovering that BePeace truly helps them. It’s that little boy in the Oakley School video: “It works!” It’s the awe, the aha, of knowing you have the abilities and just needed to access them.
World peace has often been seen as airy-fairy, out of reach. But by practicing peace individually and building peace infrastructure in our countries, we can do this. We need not wait a moment longer; we have realistic methods, tested models and the confidence that comes from walking our own talk. Now we need a widespread base of support – people putting their time, treasure and talents fully behind creating a world that is worthy of our children. That is the direction of my next steps.
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