Melanie Cooke, '16

June 29, 2015
Student engages with the local Richmond community through internship with Richmond Peace Education Center

By Melanie Cooke, ’16

For quite some time, I've struggled internally with the concept of patriotism and war. Almost every male member of my extended family has served in the military and my mother works as a liaison between Johns Hopkins and the Department of Defense, so I've grown up possessing a deep reverence for soldiers. I've also grown up with the assumption that I should, therefore, also support the American war machine. It wasn't until Dr. Paul Achter's Media and War class — and a visit from Adria Scharf, the executive director of Richmond Peace Education Center — that I realized the two were not a "buy one, get one free" kind of deal. I constantly asked myself, could I be patriotic and oppose war policy? When I was presented with the opportunity to spend the summer interning with the Richmond Peace Education Center (RPEC), I thought the experience might help me reconcile questions I was struggling to find answers to.

RPEC strives to build inclusive, nonviolent, just communities through education and action. We teach peace, respect, cooperation, acceptance, and integrity, and we do so by directly interacting with any person — no matter their age, gender, religious, or political affiliation — who experiences violence and injustice in our community. To create peace in our world, we must make peace in our community, and to make peace in our community, we must create peace within, and among, ourselves.

Changing behavior requires changing mindsets; as a psychology and rhetoric double major, I live by this motto. With this intention, the RPEC works one-on-one to educate individuals about peaceful relations through conflict resolution, anger management, and trauma healing programs. 

The thing I love most about RPEC is that while we work with individuals of any age, we believe in intervening early in life and teaching kids, adolescents, and young adults how to live and think peacefully. We hope that, through the RPEC's Richmond Youth Peace Project, youth will grow up as active citizens of their community and government, promoting peace, justice, equality, and freedom. We offer support to our community by participating in marches, community dialogues, and educational events about gun violence, but in addition to trying to "band-aid" the current violence, we want to work toward prevention, and I think the best way to do that is through early intervention.

Though I will be part of the team that presents RPEC’s membership dinner/award ceremony and fundraising dinner and auction, I primarily work as a communications intern. My goal this summer is to increase RPEC’s presence and familiarity among Richmond's younger population through social media and face-to-face interpersonal communication. I am the administrator of RPEC's website, Facebook, and Instagram, and I plan to write some op-eds for our newsletter and blog. Throughout the summer, I will be spreading the word about RPEC at an array of community events, including First Fridays, farmers markets, and the Vegetarian Festival.

I'm really excited to talk deeply about RPEC and the issues it confronts in my own words, both with community members who are familiar with the center and those who have never heard of it before. I'm also working as a liaison between RPEC and other Richmond organizations, including Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine (RPIP) and the Interfaith Council as we plan this year's RVA Peace Festival. 

RPEC works admirably, and its success thus far is a direct testament to its heart, the people who work there. I was received with warmth, enthusiasm, encouragement, and respect from my very first day as an intern, and I'm so grateful for that. It's heartwarming to know that my supervisors ask me to participate in e-communications, planning, and development meetings — not to sit in the corner taking notes, but to share my own ideas as a full-fledged contributor to their creative process. My hope is that this internship helps me in making the decision to immediately continue to graduate school upon graduation or to get my feet wet and work, or try to do both. This internship has already substantiated my feelings that this is exactly the inclusive, hard-working, respectful, and meaningful environment in which I hope to work in the future.