Photojournalist shares lessons from peace project with staff on MLK Day

John Noltner sums up what he’s learned in interviewing 150 people on their thoughts about peace in three statements: When people sit face-to-face, they can resolve conflicts. The time for action is now. And when people do something for another person, they get back in return.

Noltner chronicles those lessons and the first 50 interviews with Minnesotans of all walks of life in his book, “A Peace of My Mind.” On Jan. 18, Noltner spoke to a packed Lakeville North High School auditorium filled with district staff. The event was part of the district’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance and teacher workshop day.

Journalist and photographer John Noltner of Bloomington talks to Lakeville Area Public Schools staff Jan. 18 as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance.

Journalist and photographer John Noltner talks to Lakeville Area Public Schools staff Jan. 18 as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance. Pictured behind him is a father whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

The journalist and freelance photographer said he began the project in 2009 as he grew frustrated with what he saw as a growing national divisiveness and waning productive discourse.

“If you go through life choosing to divide, all sorts of tools are at your disposal,” Noltner said, adding he wanted to give people a constructive starting point for conversation. “Some jobs feed the belly. Some jobs feed the soul.”

He began by interviewing 50 Minnesotans, ranging from a homeless man who makes it his mission to give back to others to a couple who survived a concentration camp and have “rediscovered peace after living in a world that had none.” Noltner said that couple has been amazed by the technological advances of the 21st century that enable people to carry computers in their pockets and communicate across the world while still struggling to relate to one another.

That realization and others led Noltner to conclude that there is a disconnect between what people say they believe in and how they live their everyday lives. But, if people stop to think about actions and sit down to “hear stories fully,” that divisiveness fades.

“Stories have a way of illuminating the truth in a way that facts and statistics alone cannot,” Noltner said.

Telling those first 50 stories of Minnesotans led Noltner to interview another 100 people in 46 states, including a young woman who led a college Muslim Student Association in the wake of 9/11 to a woman who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as an 11-year-old girl. With each story, Noltner said he’s learned about people’s strength, courage and the power of forgiveness.

It was fitting to have Noltner speak to staff on a day “where we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and all his work in peace,” said Lakeville North Principal Marne Berkvam. She credited the school’s Learning Team with bringing Noltner to speak after Media Specialist Rocky Boelter had heard his presentation and described the experience for colleagues.

As part of the presentation, Noltner put up displays of his photo stories in the media centers at both high schools. Boelter said the high schools plan to leave the displays up through Jan. 22 so students can have the opportunity to view them. A number of teachers have signed up to take their students through the exhibits and complete activities related to what students learn from them.

“The small decisions we make daily can make a significant impact to others,” Boelter said, adding she hopes staff and students will recognize their efforts can create a more peaceful society.

Noltner said being invited to speak to staff on MLK Day was meaningful to him because Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a day when the concern for others that ends prejudice and racism would extend beyond families and social circles.

“You don’t have to look far to see how we’ve fallen short of that mark,” Noltner said.

Noltner said he plans to release the second volume of “A Peace of My Mind” featuring interviews with people throughout the United States in September. Learn more at APeaceofMyMind.net.

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