2013 Applegate-Dorros Peace and International Understanding Award
Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, and the poorest people in Chiapas are Indians. They constitute about one-third the population of the state. The Indians of Chiapas, descendents of the Mayans, not only have a high poverty rate but also a low literacy rate. They average only 2.5 years of education per person.
In the mid-1990s, when San Diego public school teacher Peter Brown was visiting the village of Oventic, in an area controlled by Zapatista Army of National Resistance, he had an idea. Why not build a secondary school in this village that had none?
Brown organized supporters of the project back in San Diego into the Chiapas School Construction Teams and submitted plans to the Zapatista for the school project. The Zapatistas approved the plan, and Peter Brown and his California cohorts hit up their contacts on the Internet and held benefit concerts, raising $8,000 and another $5,000 worth of educational materials and computers for the school. Then Brown organized volunteers, “tourists of conscience,” to go to Chiapas and help build the school.
But this turned out to be an uncertain time in Chiapas. In 1996, the Zapatistas and the Mexican government signed the San Andrés Accords, which granted autonomy, recognition and rights to the indigenous population of Chiapas. Despite the agreement, however, the Mexican government soon moved to reassert its authority in Chiapas, especially over villages and areas controlled by the Zapatistas. On July 24, 1998, Peter Brown was arrested in Chiapas by the military, driven to Mexico City, expelled from Mexico, and banned from returning. The Mexican Interior Ministry stated that Brown had become involved in internal Mexican politics while on a tourist vista and had been building a school without the permission of the National Educational System.
Brown kept focused on the now-partially completed school and continued raising money through San Diegans for Peace in Mexico. And as an elementary school teacher, he continued to challenge his students to think globally. In 2000, the Mexican government overturned the 1998 expulsion of Peter Brown and granted him a visa to spend the holidays in Chiapas. Brown was delighted to be reunited with his friends— indigenous students, teachers and parents in Chiapas.
Over the past two decades as one of the volunteer coordinators of Schools for Chiapas, Brown has led over 100 service and educational tours of educators and concerned U.S. citizens to learn first-hand about the daily realities of children in rural Mexico. He served as a Periclean Scholar at Elon University, and he often speaks to student and faculty groups about Chiapas and its need autonomous, indigenous schools. He also spoke at the World Social Forum in 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya and organized an educators’ delegation, sponsored by the NEA Peace and Justice Caucus, to Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The school he helped start in the Chiapas highlands now serves more than 400 students.