“I accept this award on behalf of our peacekeepers, who are living and working in violent and challenging situations. It is they who need to be honored.” Mel Duncan
A native of Iowa, Mel Duncan grew up in a family that valued hard work, education and giving back to the community. His first job was selling sweet corn – at age 5 – and every penny he earned over the years that followed went towards college. He enrolled at Macalester College in 1968 in the midst of the Vietnam War and became drawn to organizing and advocacy on a number of social issues. After studying the nonviolence of Jesus and Gandhi in college, he resigned from the Selective Service System and returned his draft card.
While working at a center for people with disabilities in the years after college, he helped organize Advocating Change Together, the first self-advocacy group in the U.S. for people with developmental disabilities. He went on to serve as executive director of the Minnesota Jobs for Peace Campaign. In 1987, with future Sen. Paul Wellstone, he co-founded the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action (which later merged to become TakeAction) to work on economic and social justice, the environment and human rights. In the early 1980s, he volunteered as a peacekeeper on the border of Nicaragua during the Contra war. He also helped organize Wellstone’s 1990 senate campaign.
As a Bush Foundation Fellow in 1997-98, Duncan studied grassroots organizing and spirituality at the Center for Creation-Centered Spirituality in Oakland, CA, where he began to develop his vision of a global peaceforce. Working with like-minded co-founder David Hartsough, they inaugurated the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) in 2002, and soon sent the first peaceforce to Sri Lanka, site of a 20-year civil war.
Since then, the organization has conducted civilian protection operations in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Guatemala, the South Caucasus and South Sudan. They currently have over 200 people in the field from 25 countries. In 2007, NP was granted Special Consultative Status to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Today, Duncan serves as NP’s director for Advocacy and Outreach, focusing his attention on the advancing unarmed civilian protection at the UN..
Duncan has received the 2006 Distinguished Citizen Award from Macalester College and the 2007 Pfeffer International Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 2008 he was named one of “50 Visionaries who are Changing Your World” by Utne Reader.
Duncan and his wife, Georgia, have eight children and live in St. Paul.
“Behind Mel’s cherubic face and beneficent visage lies the brain of an organizational genius, and countless thousands of lives are better because of his efforts for peace.” Arvid “Bud” Dixen, a 2008 Honorary Award recipient who nominated Duncan for this year’s honor.