During the 1960's, James Sacco wasn't the only college student looking for a way that the world would achieve peace through non-violence. However, having studied the lives and principles of Mohandas Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and participated in non-violent protest, including civil disobedience, Jim was not impressed by the people he was meeting at protest marches and peace rallies. "With so many drug problems, personality problems, and difficulty holding groups together, I couldn't imagine that they were really going to make a difference," he says.
Co-administrator of Green Acre Bahá'í School in Eliot, Maine today, Jim received his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. Over the past decade, he and his wife, Jeannine, have worked to develop a multi-cultural staff at Green Acre, and a vibrant educational program focused on human oneness for adults, youth, and children. In recent years, he also served on the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Anniversary Committee and is a longtime member of NAACP.
Back in his student days, just prior to receiving his undergraduate degree at Harvard University, Jim noticed a poster about a talk on the Bahá'í Faith. The speaker was Dwight Allen of Stanford University, whom Sacco had spoken with earlier that day about attending Stanford's Graduate School of Education. Although he never made it to the talk, Sacco made a point of asking Professor Allen about the Bahá'í Faith once he got to Stanford.
He learned that the Bahá'í Faith is dedicated to achieving peace and the unity of mankind, while respecting and celebrating cultural differences. He met people from the Bahá'í community and saw that they were positive and hopeful individuals with happy lives. "It seemed that they'd have more of a chance of getting there" than the protestors, he had met along the way.
Sacco remained active in the peace movement, but was also impatient to begin teaching. Before finishing his masters at Stanford, he returned to the opposite coast to begin a combination elementary teaching/principal job in the rural town of Shutesbury, Massachusetts. Facing disdain by the local school board and townspeople for his long hair, mustache, and liberal attitudes, he encountered a doubly difficult situation for a first-time teacher.
He left Shutesbury to attend the University of Massachusetts to earn his doctoral degree in education, where he became a Bahá'í and met his future wife, Jeannine, also a Bahá'í. Then, as the tumultuous 70s got rolling, he became an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and also coordinated teacher-education programs for neighboring Anne Arundel county.
When the couple's children were still quite small, (ages 4 and 1 1/2), Jim left the University of Maryland to give their family the experience of living in a different culture. He had a long-time desire to travel and work in South America and it seemed like a natural progression for him and Jeannine to "pioneer" as Bahá'í's in southern Brazil. When they were unable to secure a work visa for Jim to teach at the Catholic University in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Saccos ended up in Paraguay, where they taught English independently for six months.
On a visit to Brazil, they met an American couple who were teaching at one of the small American schools in Southern Brazil. The couple wanted to teach in another part of the country and convinced the School's board of directors to hire Jim and Jeannine to take their place.
It was a small school, with only 22 children, mostly Germans, Chileans, French, and other Europeans, whose parents had businesses or diplomatic work in Brazil. Jim functioned as principal and taught fourth through eighth grades, while Jeannine taught kindergarten through third. "The students brought their cultures and cultural understanding to the classroom, making it a very interesting experience," he recalls. He and Jeannine were the third set of Bahá'í teachers to be employed at the school and the board continued to be pleased with the Bahá'í's enthusiastic approach toward the multi-cultural classroom.
The Saccos had begun to learn Portuguese prior to leaving the States, then had focused predominantly on learning Spanish while in Paraguay. Now, Portuguese was the language of the day. Fortunately, free language lessons were made available two afternoons each week. In addition, in order to offer the Saccos total language immersion outside of their teaching jobs, the Brazilian Bahá'í's only spoke to them in Portuguese. "It took about the full two years to gain confidence in the language," Jim says.
After two years teaching at this American school, the Saccos learned that the Bahá'í's of Brazil were being encouraged to live and serve in the central western region of Brazil. So, once again, they packed up and moved to Goiânia, where they became educational consultants in the mayor's office, working on teacher- and school-supervisor training programs. Some of the teachers had studied methods developed at Stanford University and the Saccos were able to assist then in furthering their understanding of this approach.
Now, only a couple of hours away from the couple whose jobs they had acquired upon their first arrival in Brazil, they became better acquainted with them. The couples also decided to work together to achieve the ambitious goal of creating their own school.
The existing American school in Brasilia had entered into a crisis, with a superiority complex among the American students and parents, Jim notes. This did not bode well for a multi-cultural situation, and the Brazilian parents requested that the Saccos open the new school immediately. In 1980, 17 students enrolled at the new Bahá'í-inspired, bilingual (English/Portuguese) School of the Nations.
The Saccos moved to Brasilia, but for a while, Jim flew between Goiânia and Brasilia, maintaining both jobs.
"Going to live in another country does something to you. It gives you more confidence and self-assurance that you can do new things, that you can stretch, that you can challenge yourself," he says. "Once you take the risk of leaving your country and going to live in another country, any other risk that you take seems minor by comparison."
Twenty-eight years later, with 550 students, the School of the Nations is known as the one of the best private schools in Brasilia. Based on Bahá'í principles, with a Bahá'í director, the school regards every student as a citizen of the world in an environment that promotes the pivotal principle of the oneness of humankind.
While there were often many conflicts between the countries from which they came, the students themselves were over and above those government conflicts, Jim says. For example, students from Iraq, Libya, the U.S., and Israel all worked together hand-in-hand in the school and declared openly that they were all about peace -- in spite of the political positions their parents were upholding in their embassies.
When one child, whose father was a minister-counselor at the Iraqi Embassy, chose an Israeli doll for a project, the father became very angry. When it was explained that the entire third-grade class was involved in choosing their favorite dolls for the project, he backed down.
"There are many Muslim students in the school," notes Jim. "It's a tough situation for traveling Muslim diplomats, because choosing an American school for their children to learn English is a very political statement, saying they trust the American school. On the other hand, although Bahá'í's may not be favored in Muslim culture, the Muslim parents also realize that in no other school is their religion as well-respected as in the School of the Nations, a Bahá'í School."
Many religions have founded schools to indoctrinate populations, but the Bahá'í school simply wanted to operate from the Bahá'í principles, teaching unity. The Brazilian Diplomats saw a distinction between Americans and American Bahá'í's, earning the Saccos the trust of the local population.
For the first eight years, the school was predominantly owned by the two couples who had founded it. But in 1988, they donated their shares to the Bahá'í National Assembly of Brazil, who appointed Jim executive director of the school, where he served until 1995.
During preparations for the Earth Summit in Rio, Bahá'í's visiting the school were impressed with the knowledge of the students and invited them to perform at the international cultural programs held parallel to the summit. The students also participated in the dedication of a peace monument in Rio.
By 1995, the Saccos felt that it was time for new blood at the school, plus they received the opportunity to become directors of a conference center either in Brazil or in Eliot, Maine. They chose to be closer to aging parents and took the position at Green Acre Bahá'í School in Maine, where they have served as co-administrators for more than 13 years.
Each of their children, who grew up in the unity-minded environment of the School of the Nations, is married now. Their daughter lives in England, and their son in Brazil. When the Saccos return to Brazil for visits each year, they have the chance to see how well the school they helped establish continues to flourish. Year by year, it encourages in future citizens and leaders those very values of justice, unity, and equality that engaged Jim's own attention back in the 60's. One heart at a time, it is helping to lead a world to peace.