Interrupting the Cycle of Violence

by Jennifer Morales

This week, PBS stations across the country will be airing “The Interrupters,” a powerful documentary about a daring and intimate approach to stopping the cycle of neighborhood violence in Chicago. Even as a person who already had a pretty fierce belief in people’s ability to teach and learn peace-building, this movie still blew my mind. I strongly encourage you to make time to watch it and let it change you.

Although the “Interrupters” profiled in the documentary are all adults, there is no age restriction on helping to build peaceful communities. “Chicago’s Peace Warriors,” Kazu Haga’s moving article about one Chicago high school’s embrace of Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence, shows that youth can learn to effectively interrupt our culture of violence, too.

The high school students in Haga’s article understand what’s at stake: Either we begin to actively teach and learn nonviolence or we’re choosing to expose another generation of young people to injury, prison, and early death. The lessons these students and “The Interrupters” teach are essential tools for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline discussed throughout the current issue of Rethinking Schools.

Chicago’s Peace Warriors

By Kazu Haga

from the winter issue of Rethinking Schools

A group of students from Chicago’s North Lawndale College Preparatory High were in the middle of a weeklong summer training to become Peace Warriors—peer nonviolence leaders. Suddenly, a sophomore named Alicia got a text message alerting her that one of her close friends was just involved in a shooting and was in critical condition at the hospital.

A conversation about the violence in Chicago followed. At one point in the discussion, Tiffany Childress, science teacher and civic engagement director at the school, told the students: “This level of violence is not normal. I’ve seen wealthy neighborhoods in Chicago where young people getting shot is not part of the daily reality. Even in this neighborhood, 50 years ago we did not have this level of violence.”

The reactions came quickly.

“What!?”

“Really!?”

“How do you know that? You weren’t around 50 years ago!”

The students were surprised, confused, resistant. The violence in their communities has become so normalized that they literally could not believe that this does not happen everywhere, that this is not how it has always been. It was a chilling reminder of the need to inspire hope, to give youth a vision of peace.

North Lawndale, a charter school located in gang territory on the west side of Chicago, is working hard to provide that vision. In 2009, Chicago witnessed 458 murders—more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those killings involved teenagers. Yet, that same year, the rate of violence at the school dropped 70 percent.

Childress was at the heart of the change. “Several years ago there was a culture of violence that surrounded our school, and it was spiraling out of control,” she began. “We needed to do something to get a hold of it.”

That year, she had a conversation with a woman about Kingian Nonviolence at a birthday party. She was immediately interested and attended a presentation shortly thereafter. Kingian Nonviolence, she learned, is a training curriculum developed out of the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by two of his close allies, Bernard Lafayette Jr. and David Jehnsen. Used in schools, prisons, and communities around the world, it provides a framework to understand conflict and violence, and teaches communities a way to build peace.

King believed that nonviolence is not a passive, but a proactive force that can defeat violence and injustice. It is not about teaching people to turn the other cheek, but about teaching people how to confront the forces of violence and injustice in their lives and create a real, lasting peace. It is, as King put it, “the antidote to violence.”

Childress saw right away how this curriculum could offer a new way to deal with conflict and violence in her school. “I was blown away by the material after the first day,” she said.

With the support of school president John Horan, Childress facilitated a two-day workshop for the faculty as part of their professional development and organized a five-day training for a group of student leaders chosen by the teachers at the school. These were the first North Lawndale Peace Warriors, students who would lead their peers in creating a culture of peace in their school. “The kids are the most well equipped and knowledgeable source for figuring out how to make their schools peaceful,” Childress said. “They know their peers, they know what would make good incentives, they know who’s ready to jump off, so you have to make them an authority so they can have ownership of the process.”

The summer Peace Warrior training, which is now an annual event, includes a study of the principles and steps of Kingian Nonviolence (see sidebars below), the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and role plays dealing with conflict.

For example, one role play last summer involved a scenario in the school cafeteria: two boys getting into a conflict over a girl. A couple is sitting together. When the boy gets up to go get a drink, another boy comes and takes his seat next to the girl. When the first boy comes back, an argument begins to escalate. Just at the point where the conflict begins to boil over, the trainers had the actors pause.

Senior Kingian Nonviolence trainer Jonathan Lewis asked the students: “What are some nonviolent responses that the students could have taken that would have resulted in a different outcome?”

The ideas came quickly. “What if the first boy pulls up another chair and introduces himself to the second boy?” one young man suggested. The students realized that if they took a minute, they could think of dozens of ways to handle situations that easily escalate.

Lewis said: “One of the most important tenets of Kingian Nonviolence is to suspend your first judgment. Maybe the second boy meant no harm, and maybe the two kids would end up being great friends. Yet, in our society, we are always taught to distrust people. Having students think through possible nonviolent responses to conflict makes them realize that they already understand how to de-escalate conflict. They just need to get creative and they need to practice.”

For Leticia, a 16-year-old trainee, a key learning was the first of the six steps of Kingian Nonviolence, information gathering: “Most times, we take action before we even realize what the problem is. Whether it’s a schoolwide thing or a problem between two kids, we need to gather information and understand what’s really behind the problem before we act.

“I hope to stand up. We have problems in our school like gang violence and cyber bullying. It’s time for people to take action. We often complain about things, but we never talk about the situation and come up with a plan. I want to be the person who stands up and takes action, because it’s time.”

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Jennifer Morales is a member of the Rethinking Schools board of directors, and was an elected school board member in Milwaukee, Wisc.

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