The Peace Development Fund has been a strong supporter of nonviolence training, from early work with youth, schools and Teaching Peace, to the Kingian nonviolence training sponsored by PDF in many parts of the country (pictured right), to Restorative Justice.
“Violence is the language of the inarticulate,” says Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. (below), who has worked with PDF staff and Board on Kingian nonviolence training. Dr. LaFayette, one of the Freedom Riders recently seen in the PBS documentary of the same name, will help celebrate PDF’s 30th Anniversary at the Amherst Cinema (Amherst, MA) on September 25th. As the story below shows, PDF has consistently funded groups seeking to articulate a new, peaceful reality and bring change to their communities.
from Peace Developments, Spring 1989
A Closer Look: Conflict Resolution: The Fourth “Basic”? The Wayne State Center, Detroit
Over the last several years, the improvement of our public schools has emerged as a leading motif in political campaigns. Less than a decade ago, candidate Ronald Reagan vowed to eliminate the Department of Education; now his successor wants to be remembered as “The Education President.” But while politicians and journalists argue over the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer in the classroom, the read business of learning is being disrupted by a rising level of conflict and violence.
The intensity of this violence is almost inconceivable: in Detroit, for example, school administrators ruled recently that a child cannot enter into mediation armed with a weapon. Those of us who remember an orderly and instructive time in grade school might want to believe that this is an extreme case – in fact, the situation in Detroit’s inner-city public schools is typical of conditions across the country.
But while schools in similarly troubled areas elsewhere are calling in police officers to guard students and teachers, Detroit is taking a different tack. There, a PDF-supported program run by the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies of Wayne State University is developing an innovative middle school curriculum that will teach young people how to resolve their disputes without violence.
Lillian Genser has been director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies for over twenty years. During that time she has seen public enthusiasm for traditional peace issues ebb and flow, usually in response to the level of world tensions. However, interest in conflict resolution for the schools has continually expanded. Lillian Genser believes this is a direct response to the degree of violence in the schools.
But what is conflict resolution for school-age children? Can it really make a difference in an environment where schools are reduced to using airport-style metal detectors to keep knives and firearms out of the classroom?
In fact, conflict resolution means many different things. In many cases, students are chosen (or elected by their classmates) to serve as dispute mediators. They receive special training and are available to other students who are willing to submit their difference to mediation.
The Wayne State Center’s project takes conflict considerably further. It is introducing into Detroit’s middle school classrooms an integrated curriculum that teaches a range of skills to help children deal with the conditions of peace and non-violence through self-esteem and respect for the rights of others.
And school-based conflict resolution doesn’t stop with the individual: in many curricula, the link between small and large, between playgroups and disagreements and international confrontation, is often made explicit. According to Lillian Genser, most school programs are based on a foundation of human rights education: “The integration of the global and the individual is fundamentally important. Otherwise you never approach the roots of the problem.” In Detroit, children learn to think about the global implications of violence through education about legal systems and training in human rights. Classes have made trips to the Detroit Holocaust Memorial and local Afro-American Museum, and they plan to visit a Sanctuary Church in the future.
In additional, Lillian Genser points out that “what is left out of a curriculum makes as much of a statement as what is included. We are introducing the language of conflict resolution to the schools in ways as subtle as the words in a spelling bee.” Children, after all, are astonishingly perceptive beings: they learn by picking up on hints and clues that we as adults have long since ceased to notice.
The key to success in conflict resolution is broad participation by different sectors of the community. The Wayne State Center aims to train individuals in various professions – for example, police and teachers – who can then convey the methods and benefits of dispute resolution back to their peers. Even the most skilled program of conflict resolution in schools will lose effectiveness if the students receive a conflicting message for society at large.
For the same reason, conflict resolution has to become an integral part of the regular curriculum for both teachers and students. Lillian Genser believes that a self-sustaining culture of non-violent mediation among children can come about “only if we are able to institutionalize a process so that the lessons can be internalized. Conflict resolution cannot be simply another ‘activity,’ competing with other extracurricular opportunities.”
In fact, many school districts and state legislatures are now mandating, or, as in Michigan, “encouraging” the institution of such programs for children in the public schools. Los Angeles, for example, has instituted comprehensive dispute resolution programs in its public schools, and PDF has helped to fund such projects in places as dissimilar as New York City and rural Abingdon, Virginia. While peace education remains under attack from certain corners (the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, for example), more and more educators are appreciating its contributions toward an innovative atmosphere of learning in the classroom. “People are unaware of what is possible,” says Lillian Genser. “It was the so-called peace educators who put China back into the school curriculum well before Nixon’s ‘opening.’ And they were the ones who first focused attention on the global character of environmental pollution.”
We should remember that conflict resolution in the schools doesn’t seek to eliminate conflict – only to help students better deal with disputes. Conflict is the natural result of our differing needs; learning how to weigh those needs and devise an equitable solution without violence and rancor is an indispensable skill for living in the nuclear age. It is a skill which is learned, as Lillian Genser says, “the earlier, the better.” The work that the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies is doing among middle schoolers, approaching young people before their coming preoccupation with high school graduation and jobs, is providing a model for similar programs in middle schools elsewhere.
However, it is often an exceedingly difficult and complex task to introduce conflict resolution into local schools. Few districts have the excess funding to support programs not considered “basic.” And even beyond the challenge of finding money, the kind of careful and patient planning that must precede any successful implementation often goes undone. Without a solid analysis of the school’s structure and environment, as well as that of its community base, a project is bound to fail before it can ever build momentum. Of course, this is especially true in poorer communities, where tight budgets and eroding tax bases make for even more skepticism on the part of local citizens.
Nevertheless, we are convinced that such programs are indispensable to the improvement for our schools. At their most basic level, they make for a better learning environment by alleviating the level of violence. At their best, they help to make young people champions of peace. Conflict resolution in the schools deserves our advocacy, and the Peace Development Fund is proud to be a supporter of the effort.