Gandhi Institute reaches out to city school students

This article first appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle on 3/26/13  Due to a D & C server change, photos are missing.

Last week I worked in the In-School-Support room (formerly known as the In-School-Suspension room) at the Wilson Foundation Academy. I anticipated a tough day. ISS is for students who have gotten into fights, disrespected teachers, or found themselves in the middle of myriad conflicts, big and small.

At first, I was surprised to see posters on the walls about the M.K Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. Sure, I knew of the Institute, but wondered about the posters. What did Gandhi have to do with the ISS room of a city school? A few hours later, George Payne arrived. Quickly, I learned why he was there.

Both passionate and calm, George facilitates the Wilson Nonviolence Education & Empowerment Program (WNEEP), started in 2009 by ISS teacher Robin Lavergne, former University of Rochester student Joseph Gardella, and run through the Gandhi Institute.

At Wilson and other venues, George teaches students some of the basic tenets of Gandhi’s vision. Conflict and strife are inevitable features of human life. At the same, if we genuinely engage in authentic, open-minded conversation, positive alternatives to violence and social harm are possible.

The program has two fundamental goals. First and foremost, it tries to create a compassionate and interesting learning environment where students can openly express their ideas and feelings about issues that matter to them. By creating such a space, the Gandhi Institute has been able to introduce a wide variety of sessions relating to the teaching of nonviolence. Topics include the examples of famous peacemakers like Gandhi and King, the history of different civil rights movements, issues around school harassment and abuse, global conflicts like war and poverty, as well as professional skill development such as public speaking, interviewing for a job, and relating to adults with power.

The second goal is to present the students with memorable examples of alternative ways to think and act by modeling nonviolent behavior in front of them. Many of these young people come from volatile home lifes that make adjusting to school extremely difficult. For George, knowing this provides a sense of urgency to his work. He believes becoming more nonviolent can truly increase a person’s ability to deal with dangerous situations and people in a way that not only avoids violence but prompts courage and fosters understanding.

I asked George a question he frequently hears. What is the result of doing this work? Does it succeed? According to the Mahatma if ones motives are pure and their work ethic is strong, then the results will take care of themselves. “Full effort is full victory.” Having said that, George knows all he can do is prepare meaningful lessons and continue to show the students compassion and respect. If he does that, good things will continue to happen.

Right now, there are two intertwined Community Editorial Boards, Making City Schools Better and The Culture of Violence. People like George Payne are doing the hard, but rewarding, work needed to move forward on both fronts.

Fundamentally, we need to create virtuous cycles: safer schools lead to safer communities which lead to better city schools.