This article first appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle on 2/20/14. Due to a D & C server change, some photos are missing.
• February 10, 2014
Last year I reported on the good works the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence has done throughout the city school district: weekly programming at Wilson Foundation Academy’s In-School Suspension room; at the I’m Ready Alternative Education Program for long–term suspended students; for at-risk 7th and 8th grade male students at Dr. Charles T. Lunsford School #19; and for 8th graders at Dr. Freddie Thomas High School. (see Gandhi Institute reaches out to city school students )
This year I am pleased to report the Institute is expanding its mission by supporting school based nonviolence clubs at Douglass and Wilson (as well as one at Pittsford Mendon).
Fundamentally, the clubs provide a forum for young people to honestly discuss overt uses of violence, as well as every day experiences like bullying, intolerance, and incivility. To those of us who spend time in schools, we know how many students actually reject and resent the often overwhelming “culture of disruption.” Although only now a first step, the clubs have the potential to create that critical mass of students—and it must come from students—to transform a culture of disruption into a culture of cooperation.
To assist the Clubs, the Institute support includes: club mentors to act as a liaison with school staff andstudents, “Master classes” with visiting experts, including global nonviolence teachers like Arun Gandhi and Kingian nonviolence trainers, and $250 stipends for each club.
The clubs are facilitated by Anna-Kristina Pfeifer and Shannon Richmond. Anna is originally from Germany, has studied and lived in the UK, and now makes Rochester her home. Anna is committed to youth empowerment, co-facilitating a participatory video project for youth activists in collaboration with RCTV and supporting sessions in suspension rooms in different schools in Rochester. For Shannon, studying at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Durban, South Africa sparked her interest in Restorative Justice and led her to the Gandhi Institute where she has facilitated Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in prisons and the community.
Recently, Anna and Shannon invited me to the Douglass Non-Violence Club. There, I spoke at length with Dennis who has experienced the corrosive effects of violence and deeply desires another way. He joined the club to find “people who feel how I feel,” admitting he worries that often he “doesn’t have the guts to take action” because anti-violence and anti-bullying stances often invite derision from his peers.
Dennis tells sad stories of “knockout games” and groups of young men who reflexively verbally and physically assault anyone within hearing and striking distance. I ask who can get through to these young men—parents, peers, teachers, coaches, clergy?—his somber half-nods betray a resigned pessimism. How about those motivational speakers who tell school kids about how they turned around their own lives of violence and anti-social behavior? Dennis’ answer is heartbreaking: during the talks everyone seems to be getting the message but on the bus trip home the speakers are often ridiculed and mocked.
Dennis’s depiction sadly reminds me of something the Institute Director, Kit Miller, wrote, all too often, “Many people, young and old, in and around Rochester experience violence as inevitable, necessary, and sometimes even pleasurable.”
Dennis conclusions seem bleak. “African-Americans fought so hard for their rights and now”, his voice trailing off, “I think this generation is lost.”
In the end, I actually believe Dennis demonstrates great hope. Sharing his darker feelings at the Non-Violence Club can be cathartic. I sense that, after talking, he feels stronger, more determined to make non-violence work, if not today then tomorrow. With the help of program like this, guys like Dennis can save “lost” generations.