A Violent Past Gives Birth to Future Hope
During the civil unrest of 1972, an organization was formed to train marshals and peacekeepers in nonviolent techniques to maintain peace during protest marches and anti-war demonstrations. Based on the philosophies of the Quakers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas K. Gandhi, this organization grew into what is now known as Creative Response to Conflict (CRC).
Realizing that the seeds of hate and hostility are planted at a young age, four teachers from this group of peace activists were asked to create a program to teach tolerance and peace-keeping skills to children. Seasoned with conflict-resolution skills gained during the protests, they formed Children's Creative Response to Conflict, or CCRC. Priscilla Prutzman was one of those teachers.
Today, with nearly three decades under its belt, CCRC continues to address the issues of violence in our homes, schools, and communities through their workshops in cooperation, communication, affirmation, bias awareness, mediation, and creative problem-solving.
As King, Gandhi, and the other great minds of our world knew, global peace begins with individuals. One school at a time, CCRC aims to guide each individual toward making peaceful choices.
Sun: What kinds of nonviolence workshops do you do?
Priscilla: Our viewpoint is really a preventive one. We're really trying to prevent anyone from even thinking about harming others, so we try to create an environment in which people want to cooperate with each other and want to feel positive about themselves and others. That's what a lot of our very basic work speaks to directly, as does our bias-awareness work, which aims to get everybody to appreciate differences rather than isolate others because of them to examine how we can benefit from learning more about differences.
Our bias-awareness work starts out by cultural sharing and appreciating the different cultures that are present in the group. By examining different kinds of bias, we are operating on an assumption that everybody has felt bias at some time in his or her life. By listening to each other's stories, a lot of empathy gets developed and people realize that everybody's got a similar issue on some level. Then we bring it all back to the conflict resolution skills that we learned in previous sessions, and we respond to bias from a conflict resolution perspective.
Sun: Can you give me a specific example?
Priscilla: We might start off by brainstorming the word ''culture,'' for example, just charting how the children define that in a very broad sense. And then we would break into small groups and do a sharing, asking each other their ideas about what's on the chart: how they identify their own culture, what they like about it, if there's anything they don't like about it. They share their thoughts with each other.
Then we might brainstorm the types of bias that exist. We might examine the kinds of bias that transforms into personal, cultural, or institutional forms. And after brainstorming, we would do another small-group sharing of times that each individual had experienced bias directed against himself or herself.
Sun: As this project has been in place for a while now, have you gotten any feedback on how these workshops may have influenced the children when they got older?
Priscilla: One thing that we've definitely seen is the rise in self-esteem for those students who have learned to become mediators through the program. As peer mediators, they apply these skills throughout the rest of their school years. Though there have been some studies, we haven't done any extensive tracking of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, though we do have some tracking within elementary schools, where it's really easy to tell which children have had mediation training.
We get a lot of feedback from schools where only some of the classes have had the training. In those schools, the classes that have learned conflict resolution really stand out, because when they get on any topic about conflict, they just have a huge vocabulary about it, and they see lots of options open to them.
If you haven't done a lot of conflict resolution, you kind of react to conflict by either fighting or running away. But when children and adults, too have had conflict resolution training, they begin to see an almost unlimited number of ways of responding to conflicts and problems. And that's something we've gotten a lot of feedback on.
Sun: You mentioned that prevention is more your approach. What if you go into an environment that's already full of hostility?
Priscilla: Actually, those are the kinds of environments that we went into originally almost always. Many years ago, when people thought of conflict resolution, nobody wanted to admit that they had a conflict, whereas everybody admits that readily now.
Of course, there are still some school systems that say, ''Well, we don't really have any problems here. We don't have any bias here. Everybody's happy.'' And that's kind of a flag, because that's never the case, really. When we hear that, we know that the kind of conflict that exists in that area is not being addressed, and that the primary mode of dealing with it is to ignore it. And when students get the idea that that's the way it's handled, our job then becomes really to get the critical mass of teachers, staff, and students to accept conflict resolution itself to accept the idea that dealing with conflict in a positive way is important.
We often have been called into situations because the need is great and the environment is hostile, but we'll still give everyone prevention skills so that when the conflicts come up in the future, as they will, they have more skills to deal with them.
Sun: Have you ever gone into a situation where you haven't been able to achieve the critical mass of teachers and parents?
Priscilla: Yeah. A lot of studies out there indicate that the principal of a school really has to buy into it. Quite often the parents didn't buy into it at first, but that's not as true now because everybody understands that we have to do something. It's gotten out of hand in so many incidents.
But it's also important to realize that actual violence among young people is decreasing. We hear about these localized incidents, but the actual number of incidents of violence is decreasing.
Priscilla: It's very interesting. I'd like to think that the conflict-resolution people and mediation people have had a part in that. I'm sure that we have, on some level, gotten words like ''win-win'' out there. Even corporations use win-win solutions on commercials, whereas fifteen years ago, people didn't know what that meant. Nobody knew what conflict resolution meant. ''Mediation'' was frequently mistaken for ''meditation.'' That occasionally still happens, but it's much rarer.
Getting those words out there in everyone's vocabulary increases the sense that there are options nonviolent, creative options to solve our problems. Instead of fighting or running away or letting emotional and/or physical violence continue, the children try to come up with a positive solution where everybody's needs are met.
Sun: Have you found any differences between children today and children a decade or two ago? Many parents and educators are finding, for instance, more kids diagnosed with ADD and some find today's children simply different or more aggressive.
Priscilla: On some level, I think that's true, and I suppose you could make an argument that students know so much more from television, from news and media things being out there. There's a certain sophistication among young people that certainly didn't exist years ago.
On the other hand, a lot of the problems that existed years ago are the same as the ones that exist today: people feeling excluded, people bringing weapons to school. Bringing weapons to school is not a new thing. At the very first schools that we went into, in New York City, elementary children were carrying knives. This is not new, but I think the media didn't portray it in the same way as they are now, so perhaps we weren't as aware of it then. Unless, of course, you were in the schools, as we were.
There's another issue in there, and that is that most of these incidents now are happening in suburban schools. If you listen to the news, everybody says, ''I just can't imagine how it could happen here'' as if these suburban areas are completely immune from the violence which is really everywhere in our society. On some levels, urban schools dealt with the very direct forms of violence twenty years ago, so these incidents aren't happening there as much. Urban schools have found ways, from a variety of perspectives, to prevent them.
So the violence is more out in the suburbs now, and people are paying a lot more attention to it because of that. There are a lot of levels of frustration about it related to denial, the attitude that ''We don't have any problems here so we haven't done anything about it.''
It's kind of remarkable that out of all the incidents we've heard about in the news during the last five years, very few happened in urban schools. Of course, incidents in urban schools still exist, but they're not increasing. They're decreasing.
Sun: What do you think causes aggression or hostility in children in the first place?
Priscilla: Well, I think oftentimes it's that they don't feel that their needs are being met or that they're part of the community. A lot of times, schools are so big that students don't feel as though they're a part of anything.
Also, there's the element of competition our society is very, very competitive. Kindergartners and first-graders feel that competition, and they begin acting very competitive with each other at that early age. Then it escalates.
But if competition escalates, so does cooperation. As violence escalates, so do the opportunities for being positive toward one another. And I think when people realize that being positive to each other escalates, then people begin to accept and buy into that and work on that.
Not everybody buys into it. But if the critical mass of students and teachers and staff buy into it, then real change can happen.
Sun: Could you give me an example of the kind of mediation that you do?
Priscilla: Mediations are done in any conflict outside of blatant violation of a school rule such as severe violence, possession of weapons, or drugs those really need to go to other authorities. But any other disputes, like interpersonal conflict, property disputes, put-downs, name calling, friendship disputes (''This person was my friend and they agreed to go to the movies with me and they went with somebody else.'') these are cases for mediation. All of these disputes are very common. And there's a lot of clique stuff. I'm part of this group. I used to be with this group, and so on. There's a lot of that going on, but that's been going on for a long time, too.
Sun: It seems like the cliques are the students' way of trying to feel that they're part of something. What kind of methods are available for helping students feel that they are part of something bigger than a clique like a community?
Priscilla: That's where the teacher, and especially the principal, take a leadership role and say, ''The goal of our school is to include everybody and appreciate everybody.'' The teacher can say, ''The goal of our classroom is to welcome everybody, and everybody's equal here. We want to try to find what everybody's really good at and appreciate that special quality of each person.'' That's something that the teacher and administrators can really reinforce. And it has to be reinforced; otherwise, it could slip into a competitive situation where people get mean to one another.
Sometimes the principal and the teachers do try to provide this leadership, but then the children go off and act out on their own at recess or when they're on the bus. So it's important to watch where that's happening, too, and to try to create structures that reinforce the everybody-has-some-positive-quality issue.
Sun: What kind of structures?
Priscilla: For instance, there are certain processes where people could work with the bus drivers to make a real effort to say, ''We want everybody to have a positive bus ride home and these are our expectations.'' The point is to not let the violence escalate. Oftentimes bus drivers don't have the resources to deal with this, and besides that, they're driving. So if they don't set the ground rules beforehand, share expectations, or do things like make sure they know this person should not be sitting next to that person potential violence could erupt. We really need to think about that. Those are some techniques that can make the bus ride home more pleasant and safer for everybody. When people fight on the bus and the bus driver's in the middle of the highway you know that's a dangerous situation.
Sun: It's funny, when you came up with the example that this particular person shouldn't be sitting next to this other one that kind of reminds me of conflicts between countries.
Priscilla: Yeah, that's right.
Sun: So, it seems as though you're taking the kind of mediation that happens between countries and bringing that down to a more personal level.
Priscilla: That's right. In fact, in some of the middle schools, high schools, and occasionally in the elementary schools, we will talk about interpersonal conflict between one person and another, cultural conflict, and then international conflict, and we'll make the comparison between the two. You know, a territory fight for the best seat on the bus or what they perceive to be the best seat on the bus isn't all that different from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That's another place where we can integrate what we do into the curriculum.
''Curriculum'' is a really big issue in schools right now. People don't want to see conflict resolution as an add-on program; they want us to help them integrate it into literacy or other subjects. Right now, that's one of the big programs we're working on with kindergarten and first grade integrating conflict resolution into a literacy program, so it's not just an add-on that teachers don't have time to do. Instead, it's something that's done throughout the day, where everybody has the skills and the vocabulary, and they're using them.
Sun: Speaking of vocabulary, the language we use every day seems peppered with violent phrases or metaphors like ''our school is a war zone'' or ''teachers battle the kids.'' It seems as though our very language promotes conflict.
Priscilla: Understanding how our language contributes to conflict is actually an activity that we do with a lot of different ages. We'll brainstorm phrases that contain violence or bias, and then we will try to rephrase them. It's really an awareness activity like the phrase, ''stab him in the back'' or ''kill two birds with one stone'' you could go on and on and list all these violent phrases. We don't even hear them until we make ourselves aware of the violence or racism or sexism in our language.
Sun: It seems as though students would have to be constantly on guard, then, since our language is completely saturated with these phrases.
Priscilla: Right. That's really true. On the other hand, after you do an awareness activity, the next time that it comes up, everybody's aware of it. It doesn't take that much to be aware of violence in language. Racism and sexism, too if you've already talked about it there's a tendency to realize, ''Oh, that's what that is we just did it again!'' It's not that we're not going to do it again. Of course we will, because it's our everyday way of interacting. But being aware of it somehow helps to create a less violent language. Our unconscious use of violence in language inspires more violence, really.
Also, there have been some studies that show that violent video games, for instance, definitely make people numb to violence. Apparently, some of the ways they train people to shoot in war situations is very similar to video games. I find that really frightening.
Sun: Violent video games and cartoons are everywhere. What can we possibly do? It seems impossible to fully shelter our children.
Priscilla: I think, at least from our perspective, the best that we can do is to show that there are alternatives, and to explore what happens when you take a violent path. Even children who have done a lot of violence, when they begin examining that path they realize that the violence is going to come back on them. They begin to see that maybe it's not the best way. Previous to such examination, they may think that not only is it the best path, it's the only path.
When they do conflict resolution they can begin to see, ''Well, there are lots of choices that I have here.'' It's amazing but sometimes people don't see the choices. When they begin to see the different options, we have them internalize these alternatives so they have them to fall back on when they face conflict in the future.
Sun: What do you think are some of the most important things that parents can do to encourage their children toward peaceful behavior?
Priscilla: Parents, teachers, and all who work with young people are in a position of modeling. Modeling nonviolent, creative behavior is one of the best ways for children and young people to learn.
For example, if they see adults listening, they learn to listen. If they see that adults are not listening, then they think that not-listening is what you're supposed to do, you're not supposed to listen to anybody. You just compete to get said what you want to say. That's a lesson that says the world is very, very competitive as opposed to the way the world could be, where everybody gets listened to, where everybody is respected, and where we're really looking for the positive qualities of each person.
That's what we're trying to do with the affirmation theme, and the cooperation theme, and the communication theme. These are the life skills we need to function in today's world.
is executive director of Children's Creative Response to Conflict, or CCRC, and was one of its co-founders. She co-authored The Friendly Classroom for a Small Planet
, a handbook on creative approaches to living and problem-solving for children, and has helped write a number of other books on mediation and conflict resolution. She continues to speak at conferences and to facilitate workshops.
CCRC's work stretches into international terrain. In 1997, five thousand teachers versed in the techniques of conflict resolution came together to train all teachers from the turbulent country of El Salvador. And in 1998, the group held a Peace Camp for a group of twenty youths ages 10 to 17 from two battling countries of the former Soviet Union, the republics of Georgia and Abkhazi. Within an atmosphere of positive interaction and friendship, singing, dancing, and laughing together, the children were able to find camaraderie where their adult counterparts could not.
Since its inception, CCRC and CRC have spread their wings to over two dozen branches throughout the United States. For more information, contact CCRC at: Box 271, 521 North Broadway, Nyack, NY 10960, phone: 845-353-1796, fax: 845-358-4924, cell: 845-755-8816, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
. CRC's website is at ccrcglobal.org
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