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Chicago’s Peace Warriors
Illustration: Jordin Isip
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.
“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.