I'm sometimes struck by the ridiculously adult language that grown-ups offer to children in moments of rage or embarrassment: we expect them to be able to step back and rationally assess their situation without providing them any background for doing so. If someone taunted you on the bus or threw paper wads at your back in class, what are the chances that you'd confront them in a constructive way? Myself, I was a champion shin-kicker in elementary school.
We all could've probably benefited from a program like PeaceWorks, a classroom-based system of healthy conflict resolution currently being taught (to wild acclaim from teachers and kids alike) in a handful of schools in the city. Once a week, kids in grades K-8 spend time learning age-relevant communication skills, anger management and conflict resolution. The program is funded in St. Louis by St. John's Mercy Neighborhood Ministry, and is based largely on a California program of The Community Boards. Julia Thornburg, a licensed social worker, oversees the program, and says that it's working best when schools incorporate the principles of conflict resolution into every aspect of their school community.
"It's not just something where students 'go do PeaceWorks' once a week and then they're done until next week," Thornburg says. "It really does become a part of the culture and language of the students, faculty and administration." Faculty coordinators are trained at each school, so that when Thornburg moves on to a new location, the program carries on, and is reinforced by students (who can spend extra time training as peer mediators) and parents (who are encouraged to participate in the program their kids are learning.)
It's bound to be discouraging, then, for these new converts to peaceful problem-solving to see the ways of the larger world around them, where the ultimate conflict war has become a terrifying reality of the day. Casting about for ways to address the situation, Thornburg hit upon the idea of a global gift of art.
A special project, The Art of Peace, has several components: first, students at schools where PeaceWorks is implemented came together to create group works of art, with the goal of presenting a visual expression of peace. Just as they learn throughout the year to be individual contributors to a larger culture of peace, each individual student contributes to one finished piece of artwork. Pieces from each participating school will form the bulk of an exhibit, tentatively scheduled for March 20 at the new Hartford Coffee Company (3974 Hartford Street) in south St. Louis.
The final stage of the project is the most ambitious: through connections around the world, Thornburg will send a piece of artwork from the exhibit off to schools in a variety of countries, including Chile, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Iran, Taiwan, Somalia, Russia, Bosnia and Vietnam. (Many of these are the countries of origin of students now in St. Louis schools.) Though it is by no means a requirement, Thornburg is hopeful that some schools will be in a position to send artwork back. If that does happen and several groups have already committed to it these international works will travel to participating local schools, facilitating a cross-cultural exchange that will resonate with PeaceWorks students. And perhaps in the future, two of those students from different corners of the world will be engaged in diplomacy for their countries, meet face-to-face, and choose peace.
"A culture of peace will be achieved when citizens of the world understand global problems, have the skills to resolve conflicts and struggle for justice non-violently, appreciate culture diversity, and respect the earth and each other. Such learning can only be achieved with systematic education for peace."
Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st Century
To find out more about The Art of Peace, contact Julia Thornburg at firstname.lastname@example.org