By Kathryn Carse, Assistant Lifestyle editor at the Staten Island Advance
A group of students in the Conflict Resolution program at Susan Wagner High School are preparing a presentation at the United Nations to celebrate the Gandhi King Season for Nonviolence. The presentation seeks to dramatize the relevance of the words of King and Mahatma Gandhi and the choices teens are confronted with today.
George Anthony, coordinator of the program, coached the students through their parts. In it, students Jubin and Jesus are ready to go at it, but are interrupted by students who inspire them to consider an alternative.
It was in 1993 that a concern about race relations led the city's Board of Education to take advantage of Columbia University's training in conflict resolution and mediation strategies. Having a background in psychology, Anthony was sent to participate. He felt like his life's work found him. "We expect kids to make the right decision to cope with conflict, but kids need to learn the choices they have," said Anthony.
The program he designed with fellow teacher Lindy Crescitelli combines a powerful mix of being able to speak up for yourself to clarify a situation, learning about the choices you have when confronted with conflict, including seeing walking away as an option that does not make you any less strong. Hot-button issues like homophobia, rumors, name calling are addressed. Ultimately the students are trained as mediators to help others find a peaceful solution. They learn in the most effective way -- by doing.
Their belief in choosing nonviolence comes from the conviction of having experienced its power. "I used to be temperamental; got into fights, had a rap sheet, knew all the deans," said Jerlisa Jacobs. "Now I still know them, but in a different way. This program gives you responsibility; leads you to know you have three choices when you are confronted with conflict: isolation, confrontation or mediation. Mediation lets you vent and solve your problem."
Being treated poorly because of someone's prejudice frustrates everyone. And it is an eye-opening experience when it comes from people you think you have nothing in common with. "When people look at me they see a little white girl, cheerleader. They don't see that I am also Puerto Rican and Jewish. It's harder to make assumptions when you get to know someone," said Danielle Stern.
Kenan Herbert, a linebacker on the football team, left another Island school, stunned by the racism. He enrolled in Susan Wagner and landed in Anthony's class. "From day one, I could apply what I was hearing other people go through to my life. The program is diverse. It forces you to understand how people are similar. Now I handle my anger, then act on it."
He also has learned to apply his skills to mediating for others. "A lot of the time you are helping people see it's a dumb problem that escalated. But you are also helping them see how something small can lead them to do things that will affect their future," he said.
"Everyone loves a skill that works," said Crescitelli. "Dr. King said that we get peace through understanding and the foundation is love. But we need practical tools to communicate that love and understanding." One of those tools is listening, he said. Most of the time each side feels the other is not listening. "If you want another person to believe you are listening, you have to say back to them what you understood them to say. Then you can come to some agreement about what each needs." When young people experience understanding through listening, they grow in their confidence and ability to make a difference.
Taking a day to reflect and honor those who lived courageously and died taking a stand has its role too. Joe Bonomo, ("Italian -- Sicilian") participated last year in a Web cast at the UN that went out to athletes in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Africa. "Sitting with 800 people from across the world who were working for peace made me realize I believe it can work," said Joe.
A moment that reminds George Anthony and Lindy Crescitelli of the depth of this program occurred at last year’s SNV conference at the United Nations. Two students stood side by side speaking about working toward peace . One was Palestinian and the other Israeli. Amina Abdel uttered these words, “In Palestine there are walls put up to separate Palestine from the Israel. The walls are physical but they are also mental. They separate our human existence. But if you knew me and I listened to you then our words, our suffering can connect us to our humanity where our tears are real to each another.”
Nick Tsiftis closed the conference with these words ‘each time anyone stands up for an ideal, or looks to improve the lot of others or simply seeks out injustice, you all send forth a tiny ripple of hope. Use this day, this Season, to become that force for change, and may your words cross oceans. Let your actions become the currents of change.”
For George S. Anthony and Lindy P. Crescitelli each day affords them the opportunity to teach solutions, to bring each student closer to the “change they wish to see in the world.” The Season is a reason to believe each day that “peace is possible.” This year they have partnered with The United Federation of Teachers BRAVE campaign and the Association for Global New Thought to sponsor and host the New York City Season for Nonviolence Conference on April 1, 2014.
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This article appears in:
2014 Catalyst, Issue 4: Season of Nonviolence