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Local Activist Inspires Riverwest Youth

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A thin wiry woman with a pleasant smile entered the room inconspicuously and took a seat in the back. Students from Pierce Elementary did not notice her, as they were busy participating in a daylong workshop at the Peace Learning Center. The students were taking turns introducing to the rest of the class world figures who have worked for justice and peace in the last century. The names were familiar: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Mother Theresa. However, as the final group prepared to speak, the adult facilitator, Olusegun Sijuwade (“Olu”) announced that the final peacemaker to be presented that morning actually lived in Milwaukee, and unlike the others, was still living today. Vel Phillips got up from her seat in the back and joined the students seated on the carpet as the final group began presenting her life story. “Vel Phillips was born in Milwaukee around the time of our great-grandparents.” “In many Milwaukee neighborhoods, white people were allowed to prevent people of color from living there. Women were not allowed to do all of the things men could do.” “Vel ran to be an alderman on the Milwaukee Common Council. She won and became the first black person and the first woman ever elected to the council.” “Vel worked tirelessly for seven years to get her fellow council members to vote for an open housing law, so people of color could live anywhere in Milwaukee.” “After losing over and over again, Vel finally convinced the council to pass the open housing law.” “Vel Phillips is now 81 years young and still active. If you go to the Community Brainstorming on the fourth Saturday of every month, you can meet her there.” Vel Phillips’ visit to the Peace Learning Center came at special time. The program is undergoing rapid growth after two years of work in the Riverwest Community. Based at the Milwaukee Friends Meetinghouse on North Gordon Place, Peace Learning Center now trains over 300 Riverwest students a year in conflict resolution, communication and peacemaking skills. The program first worked with fourth graders from Gaenslen Elementary School, and has since added classes from Pierce Elementary and Escuela Fratney. This spring, Messmer Preparatory School and Urban Waldorf Elementary School joined the program and participated in a revamped workshop that includes education about “peace mentors” from around the world as well as cooperative games, I-messages, a “Ready-Set-Go” process to help students mediate their own conflicts, and strategies for de-escalating physical confrontations. “It’s exciting to see kids pick up the skills and start practicing them,” says workshop facilitator, Karen Swanson Josh Thorison, teacher from Escuela Fratney enthusiastically agrees. “Our students were truly engaged in thinking about conflict resolution in and out of the classroom. It was by far the best excursion our class has taken all year.” “It’s vital work,” says Co-Director Don Austin. “Students need peaceful models for handling conflict. It’s particularly important in our society at a time when we are still at war.” The goal of the Peace Learning Center is to empower youth to make peace in the classroom, in the neighborhood, and at home. Vel Phillips’ message to the kids was that the power to make peace is not reserved for a select few. “Making a difference in the community and living a life based on love is something anybody can do,” she said. ” Do something to make the community better and before you know it, it’s bigger than you.” It’s a lesson we all can learn. For more information about the Peace Learning Center, contact Don Austin at 414-771-6175, or email