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Neighbor Spotlight • Dr. Ian Harris

photo by Spencer Chumbley

Dr. Ian Harris is known as the “Father of Peace Education.” He has spent most of his 32 years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee pioneering in the field of peace studies. But his passion, and his inspiration, is the tract of wilderness between the Friends Meeting House and the Milwaukee River. 

Dr. Harris takes care of the land. 

“This land is unique,” he says proudly. “Lots of cities have parks, and parks are nice, but this is wilderness. We have owls, eagles, foxes, big turtles, deer. Everything from the parking lot down to the river is native. We’ve been bringing in beech trees, burr oak trees – trees you would have found in climax hardwood forest – the kind of forest that was here when settlers came in.

“We take out invasive species. This is one of the few tracks of land along the river that’s not swarming with garlic mustard.”

He has gotten the congregation at the Meeting House involved. “We have big garlic mustard pulls every spring,” he says with satisfaction. “We’ve started making garlic mustard pesto.

“We take out burdock and buckthorn, poison ivy and poison sumac. We’ve planted arbor vitae.” 

Dr. Harris thinks of that stretch of land as a treasure. “I see that land as a museum of indigenous plants. People should walk through it as if it’s a museum. Being able to do that in a city is a real treat. Most people have to drive for an hour to see that.”

The meeting house is built on a tract of land known as the Anita and Jacob Koenen Land Preserve. Anita Koenen grew up on the land from age five until her death in 1976 at age 96. Her family used to own 165 acres stretching all the way to 27th Street. As a teacher at Riverside High School, she used to canoe to work. She wanted to preserve the land in its natural state, and entered an agreement with the Quakers to establish a nature preserve in 1976.

Dr. Harris takes care of the land. “It’s nice to be in the city and be able to think about the land,” Harris says. “That’s what farmers do. They wake up every morning and think about the land. What they want to grow, how to harvest.

“Taking care of Quaker land is a direct extension of my parents’ decision not to raise a city kid,” he says.

Ian Harris was born in New York City, but his parents soon moved to a small farm in New Jersey. “It was what they used to call a truck farm – farmers would truck the vegetables into the city. We had chickens, pigs, one cow. It was a wonderful place to grow up. There were woods all around the house, a pond to skate on.”

He went to college at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where he “read the great books.” Proximity to the nation’s capital in the 1960s meant that his extracurricular activities included some of the more famous peace marches on Washington DC.

Next stop was Temple University in Philadelphia where he earned his Ph.D. in urban education.

Dr. Harris taught high school science in Philadelphia from 1970 to 1975 at John Bartram High School for Human Sciences – an alternative high school. “I taught a class called ‘Science for Survival.’ It was a basic ecological course – what we need to do to survive on the earth. Remember, the first Earth Day was in 1970. 

“I guess you could call what I was doing urban agriculture. We planted a garden in the lot next door. The kids came in the summer to work the garden and take the food home to their families.” 

In 1975, Dr. Harris came to Milwaukee to work in community education at UWM. “I was there for 32 years,” he says. One of his major achievements was founding the Peace Studies Program.

During the 1980s, Americans lived every day with the threat of nuclear war. Dr. Harris remembers, “A group of us started to meet on campus. We formed the Peace Studies Network to brainstorm what we could do to teach students, faculty and the broader community about the dangers of nuclear weapons. For years we sponsored courses and brought in guest speakers.

“In 1983 I received tenure. I taught my first peace education course that year.”

Soon they decided that they would like to formalize the program. “We applied to the Dean of Letters and Science, and the university agreed to create a certificate program – students could earn a certificate of Peace Studies with 18 credits, including field work in the community.”

It might seem that field work in Peace Studies would be easier to do someplace like New York, where students could be placed with international organizations like Amnesty International or the Institute for World Affairs.

But peace can start in your own back yard. “A modern definition of peace studies includes structural violence – civil violence, street crime, domestic violence, cultural crime,” Dr. Harris explains. “Structural violence takes place when the society is structured so some people are denied access to benefits and privileges.”

In Milwaukee, students do field work with many local groups, including Peace Action Wisconsin, Sojourner Truth House and Casa Maria. Dr. Harris has a lot of satisfaction from his Peace Studies work over the years. “Some of these young people take to it like a duck to water,” he says with a smile.

Perhaps that comes from having a great teacher. Dr. Harris has pretty much defined the field of peace education. He taught Peace Education at the Universidad de Jaume Primero in Castille, Spain. He founded the Journal of Peace Education in 2004 and remains on the editorial board. He also edited a series of books on peace education by Information Age Press. 

He founded the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies, and served as its chair for eight years.

Life is good for Ian Harris. “I’m retired, my mind still works, I can even write a book!” He is just completing his seventh book – A Brief History of Peace Education in the United States, co-authored with Chuck Hawlett from New York. It’s scheduled for publication in 2010.

Much of the time he spent in Milwaukee, Dr. Harris lived in Riverwest. “I like the creative anarchist spirit,” he says. “Nothing is sacred here.

“I’m going to miss it.”

This spring Dr. Harris will be leaving Riverwest. His children, who attended Riverside High School, now live on either coast. He plans to move to the San Francisco area to be nearer to his grandsons. 

He’ll be leaving a special legacy – the land at the Friends Meeting House.

But according to Dr. Harris, he has received something in return. “Being a Quaker has been important in my professional life,” he points out. “It has given me permission to go out and work hard to promote peace. I am very indebted to my community at the Friends Meeting House.”

But the land is valuable in a very profound way. 

“I used to teach a peace education course for teachers at the Meeting House on weekends. Teachers would come in after working all week at a Milwaukee public school. They would sit and look out the window at the wild land along the river and you could see the tension pour off their bodies. 

“Wonderful things happen when you go into nature. And we can do that so easily here in Riverwest, right along the river.

“The land is available for everyone to enjoy. Riverwest has become a destination community – people come here to enjoy the little businesses, the atmosphere – but they also come to enjoy the river basin and its natural beauty.”

People come to fish, to kayak and canoe, and to enjoy the “wilderness plant museum” at the Anita and Jacob Koenen Land Preserve, partly because of all the time Ian Harris has spent “thinking about the land.”