by Jackie Reid Dettloff

A week after Lance Corp. Raul Bravo lost his life in Iraq, 10-year old Luis Solís faced his partner at a day-long workshop at the Friends’ Meeting House. “Are you ready and willing to solve this problem peacefully?” he asked.

A month after two men were killed in violent clashes in Kosovo, Jessica Trujillo learned that by taking a deep breath she could remain calm even in a tense situation.

More than two years after Frank Jude was beaten by Milwaukee policemen, Martin Reyes heard the word FOUL used to describe unfair ways to communicate that usually make a situation worse. He learned to identify bullying, blaming, name-calling, put downs, threatening, bossing and lying as fouls.

Four years after Donald Rumsfeld spoke about a “Shock and Awe” strategy in Iraq, Brenda Robles practiced asking three questions at a session of the Peace Learning Center: What happened? Why does it matter? How do you feel? Brenda also got the chance to learn a new skill. She learned to rephrase the answers she’d received from her partner. “Are you saying that —–?” she asked her partner. She found that by asking for confirmation that she’d understood her partner correctly, she was neither capitulating nor escalating. She was simply clarifying and in most cases, moving towards understanding.

Two weeks before President Bush apologized to wounded veterans for the appalling conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, Osvaldo Sanchez learned about the force of an apology – how it can restore good will between people.

While the newsstands were touting Brittney’s new hairdo and the latest contestants for American Idol, 4th graders from Vieau Elementary School were learning at the Peace Learning Center about Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Vel Phillips and Martin Luther King. Workshop leaders call these people “Peace Mentors.” They were not sex-pots; they were not do-gooders; they were not wusses. They were people who put their lives on the line and chose to do heroic things. They became celebrities not by killing or thrilling but by responding with their hearts to the injustices that they saw around them.

After a busy morning of activities, the 4th graders had their snack and facilitators Darrell Smith and Kim Apfelbach reflected with PLC Board member Don Austin on the work of the Peace Learning Center. Their goals are very ambitious: they want to build a sense of community within each class that participates in their workshops. They want to introduce Milwaukee’s children to techniques of non-violent conflict management. They took it to heart when Police Chief Nan Hegarty said that in order to stop the violence in our streets, people need more skills to resolve arguments because 35% of Milwaukee’s violence is the result of conflict between acquaintances and arguments that get out of control. The Peace Learning Center has set about teaching conflict resolution skills, one classroom at a time

It seems like a gargantuan task, but they are undaunted. They have taken inspiration from the Indianapolis Peace Learning Center. They have put together a board of directors, hired Evelyn Ang as the executive director, established a working relationship with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, written grant proposals, recruited highly skilled facilitators, and linked up with UWM’s Mediation Program to give opportunities for college interns. Just recently PLC was granted formal nonprofit corporation status. The past four years have been a time of steady, phenomenal growth.

Their initial target population in 2002 was the 4th grade classrooms in the Riverwest public schools. Since PLC sessions are held at the Friends’ Meetinghouse on Gordon Place, it was convenient for students from Gaenslen, Fratney and Pierce to walk to the workshops. In subsequent years, though, staff at the PLC has expanded their outreach to include 16 different schools for a total of over 2,000 students served.

They have also developed a follow-up component whereby PLC staff members go to visit classrooms that have recently attended their workshop. This is to reinforce the skills that were taught and gauge the impact of their one-day program. Judging from the comments of Vieau teacher Ricarda Soto, whose students attended a PLC workshop in mid-March, the program has been a huge success. She notices that the climate in her classroom has changed.

“The kids catch each other when one of them makes a foul. They’ll speak up when someone uses a put-down, for example, or interrupts. One volunteer peacemaker will go into the coatroom with two kids who are at odds and usually within 10 minutes they all three come back to the group, smiling because they’ve worked out the problem. They’ve done it by themselves, without me always having to intervene. The whole culture of my classroom is different now. It’s taken a lot of stress off me because there are far fewer discipline problems. As far as I’m concerned, we should start off the year with that Peace Learning Center workshop in September, not wait until March.”

Statistics support Ms. Soto’s comments. Nine or ten weeks after the workshop, 65% of teachers agreed that their students were more considerate of each other’s feelings since the workshop. In response to evaluation surveys, 92% of the students who attended the workshop say they learned things there that they would really do at school or at home.

People at Milwaukee’s Peace Learning Center don’t expect to settle the conflicts in the Middle East or the rest of the world. But they do see that the violence that plagues our world stems from lack of respect and conflict resolution skills between different parties. They believe there’s a good chance that the peace-making tools they teach to kids could prevent a fight on a Milwaukee street. Which could prevent a shooting. Which could save a life. So they take their work very seriously and despite all the bad news in the media, they are motivated by hope.

Community Liaison Officer R. Robakowski at the 5th District Police Station has this to say about their work: “My observation of the Peace Education Center conflict management workshop for students gives me hope that seeds are being planted to help develop a more peaceful community here in Riverwest and beyond.”

Interested in making a donation and getting involved with this very successful program? Contact Don Austin at 414-771-6175.

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2007