Turning youth into 'Peace Builders'

Traveling abroad, Austin youth learn how to combat violence back home

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By La Risa Lynch

Contributing Reporter

Growing up in Austin, shootings and gang violence is a common occurrence for Marquetta Monroe. The 19-year-old remembers a shooting a few years ago on the corner of Cicero and Washington near her home. Monroe said she was surprised that residents seemed unfazed by the shooting and police presence that put her block on lockdown.

"This can't be normal. Everybody can't live like this and then accept living like this," said Monroe, who'll be a junior at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio this fall.

So when Monroe visited Thailand and Myanmar last December, she was even more surprised that the kind of street violence she experienced back home was virtually nonexistent, even in countries that had extreme poverty, military rule and civil strife. 

Monroe and four other Chicago youths travelled half-way around the world in December 2013 to learn how to combat neighborhood violence. 

The trip was part of the Peace Exchange, which helps students ages 19 to 25 develop skills necessary to foster a culture of peace in their neighborhoods. During the two-week trip, the group split their time between Myanmar — formerly Burma in Southeast Asia — and Thailand, meeting peace activists, monks and other students to learn how to become "peace builders." 

The Peace Exchange from Free Spirit Media on Vimeo.

"We were really there to learn," Monroe said. "We didn't go over there expecting to teach anything. We wanted to observe a culture that had so much poverty, but … little crime."

She saw the difference immediately when they landed. 

In Myanmar, the police carry no guns and are mostly used to direct traffic, Monroe noted. And in Thailand, she could walk the streets late at night, something she wouldn't do at home.

"I would never be outside walking at one o'clock in the morning through alleys," she said.

What struck Monroe the most was a strong sense of community that existed in both countries. That, she believes, contributes to the near nonexistent street violence. From a very young age, people, she observed, are taught to respect one another and their elders, who are held in high regard

"When we were at the monastery, we couldn't eat till the oldest person at the table ate," she recalled. "Like, that's just the amount of respect they had."

The group's visit to a monastery was an eye-opener for Monroe. There, she learned that peaceful cultures can exist when individuals rid themselves of anger, greed and ignorance. That idea, she said, comes from the concept of "mindfulness" or being one with yourself. 

The idea, Monroe said, is being aware of one's own emotions — that no matter how upset people get, it is how people handle and act on those emotions.

"That's the difference between a peaceful society and a violent society. That's one of the biggest take-a-ways," Monroe said.

The trip was part of an 18-month, educationally-focused program to find different approaches to addressing violence in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods — like Englewood, Humboldt Park and Austin — where the students hailed from. 

Created by Holy Family Ministries, students in the program visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum, a domestic violence center, and met with a psychologist to understand violence's impact on mental health.

"In order to help resolve violence you need to understand violence," John Mjoseth, the program's project advisor, said.

The program's focus is on students learning that violence comes in other forms like bullying, genocide and domestic violence, even though gun violence grabs the biggest headlines. According to Mjoseth, there are other forms of violence "that don't necessarily end up with a gun but is very much an issue in everybody's neighborhood." 

Free Spirit Media filmed the students' journey for a documentary about the trip. In it the students share what they've learned and how others can incorporate some of those techniques in their daily lives. Free Spirit plans to show the 13-minute film to school children living in violent neighborhoods. Thus far, the group has spoken to 800 students in Chicago.

The program's goal is to equip kids with leadership skills so they can develop their messages of peace and nonviolence.

"We want them to go out and use this knowledge for good in whatever way they want to do it," Mjoseth said.

For Henry Cervantes, showing people peace in Chicago is not elusive as many believe. The Marquette University student said obtaining peace begins simply with oneself — something a lot of peace activists forget. People who want peaceful societies, he insists, must be peaceful themselves. 

"Peace begins with you. That is what I am trying to teach now," Cervantes, a Little Village community activist, said. 

Monroe added: "I know it seems small, but when a person changes themselves they are changing the world. Be the change you want to see in the world."

Dennis Johnson Jr. discovered that long before he made the trip to Southeast Asia — and the trip only reinforced it. 

Five years ago, his older brother, also named Dennis Johnson Jr., was injured in a drive-by-shooting in Englewood.  

"It triggered like a whole bunch of emotions in my body, and we went around looking for the people who shot him," Johnson, 23, recalled.

But he began to process what would happen if he sought vengeance on the person who shot his brother, who survived being shot six times. He realized shooting the person who shot his brother would only produce another "dead body" and more retaliation.

"It's not me. It's not worth it," Johnson said. "Ever since that day I've been committing my life to peace building, to end this systemic structural violence.

"When you…look at the big picture of things and see how crime is concentrated in one area — or how only a certain group of people is doing crime — you realize something is not right," said Johnson, who received a full scholarship to attend graduate school at University of Michigan this fall.

For Monroe, the experience made her realize that peace is possible for Austin, even if takes a while to achieve it. The children of Myanmar and Thailand, she noted, were "born learning this message of peace, but we're not. So it is up to us…to teach the youth so when they get older they can start teaching this message of peace and send it to their generation."

The Peace Exchange (Short) from Free Spirit Media on Vimeo.

CONTACT: larisalynch@yahoo.com

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Chinese Resident   

Posted: August 11th, 2014 11:02 PM

I experienced culture shock when I came to Chicago, because I could not understand how people, who had a lot more than my countryman, could enact such violence, on such a regular basis. Another common blame is put on the history of slavery. The Chinese were slaves in the US too, and were the subject of mass extermination by the Japanese, yet the Chinese choose to band their community together, work hard, install positive values in their kids, and they're largely successful and non-violenent.

Chinese Resident  

Posted: August 11th, 2014 10:55 PM

Growing up in China, my families pay check was the equivalent of $25 a month. Most people received the same pay check, if not less, and there was very rarely incidents of violence, and nothing like the kind of violence in Chicago. People like to blame the violence here on poverty, societal strife etc. but it really comes down to culture and community. Like Thailand, people in China are brought up to have great respect for their elders, to work hard, and be productive in their communities.

Latisha Thomas from Chicago  

Posted: August 7th, 2014 11:10 AM

What an amazing program! The only way we are going to create peace, is if we turn this violent issue that has been weakening undeserved communities from a "neighborhood" issue to a "collective" issue. I have faith in our young people. Most of them just need inspiration, and a place where they can be cultivated and inspired to be the change agents we desperately need. I am inspired by this story, it inspires me to work even harder for peace; I'm sure these stories inspire us all. Thank you.

Susan Work from North Lawndale   

Posted: August 5th, 2014 10:49 PM

Holy Family Ministries operates the Peace Exchange because we truly believe that the issue of street violence will be resolved by the youth, just as the Civil Rights era of the '60s succeeded when the youth threw all their energy and idealism into the effort. Holy Family's goal is to empower and equip young leaders on the west side to lead the movement and make it cool to be peaceful.

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