Report Back From Kingian Nonviolence Training in Rochester New York: School 17

When Jonathan “GLOBE” Lewis invited Cynthia Wanjiku and I to join him in Rochester, New York for a Kingian Nonviolence training of the administration, teachers, and students of school “17,” I was both skeptical and nervous because I have never conducted a training like this before. I questioned what it is that I have to offer given that I had not completed the training myself nor had I read all the material. However, as I completed the readings I began to see why Globe selected me; it was because I am an activist and I also practice many of the principles that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proposed, and I also share many of his thoughts—though less developed. I was full of fear about how helpful I could be to the students, but I was also excited to work with a group of youth who were interested in solving the problems they were confronting in their schools and lives.

On July 6, 2015 Globe, Cynthia and I began the workshop with 14 other participants at 9 am in the morning and began with introductions. The young people in the room did not reveal their full personalities until we had established relationships with them. They were very cautious when it came to participation, especially when it involved speaking in front of the group, which included their teachers and principal. It seems, and this is only conjecture at this point, that they were dealing with some previous traumas associated with their identities and feeling empowered to shape the directions and outcomes of their own lives. Ironic, but not surprisingly, in the beginning of the first day the teachers answered for the students, even when the questions were directed at the students themselves.  Since we were attempting to engage with the students, get to know them, and to identify how they felt and thought about the situation and conditions at their school, this was particularly problematic. It seemed as though the teachers who were present did not trust that the students were capable of answering the questions we posed or at least not to their satisfaction. Regardless of what the reason for this behavior was, it nonetheless, silenced the students and invisibilized their experiences.  Violence does not have to be physical; it may also be psychological, emotional or intellectual. Being silenced or invisibilized can be interpreted as violence when considered through this lens and it is my opinion that the dynamics of this relationship was part of the harm leading to problems in the school’s environment.

None of what I have stated is intended to suggest that the teachers were not well intentioned. Quite to the contrary, throughout the course of the two days that we spent with the faculty and administration of School 17, it became readily apparent that they had devoted their entire lives to ensuring the success of their students. In fact, that is precisely why the teachers devoted themselves to participate in the two-day training. Most of the teachers expected to learn how to create a safe learning space for the students by participating in the training, and one of everyone’s core values was to have a safe community. The first major shock to the teachers and the administrators was that they shared many values with their students; students they thought they knew. This did not stop them from speaking for the students, or from occupying much more space than any student, but it did begin to bridge the chasm that had separated the two parties. I think the values exercise we introduced was the first major step the teachers and students took to healing their relationships and working toward reconciling the grievances they had toward each other.

Globe made it clear that the similarities in values between parties and individuals who knew each other or not prior to the training and across the world, all tend to share a few of the same basic values; the most common being honesty.  What this did was shatter the isolated and individualistic perspective that both the students and the teachers shared, both among themselves and among communities far and wide. The power in this recognition is the realization that began to settle in that they were not in a relation with some distant other, but rather, with people just like them; furthermore that they were and are on the same side. Immediate to the group at hand, the students and teachers began to wrestle with the realization that they were and are on the same side and share common objectives. This was the next step in the reconciliation process and the healing of their relationships.

In the space of an hour I witnessed two groups of people who entered the room as opponents in creating a safer learning environment begin to join forces. I have never witnessed such a transformation in people; it was inspiring. I also saw the power of shared values and ideals. We humans love to categorize and compartmentalize everything because we have an intrinsic desire for order, but we so often prejudge wrongly, and fail to dig deep enough beneath the surface of a person to discover how much we have in common. Young people are too often disregarded as if they do not have the sense necessary to form complete and complex thoughts and analyses, as too immature to care about sophisticated issues, and as not being intelligent enough to be worth an adult’s time to form a deep and meaningful relationship with. It was a true pleasure to watch this pattern come to an end before our eyes as the teachers and administrators truly began to see the similarities they shared with their students.

The student-teacher relationship is of course not the reason that our crew was invited to Rochester, but rather, the inner-school violence that has been pervasive, and while we did address some of those concerns through the training, much of our attention was focused on healing the relationships between teachers and students. The reason for this focus on relationships pertains directly to the method by which the problems will be solved; primarily through the collective and inclusive actions of both teachers and students. The two groups will have to work together, top-down and bottom-up, if they intend to heal the culture at their school.  It is beyond question that adults have had vastly more life-experiences than adolescents have had, but that in itself does not discredit the very real experiences that the youth have had. Nor does it diminish the very real opinions and feelings that the youth have about the experiences they have had. However, it also does not mean that the youth do not have anything to learn from their teachers. I think Globe put it best, “We are all human beings. No one is better or more important than any other human being.” So, in terms of working together to solve the issues with violence that School 17 is having, the two groups have to be able to respect and value the opinions and feelings of each other to come to satisfying conclusions and plans of action that will be acceptable and beneficial to all.  This is why much of our training focused on the healing of relationships between the students and teachers who were present.

Through conducting the nonviolence training an implicit agreement formed that became explicit by the end of the second day that it was this particular group of teachers and students who would be leading School 17 into a nonviolent future. This however, was not so apparent when we began the training on Tuesday morning. As a matter of fact, even though they all provided the expectation of achieving a safer learning environment for the students and teachers, most of the participants looked and emanated the feeling as though none of them really wanted to be there. I think this may have stemmed from a mild skepticism that this training would actually prove to be helpful to them. Many of the teachers have been teachers for years and have attempted countless methods to earn the respect and trust of students to minor avail. Given that, it may have seemed like another ditch effort, like it was just one more plan that was destined to fail. For instance, one of the teachers had resorted to bribing his students with chocolate to get them to conform to school standards and to garner information about violent incidents that had occurred. This threw up all kinds of red flags when he mentioned it, but none of us were really quite sure what was wrong with it at the time. It seems problematic and like a failure in the teacher-student relationship that has not developed, wherein respect is earned by the teacher. It also seems that it was sending the wrong message to the students about how to solve problems. Notwithstanding those concerns, the point is that many methods had been attempted to solve the problems to no sufficient conclusions and I think they were skeptical about the training because of it. At the same time however, they were all desperate enough to show up and invest their time. So, it was really encouraging to watch as their eyes began to light up at the potential of what Kingian Nonviolence could do for their school community. One teacher who was about to retire revised his decision and declared that he would remain with the school for another five years to see the program through. That decision was made at the end of the training though.

When we walked into the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence on Tuesday morning the teachers were having a tense discussion among themselves about what names to write on their name tags. There was a separation between teachers and students that the teachers wanted to maintain and it seemed that the threshold of their relationship was maintained by the distance the use of their last names created; as if being referred to by their first names by the students would have somehow undermined their authority. One teacher even asked Globe what names they should write on their tags, to which Globe remarked, “Whatever name you are most comfortable with,” and the teachers all selected their surnames. Thus maintaining the hierarchical structure and holding the students at a distance and valued as less important. It was a strange dynamic to watch unfold and the first sign that there was conflict in the student-teacher relationships. It seemed that the teachers, although, proclaiming that they wanted to know the students better, did not want the students to know them much deeper than that they were their teachers.

Fortunately, the second exercise was designed specifically for people to get to know one another on a much deeper level than simply their names. There were five questions that each participant had to answer about themselves: name, family, favorite childhood game, dream vacation, and expectations for the nonviolent training. Then, each participant was asked to report the answers of their partner while the audience was to maintain eye-contact with the person not speaking. The entire group was able to get to know more about the other people in the room than they knew walking in. It also bridged some of the chasm the teachers wanted to remain in order to distance themselves from their students. This was the third major step towards reconciling their relationships that occurred during the training.

Looking back on my own experience growing up and going through school, I do not remember knowing anything personal about my teachers and I also remember never forming any deep relationships with any of them either. And as I consider that now I wonder if that is part of the reason that school never meant very much to me. I am now a student at the University of Washington and again I am confronted with another alienating environment wherein it is very difficult to form relationships with my professors and I am reminded of my experience at North Seattle Community College and I feel a dramatic difference in how welcome and empowered I felt there. There is definitely something important to forming and maintaining deep and personal relationships with those who are charged with instilling in us principles, morality and intellect. If it is important to me as an adult to feel valued by my professors, then I know it is important to teenagers to feel valued and important to their teachers, especially given that they are in their formative years constantly questioning who they are and where they fit in this world of ours.

The first day ended on a tense note because everyone knew that we were only going to be there to conduct the training for two days and it did not seem like we had gained much ground. Cynthia, Globe and I discussed how the second day of training should proceed that first night. Globe was put into the position of revising the training because not only did the students not want to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, but neither did the teachers and principle. It was troubling to hear an entire room of people who claimed to be interested in finding a more equitable and just means of organizing their school not desire to learn from one of the great reconcilers, but we made do with what we had to work with. We agreed that it would be best to focus the second day of training on helping the group to form their own plan of action based on the principles of nonviolence presented to us by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So, the first thing we did on the second day was introduce the group to the principles of nonviolence, and then we set them to work on devising and working through problems together.

We observed a dramatic contrast on the second day that none of us expected, the teachers began to respect the students’ opinions. I am sure this had at least in part something to with the space that Globe made for the students to express themselves because the teachers were made to listen and through this discovered that the students had some phenomenal ideas. When the teachers began to observe that the ideas their students were generating about how to solve the problems School 17 was having were better and more engaging than their own, they began to listen more intently and to occupy less space in the conversations. In the span of two days the group transitioned from not believing they had anything in common, to seeing that they shared the same set of core values, to listening to the youth, and eventually to teaming up with the youth and even following their lead on some particular things.

The harm that Globe, Cynthia and I were asked to come in and provide training for was the violence in School 17 and what the training actually focused on was the violence implicit in the teacher-student relationships. It is my belief that it will not be possible to solve the problems of violence in the school without solving the problems of violence in their relationships. In the scope of two days, much reconciliation had been accomplished between two groups who thought they were in competition with one another, but discovered that they both had and have the same goals and, are now working together. This of course is just the beginning of a long process of healing and when the classes begin in Autumn and the pressure is on to maintain order within the school setting, the situation may yet again devolve into a separation of the student and teachers. I am nonetheless hopeful because the students led the way to forming a top-down, bottom-up committee composed of both teacher and students that will continue the lines of dialogue between both parties. It is my belief that the most fundamental factor and component of any healthy relationship is communication and as long as communication is functioning then healing may continue to prosper. The conflict resolution inherent in Kingian Nonviolence is paramount to healing those relationships and all the students and teachers who have formed this core group that are intent on leading School 17 into a nonviolent way of life and community have also decided to carry forward the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the school to the rest of the students, teachers, janitors, custodians, councilors and members of their community.

Healing tends not to occur overnight, but sometimes there are leaps and I believe that is what we were witness to in Rochester, New York earlier this July. I recognize and want to stress that this is but a beginning and that there is a long road ahead of them to completely healing their relationships. I am however very encouraged to know that there is still hope for our sisters and brothers and to know that we are not alone in the struggle for peaceful and satisfying resolutions of our differences. Lastly, it is encouraging to know that as difficult as it is to set aside our differences and our preconceived notions, that it is nonetheless possible to do so when we are motivated to work toward a brighter and more just future for us all.

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