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And You Say Chi City...Reflections on Teaching Peace

500 homicides. 9 months. 1 American city. This is the title of an article found on CNN.com, dated September 2016. What city? My city. My name is Rhonda Scullark, and I teach in inner city Chicago. A city that has been controversially coined Chiraq, because of its violence and comparison to a war zone. What is even more tragic is that the numbers have increased dramatically since Labor Day when the CNN piece was written.

As a member of the 2016-2017 USIP Peace Teacher cohort, I was charged with writing an individual action plan detailing my goals and plans for the year. One of my main goals was to immerse my students in issues of international conflict. I wanted my students to look outside of their everyday circumstances and surroundings and develop knowledge and empathy for those in the world around us. It started off great. Megan Chabalowski of USIP helped me arrange a Skype call with my 6th grade class and a Nigerian peacebuilder. In preparation, we studied and did background research. Our Skype call was a wonderful experience, and was very inspirational. Upon sharing our experience with my 8th grade class, I was challenged by one of my scholars with the statement: “But, Ms. Scullark, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, right? Shouldn’t we get our stuff together in Chicago first?” How could I argue with that? As they say, out of the mouths of babes. We have issues of conflict right here in our city. As I write, sitting in my school’s hallway, I am watching the extra security guards my school has employed patrol the halls, due to shots being fired in front of our school on the last day prior to Thanksgiving break. Right in front of our school. Where students were gathered.  Two weeks ago, a student from another one of our campuses was killed due to an argument over gym shoes. Unfortunately these are NOT isolated events. Our students travel by public transportation from around the city to get to our campuses. Just making it to school and back home safely every day is a challenge. What does this mean for me as an educator? It means that it is vital that our students are TAUGHT what peace means, how peace is attained and how peace is maintained. The USIP peacebuilding toolkit is a vital part of my toolbox.  It has deepened my understanding of how to give my students this lifesaving skill.  It seems that I am attending more funerals than graduations. How can this be?

It seems inevitable that my goals had to be reshaped to this: How can we collaborate with organizations across the world to learn from them and how they are working to bring peace? How can we share our experiences and what can they learn from us? It is a privilege to work at a school that embraces the instruction of peace, and weaves peace into daily instruction in every classroom. In fact, it is an inherent part of our foundational curriculum--one of our 26 A Disciplined Life principles is “Solve conflicts peacefully.” But what happens to children who don’t receive this class every day? What happens to students who don’t have a teacher that uses the USIP toolkit? Who will teach them about peace? Who will give them a different narrative to combat what they may see firsthand in their homes, schools and on the streets? Who will teach them that peace is the only option? That is the work my students and I are hoping to do. That is what I believe my true calling as a teacher is. In March, we are hoping to host our first annual Peace Summit for students, teachers and activists. Our hashtag is #iamforpeace. We are fighting for the day when everyone is.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Click here to learn more about the USIP Peace Teacher program.