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Hartford Youth Learn Nonviolent Approaches To Conflict

By JENNA CARLESSO

August 01, 2012

Growing up in the city's North End, Nasir Armour saw a lot of street fights.

By age 14, he had suffered a stab wound in an altercation near East Windsor Middle School.

"I've been in, like, so many fights," he said recently. "I get mad, real mad."

But Armour, now 15, is learning new ways to approach conflict. He is one of 25 students participating in a three-week nonviolence training program at Weaver High School's Culinary Arts Academy that is teaching kids how to diffuse potentially violent situations.

Many of the children in the program have a parent or relative who is, or has been, incarcerated. Victoria Christgau, founder of the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence, said there is a strong need to support children with incarcerated parents "so they don't fall victim to challenges in their communities."

The program, which began July 23, is steeped in the teachings and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.Students ages 15 to 17, many of whom attend the city's public schools, learn nonviolent responses through lectures, films, music, role-playing and historical re-enactment of critical and potentially violent events, like the Birmingham campaign and the Montgomery bus boycott, both key parts of the civil rights movement.

The idea, organizers said, is to explore conflict as a normal part of everyday life.

"Hopefully, it will create a culture where they go out and take on some of the negativity," said Dianne Jones, vice president of the board of directors for The Connecticut Center for Nonviolence, which organized the training. "We hope they establish a new norm."

During the program's first week, students learned about nonviolence from an academic perspective reading from a book and listening to lectures as well as from a creative standpoint, singing songs and acting out potentially violent scenarios.

In one scenario, a boy got up to buy a soda in a school cafeteria and another boy moved in on his girlfriend. Before the situation became violent, the student actors paused.

Trainer Jonathan Lewis asked the kids what they would do.

"They could have simply talked it out," said Brianna Brockman, 16. "He could've just talked it out calmly and told him 'This is my girlfriend.'"

Lewis echoed her sentiment.

"You don't have to subject yourself to something you don't want to be part of," he said. "Walking away doesn't make you a bum. You can have a conversation and not feel threatened."

Some of the teachings focused on attacking problems, rather than people, and Lewis encouraged the kids to put themselves in others' shoes.

"Talk to people, know their stories," he said. "Look for truths from both positions."

The training, which runs six hours a day, is part of the Blue Hills Civic Association's Capital Workforce Partners Program. Under the program, students earn money for their participation.

"It's a summer job, but they chose to be here instead of sleeping in," said Gabriel Boyd, a staff member for the civic association. "These kids could be asked by any number of people to run packs for them or hustle [drugs] for them, to make money quickly. They chose to be here."

Once they complete the training, the students earn certificates in nonviolence. A ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 9 at the city's public library.

Matt Conway, principal of Weaver's Culinary Arts Academy, has said he is considering integrating the program into the high school's curriculum.

Jones said she hopes the kids will share the teachings with others.

"We're hoping that some of them take it on seriously and accompany us when we present to other youth programs in the city," she said. "It'll create a conduit for them. It's better to be taught by someone else who's done it in the community."

Brockman, a student at the Greater Hartford Performing Arts Academy, counts herself as one of those who'll spread the word.

"I hope to be able to teach other kids about this, before more things escalate into a shooting or a fight," she said. "It's better, accepting something and walking away."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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