New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Lasting Peace

February 15, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Robert C. Koehler

Can We Get Our American Violence Under Control?

by Robert C. Koehler

A child is murdered and we thrash about once more in the spectacle of tragedy.

“With outrage over Hadiya Pendleton’s slaying spreading from City Hall to the White House,” the Chicago Tribune reported last week, “the 15-year-old became a symbol Wednesday of escalating violence in Chicago while fueling the national debate over guns and crime.”

The media, trapped in their Chicken Little outfits, report the death in detail, make sure we understand how deeply parents and friends are grieving. They interview the neighbors, kick-start the political debate. They demand some sort of superficial or fragmentary change that will get American violence under control. And then the news cycle moves on.

No one “in charge” has a commitment to actual, holistic change — you know, to the creation of a lasting peace — because, whatever that might mean, it would be asking too much. The best we’re going to get from the political system and the mainstream media — from the heart of the status quo — after every high-profile violent tragedy, is a ritual of impotent outrage followed by a shrug of regret.

What we need is transformation.

“The root of violence in our community is unmet needs. When these needs are unaddressed, people feel alone. No one cares. Their only recourse is to lash out violently, whether it’s cursing you out, grabbing you . . . or at the end of a gun.

“The only way people will see who I am is if I have a gun.”

The speaker is Robert Spicer, the Culture and Climate coordinator at Chicago’s Fenger High School. He facilitates the school’s peer jury program, which is part of a phenomenon known as restorative justice — a healing- rather than punishment-based system of order that’s gaining a foothold in Chicago area schools and the Cook County Juvenile Court system, as well as in schools around the country and around the world. And while it may not present the sort of obvious drama the news is used to feeding us, it’s where we should look if we’re serious about learning how to end violence. Doing so is not a pipe dream.

“The root of violence in our community is unmet needs.” Let’s begin here. While Spicer is referring to the basic sort of needs that exist in poor and struggling neighborhoods — “I’m hungry! My mom put me out. I’m homeless!” — he also refers to a need just as basic that is far more easily overlooked and systemically ignored. This is the need to have a voice and be heard.

Giving people their own voice is at the core of restorative justice. The primary means of doing this is through the peace circle, which I have written about a great deal in the last few years. Participants sit in a state of vital equality with one another; in a school setting, that means teachers and administrators sit in equality with students. Participants are safe to say what’s on their minds. They speak when they hold the talking piece; otherwise they listen.

While peace circles can be held for any reason, a peer jury, which is run by students trained in the process, is held to deal with a dispute or the commission of harm; it’s an alternative to suspension or other form of traditional punishment, which never deals with underlying causes. Peer jury circles give all sides a chance to listen, a chance to apologize and a chance to forgive.

Sometimes all that matters is the listening. In a recent post at the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice website, Spicer wrote of an incident at Fenger that could have blown up into headline-grabbing violence. One morning, two boys in the lunchroom were trying out a new kind of handshake, which another student took offense to. He challenged them, they felt disrespected — and suddenly eight students were involved and ready to fight.

School security guards broke it up and, later that day, all the participants were part of a peer jury circle. They could have been suspended, but the anger would have continued to smolder and could easily have erupted into violence at some point, at school or in the neighborhood.

Instead, as Spicer wrote, “all the students, when they received the talking piece, agreed that the situation was a big misunderstanding. Some began to share stories about situations they were dealing with and others in the circle were able to relate by sharing their stories….

“After the closing ceremony, each of the students shook hands and even hugged each other as they were preparing to leave my office. They did this without any adults prompting them to do this, which showed their sincerity. Once we concluded the circle, the adults decided to allow them to blow off some steam and play basketball. And the students who were the main ones in conflict were on the same team!”

This is a glimpse at what it means to build lasting peace: to transform the volatility of hopelessness into deep and real connection between people. I visited Fenger recently and talked to five of the student peer jurors — who have become ambassadors of peace in the classrooms and hallways — and I will write more about this in future columns.

“We are family,” said Ana, one of the peer jurors. “Right here. All these people are here for me. We understand — we go through the same stuff.”

And this is the beginning of lasting peace.

Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at [email protected], visit his website at, or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.

0 Comments to “Lasting Peace”

  1. In the Bemba tribe of Zambia, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, about all the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.

    The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment, but love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

    They believe a friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it. Those who love you are not fooled by the mistakes you have made or the dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.

    – from multiple sources, including an out of print book 1979 called Contact: The First Four Minutes by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin, Alice Walker’s 2006 book We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For, Dr Wayne Dyer, Non-Violent Communication theorist Marshal Rosenberg, and Peace Pilgrim


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