Woken up in the middle of the night by two people fighting outside of her home, Lori LeChien, 23, took action to restore the peace: She grabbed her guitar, went out on her porch and began to sing a freedom song.
The violent pair was caught off guard; they stopped fighting and turned to watch her sing. Within a few minutes, they walked away.
Teaching nonviolence is what LeChien does as a youth coordinator with the Culture of Peace Alliance (cultureofpeacealliance.org), a nonprofit working to create a sustainable peace now and for future generations. On a recent Saturday afternoon, LeChien co-taught a "Youth Introduction to Kingian Nonviolence" seminar held at the Ward 3 City Council office. Her guitar handy, she sang to accentuate the lessons.
The seven students in attendance—ranging from fifth-grade to 11th-grade—sat at two long tables facing each other. As I entered the room, they were discussing the six principles of Kingian nonviolence. I was struck by the attentiveness of the students, who seemed fully engaged. Four trainers, including COPA co-founder Ann Yellott, spoke to them as equals, all in the pursuit of a peaceful society.
After a review of the six principles, the students broke into three groups, assigned to create a bumper sticker, T-shirt or rap song about two of the principles. In the end, all three groups designed T-shirts with bold lettering, peace signs and Kingian concepts, including, "Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people," and, "The universe is on the side of justice." They were impressive creations for a group of youngsters voluntarily sitting in a classroom on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
"It makes you feel good about the possibility of change in the world," said Yellott. "Our focus is on youth and young adults, so we can make a profound difference. We think youth are more willing to shift and change."
Some 180 students attended COPA's inaugural event in February 2009, also a Kingian nonviolence seminar. "When we started, we called together a planning group of 10 organizations, including the Black Chamber of Commerce, Wingspan (and) Our Family Services ... and collectively planned to bring (civil rights leader) Bernard LaFayette Jr. to Tucson," said Yellott. The group gathered at the UA; LeChien was in attendance.
"When I saw Dr. LaFayette, he talked about passing the torch," recalled LeChien. "I felt called and thought, 'Wow. That's where I need to be.' ... Today, violence is seen as a normal reaction: Someone does you wrong; you do that back. I beg to differ. ... It's important to make violence abnormal. I want to turn it around so punching someone is the weird reaction."
Yellott also feels called to do the work. "It's about creating a world we envision," she said. "It's very hopeful to work with young people who believe in something."
Yellott said that training sessions bring about a variety of outcomes. "It's always inspiring in terms of dialogue, in terms of people's responses and ideas shared. It's always challenging and brings up issues, creativity and imagination. And there's always one or two personal stories shared that are very touching to your heart."
Part of COPA's mission is to train youth as leaders. We'd like to "get a sustainable and growing team of multi-generational trainers ... over the long haul," said Yellott.
To that cause, a four-day Advanced Youth Nonviolence Institute was held here from Nov. 11 to 14. The students in attendance were certified as youth nonviolence trainers. Another train-the-trainer session will take place in either December or January, said Yellott.
Jonathan Lewis, the Gathering for Justice's national director of nonviolence training, came to Tucson to co-teach the class, having recently returned from Nigeria, where he conducted nonviolence training for ex-militants.
During the Tucson session, Lewis told a story about training 20 students to become youth leaders in an urban Chicago school. In one year, 100 fights took place at the school. After Lewis conducted the training, no fights took place in the next year, he reported.
Almost as a footnote to the story, Lewis looked around the room and reminded the students, "If you don't think nonviolence works, it's because you didn't work it."
After a while, Lewis repeated the phrase, but this time, the students enthusiastically joined in. In this age of prevalent student violence, it was an encouraging sign.