He has tried, really tried, to learn the ways of peace, but 17-year-old Robert Hawkins wonders if he’ll ever truly be able to internalize those deceptively simple lessons.
Peace, the former gang member has found, can be hard. So very hard.
A few months ago, the Morningside High School junior was jumped by a group of gang members not far from his home in Inglewood. Slightly bloodied, Robert frantically called his older brother and told him they needed to hunt down the boys who beat him. Two years ago, Robert would have welcomed retaliation, but this time he thought twice about the beating--and his plans for revenge--and then pleaded with his brother to put away the gun and abandon any search for the boys.
It wasn’t easy, but Robert did the right thing, putting the teachings he learned in Peace Colors, a violence-prevention program, into action. Now Robert will try to build on those lessons further as he and 50 teenagers from schools in Glendale, Inglewood, Long Beach and South Los Angeles join hundreds more from across the country at Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence. The three-day conference that starts today in San Francisco aims to promote the cause of peace by urging youth to practice nonviolence and tolerance in their daily lives.
Robert and other students won scholarships to attend the conference by participating in Peace Colors, a project funded by the California Wellness Foundation and run by the Southern California Youth and Family Center.
At San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, three Nobel Peace Prize recipients--Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala, Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor and the Dalai Lama of Tibet--will join 80 other social and community activists, including actor Edward James Olmos and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, in discussing issues such as unlearning racism, promoting peace and the power of spirituality.
The Dalai Lama and Tibet House, the group created to disseminate and maintain his teachings, are spearheading the first-time event. They promise three days of communal sharing of emotions, lively conversation and occasional periods of solemn meditation.
“Our premise is that any act of violence promotes future violence, but nonviolence, even in situations of oppression and duress, encourages peace and social justice,” said Robert Thurman, president of the Tibet House in New York and a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University.
The Dalai Lama is the event’s spiritual center, with his life and the struggles of the 6 million people of Tibet being held up as examples of sacrifices for peace.
As part of their required training for the conference, the students participated in frank workshops on conflict resolution and developing interpersonal skills. They watched videos chronicling the Tibetan people’s peaceful response to Chinese brutality and marveled at how, even when the Tibetans’ homes were burned down or they were beaten, they steadfastly refused to react with violence. Nearly all the students said that type of peaceful response is almost unthinkable in Los Angeles.
“I just can’t imagine reacting like that,” Robert said. “I can try to think and act peaceful, but if somebody burned my house down I would try to get them.”
Robert said he wants to attend the conference to help resolve the problem of wanting to live in peace while being unsure of how to do it. He believes there could be long-term benefits, both personally and for society at large, from discussion and debate on the methods of peacemaking.
How to apply the lessons of peace in a divided American metropolis? The gentle Lennonesque slogan “Give peace a chance” may be too lukewarm to reach ‘90s kids raised in a city haunted by senseless shootings. MTV’s harsh warning seems more appropriate: “Peace: Live in it or rest in it.”
Robert relates to that. Peace for him has come in baby steps. If he can’t change the world, he argues, perhaps it’s smarter to start changing his own attitudes, then begin working on those of his neighbors.
Other students have not been as capable of turning the other cheek.
For Aida Khachikyan, a giggly and outspoken high school junior, her sometimes hectic surroundings spark anger and make her want to fight.
When her younger sister was beaten up by a group of girls claiming affiliation with the 18th Street Gang, Aida said, she was forced to strike back. A month ago, with only her fists as weapons, she marched down to Wilson Junior High School in Glendale and found the 13- and 14-year-old girls responsible. Because they were so young, the 17-year-old instead fought three other girls her own age, one by one, in order to settle the argument.
Aida said she has learned her lesson. After participating in training similar to Peace Colors, she recently mused on the incident with classmates at Allan F. Daily High School in Glendale. She is convinced that nonviolence must be a constant, even with one’s enemies.
“Recently, I went up to my old high school and saw my old best friend,” Aida said, casually sitting on a desk at Daily. “She started talking to me bad. I said, ‘You know what? I have my own life to create. And no matter what you say, I’m not going to pay attention to you.’ I just walked away. Before, if somebody would come up to me and say, ‘You’re this and that,’ I would get mad.”
Walking that fine line between violence and peace is an ongoing battle for kids everywhere.
“It’s an internal struggle that they go through,” said Michael Grossi, who teaches at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles and brought 14 of his kids to the conference. “A lot of the students I deal with have an intuitive understanding of how nonviolence is the higher ground and how it’s the way to go.
“Icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Gandhi are really admired and respected, and people know their example is the way to go. But then a lot of times the kids feel, ‘Can I do that? Can I achieve that?’ It’s a hard thing to do. How do they have the ability and strength to stay with that path? Because it’s tested all the time. There’s all this pressure and temptation that weigh you down.”
Studying the peaceful philosophy of people such as Nobel laureate Menchu, a Quiche Indian who survived the torture and slaying of several family members in Guatemala, inspired the kids at Allan Daily, an alternative high school, to organize their own peace conference Saturday.
“They chose to do a peace summit before school let out for the summer so other kids can come into summer with a framework of peace,” said Linda Maxwell, who shepherds the kids at Daily through We Care for Youth, a violence-prevention program she co-founded in Glendale.
The grass-roots “take it back to the streets” affair was sparsely attended, but all involved felt that the peace conference was a success.
“It really doesn’t matter how many people turn out,” Glendale Mayor Larry Zarian told the audience of about 40. “What matters is the important message you are giving out today.”
While a somber medley of do-or-die rap songs played in the background, Aida and her classmates circled the courtyard, beaming about staging their own conference and going over their checklist for the San Francisco trip. Just in front of the podium, the students drew a huge peace sign in colored chalk and placed dried leaves and flowers in the shaded areas of the sign. They said it was a symbol of the hand-in-hand relationship between peace and nature.
“Violence is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned,” said Glendale Police Sgt. Rick Young. “Schools are not the cause of violence. It’s the communities’ violence spilling over into the schools that is the issue.”
After Zarian and Young’s remarks, students and adults headed into workshops on handling grief and learning how to react nonviolently when a relative is killed.
At the Bay Area conference today, acclaimed author Alice Walker will conduct a workshop on finding and balancing personal peace. Out of all the workshops, her event may be the most important and accessible to the teens.
“What they can get from the conference is that they have what it takes inside themselves to live peacefully,” Grossi, the Manual Arts teacher, said emphatically. “It’s not just the Dalai Lama who has this ability, it’s them too. The Dalai Lama is a human being just like us. If they put their mind to it, make intelligent choices and work at it, then the sky is the limit.”
Like Robert and Aida, 16-year-old Mario Lemus is seeking to learn the ways of peace. Three weeks ago, another teen was playfully taunting Mario and accidentally hit him in the face while they were standing in a liquor store. As Mario exited the market, the words continued, so Mario, also a junior at Morningside High, ripped off his shirt, rushed back inside and dragged the kid out.
He had been in similar situations plenty of times before, but Mario suddenly relented.
“I was still angry and wanted to get him,” Mario remembered. “But then I thought, ‘It’s just not worth it.’ ”
Mario, like Robert, was attending Peace Colors at the time. At one of the program’s weekly meetings at the Inglewood Community Police Station, Peace Colors project director Tracy L. Fried verbally walked Mario through his aggression and all the possible consequences of fighting.
“What could have happened if you got into a fight?” Fried asked Mario.
“My parents would have gotten angry at me,” he replied.
Fried continued nudging Mario for a few minutes, breaking through his sometimes defensive answers, trying to get at the real reason why he wanted to punch the boy at the liquor store.
“He didn’t actually hurt me,” Mario finally conceded. “I just felt disrespected.”
“So it’s all about that then,” Fried said to the group, knowing she had proven her point. “So you guys see there is all this underlying stuff and a lot of times it’s about disrespect? You felt like he embarrassed you and got away with it. That’s what eats us all up.
“Right,” Mario said, before breaking into a sheepish smile.