Confronting Conflict in Newport's Youth
Patch columnist and Women's Resource Center staffer Jessica Walsh discusses her work to raise awareness about peace and nonviolence with Newport's youth.
When I was in college at the University of Rhode Island, I was active in the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.
I studied nonviolence and trained in the steps and principles of Kingian nonviolence. I went on Civil Rights tours of the Southeast to learn about the movement’s civil disobedience from people who had lived it. I had the incredible privilege of meeting Coretta Scott King, James Meredith, and numerous others that most people only get to read about in history books. I also met a lot of people who didn’t make the history books, but certainly should have.
The founder and director of the center was Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr., whom we fondly and simply called “Doc.” At 20 years old, he was a student activist in Nashville during the sit-in campaign of 1960 and went on to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was eventually appointed by Dr. King as the Program Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Before his assassination, Dr. King told Doc that his next goal was to bring nonviolence to an international audience and to fully institutionalize nonviolence in our culture. Doc’s life work has been an effort to see that vision realized.
So by extension, in our small way, those of us who were studying and practicing nonviolence were striving for Dr. King’s vision as well. That is not something to be taken lightly.
My time involved with the center certainly changed how I looked at the world, how I responded to people and situations, and I suspect it even shifted my life’s path.
Fast forward seven years, and I am the director of prevention at the Women’s Resource Center. I run an after-school dating violence prevention program (Students Against Domestic Abuse) through the Newport Community School. The same position brings me to the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, and a variety of other community settings to work with young people who want to prevent violence in their community.
One day last week, I found myself standing in the Academic Lab at Rogers High School between two young men who were exchanging heated words over an apparent misunderstanding. This was certainly not my first time in this sort of situation, and will most likely not be my last. But this particular incident (perhaps because it was the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Day) sparked deep reflection on my part regarding violence, nonviolence, and the reality our young people are operating within.
I happened to know the two boys involved, although not very well. I had no idea what had started the altercation, but it was clearly heated. Ultimately, the combined efforts of myself, some teachers, and some students separated the boys and no punches were thrown.
I wish I could freeze-frame the moment, because it was those few moments of scrambling to separate them, those few moments of uncertainty, those moments of wondering how the situation was going to play out that really struck me and gave me pause.
You see, once the first boy decided to stand up for himself against the person who he perceived as doing him wrong, and once the second boy stood up, too, to insist his innocence. . .Well, once those two things had happened, the social pressure can really make a person feel forced to play it out.
Picture the scenario if you will: there is a room full of peers, most of whom are egging the whole thing on, hoping to see a fight. Both individuals perceive that they have been disrespected. Both have reputations on the line. To walk away is to be labeled soft.
Then add in the adrenaline and the hormones. Looking in their faces, I could see where we came up with the term blind anger. Anyone who has been that close to a very angry person can probably recall the almost blankness that can come over them. One of the boys, once we got them separated and he was breathing again, looked at me like he just recognized I was there and just said, “I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry.”
One of the principles of nonviolence is, “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.” I think I really understood that, standing there, in between these two young men.
For these young men, to walk away once the situation had hit the point of exchanging words would have taken in incredible amount of courage, self-control, and self-awareness.
These reflections made me sad for us as a society, because the biggest reason it takes courage to be nonviolent is because violence is the norm. Or at the very least acceptable, dare I say expected, in certain situations.
In so many ways, we were all in that room, our whole culture was in that room, egging them on. Because where had they learned that the appropriate response to being disrespected is verbal and physical aggression? We can try and blame individual parents and individual upbringings to make ourselves feel better, but after seeing this same situation repeat itself so many times in so many different places, I have a hard time solely blaming individuals.
No, violence is an epidemic plaguing our culture, and I fear that it is our young people who are suffering the gravest consequences.
I am not trying to make excuses for these young men. There were several other ways they could have chosen to handle the situation, certainly. But I do extend my understanding to them. Because how much exposure, training, and practice had they had in those other options? Probably not many, and they are most definitely not inundated with those options on a daily basis.
Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. In the near-term, this is the reality we have to work with.
So let’s teach our kids how to be courageous. Let’s teach them that there is a realistic alternative to violence. Let’s teach them how to recognize their physiological cues that they are getting angry. Let’s teach them how to walk away before they exchange words, before they get pushed to extreme anger.
It’s not enough to teach them these skills. We have to let them practice them. And we have to model these skills ourselves. We have to take a deep breath instead of raising our voice. We have to take a walk instead of yelling or punching. We have to stop cheering on fights in professional sports matches and playing violent video games.
If nothing else, we need to talk, a lot, about the violence that surrounds us. We need to debrief the fake violence and contrast it with the consequences of real world violence. We need to encourage our kids to feel things, to let them know that emotions other than anger are okay.
None of this is easy, because to teach courage, we need to find it in ourselves.
Editor's note: This headline has been changed since its original posting to more accurately reflect the message of the author.