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Building Community

What does it take to make a constructive, caring community? How can conflict resolution education and peace education help in that quest? These may be the essential questions of our work.

Most peace educators realize that they have the potential to make a "home" for children by building a caring community. Furthermore, realistically that means that before anything else can be accomplished, basic physical needs for food, water, and shelter must be met, as Emma Kamara and Keith Neal explain in their discussion of the Children's Learning Services in Sierra Leone (Chapter 11.1). Once physical needs have been met, the children and the community understand the commitment to them and are more receptive to learning peace skills.

Building a community also means emphasizing inclusion in the community and counteracting sources of discrimination. For example, in the Sawa children's magazine developed in Lebanon, there was an emphasis on encouraging inclusion and discouraging bias and discrimination based on ethnic and religious difference.

Susan Fountain has worked with many schools to help them develop more positive communities. After working with UNICEF, Creative Response to Conflict, and Educators for Social Responsibility, she has considerable experience. She remembers working with one school in particular:

In [one] class they had a student come in the middle of the year when it's very tough to be accepted. The boy who joined was overweight and was fairly young in terms of his social skills. He had extreme learning problems. Kids started to tease and scapegoat him. The parents actually got involved in this as well, even tried to get the kid kicked out of the school. They called him a monster. This developed into a very bad situation. [I] worked with the class, did a lot of group building, cooperative games then moved to exercises on inclusion and exclusion. This provoked some very deep and honest discussion for the kids. They got the kids working in groups together to build acceptance. I used the game where you have kids close their eyes and put a different color sticker on their heads and get into a group with the same color. Knowing who the kids were who were at the forefront of the exclusion [I] allowed these kids to have the experience of having a "different" dot, so they could feel what it's like. This also got some very profound discussions going. Then they moved to doing some role plays about the reasons that kids get excluded in this school-gender, wearing glasses, different preferences, lik[ing] sports or not. They talked about what the kids could do if they were excluded or as a bystander seeing someone else is excluded. (Jones and Compton 2203: 293)

After a great deal of work, this school was able to develop a positive and nurturing community. However, first the students needed to understand their own dynamics of disrespect and agree to disallow that behavior.

In Ohio, the Students Offering Acceptance and Respect (SOAR) program is a wonderful example of students building a caring and respectful community through antibullying programs. When individual students refuse to treat others with respect, it is the responsibility of other members of that community to stand up for them.

Having acknowledged the importance of community and the role of conflict resolution education in creating positive community, what are some of the things that may prevent conflict resolution education and peace education from achieving maximum benefit in terms of developing constructive and caring communities?

If students, teachers, parents, and community members are not given the necessary skills, they will not be able to build community. Providing those tools forces us to face difficult resource issues. Skill development does not happen overnight. There is always a learning curve needed for children and adults to acquire new skills. Knowledge is only the first step. Without practice, application, and review, the new skill will not really be learned.

It seems appropriate to remember that conflict resolution education and peace education programs are most successful when adults model constructive conflict management and caring community for children. We do not want to give the impression that community-building efforts are only something that adults should "help children do." It is as important for the adult members of schools and external communities to learn and enact these constructive behaviors for themselves.

However, the challenge of conflict resolution education and peace education programs in terms of building community is different in societies that are experiencing or have recently experienced serious conflict. Conflict-ridden societies, especially in cases of interethnic conflicts, are more damaged and require more reparation of emotional issues before skills development can be the focus. In conflict-ridden societies the need to provide for the basic safety and security needs of all clearly comes first. Furthermore, once those are secured, educators may find that normal outlets for education-such as schools or community centers-no longer exist as places to conduct this important learning.

However, the most important realization is that there is a lot of healing that must be done. Children who have experienced serious conflict or war are traumatized and emotionally scarred by that experience. They, and the adults who live with them, need help in managing these emotional wounds. Such work is often an initial focus of peace educators, and it may take many months or even years to overcome the trauma and help the child be ready to move forward in learning peace.

Connections that Empower

If one tool is good, several tools may be better-especially for complex issues and complex goals. All of the cases presented in the following chapters reinforce this wisdom. Perhaps most striking is the example of the Ohio Commission for Dispute Resolution's support of truly comprehensive, school-wide, conflict resolution education efforts. The commission and their model, the Winning Against Violent Environments Program (WAVE) and SOAR programs give us insights about how to combine conflict resolution and peace education efforts for optimum sensitivity to the needs of the community or school.

A critical part of any effort is social and emotional learning. When children develop emotional competence, it is integrally intertwined with the development of conflict competence and social competence. If we want our children to be able to manage conflict effectively, we need to appreciate that conflict is an inherently emotional experience. An emotionally traumatized student cannot be an effective manager of their own conflicts and cannot reasonably help others manage their conflicts-as the experience in Sierra Leone so convincingly suggests.

In addition to the various techniques and materials educators can use to promote social and emotional development, there is a need to value the expressive arts as a means of conflict discovery. Through the arts children of all ages can come to a much deeper awareness of their emotional selves, their emotional reactions to conflict, and their emotional growth through conflict. Furthermore, expressive arts are particularly effective in helping children overcome trauma by first representing the trauma in music, dance, drama, or visual art.

Peer mediation is the most prevalent, best-known, and best-understood form of conflict resolution education. Peer mediation is powerful on its own, but it can be more powerful if it is partnered with other conflict resolution education and peace education efforts. Having peer mediators involved with bias awareness initiatives, restorative justice, and antibullying efforts are powerful possibilities. With appropriate guidance, the peer mediators can help manage lower-level conflict involving bias and power abuse. Mediators can become mentors who educate younger children, as the WAVE program in Ohio demonstrates.