Inner-city peace building lessons

As we see in Iraq, building a peaceful community requires more than killing enemies. Iraq dominates the headlines, but citizens in many other countries also struggle to replace violence with civility.

Right here in America, many kids skirt the turf of local toughs on their way from a ramshackle home to a failing school before returning home to play among drug dealers, eat dinner (maybe) with an unemployed parent, and finish the day playing a violent computer game to the sound of gunfire on the next block.

What do you do if you don't have the US Army to patrol your town? If Uncle Sam is not paying contractors to rebuild your schools?

Citizens in Ohio couldn't borrow the Army, but they could borrow a military technique: war-gaming. Worried about the impact of violence on their children, community leaders in Weinland Park, an inner-city neighborhood in Columbus, recently set out to better their children's chances for success in school and in life.

Staging a day-long simulation, they gamed out the "enemy" - the cluster of problems standing between their kids and success - evaluated different battle plans, organized a three-front attack, and committed themselves personally to the community-building fray.

People of all stripes showed up. The Orthodox bishop came "because I'm sick of giving last rites to kids dying in the alley behind my church." Two high school students - who could be forgiven had their ambition been merely to escape - came because they want to start families of their own "right here at home" when they return from college.

Communities are much more complicated places than battlefields. Generals need only crush the foe. Citizens building peace have to manufacture durable teamwork among people with strong convictions. Emily (all names changed) was sure that her recipe for "old-fashioned teaching and discipline" would restore order; Mike from the city parks department wanted to turn the schools into safe, after-hours community centers; businessman Omar urged a massive dragnet to sweep all the petty drug dealers off the streets.

How to find common ground? In the Weinland Park game, teams acted out the divergent interests of residents, educators, the youth, and so on in a community laboratory called CoLab. A "red team" played the opponents, those who profit from violence and stagnation.

The outcome? Make that plural, outcomes. All reported a new, deeper understanding of each other's views. Long-term resident Kathy, living barricaded in her house, took the role of a city official dealing with the realities of taxes and budgets. Police officer Jerry played a youth as wary of cops as of the gangs.

With fresh eyes, the participants quickly converged on a short list of "must do now" actions. More, they all signed up on the spot to make those things happen. Emily and Mike, now partners, lead a task force to help educators tailor the school experience to local realities and to make the schools safe havens after hours. The high schoolers chaired a team to give youth a voice in the community and spotlight the achievements of young people who are succeeding despite obstacles. A third task force created a new organization to keep the campaigns running and signal to the city where its limited resources will get the best payoff.

The CoLab uncovered an important intangible: pride. The Columbus mayor's office and the school superintendent encouraged the project but worried that there was no "there" there. The area, they feared, had succumbed to unemployment, gangs, and owner neglect.

Not so. Invitations from local sponsors tapped an impressive reservoir of neighborhood pride. Participants showed up hungry to act. Needed was a way to hook those energies together.

This is more than a human-interest story. The Weinland Park CoLab, supported by skilled facilitators from nearby Ohio State University, operated at the heart of what makes peace building different from warmaking: human connections of community.

Violence, poverty, and failure separate people. Demagogues and warlords seize on those ingredients. Pushed to fear, neighbors retreat from the normal traffic of daily life among peoples of different stripes. When hate replaces familiarity, it takes only a few guns to ignite the killing.

The antidote is reconnection.

By providing a safe place not just to air one's own views but genuinely to understand each other's motivations, CoLabs enable the fresh thinking and practical collaboration that can turn a war zone into a community. Omar, the get-tough guy, made a brief speech at the end of the session. "Now I see," he said, "that just arresting drug dealers can't solve the problem. We'd never have enough cops. We have to create a neighborhood where young parents can provide for their families if we are ever going to live here safely."

Our generals have announced new, get-even-tougher campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to crush the opponents of peace in those two troubled countries.

The citizens and officials of Columbus may have something to teach the US Army. When the goal is a better life for the next generation, the ultimate mission is community, not killing.

Larry Seaquist is a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist. With Joe Bell, a former Washington State official, he advised the Weinland Park project.

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