New ideas in fighting violence, finding forgiveness

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The world needs innovative ways to combat violence. Two of the speakers at PopTech, the conference that aims to present world-changing ideas, shared hopeful news from both the United States and Africa that cycles of violence can be broken.

Gary Slutkin looks at street violence through the eyes of a public health worker who tries to understand how a disease is spread. Violence must be choked off at some point to break the cycle, he says.

Dr. Slutkin, trained as an epidemiologist, founded Ceasefire Chicago, which sends community workers (he calls them "violence interrupters") out on the streets to intervene before a dispute can turn homicidal.

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One of the Ceasefire workers reenacted an incidence for the PopTech audience, showing how he uses his cell phone to call first one, then the other aggrieved party to prevent a shooting. The street worker's last words are: If you decide later that this isn't resolved, check back me before you do anything.

Ceasefire Chicago uses mapping technology to plot out Chicago's violence hot spots. It has seen impressive results, as shootings and other acts of violence have shrunk by two-thirds. The Monitor laid the program out in more detail last June.

Slowly, Slutkin says, what seems "normal" to those living in a neighborhood can be transformed. When violence becomes abnormal and unacceptable, the tide has turned.

Public health campaigns have shown they can change thinking, he says, noting successes such as anti-smoking and seat-belt crusades. "We know how to change norms," he says.

Laura Waters Hinson went to Rwanda to shoot a film about the 1994 genocide and efforts at reconciliation. The result was her new documentary film "As We Forgive," now touring the United States.

Rwanda, with some 7 million people, endured the slaughter of up to 800,0000 members of its Tutsis ethnic group by militias of the more populous Hutu ethnic group. All this took place in the space of about 100 days.

Forgiveness between the groups in Rwanda is still far from universal, Ms. Hinson says, but it is growing. One reason people have forgiven, she believes, is their religious upbringing. They think, "I have been forgiven by God, so God will give me the strength to forgive."

By not giving in to further rounds of revengeful violence, living conditions in Rwanda are rapidly improving. Both groups are beginning to see that ethnic peace and their own prosperity go hand-in-hand: It's in everyone's interest to forgive and move forward.

To work, Hinson says, forgiveness must be an ongoing process, "a daily choice."

She now has gone beyond documenting the experience of forgiveness in Rwanda to becoming part of it. She's founded "Living Bricks," an organization that brings convicted killers being released from Rwandan prisons together with survivors of victims of the violence – sometimes with the very family they have killed a member of.

The killers build homes for the families as a way of asking for their forgiveness.

"There's an abundance of forgiveness growing in the hearts of survivors" in Rwanda, she says. It provides hope for the rest of us. "Rwanda is the world's grand experiment in forgiveness," she says.

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