Conversations about the presence of law enforcement officers in schools and the role they play in policing Black student bodies are taking place in boardrooms, government offices, and school lunchrooms.
As a result, questions like whether or not to arm teachers to protect them from intruders and their own students divide the public. And reworking punishments for students who do engage in fights, or break school rules, are shaping the way juvenile detention is viewed.
But as Chicago grapples with an intense level of gun violence among youth, one group is taking a different approach.
North Lawndale College Prep, a charter high school of roughly 900 students on the city’s West Side, is trying to curb violence through a student-led peace movement. The school’s Peace Warriors program trains students to mediate conflicts, support fellow students who have lost loved ones, and promote peace and happiness in the community.
Peace Warrior classmates, who are distinguished by their brightly colored tees, greet their peers at the school’s front door, leave words of encouragement on lockers, and even create special traditions to celebrate birthdays. The program is about not only ending violence but also spreading love to their fellow Black brothers and sisters.
Camya Jones, 17-year-old senior at NLCP, has been a Peace Warrior since her freshman year of high school, and has trained other student warriors who believe in the mission of building a safer world for their communities.
“This experience is different from being an average student because I have a stronger connection to the people in my school and in my community,” Jones says. “The students around, they look at me like a role model, they follow the things I do, so I know that I have to make sure I’m OK, and I’m doing right, so they can do the same thing.”
‘Peace Warriors Isn’t Just a Program, It’s a Life Choice’
In 2009, an uptick in fights on campus — estimated at over 100 — prompted a staff member at the time to encourage the school’s staff to start something in-house to minimize conflict.
Over the years, some administrators and staff at the school prioritized the program more than others. But with youth violence and the youth mental health crisis surging post-COVID-19 pandemic, Jemia Cunningham-Elder, chief executive officer of North Lawndale College Prep, felt like now, more than ever, was the best time to revitalize the group.
“In the last year, I have really invested a lot of our resources into bringing it back,” Cunningham-Elder tells Word In Black. “It was very timely to make sure that our Peace Warriors were getting trained, retrained, that we’re recruiting more, and that it becomes a movement on the West Side, and then a movement in Chicago.”
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Peace Warriors learn Principles of Kingian Nonviolence, which were exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They include
- Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
- The Beloved Community is the framework for the future.
- Attack forces of evil not persons doing evil.
- Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal.
- Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.
Members work to de-escalate problems while also supporting peers through “condolences runs,” and they’ve also held training at middle schools, high schools, and in communities that have experienced gun violence.
The students are taught to leadership skills so they can share their passion for a safer world outside of school too. Part of being a Peace Warrior involves speaking at forums and community discussions — one student recently had the opportunity to sit on a panel with former President Barack Obama.
“I would like to see Peace Warriors grow,” Jones says. “Some of our students are closed off and shy, and I want them to understand it’s OK to be shy and closed off, and still fight for peace,” she says.
On Martin Luther King Day in January 2024, they will hold a student-led peace warriors training, which is the first step of their membership as a warrior. Students will go through additional training throughout the summer to fully acclimate to their new lifestyle of peace, and by the start of the next school year, they’ll be able to commit to the task at hand — keeping the peace.
“If you’re on the cusp, like you want to be a peace warrior, but you haven’t quite committed to the full way of life — like we still see you’re getting into situations that a peace warrior would not get into — then that you would be considered a peace warrior cadet,” Cunningham-Elder says.
Ultimately, becoming a peace warrior isn’t just about joining the team and wearing a special shirt, but rather committing to a lifestyle both inside and outside school walls that encourages generational change, she explains.
“I feel like the work that we’re doing is making a difference in the community because it’s students’ I trained when I was a freshman.. and now that I’m a senior, those students are now in North Lawndale also trying to be Peace Warriors,” Jones tells Word In Black. “If I did that for you four years ago, and you still remember till this day, I know I’m making an impact.”