S. Pearl Sharp: The Art of Conflict Resolution

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Black and Latino students at Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles have been experiencing ongoing racial tension. Commentator S. Pearl Sharp offers this essay on teaching kids the art of conflict resolution.

TONY COX, host:

World peace is a lofty goal predictably associated with beauty pageants and year-end resolutions. But a group of mainly young people from around the globe, representing a range of professions, are set on making this happen. In recent weeks, the ACTION travel team visited a high school in Los Angeles that's been the scene of racial conflict over the past year. Essayist S. Pearl Sharp caught up with the group. Here's what she found.

(Soundbite of ringing bell)

S. PEARL SHARP:

A mixture of accents and rhythms are heard in the hallway here.

(Soundbite of school noise)

SHARP: This school's population, which used to be mostly black, is now less than 10 percent black, with Latinos in the majority.

(Soundbite of school noise)

SHARP: This is where the ACTION travel team chose to carry out what they see as a workable plan toward achieving peace in the world. Translation: Some folks who don't even live in the United States are coming into the hood to teach conflict resolution to some kids who won't even sit in the same room to eat lunch. Hmm.

(Soundbite of school noise)

SHARP: And there was more. The group's presentation is centered around the question: What kind of America do you want? I decided to run the question past my young friend, Cherry Peyton(ph), an 11th-grade student at the school.

CHERRY PEYTON (11th-Grader): My vision of America is simply weak. Like, I don't know. We have a lot of racism and hate in this world, and it's not even, really--we're different races. It's people as a whole, you know. People would need to learn to accept people the way they are and stop expecting too much.

SHARP: Cherry will also be attending the workshop.

(Soundbite of school noise)

SHARP: I arrive at the school just as classes are letting out.

(Soundbite of school noise)

SHARP: In room 134, the students, some willing and some assigned to attend, settle in to meet the guests. The stated mission of the ACTION travel team is to mobilize a network of tomorrow's leaders to bring transformation, healing and hope to America and the world.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FLORENCIA RUIZ (ACTION Travel Team): My name Florencia Ruiz. I'm from Argentina. I live in Buenos Aires.

SHARP: There are 11 team members from seven countries, including the United States. Over the past two and a half months, they've presented this workshop in 13 cities in the US. The idea is take your best vision of what America should be, identify the obstacles and conflicts to that vision, and then use this plan to resolve the conflict. The faces of the young Latinos and the few blacks in the circle show no sign that conflict resolution has anything to do with them; no sign that one of them might break rank and actually participate. Then one of the adult hosts to the group unfurls a large, laminated world map.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ZORYANA BORBULEVYCH (ACTION Travel Team): My name is Zoryana Borbulevych. I come from Ukraine. After Orange Revolution, we had this growing division between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking communities. We don't really know how to handle it. So again, you, as a great example of melting pot, could give the answers to my question: How do people from what is different beliefs, actually, handle the situation?

SHARP: Other team members from Kenya, Vietnam, the United Kingdom and good old Virginia claim their spots on the map. The first step the team teaches is to look in the mirror. Ask yourself questions like: Do I share in this conflict? Did I participate in it? And how do I become part of the solution? Then walk in the other person's shoes to understand their perspective. Honest conversation is the third action in the plan. Then action four, take the first step. I like this one. It's where the real personal test begins. Once you've become both strong enough and humble enough to take the first step in a situation, then trust me, every first step after that gets easier. The fifth step, tell people about the successes you've had.

Before joining the team, Zoryana, 24, was an international relations coordinator at a school in the Ukraine. She admits that it was not as challenging as the team's journey across the US. Five complete strangers in a minivan drive across the country together for 10 weeks.

Ms. BORBULEVYCH: And you see, we didn't really have time to come to know each other better first. Somehow we managed to survive, you know, without killing each other.

SHARP: So how many times did you have to apply the five-point program in the minivan?

Ms. BORBULEVYCH: A minute you mean? How many times a minute?

SHARP: Now that we have the tools of conflict resolution and change, the workshop participants divide into breakout groups. In my group, there are four Latino boys and one girl. When asked what they would like to change, there's silence from the group. No one makes eye contact. The ACTION team leaders coax. Finally, one student speaks. He would fix the school. Everything's falling apart. `If they would fix stuff, then we could learn better.'

Encouraged, the boy next to him jumps in. `Where I live we need a playground for the kids. They ain't got no place to play, so there be a lot of fights, you know. They need a place to play.'

I remind them of the quote from Mahatma Gandhi that was introduced to the group earlier: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

`But nothing's going to change,' one student declares, showing irritation with me for suggesting that it might. His home boy backs him up. `Yeah, when something does change, it goes back to the way it was before.' And he shrugs away any possibilities. Silence settles over the table. The boys stare deeply into the black plastic covers of their three-ring binders. One carves imaginary action figures onto the desk with his thumb. The girl excuses herself to go to the bathroom.

OK. Zoryana understands what I am feeling right now.

Ms. BORBULEVYCH: I feel I came here with some knowledge, with some message. But one person confronts me saying, `Give me the advice. Give me the solution.' And I can't give this tangible solution, right. I'm giving all this intangible stuff and beautiful stories and asking people to be loving, caring and--but still, I feel helpless. And I feel a bit guilty as well.

SHARP: These events always have as much, or perhaps more, of an effect on the teachers than those who are taught. And the ACTION group is no exception.

Ms. BORBULEVYCH: What I've learned so far is to keep your cup empty. Leave at home your prejudices, your stereotypes and opinions. Absolutely empty cup, empty mind. You just listen, absorb and learn again and again from the scratch.

Unidentified Woman: In the small ...(unintelligible) eye. Look at the people in the eyes and share the same thoughts about what we should do. I think that we should start with baby steps. At the end of the road, put them all together and realize that you did it--this big thing, you know.

(Soundbite of people talking)

SHARP: I checked in with Cherry a few days after the ACTION traveling team had returned home.

PEYTON: Well, today we had an incident with one of my friends and instead of the fight continuing, I sort of pulled her away and we walked away. That was something we learned, to just let it go and walk away.

SHARP: What she didn't say is that she was in the fight and then she negotiated its end.

PEYTON: Our school has been calm and there hasn't been anymore racist ruptures.

SHARP: In the two weeks since my last conversation with Cherry, other schools in Los Angeles have had small outbreaks of racial violence. Stanley "Tookie" Williams, founder of the Crips gang, who redeemed himself from behind prison walls, was legally executed by the state. The US has now admitted that some 30,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. And two students in a small California town were discovered preparing a terrorist attack against their own high school. My hope for finding peace and holding peace is, like Zoryana and Florencia, in the small steps, in students like Cherry and all the Cherrys in the US who are trying to make sense of the violence and the history of disdain and who are trying to make peace wherever and however it can be found.

(Soundbite of bell)

Unidentified Student: The bell!

COX: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to this show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Tony Cox. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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