1.14.2011

Non-violent Street Smarts

Continuing my consideration of the spiritual needs of middle school students, I came to the juncture with the practical needs of middle school kids. One of the topics that I think has been seriously missing from my meeting’s religious education program is how to carry your faith out into the world. This could include issues like how to respond when someone asks you if you’ve been saved. Chuck Fager wrote a little book about that recently. But I live in San Francisco, and that’s really not a problem for the kids I know.

What is an issue here, and particularly for the young people that I know, is how to be safe in an urban environment that involves walking through neighborhoods that regularly have violence and other crimes on the street. Some of our families live in neighborhoods like that; some kids go to school in neighborhoods like that; our meetinghouse is located in a neighborhood like that. So it’s not just an abstract idea or an occasional need, it’s a day to day concern.

I was further inspired by the article in this month’s Friends Journal about teaching peace in a culture of violence and by George Lakey’s article in last month’s Western Friend where he tells about using techniques he learned from John Wesley about getting out of a dangerous situation.

I personally grew up in a small town in a very rural area. There was violence, but it was more likely to be between family members and friends than from strangers. This is still true in the big city, but the likelihood that you’ll have to pass through someone else’s personal drama on the sidewalk or on the bus is higher in the city. And I think the chance of random robbery is higher here. Definitely, the open sale of drugs and prostitution is higher here than in my home town.

Anyway, my point is that I didn’t learn very much about how to be safe in the city from my family. I was given explicit instructions by a co-worker in New York City when I was 24 years old. We were working with kids in very poor neighborhoods, and as we visited their homes, my co-worker taught me a lot about being aware of other people, how to conduct myself to not look like a target, and how and when to avoid trouble. But now I live in a city where my kids need to learn this stuff by age 12, not 24. And I’m not really sure how to teach it.

The self-defense classes I hear about for young people are mostly run by martial arts schools. And I know that a lot of the curriculum in these places is how to avoid having to use violence. But I’d really like my kids to get that part followed by some non-violent conflict defusing techniques and then what to do after violence happens to you or around you. I think this could be an ideal topic for a yearly meeting middle school program where we’d have a critical mass of kids.

I know that there are Quakers with enormous experience in conflict resolution. I know Friends who have personally faced angry mobs, who have taught non-violent resistance around the world, and who are highly skilled in defusing dangerous situations. But as far as I can tell, they’re not teaching our young people how to do the same. At least, not here in SF.

So I have started asking the people I know for help. One Friend, who is an expert in early childhood education, but also has experience working with older kids, recommended a book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It’s mostly encouraging people to trust their intuition about other people and situations. Another friend, who is very wise in the ways of adolescents and an experienced urban educator, said that the best defense is confidence – not making kids afraid of their environment, and she cautioned me about the developmental capacity of 11 and 12 year olds to use any strategies, however valuable, to resist predators. Her concern was to not make kids feel guilty for being victims.

So my current thinking is that a workshop would cover five topics:

• Be aware
• Avoid trouble
• Defuse conflict
• Help others at risk
• Get help when violence happens

Some of it would be basic things like how to carry your valuables, where to sit on the bus, and planning your route.

Some of it would be learning to pay attention to who else is around you and what they are doing, how and when to mind your own business, evaluating your risks, and going around a visible trouble spot.

Some of it would be what to do when trouble happens to you – thinking about who you could ask for help in different places, how to reduce the chances of getting hurt, who do you tell afterwards.

The trickiest part is to know how and when you can help someone else, when you are a bystander. Obviously, this part changes dramatically depending on the environment, the other people involved, and your own physical and emotional capabilities. (Just as an example, I might expect more if a 12 year old sees another kid picking on a kindergartener at school than if she sees a grown-up getting robbed at the back of the bus.)

And I’d like this to all be done in a spirit of love and trust and compassion. With the assumption that there is that of God in every person and that we can speak to that spark of goodness. And the full knowledge that not every one will act with that goodness.

I don’t want to teach my children how to fight back with their fists. (I’d be no help with that either.) But it’s not enough to just say “turn the other cheek” without giving some practical suggestions for when nonresistence is unproductive.

Do you have any experience with this kind of work? What do you think would be the most important things for Quaker kids to learn? If you know of specific people or meetings who are already doing this well, please leave a comment or email me directly. Thanks!

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12 Comments:

Blogger Sharon said...

Wonderful post. I'm across the continent--have worked with middle-agers, in conflict resolution during Vietnam era, and with Alternatives to Violence lately.

You have an excellent beginning in your own remarks, such how to carry valuables, etc., that I've seen no where.

Then if you could find someone from conflict resolution who could teach the moves of introducing yourself, etc. that would be a good next step.

Then, I fully endorse having Alternatives to Violence Project introduced in your meeting, yearly meeting, schools, community, and prisons.

You can contact AVP-California by internet. The youngest trainers I have known have been 12--you have to have several workshops to be a trainer.

Then, youth have the possibility of accompanying someone on a Friends Peace Team (also has a website) to somewhere in Africa, Latin America, or Indonesia with really advanced trainers.

Go for it!!!

S. Hoover

1/14/2011 7:36 PM  
Blogger Alice Y. said...

Thanks for posting this Robin. I have a small daughter and already it comes up, how to deal with different attitudes to violence amongst other kids her age that we meet at playgroups and whatever. Even more so once she gets to school. I really want Friends to help me find the way with this as I felt so lost and helpless in the dominant violent/consumerist culture when I was at school myself.

1/14/2011 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Kathleen K. said...

Something that's been valuable in our family is to make sure we are in some of those situations together so the kids can see how we handle it. What do we do when someone on the bus starts saying offensive things to us? How do we respond when a stranger offers food? How do we respond when a stranger asks for food? Where do we put our bags when we sit down on the subway? When do we step in and say something when a parent is berating a child and what is it we say? Our kids learn by seeing how we do it.

1/15/2011 12:01 AM  
Anonymous Kathleen K. said...

And by talking about it explicitly afterwards.

1/15/2011 12:02 AM  
Blogger Friendly Mama said...

Robin,
My boys are 19, 15 and 8. We live in a suburban neighborhood zoned for "urban" schools so my older boys each spent a year riding city buses while attending schools with gang problems and serious tensions.

My older boys studies aikido for several years, which we first learned about from an adult Quaker friend of ours. To me, it's the most Friendly of the martial arts--it is not competitive and is non aggressive. My oldest, particularly, learned self discipline and body awareness from it. He carries himself in a way that shows great confidence and people don't mess with him, I think, because of it.

Prior to them going to these schools, we homeschooled and rode buses together and walked all over town. I used to work with families of prisoners so my kids went with me to prisons and into projects housing and homeless shelters. I didn't specifically instruct them in how to act but I think they learned a great deal the way kids learn everything: by observation, context and experience.

Be well,
Mary Linda

1/15/2011 7:53 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you for all the helpful comments.

From the comments on my Facebook page:
"Faye: Robin, I don't think we're able to stand up to violence well unless Christ is walking in our shoes...and only He can teach us from inside us. We can pattern our faith for our youth, but not if we keep ourselves always "safe".

Robin: Well, yes and yes. One of my steps lately has been to make a point of choosing my route when walking with my 12 year old in the city to not avoid all the more dangerous blocks - so that he gets some experience while he still has me with him. There is a need for both having faith in Christ's loving embrace and for keeping your wallet in your front pocket."

I think part of the problem in Quaker circles is the disconnect between the Peace & Social Order folks and the Children's Religious Ed folks in our meetings. We often have activists speak to our children about their travels and the political aspects of their work. But I've never thought before about asking them to share the practical stuff they've learned along the way. And I don't think that the activists have been shirking so much, they've usually been quite willing to talk with kids when asked. It's like a light went on for me that this was another way of passing on the torch of Quaker experience in a way that kids can use now, not just when they're old enough to travel to Colombia.

1/15/2011 10:58 AM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

The 5 points, while they certainly have value, are basically standard secular ones, so I think they miss what is most important.

What Quakers should be teaching their children is how to let the Spirit of Christ fill their lives. Then they will find themselves responding creatively to situations of danger.

I recommend my mother's (Dorothy T. Samuel) Safe Passage in City Streets. It is stories of people who were led to amazingly creative responses when faced with threats of robbery, rape, itself. It's all true stories, and I know several of those in the stories.

The book was found to be so accurate in depicting the psychology of persons who commit these kinds of crimes that she would up being asked to teach a criminal justice Senior Seminar, although she had no criminal justice background and lacked any academic qualifications for such a role. She also was interviewed on television along with a former street criminal, who confirmed that she got it right.

1/15/2011 9:11 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks Bill for the book suggestion. I will look for it.

1/16/2011 2:29 PM  
Anonymous Chloe said...

I just shared this with my Facebook F/friends. Frankly, I would like to learn some of these things myself--especially how to defuse violence. Maybe part of it is to speak to the other person with awareness of them as a fellow human being.
I am a graduate of the Model Mugging self-defense class. I was attacked sometime a couple of year later and, since I was already in my car, I was able to stay calm as the window shattered and maneuver out between two tightly parked cars to get away. My training prepared me to do this. Since then, I am of the opinion that I would rather avoid being attacked if at all possible because there is a lot of lingering trauma afterwards.

1/17/2011 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Eileen Flanagan said...

What a great discussion! My kids have just started taking the public bus in Philadelphia, and I'd love to have us all attend a workshop on this.

1/19/2011 10:44 AM  
OpenID Jimmy B. said...

This is a very good post and you are certainly on the right track. Everything you mentioned about awareness, avoidance and so in is exactly what both children and adults need to learn first. I understand your resistance to teaching "fighting back" with your fists, but if there's one thing I know for sure, if a predator gets a child or adult in his sights, none of the other awareness and avoidance strategies are going to be much use. Fighting back -- not boxing, but stunning the criminal and running away fast -- will be your only viable choice to survive.

1/22/2011 8:05 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

Robin, Thank you for this post! Although our meeting is in a mostly suburban setting I think knowing how to carry yourself is something that everyone needs to know. I grew up in a larger city and I think a good portion of the street smarts I got was instinct, and watching other people around me. However, we did have a few instances I remember when I was young where local police would come and talk to us about safety and what to do if you encountered a crime, or dangerous situation. Some of those tips have helped me avoid bad situations, and I think in one instance may have saved my life. You may want to call your local police department, they could talk to the kids about safety and avoiding dangerous situations. I know our police department offers programs like that for free as part of community outreach.

2/09/2011 6:16 AM  

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