Non-violent Street Smarts
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!
Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]