A group of students is countering violence on Chicago’s West Side by planting a peace garden and creating peace corners in classrooms in honor of Juneteenth.
But this isn’t something out of the ordinary for them. They’re known as Peace Warriors — born out of North Lawndale College Prep almost 15 years ago.
They’re trained on nonviolent conflict resolution principles, spreading peace across the city, and are charged with keeping students safe amid Chicago’s ongoing struggle with gun violence.
On Monday they planted flowers outside of their school alongside more than 30 other community members.
Aniya Hill, a recent graduate from North Lawndale College Prep’s Christiana campus, was the former president of the Peace Warriors.
“Juneteenth is about remembering our loved ones and celebrating the past and all the achievements with how far we’ve come since then,” Hill said.
She and others at North Lawndale College Prep have undergone intense training to learn to resolve conflict in a nonviolent manner, learning the six principles of Kingian Nonviolence.
Jemia Cunningham-Elder, CEO of North Lawndale College Prep, said those principles came from and were inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The Peace Warriors are committed to making sure that no student has to grieve alone, but also they interject our school with love and kindness and that’s probably the most important thing that they do,” Cunningham-Elder said.
North Lawndale College Prep’s Juneteenth peace-focused day of service comes amid a violent holiday weekend in Chicago in which at least 60 people were shot.
“It (gun violence) changes how our young people learn,” Cunningham-Elder said. “It impacts the brain, it impacts their ability to come in and learn math. Sometimes we’ll have students with their head down or students who maybe don’t listen to a teacher and when you get to the root of the issue, a conversation that I’ve had with many students at this point are, ‘Well, I’m missing my brother,’ or ‘I’m missing a sibling.’ When you bring the parents in, they’ve also lost a child. So you’re dealing with family trauma, and family grief, that then we’re telling our students, but you need to learn, to be resilient and go to college. So how can we put those two things together and make sure we’re doing something that grows the future and also remembers the past.”
The peace-focused day of service is meant to give West Side students places to “process trauma, calm their minds and bodies, and refocus themselves on learning,” according to a news release about the event.
One of the principles of the Peace Warriors is that nonviolence is a way of life.
“It is something you see on a day-to-day basis so it is kind of hard to say it’s a way of life (to your peers), but at the same time it’s something that we’re working toward so there’s always room for improvement so we keep reemphasizing it to them that this is something that you can do and will do,” Hill said.
Since its inception, more than 800 students and staff have been trained as Peace Warriors.
“The way that our young people get painted in the news is often negative, so to be able to say ‘Hey, here’s a great day, a great story. Our students were planting gardens.’ They’re not out destroying anything. They’re building life, they’re creating something for the future and that’s what we want more of on the news,” Cunningham-Elder said.