Thursday, April 16, 2009

War and Peace and Peacemaker Projects

Last week, we had one of the college liaisons here in Boston start an animated e-conversation about the lines that divide our values from our obligations. The circumstances that prompted the conversation were centered around a multi-aged Peacemaker Project to serve soldiers. It raises an important question: if we are in the service of supporting peacemakers, are projects that support the military incongruent with that mission?

The question elicited complicated feelings from many quarters, which would suggest that there are no easy answers. On the one hand, in an all-volunteer army the soldiers put in harm's way are disproportionately from low-income families - an imbalance which certainly seems unjust. By pitching a project that holds up soldiers as peacemakers, were we making ourselves indistinguishable from (or at least in cahoots with) a military recruiter? On the other hand, many of us know people in our lives who are or who have been soldiers and who make room for the complicated and sometimes contradictory values of safety and peacemaking. At the very least, surely we can agree that it must be hard, painful even, to be so far from home for so long.

The debate struck a chord with me. Two years ago, I confronted the same conflict with the third grade class I was teaching. Thinking about them - and about the Peacemaker Project we finally completed - I contributed this response to the debate:

I suspect that there has been a healthy conversation going on about this really important question, so my apologies if I repeat anything that’s been said or if I speak out of turn.

Two years ago, I worked with a third grade class that completed a Peacemaker Project remarkably similar to this one, so like you I struggled with my own conflicted feelings about war, peace, the military, social justice, and a host of other issues about which you’ve all been far more articulate than me. I remember vividly the class session in which we were brainstorming ideas about ‘who to help’ when one student suggested ‘soldiers’ – and my visceral instinct to find a reason not to add it to the list.

Honestly, I’m glad that I didn’t follow that instinct. The project we completed wound up feeling good to me (and, I think, to all of us). That’s not to say that we simplified or made less tangled any of the many intersecting issues that you raise about military recruitment, poverty, gangs, and violence on a host of scales. Really, though, untangling that was never within the scope of what we could accomplish together. It was much more about finding the small parcel of common ground upon which we could all stand comfortably. Here are a few stray thoughts on this question that came out of that project:

· Words and ideas are more relative than I realized. That is, when that first student said ‘soldiers,’ it triggered for me a host of thoughts about the war and militarism that felt very uncomfortable. But for him, it meant his older brother. And for some of his classmates, it meant fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, or cousins. The same relativity was true when it came to ‘helping soldiers’: for some, it meant fighting the ‘bad guys’ (however they defined that or understood it, rightly or wrongly), but for others it was less narrowly defined. I saw our job as helping to create an expansive and compassionate definition of ‘helping soldiers.’

· We needed to find a way to trust the students. It was clear through the course of the conversation that the idea of ‘soldiers’ was much closer to home and more meaningful than any of the other constituencies we talked about – friends, police officers, school helpers. It would have been not only disingenuous but disrespectful – or so I thought – to pretend that their enthusiasm was in any way the wrong answer to the question ‘Who should we help?’ My job then became how to make it something that I could sincerely support. That was not an easy process, but it was my process and not one that I felt I needed to act out in front of the class.

· There are many people affected by war and conflict in our community – and many different levels of impact. Our initial reaction to the choice of soldiers was to find a way to link it to the community. After all, only some of the students had family in the military, but we all lived in Boston. How does having a family member overseas affect families here at home? So we committed some time to researching supports available to military families here at home and figuring out if there was a way to start with soldiers but bring it back to something local. The common ground was that there are families who are sad about having someone overseas and how we could help them.

· We thought about other perspectives in the process. We talked to organizations that support veterans who knew more about supporting soldiers and their families than we did, presented the process so far, and asked them what would be most useful. (It’s important to make sure that we complete projects that make a difference to others in a way that’s genuine and real, and I didn’t want to make any assumptions about what would be best.) The retired soldier we spoke to said that actually families are relatively well-supported, but the group of people that he struggled to support the most were soldiers who were isolated overseas and without much of a family support structure here at home (e.g., older soldiers or soldiers without spouses or partners). So, we asked him to come to class and tell us about that. As fretful as I was about having a soldier in the school, the conversation was a tide-changer for us. Soldiers who have seen conflict are in many ways the most sincere advocates for peace and reconciliation. Our guest speaker was certainly in no way interested in glorifying war and helped put in real terms what it was like to be thousands of miles away, feeling lonely, looking for a friendly word from someone who remembers him.

· We stuck close to our shared interests. And so, students wound up doing what was in many ways a very conventional project – letters and pictures for soldiers – but it had real connections and it elicited a thank-you letter from people they met in person. The genuine appreciation from the guest speakers was actually eye-opening for me. They operate in a world I not only don’t know but don’t approve of all that much – and yet we had a shared interest in a meaningful experience.

I think about successful a Peacemaker Project as having three criteria: 1) it involves everyone, 2) it creates change, and 3) it’s do-able in the time we have. And everyone participated in our project at some level. Many people had their points of view challenged (if not changed) and the letters and pictures, according to what we heard from the guest speaker, made a real difference in the lives of soldiers from Massachusetts. And we did it all in six weeks. Our biggest imperative with Peacemaker Projects is to give children something in themselves that they can celebrate and to help them (and others) see them as peacemakers and thoughtful, engaged members of a community. It’s a simple goal, but it’s probably best that way.

Not sure if this is helpful or not, but I hope so. Feel free to let me know if you’ve got specific questions or thoughts.


Striking the right balance when it comes to guiding children through this process is often precarious, especially when we bump up against issues or questions as weighty as war and peace. At the very least, we owe it to children to be honest with them - and with ourselves - as we sift through the moving parts and thornier pieces.

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