Amid the violence in low-income Chicago neighborhoods such as Little Village/La Villita, a Latino is teaching young people in several Catholic schools to be the bearers of a message of peace.
Henry Cervantes, who grew up in the Windy City, is a Program Trainer with Marquette University’s Center for Peacemaking.
For the past two years, the program has been under way in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, where Cervantes is teaching classes at three Catholic schools.
Peace Works was created in 1997 by theology professor Michael Duffey and in 2007 a subsidy from Bright Futures Initiatives allowed the program to be expanded to about 25 public schools and to the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Milwaukee area.
The aim of the program, Cervantes explained, is to reduce violence by teaching young people to manage conflicts and make each one of them a peace messenger.
“We teach the young people that conflicts in and of themselves are not bad,” he said. “The bad thing is how we manage a conflict.”
Little Village is a witness to the immense damage in lost lives done by violence.
Outside St. Agnes of Bohemia church is a memorial to the young people - with the names of about 150 minors in Little Village - who have lost their lives in recent years to violence.
In Room 501 at St. Agnes school, Cervantes draws a face on the blackboard and divides it into positive and negatives halves.
Then, he asks the class of about 20 sixth-graders to mention positive and negative emotions.
“All the world’s problems begin here,” said Cervantes, pointing to the brain of the drawing he placed on the blackboard. “The emotions are like seeds in our mind. If someone ends up in jail it’s because he had a negative seed or emotion that grew out of control.”
Schools in Milwaukee, where Marquette is located, that have implemented the Peace Works program have seen a reduction in criminal behavior, the university says.
In Pilsen and Little Village, said Cervantes, both the teachers and the parents are involved in this program that seeks to transform young people into people of peace.
“Many of the things that students are learning in class, they are putting into practice at home,” said Cervantes.
Lesson one, he said, is that violence does not resolve anything.
“We teach the students that none of that works and that what we want to do is to use our reasoning ability,” he said.
And although the Catholic schools are not problem areas and foci of violence, Cervantes said that they are thinking about expanding Peace Works to the public schools where violence is a great concern.
Patrick Kennelly, the co-director of the Center for Peacemaking, told Efe that Marquette is pleased with the coming of the program to Little Village, after it was implemented in Pilsen the year before.
“What we’re seeing is that young people are taking control of their lives and saying that violence isn’t acceptable,” Kennelly said in a telephone interview.