Discovering Nonviolent Chicago

For the past 17 years, incoming first-year students at DePaul University in Chicago have launched their college careers with a class named “Discover Chicago.”  Taking its identity as an urban university seriously, DePaul encourages its students to plunge into this sprawling and diverse city by offering scores of Discover courses—everything from “Chicago Theatre” to “Labor History of Chicago,” “Bridges of Chicago” to “Immigrant Youth in Chicago,” “Chicago and Jazz” to “Chicago: Urban Farm or Food Desert?”

While Discover Chicago is a class that meets weekly during the fall term, it kicks off with an intensive Immersion Week, where students traverse the city by public transportation and begin to get engaged.

Joyana Jacoby Dvorak, Lorena Shkurti and I are team-teaching “Nonviolent Chicago” this quarter. When I mention the name of this class to most people, they often react with startled laughter: “Chicago… nonviolent?” Violence is pervasive in this city—I recently wrote about a dimension of this reality on this site—but there is a growing web of programs and organizations that is slowly forming a culture of nonviolent options. By some counts, as many as 300 peace and nonviolence organizations are at work in this city.

In their first week in college, twenty-two students got to know seven of these organizations on Chicago’s South, West and North Sides: Voices for Creative Nonviolence; the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation; the White Rose and Su Casa Catholic Workers; the South Austin Coalition; The Peace Corner; and the Vincent and Louise House on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus.

During this jammed week together we developed a deep appreciation for the commitment and passion that these often quite different entities share for making things whole.

We were riveted, for example, by Precious Blood’s restorative justice program that uses the peace circle process to bring victims of violence and perpetrators together in the South Side’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. A person convicted of killing a man while driving drunk 10 years before spent nearly two days in a peace circle here with the surviving family members. This experience of safe truth-telling, while painful, opened the door to healing and transformation for the participants. Similarly, the center uses this process with youth in the area. Precious Blood is part of a pilot project with the Inglewood neighborhood courts that refer cases to it for victim-offender reconciliation rather than the traditional criminal justice process of conviction and incarceration. The power of Precious Blood’s work was especially driven home to us by the stories two young people shared with us whose own lives have been changed by immersing themselves in this challenging and powerful work.

The Peace Corner, in the South Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, is also dedicated to offering youth an alternative to violence. Stung by dramatic job losses over the past several decades—unemployment stands at 70 percent—South Austin is wracked by severe poverty and inequality. The Peace Corner is open to all, including those with criminal records who have no other place to turn, and members of different gangs that, outside this space, are often at war. Here they can hang out, use the computers, work on homework, and play sports.

In the same neighborhood, the South Austin Coalition organized peace brigades (patterned on organizer Elce Redmond’s experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq and other parts of the world) for preventing youth violence before it starts. The coalition is also heavily involved in building campaigns to get energy assistance during Chicago’s fierce summers and winters to Austin’s low-income residence and to demand job creation. Redmond also described a campaign to deal with the massive potholes in the area. When the city over and over again failed to address the problem, members of the coalition decided to fill the potholes themselves. The action garnered widespread media attention—and the city was out the next day to finish the job.

We were also deeply moved by the White Rose Catholic Worker, eight young people living together who are actively involved in nonviolent resistance (including Witness Against Torture and work along the US-Mexico border), hospitality, and sustainable living, including organic farming, a compost toilet, and a brood of chickens in the backyard.

Another highlight was our afternoon with Kathy Kelly and company at Voices for Creative Nonviolence, which has focused on peace and justice in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were mesmerized both by her many stories of compassionate nonviolent action and the commitment of the group to simple living. Toward the end of our session, we were invited to move into circles and participate in a “pieces of the truth” exercise, where every person played six conflicting roles on the US war in Afghanistan and then debriefed the experience of understanding more clearly a range perspectives, even if they are not one’s own.

Over the course of a week we got a taste of a few projects, organizations and movements trying to build a more nonviolent Chicago and a more nonviolent world. Not only did it sharpen our own awareness of nonviolent options, it also nudged us to suspect that a culture of nonviolent change is being built right in front of us—all we need to do is actually open our eyes.

Inspired by this glimpse of Nonviolent Chicago, I wonder this: what if we developed a project called “Nonviolent Earth” which, through websites, blogs, crowdsourcing and all our old-fashioned means of communicating (including speaking face to face!) we began to identify the emerging (if often still unnoticed) infrastructure of a nonviolent world? For example, within a Nonviolent Earth site each continent, nation, region, state, province, city could be identified as “nonviolent.” (So, for example, Nonviolent Chicago would be nested in Nonviolent Illinois, Nonviolent US, and Nonviolent North America.)

People and organizations everywhere could fill in the information (and real-time videos, reports, and tweets). Slowly, or not so slowly, we would be treated to a much more comprehensive understanding of what exists and what the gaps are. Even more importantly, we would find our allies and (strengthening existing networks and sites working in this direction, like Waging Nonviolence) connect the dots even more clearly to build movements for change the planet sorely needs.

Just a thought, as I savor the powerful, invisible network of agents of change we experienced this week—and that exists all around this wounded and sacred world.

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