Building peace across Chicagoland

Henry Cervantes works with Peace Exchange as a peacebuilder in Chicago and internationally, teaching people the skills of conflict resolution and nonviolence.
Davonte and Henry Cervantes (Peace Exchange)

Davonte had a quick answer to Henry Cervantes’s question, “When should the skills of de-escalation, of conflict resolution, be taught to young people?” Incarcerated in Cook County Jail for the fourth time, the 25-year-old North Lawndale resident responded, “I’d say as early as possible, I would say like the 6th, 7th, or 8th grades; in middle school.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, in a conversation with Cervantes later that day, echoed Davonte’s sentiment. Dart commented, “In the school setting, I think. It’s clearly something that’s very relevant; to teach children conflict resolution, teaching them about other ways to address anger. Things along those lines will apply all throughout their lives, whether they’re ever involved in crime or not.”

Cervantes, a community organizer, educator and activist, couldn’t agree more. Some of his earliest childhood memories are of domestic violence, and seeing, hearing, and avoiding gunfire in his Little Village neighborhood. The tragic loss of a sister when he was a teenager put Cervantes on a path to find peace, and to help others do the same.

North Lawndale Peace Builder Anthony Green teaching nonviolent communication (Peace Exchange)

After graduating from Farragut High School, Cervantes threw himself into anything to address violence. He participated in rallies for immigrant rights, held vigils for gunshot victims, and gathered local young people for anti-violence marches. As an instructor for the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, Henry began taking his message to students in Chicago’s Southwest Side schools.

In 2013, Cervantes was nominated by Mikva Challenge to participate in the inaugural class of the Peace Exchange’s Peace Builder leadership program. The yearlong program encompasses extensive training in the causes and effects of violence, a two-week international trip, and outreach to neighborhood youth. Henry’s class of five Peace Builders traveled to Thailand and Myanmar to study with peace leaders and activists in those countries. He returned to Chicago with a renewed commitment to nurturing peace through educating children and fostering youth leadership.

Now the manager for the Peace Exchange, Henry leads two programs: the Peace Builder leadership development initiative and Speaking Peace, a school-based program that helps elementary school students develop conflict resolution and nonviolent communication skills. Conducted at dozens of Chicago schools, Speaking Peace has trained over 2,500 children in peacemaking since its launch in early 2017.

This summer, Cervantes will take eight Peace Builders to Rwanda for two weeks. They’ll be accompanied by Carl Wilkens, the only American who refused to leave the country during the 1994 genocide and civil war that took the lives of nearly a million. Accompanied by documentary filmmakers from Free Spirit Media, the team will examine how Rwanda has recovered from such a horrific catastrophe. When they return, Henry and his Peace Builders will share what they’ve learned about healing and reconciliation with children and adults from their neighborhoods.

31-year-old Cervantes, who continues leading twice-weekly peace education workshops at the Cook County Jail, has been recognized for his work by the Illinois Holocaust Museum in its Upstander Gallery. An avid reader, Henry’s particularly fond of this quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.