‘Begin with the children’ — How one Chicago native spreads peace from schools to jails

Using a curriculum he created, Henry Cervantes and his team have taught nonviolence to thousands of students and incarcerated young men in Chicago.
Henry with Speaking Peace students. (Peace Builders/Henry Cervantes)

Question: What do Rwanda, Stateville Correctional Center, the Cook County Jail, and elementary schools across Chicago have in common? Answer: Henry Cervantes. 

A Little Village native — his license plate references “The Village” —Cervantes is a 32-year-old community organizer, activist and peacemaker. As program manager for Holy Family Ministries’ Peace Exchange, he leads two programs: 1) the Peace Builder leadership development program and 2) Speaking Peace, a child-centered peace education program.

In the summer of 2019, Cervantes spent two weeks in Rwanda with seven youth leaders-in-training — called Peace Builders — and three filmmakers from Free Spirit Media. Timed to coincide with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the trip provided the West Side and South Side teens with a series of transformative experiences. 

Kigali Peace School. (Peace Builders/Henry Cervantes)

Henry and his Peace Builders visited memorials to the one million people killed in 100 days, underwent peace training at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Peace School, engaged in conversations with survivors and perpetrators, and were guests of the Rwandan government at its official July 4 ceremony commemorating the end of the genocide. They spent two nights in the homes of locals, hiked through the hills outside Kigali, and went on a daylong safari in Akagera National Park. 

The Free Spirit Media-produced documentary “Amahoro | The Peace Exchange in Rwanda” is a centerpiece of the Peace Exchange’s four-part school-based Speaking Peace program. The program’s curriculum, designed by Cervantes, equips students in grades 5-8 with tools to peacefully avoid and resolve conflicts. A process for nonviolent communication that Cervantes encountered in a trip to India is one of the principle skills he and his instructors teach. Since the highly-regarded program’s launch in early 2017, Cervantes and his team have visited 40 Chicago public, charter and private schools and taught the program to over 4,000 students. Funding from parent North Lawndale-based Holy Family Ministries allows the program to be conducted at no charge to host schools. 

“Our instructors and students have a lot of fun! Speaking Peace uses art, storytelling, role-playing, and documentary films to engage students,” Cervantes said. “We’re confident that we’re making a difference. Over 80 percent of students comment in exit surveys that they’ve learned skills that will help them peacefully resolve conflicts.”

Cook County Jail. (Peace Builders/Henry Cervantes)

Cervantes is a weekly visitor at the Cook County Jail where he teaches peace and nonviolence to incarcerated young men as part of Sheriff Tom Dart’s Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort, or SAVE, program. He recently wrapped up a semester-long stint as an adjunct professor for North Park Theological Seminary in its master’s degree program at maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center. 

Henry’s path to peacemaker began as a self-described “angry little boy” in a household headed by an abusive stepfather. The suicide of a younger sister when Cervantes was a high school junior prompted him to renounce violence. In this four-minute video, Cervantes describes his path to peace.

Xochitl-Quetzal Danza Azteca. (Peace Builders/Henry Cervantes)

A husband and father, Henry also leads Xochitl-Quetzal Danza Azteca. The group, which performs indigenous dances in traditional regalia, is well known throughout Chicago. 

Cervantes and his peace work are featured in the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Goodman Upstander Center. He’s one of 40 human rights champions profiled in the exhibit. 

A voracious reader, Henry frequently quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. One of his favorites is from 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.