by Jorrell Watkins
From 2004 to 2007 I was a student at Albert H. Hill Middle School. The school was strange to me. The school building itself did not look like it was meant for black and brown kids; it seemed to be there just to contain us until we made sense of our awkwardness and changing selves. The building was ancient and fortress-like with bleak, sandy, colored bricks and European styled sculptures and reliefs. Students turned on one another. I was bullied because of how I looked, dressed and acted. When students had enough of bullying me they would bully someone else. And I, to save some social standing, would join them. It seemed everyone was trying to find someone to put down in order to suppress their own insecurities and uncertainties. The school seemed lawless. Fights occurred spontaneously throughout the week. There was no sense of peace, civility or community.
These memories flooded back to me when Santa Sorenson, the Conflict Resolution Program Coordinator at RPEC, approached me last summer about launching a youth conflict resolution program at Albert Hill. Santa had asked Ram Bhagat, the 2016 RPEC Peacemaker of the Year, and Rebecca Keel, one of RPEC’s lead facilitators, to join this initiative; I would complete the team. I saw our program at Albert Hill as an opportunity to re-examine my experience there, and most importantly to train and guide youth in making the school (and themselves) more peaceful, nonviolent and socially just. With grant funding from the Schaberg and Robins Foundations and the hard work of Santa, Adria Scharf, and many others, we planned for a launch in the fall.
In early September, we held presentations to introduce and invite students to apply to become youth peace leaders. Santa, Ram, Rebecca, Adria and I hauled stacks of fliers, along with several drums to Albert Hill. We arrived to an empty auditorium, excited and eager to engage with the 8th grade class.
I felt nauseated waiting for our slot during the assembly. I saw teachers who taught me English and Latin when I was twelve. I wanted to avoid making eye contact with them. I trailed off in adolescent thoughts. Ram was trying to get rhythmically challenged youth to clap several distinct tones. Then Rebecca delivered a concise and thorough overview of our program. Meanwhile, I was remembering Mrs. Lawson’s class and my recitation of Invictus, by William Ernest Henry, and then Santa tapped my shoulder.
I was there as an alum of the Richmond Youth Peace Project (RYPP) and a trained CR facilitator. I told them, “I taught in Massachusetts” and, “I graduated from college in 2015.” I left them with, “in 2007 I graduated from Albert H. Hill Middle School” and, “now, ten years later, I have come back here to mentor a group of talented, motivated, 8th graders in working towards making Albert Hill a more peaceful, and socially just community.”
I remember the immense sense of pride and relief in being able to share a portion of my story to the 8th graders. I felt excited and anxious about returning to Albert Hill as a mentor. Personally, doing this work at Albert Hill meant breaking through the discomforts I felt as a young teen and realizing the transformation I have made now as an adult. It was my time in RYPP that shaped me into the educator and artist I now am. I firmly believed that if RPEC’s youth program could be transformative for me, it certainly could be for the youth at Albert Hill.
Recruiting youth to join our program was harder than we imagined. Many took applications but fewer of them returned. The hundreds of flyers Jelani Drew, the Peace Center’s MSW Intern and CR facilitator, had printed were depleted by the end of the week. As a team we did all we could to engage the youth; the only thing left to do was to wait. By October we had a group of about a dozen youth committed to undergoing the RYPP training.
Our early circles were full of uncertainty, curiosity and eagerness. Although we all were experienced facilitators we still were figuring everything out. Rebecca and I met regularly for hours planning the workshops we would use to train our Youth Peace Leaders. Our plan was to train these leaders in conflict resolution skills, which they would then share with their schoolmates.
From October to February we covered empathy, consent, team building, emotion regulation, anger management, diffusing conflicts, mindful breathing, diffusing and resolving conflicts, active listening, discussions on race, gender and identity, and how to facilitate CR workshops. By the time our Peace Leaders began their workshop series for 7th graders, our team had already facilitated workshops at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, and the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, volunteered for the MLK Day Gun Violence Vigil at Capitol Square, and the Educoncert, and completed over 40 hours of training.
Since February, the Albert Hill Youth Peace Leaders have co-facilitated nearly hour-long workshops for half of the seventh grade. They are so confident, brave, and generous with the energy they give to us and their peers. Often, Rebecca and I are awed at how they lead activities with such gusto and fervor (to the point we sometimes have to interject for time’s sake). I see how much they have grown in the small moments when they listen empathetically to each other speaking during gatherings, and when they ask simple questions like, “how are you feeling?”
It still is too early to know what long-term impact this program will have with the 7th graders. However, it is undeniable and heart-melting to see how our small team of 8th graders have transformed into the youth peace leaders they are now.
Special Thanks to Chris Clark of Communities in Schools (CIS) for all his organizing and support of our work at RPEC. He has been a great asset, and a friend to us during our time at Albert Hill. We would not have had as much success without him on our side. Thanks, too, to Principal Sears and Ms. Phylis Wilson.