Bringing a Culture of Peace & Nonviolence to NLCP

By Gerald Smith

My name is Gerald Smith and I am a Student Advocate and supervisor for the Peace Warriors program at North Lawndale College Prep (NLCP) High School. I am originally from Virgina, but moved to Chicago as an adult. I moved to Illinois with a degree in youth work, ready to serve the community. However, when I got here, traditional public schools wouldn’t hire me without an Illinois certificate. NLCP is a charter school and in 2009, they took a chance and hired me and I am so glad that they did.

I am passionate about restoring things that have been broken. Growing up, I was curious and clumsy – I was always wanted to fix things that I broke! As I grew, I felt that it became my mission to understand what’s broken in the human experience and help to restore it. That first year at NLCP, I handled detentions and in-school suspensions. But then leadership realized that I had skills to manage and support kids through the tough times they were having. In my role, I formed a program called, “Learning to Rise” to help students refrain from violence. 99% of students I had in that program never fought again for the rest of the year. Then, I was hired on staff full-time as a Student Advocate, where my role is to build student leadership capacity, build a culture of nonviolence, and address and attendance issues that arise.

It was around that time that I also heard about the Peace Warriors, a peace-building program at NLCP. They were an impactful group of students who have changed the culture at NLCP for the better. This group started ten years ago. A staff member named Tiffany Childress saw our school going through a troubling transition, with an uptick in fights – over 100 fights in a single school year. It’s not possible to learn anything when you’re scared of a fight! Everyone was worried about safety, but we didn’t want to turn into a school with security checkpoints or any other structure that makes a person feel like they are in prison. Instead, we decided to reform our school culture. To build that, Tiffany became trained in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,’s practices in nonviolence and started the Peace Warriors to implement those practices with 17 students. Those students began to push back on the darkness that we felt the previous year. We now have an average of 100 Peace Warriors each year.

The Peace Warriors do three things to enforce the NLCP Culture of Peace:

  1. Interrupt nonsense: Wherever there is conflict, where it’s in the classroom or on social media, Peace Warriors intervene
  2. Interject love and kindness into every situation: Many students some to school each day having faced tremendous hardships outside of our walls, from losing a loved one to being hurt themselves. When the Peace Warriors see someone who is struggling, they support them with kindness immediately.
  3. Act as an ambassador of peace: We want to spread our peaceful message. We do this by teaching others about nonviolence. We go to neighboring middle and high schools. Last summer, we received a grant to teach students peaceful practices around the city. We taught 900 students last summer!

The work of the Peace Warriors has been recognized nationally. It’s been truly amazing. We’ve spent the last decade incubating the students to be compassionate and caring individuals within the walls of our school. Two years ago, the students talked about opening it up to other students in other schools. Then, tragically, the shooting at Parkland High School happened. Our students have dealt with gun violence on a regular basis for most of their lives. But the Parkland shooting brought the issue of gun violence to the forefront of everyone’s minds in America. Arne Duncan heard about the Peace Warriors and offered to fly us to Florida to meet with the Parkland High School students. We arrived at one student’s house with a deep sense of empathy. Our students knew what they were experiencing, their pain. What was so magical was that the Parkland students were so empathetic with our students, who experience gun violence on a regular basis. The Parkland students offered to share their national platform with us and it took off. Some Peace Warriors went to Washington, DC and spoke at March for our Lives events. Media crews have come from all over the world – London, Germany, Japan – to see the magic of what our students do. We sincerely hope that our work impacts others.