FROM GLOBAL TO LOCAL COLUMN
Greenfield Recorder, October 2, 2023
For the second consecutive year, a peace and justice group in the West African country of Cameroon launched a creative program on nonviolence in a high school on International Peace Day, Sept. 21, 2023. Their ambitious goal, which involves engaging the Minister of Education for Youth, is ultimately to reach all high schools in this conflict-ridden country.
Since October 2017, Cameroon has been engulfed in what has been described as a civil war, rooted in the French and British colonization of different parts of the country, and the two languages imposed, French and English. The smaller English-speaking regions, with 20% of the population, have experienced discrimination and exclusion. Their yearlong protest in Cameroon in 2016 descended into the ongoing conflict.
The Cameroon high school project involves having each class of youth choose at the beginning of the school year from a set of words, such as solidarity, respect, peace, equality, etc. Once selected, it becomes the class theme and identity for the year.
Once launched, students have an in-depth discussion of their theme, including its challenges, personal examples of it, how to have it last among them throughout the school year. Slogans they develop are put on the classroom wall; and each week a student speaks to their classmates about their classroom theme.
At the end of year one in 2022, teachers reported seeing many positive changes in the reduction of violence in the classroom and playground, and students became ambassadors of peace at home and in their neighborhoods, as my peace and justice activist friend Guy Feugap told me.
Guy is a bilingual high school teacher in Cameroon, whom I met in 2018 at an African Women’s Feminist Peace Conference. Interviewing him, I learned that his father’s violence against his mother motivated him to join the Women’s International League for Peace and Justice (WILPF) chapter in Cameroon and become a peace and justice activist.
After I sent him a video last year featuring grade 8-12 students honored as Peacemakers here in Franklin County, he and other Cameroon WILPF peace activists adapted our Peacemakers annual program for high school students in his country.
Franklin County’s Peacemakers program was also, like Cameroon’s, catalyzed by violence: the 1999 shooting by two teen boys, killing 13 and wounding 20 at Columbine High School in Colorado and also concurrent local youth violence. It was the suggestion of the Rev. Stan Aksamit that the Interfaith Council of Franklin Country and the Traprock Peace Center work together to honor young people for their contributions to well-being, nonviolence and justice in their school and community.
The first Peacemaker Awards were given in the spring of 2000, and they have continued to be given each May in recognition of Franklin County youths nominated by teachers and mentors. This year we celebrated the 23rd annual Peacemaker Awards.
Each of the nominees receives a certificate commending them for their efforts and a small monetary award in an evening event. We have a chance not only to hear about them from those who nominated them, but also to hear from the young Peacemakers about their work for peace and social justice in their school or community, the values that motivate them, and their hopes for their future.
Over the years we have honored students for dealing with bullying in peaceful ways, speaking up for equal rights, helping alleviate homelessness, working against drug abuse, resolving conflict and facilitating problem-solving in difficult situations. Last year, older trained active bystanders in Pioneer and Gill-Montague high schools taught seventh graders the principles of being an active bystander.
The training, given by Quabbin Mediation in Orange, prompts participants to recognize those who create harmful situations, those who are the targets and those who witness it as bystanders. They discuss what inhibits bystanders who stay silent and encourage them to examine what’s needed to become active in addressing the harm in the situation — moral courage, inclusive caring, responsibility for others, reciprocity — and assist participants to discover their positive power.
Feedback at the Peacemakers award events: “This is the best night of the year,” said then-Rep. Denise Andrews to the 2013 student Peacemakers. “The reason why, is it gives me hope that we can have a world that works for everyone and it refreshes me personally. You are making a difference.”
Rep. Natalie Blais captured her aspirations for the young Peacemakers honored in the May 2021 awards evening: “You are our leaders,” she said, “You will bring us world peace one day.”
Please consider joining the small group of community members who are organizing and will orchestrate the annual 2024 Peacemakers event, to be held May 2024. If you are interested, contact Kate Mason at email@example.com.