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Star Tribune - The way to peace? Start with children

posted Nov 12, 2014, 6:32 PM by Dan Thiede
Article by: Katy Read, Star Tribune. Updated: November 12, 2014 at 10:42am.

World Citizen aims to settle global conflicts by starting locally, with the children.

OK, so elementary schoolchildren probably can’t talk ISIS out of committing acts of violence, or persuade Israelis and Palestinians to forget their differences.

But the concept behind St. Paul-based Word Citizen (651-695-2587, www.peacesites.org) is that settling enormous global conflicts has to start somewhere. Founded in 1972, the organization’s goal is to work toward a more peaceful world by teaching people, especially children, to value peace and to interact with others in peaceful ways.

“The idea is to create the atmosphere or environment for peace,” said Martha Roberts, World Citizen’s president. “If you want real peace in the world, you have to start with the children.”

At this point, the biggest threats to peace the kids face may be bullying on the playground or an argument between classmates. But someday these same kids may be in Congress voting on a declaration of war, or in the Oval Office with a finger hovering over that notorious red button.

“You never know where each one of these children will end up,” said Executive Director Kathy Millington. “They may have an amazing, important, worldwide role.”

World Citizen creates “peace sites” in schools, places of worship, businesses and even homes. The number has grown to include 700 sites around the world, about 250 of them in Minnesota. Members commit themselves to following the organization’s Five Peace Actions: Seek peace within yourself and others. Reach out in service. Protect the environment. Respect diversity. Be a responsible citizen of the world.

“People sometimes say, ‘Why bother, given the situation in the world, as bad as it is?’” Roberts said. “I say, well, why not?”

World Citizen also provides training to teachers and other interested participants on ways to promote peace at their sites.

At Cowern Elementary School in North St. Paul, one of the peace sites, teachers organize “peace groups” of 15 to 20 kids. Groups devise projects that help others, including making place mats for Meals on Wheels, designing cards for soldiers overseas, crafting 500 pairs of fleece flip flops for children in an orphanage in Haiti.

Since Cowern joined the World Citizen program, staff members have noticed students acting more respectfully toward one another. Teacher Cindy Piersdorf, who has led the school’s efforts, has noticed a marked change in the kids’ behavior.

“I hate to use the phrase ‘one big happy family,’ but [the students] care about each other,” she said. “They’re so kind and respectful to each other. Never do we have to ask the older children to help the younger children – it just kind of happens.”

Principal Sonya Czerepak said substitute teachers have remarked on the peaceful atmosphere in the building. “We hear it all the time.”

Kids who witness another student acting like a bully are taught to speak up and tell the other kid to stop, and to tell to an adult about it. The students learn that other kids aren’t inherently “bullies” – it’s the behavior that’s the problem, not the person.

“I’m not saying we’re never going to have a bullying situation,” Piersdorf said. “But we can handle these situations.”

Piersdorf said she and other teachers have benefited from sharing ideas at World Citizens’ workshops.

“We always take something back that another school said they’ve done,” she said. “It’s kind of like a little fire gets lit under us and we say, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got to start doing this and this and this.’”

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