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Police and Youth in El Salvador: Insight from Tanenbaum Peacemaker José “Chencho” Alas

Following is a guest article written by Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action, José “Chencho” Alas.


Historically, El Salvador has been a very violent country.

“Our work with community police and young people is ecological. To avoid the use of plastic bags, we made banana-leaf baskets, which was a real success. We gave each participant a moringa seed; we asked each to give it a name, proclaiming it a younger brother or sister and pledging to care for it and transplant it in an optimal place in their yard.”  – José Chencho Alas, Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action

In 1932, we had the massacre of 30,000 indigenous people at the hands of the army and the National Guard, ordered by General Maximiliano Martínez, who later became the country’s president. That began a 50-year military dictatorship characterized by successive massacres. In the 1980s, a war burst out that lasted 12 years with a death toll of 80,000. The Peace Accords were signed in January 1992 and immediately the United States began to repatriate Salvadoran gang members who were filling California prisons. This began the war in our streets, particularly among the young.

For the next 20 years the Salvadoran oligarchy was in power, which closed its eyes and allowed the growth of gangs for political reasons. Every time we had elections, they promised the people that if they voted for them, they would stop the violence. In 2009, representatives of the left, of the FMLN, won the elections, but by then the evil had been done. The gangs controlled territories of the country, imposed taxes on the population and killed and killed, not only civilians but also police officers, 58 last year.

It wasn’t until March 2016 and after demonstrations of political power by the famous gang MS-13 and by Barrio 18, that the different active forces of the country decided to put an end to crime by creating a plan called Secure El Salvador. Government, civil society, many churches and NGOs participate in this plan. The result is clear. Crime has dropped from 23 percent to 8.2 percent, but whether this can be sustained remains an open question. The plan is based on social prevention measures, youth education, creation of micro-enterprises and violent prosecution of crime.

It’s in this environment that we have begun to work, facilitating peace workshops for community police, youth and community leaders. We have chosen the department of Cabañas, El Salvador, one of the smallest departments, formed by nine municipalities. Its capital is the city of Sensuntepeque and it has a population of about 150 thousand people.

The concept of community policing is relatively new; little by little it’s spreading in Latin American countries. It takes as its starting point local communities’ needs and interests, both in the prevention of crime as well as in its prosecution and the well-rounded growth of its inhabitants. The mutual work is based on the trust generated by an environment of communication and support, not only in regards to denouncing and fighting crime and its perpetrators but also in the creation of projects of common benefit. The basic purpose is to achieve community coexistence in security, harmony and peace. The function performed by police officers is as peacemakers, a value that allows them to raise their own self-esteem.

Our workshops have three objectives:

1) to give to the participants a methodological tool that generates trust, positive relationships;
2) train in techniques of organization of groups and networks; and
3) work on projects that facilitate police interaction with communities and their respective organizations.

In regards to the methodological instrument, we are teaching the management of appreciative research (AI). The first phase of AI, the discovery of the existing positives at the individual level, in a community, organization or institution, is fundamental. It allows us to discover what’s already there; this becomes the basis for creating a powerful vision that, put into practice in projects, destines us to human growth and material well-being.

The creation of a vision and its projects cannot be achieved if we are not organized. Our objective is to facilitate workshops in each of the municipalities and then form a departmental network of community police, youth and community leaders.

In our first workshop on May 2, we had the participation of 17 middle-school students and leaders from various communities and 12 members of the community police. The project we chose was tree planting, a lovely experience that united us. We started with a nursery of moringa, a tree considered a marvel for its curative properties of 300 diseases, according to some university studies and popular lore. The cultivation of this tree, native to India, has extended to several tropical and semi-tropical regions of the planet. In India, people began to use its seeds and leaves more than 3,000 years ago.

We have the unconditional support of the departmental police commissioner and junior officers, as well as the support of the secondary education centers. We consider our work as something new, in the sense that we do not start by enumerating problems but by discovering and evaluating the positive that already exist in us and the others. Growing in the positive we resolve our problems. The police-youth-community leaders relationship is fundamental for peace.

Written by Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action, José “Chencho” Alas.

How Do I Ask That?

How Do I Ask That?
Sara Wicht

Overview: Encourage students to respectfully ask questions and make statements about other belief systems.

Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog responded to the question: “How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?”

In the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect, one participant asked, “How can I encourage students to respectfully ask questions about identities different from their own?”

It’s important to remind students that identities consist of various characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation, family composition, relationship status, religion/belief system and socioeconomic status. We use these characteristics to define ourselves, and others often use them to construct an impression of our identities. Yet, these impressions are also informed by what we don’t know and by our implicit biases.

Take, for example, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center measuring familiarity and warmness toward various religious and nonreligious groups in the United States. Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians received the “warmest” ratings. We know, however, that our classrooms also include children of Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faith, among others, as well as atheist children—children whose belief systems received “colder, more negative” ratings.

The Pew survey also reports that personally knowing someone from a religious group is linked to having more positive views of that group. The inverse is true, too. Not knowing someone can lead to more negative impressions and opinions.

These types of biases seep into classrooms, and it’s important to address them with students—through formal instruction and in moments when you observe students uncomfortably questioning or critiquing their peers’ belief systems. Consider the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Before class starts, you overhear a group of students talking about their weekend activities. One student enthusiastically shares that she had a great weekend at a church shut-in with her younger brother. Another student responds critically, “Weird! What would you do for a whole weekend at church?”

Scenario 2: In a unit on Mayan religion, you explain that native Mesoamerican people worshiped deities found in nature —the sun, rain and moon. A student in class shares that his family doesn’t go to church but are devoted to the Earth. The class laughs.

Scenario 3: Most of your students are Catholics or evangelical Christians. You have one Muslim student who wears a hijab. In class one day, a student asks her, “Wouldn’t you love it if you didn’t have to wear that?”

Asking questions about belief systems different from their own can be difficult for students. Insensitive questions or statements and defensive responses are neither entirely uncommon nor always intentional. But how might a teacher respond to the above scenarios?

Scenario 1: Tell students that, instead of leading with a judgmental word or statement, they can begin with, “That’s different from what I’ve ever done.” This type of reaction will help build sensitivity and respect and can prevent the questioned students from being on the defensive. Encourage students to follow up with, “Tell me more.”

Scenario 2: Deal with the laughter right away by stating that put-downs will not be tolerated in the classroom. Follow up with, “I think we can find many differences in our belief systems, but these differences add to the richness and diversity of our class.” Tell students that, instead of laughing, they could have asked, “What are some of your family’s traditions?” and “How do you celebrate the Earth?”

Scenario 3: Remind students that they can express their curiosity in a thoughtful and respectful manner. For example, they might say, “What’s it like to wear a hijab every day?” Or, “What is the meaning behind the hijab?” You can also encourage students to connect with their classmates by sharing similar experiences. For example a student might say, “I wear a St. Christopher medal around my neck because my family believes he protects us.”

Having in-class conversations about what constitutes respectful statements and questions can be a turning point for students. Not only do they offer students an opportunity to weigh in with any concerns or questions, but they also help build a respectful school climate—even when students find themselves in discussions about belief systems on their own.

Stay tuned for our third blog answering participants’ questions. It will address how to include nonreligious students in classroom discussions about religion.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

We Are All Human Beings

Despite the rockets and the airstrikes wreaking havoc in Israel and Gaza, Peacemaker in Action Yehezkel Landau’s organization Open House held its annual Summer Peace Camp. Seventy Arab and Jewish children gathered at the peace education center in Ramle, Israel did what all children should do during the summer – they had fun together.

While the latest war in Gaza further complicates hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a twelve-year-old camper relays her belief that there can one day be peace – by reminding us of what we too often forget in times of conflict:

“We are all human beings.”

To read more about this lesson in perseverance, click here for Open House’s July 2014 newsletter, Summer Peace Camp in the Midst of War.

Summer Peace Camp in the mixed Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salaam.

Summer Peace Camp in the mixed Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salaam.