the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Photo of Mary Yoder HolsoppleA culture of peace

by Mary Yoder Holsopple, director of the Peace and Justice Collaborative with Rachel Lapp

When working as a social worker in a local middle school, I met Carmen and Kim. Both had been suspended for a couple days for fighting, but it was clear the clash was not finished; they were likely to come to blows again. I talked with each separately and was not surprised when they both said the same thing: "I don't know what the fight was about. But if she wants to fight me, I'll fight. I'm not a wimp."

Then we all met together. After talking through what led to the fight, they started laughing - neither of them knew! When we got to the point of thinking about how to prevent this from happening again, it suddenly got very complicated for Kim and Carmen. They readily admitted they could reconcile, however, both also said it would be difficult for them to tell their friends that all is well between them. It would have a major impact on their street reputations.

For 10 years, I lived in war zones in Africa. I worked in refugee camps distributing food and clothing, towels and school kits. I watched dedicated teachers in barren camps attempt to teach students to read and write.

I heard stories of the horror of losing family members and homes during guerrilla raids. I visited hospitals filled with victims of war.

I assisted children with bloated tummies, starving though surrounded by fertile soil that could yield abundant food crops if not for the landmines and guerrilla groups that made it impossible to farm for survival.

I listened to children tell of becoming soldiers - kidnapped by guerrilla groups, made to carry looted supplies, taught to maim and murder, taken back to their villages and even forced to kill their own family members.

As a person of compassion, I vacillated between righteous anger and despair. I redoubled my efforts to help the people who were working to bring the war to an end. I supported negotiators and mediators with money, training and other assistance as necessary. Often all I could do was listen. I became convinced that we well-meaning international helpers must try as hard to prevent war as to assist innocent victims of war.

When I returned to the U.S. in 1996, I knew I would face reverse culture shock, but I was not prepared for the amount of violent images everywhere - television, movie theaters and video games all had violent content. Magazines and newspapers were filled with more news of violence in our community and country.

Somehow, I had not anticipated the "meanness" I found in my own culture. We say things that dehumanize. We are selfish and greedy (note how frequently we resort to suing each other). We are competitive to the extreme. What a shock! An even greater shock came when I made this observation to my friends. Well-educated people looked at me with quizzical faces asking, "What do you mean?"

I use the frog analogy: If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out and save itself. If you put that same frog into a pot of cool water and slowly turn up the heat it will boil to death without realizing the rise in temperature. Perhaps violence in our society is like the frog - the temperature is increasing, but slowly, so we are unaware of what is happening around us.
Working at peace-building requires a commitment and an understanding of the complexity of our culture and community and working at basic societal needs as a precursor to rebuilding relationships and reconciliation.

The Peace and Justice Collaborative is in the process of designing a model for working at local peace building incorporating these elements. What would happen if every student graduating from Goshen College, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Andrews University had an understanding of this model and experience in local peace building? No matter what their profession or where they live, alumni are - and can be - peace builders. PJC also is offering a series of workshops (see column at right) designed to provide practical skills for people to improve their own relationships as well as affect change in how people relate in various settings.
Let me tell you about James. He is one of those kids who often got in trouble at school because he could not contain his anger. But like many other kids who appear to be tough, he really is a gentle soul. I took James to the doctor one day and, while driving home, he gave me some friendly advice about certain sections of town to avoid. We talked about where he grew up and how he learned to survive in his neighborhood in ways that are not in line with behaviors expected at school. James has difficulty being a chameleon; he knows how to act on the streets, but he can't change his mindset when he comes to school.

We often point our fingers at the schools and say, "Do something." But schools do not operate in a vacuum. Violence is a community problem: what happens in the community spills over into the school; what happens at school spills over into the community. The surgeon general, in a report on youth violence, says that children are safer at school than at home and in the community, despite highly publicized incidents of school shootings across the country.

The collaborative will pilot a project at a local middle school next year, working with select, diverse groups of students to overcome prejudice, stereotyping, hate crimes and other acts of violence related to individual or group identity. We will look at these issues through the lens of media literacy, exploring media both as a positive tool for social change and negative reinforcer of stereotypes. The sessions are designed to promote awareness and appreciation of differences, cooperative learning, perspective taking and empathy building - inclusion and embracing of the other, regardless of ethnic identity or social class.

We have to teach children how to get along with one another, particularly with people with whom they disagree. This builds resiliency in children. Resilient children are less prone to violence. Creating awareness, while leaving room to discuss violence itself, can mean pointing out personal flash points and de-escalation techniques in order to encourage prevention. Schools also need to have programs to identify the behaviors of bullies while also examining what makes some kids targets of bullying, as well as address the role of bystanders.

The most critical risk factor for violence for our children is the behavior of their peers. A 12-year-old girl once sat in my office sobbing. "Mrs. Holsopple," she said, "everyone is telling me I have to give up my gang friends. I can't do that! They are the only family I have. They are the ones who support and protect me. They love me and will always accept me no matter what I do." In her complicated world, she is right - the gang is her family.

It is essential that children feel loved and secure. They need to experience a sense of belonging, and will find it somewhere. Are we prepared to rise to the challenge of helping them find it in socially appropriate ways? If children grow up feeling insecure about their place in a family and community, and also hear messages of violence that show them that force is the only way of resolving problems, how will they grow to be mature adults able to handle family, workplace and community conflict?

Consider Carmen and Kim. They were able to work out their differences in a peaceful manner. Over the school year, they even became friends. I saw them occasionally on the fringes of fights, but not as the main players. Sometimes that is as much success as one can expect.

James succeeded in completing eighth grade at an alternative middle school. He is managing to stay "clean" - no small feat, as a number of extended family members with whom he lives were incarcerated for theft or drug dealing.

The October issue of the National Education Association's magazine reported that Deerfield Run Elementary School in Prince George County, Md., saw student suspension rates drop by 65 percent over the past year. Why? A program, "Second Step," was introduced to teach kids empathy, impulse control and anger management. Taught in all classrooms as part of the regular curriculum, parents were also invited to a workshop to reinforce those skills at home - a wonderful example of a school and parents working together to stop violence before it boils.

We want for our children and our communities a culture of peace. This is not the work of individuals, but the work of humanity for its own future.

Mary can be contacted at The Surgeon General's report on Youth Violence can be found at