The week before Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, Joshua Saleem, AFSC St. Louis Program Director, led discussions on using nonviolence as a strategy for social change. One discussion began by asking students at Shearwater Academy for their perception of nonviolence.

“First, I gave them a definition of nonviolence and then asked them to write down the first word that came to mind when they heard the word ‘nonviolence’,” said Joshua. “As you can imagine, the responses were varied, and included words like ‘freedom’ and ‘community;’ but the word ‘peace’ made up most of the responses.” Joshua said that he expected this given the definition given at the beginning of class. One student’s response, however, stuck with him.

“A newer student wrote down ‘Never.’ I asked him to elaborate, and he said, ‘It’s never going to happen. Nonviolence will never work, man. Not today.’” The room was quickly split between students who agreed with the young man and students who thought nonviolence could work to bring peace in today’s society. Believing that it can work is why AFSC’s St. Louis Peacebuilding Program is partnering with this and two other local high schools in the area.

Shearwater is a dropout recovery high school in North St. Louis city, just half a mile from AFSC’s office. Most of the students there have dropped out of the traditional school setting for a number of reasons including teen pregnancy, involvement with the juvenile justice system, and homelessness.

“From birth up to now, they’ve been immersed in violence and have come to see it as the best if not the only way to resolve conflict,” Joshua says. “I’m offering a different perspective.”

Once a week students attend workshops to build their interpersonal relationship skills and their knowledge of conflict resolution.  Later in the year they move on to think critically about the connection of violence to social injustice. To end the year they will develop a project that will address an injustice in their school or community.

“Through this process I hope students will be equipped to be peacemakers in their interactions with others and in their neighborhoods,” Joshua says.

As the tone rang signaling the end of class, the room was still divided on nonviolence. The discussion touched on a number of topics over the hour including the Newtown school shootings and gun control. After class Joshua approached the young man who wrote “Never” on his piece of paper. They shook hands and Joshua said he appreciated his participation in the class.

“I’m not going to convince them with words that nonviolence works,” Joshua says. “Success today was planting the seed that it could.”