Respect: An antidote to violence

I used to teach second grade at an inner city elementary school in Vallejo, California. I was teaching there when the riots occurred in Los Angeles in response to the initial verdict acquitting four police officers who had beaten Rodney King.  That morning, I interrupted the usual routine to invite the students to discuss what was happening.  Many of my students, who were mostly of African, Filipino, Mexican, and East Indian descent, told story after story of their own experiences of racism. One girl told about regularly going into a store and being watched and spoken to rudely by the shopkeeper. It was disheartening – all these stories of these sweet 7-year olds experiencing regular hostile treatment in their own neighborhoods.

As a white person, I did not experience the hostility my students did growing up.  But I didn’t feel fully accepted and loved without qualification by a whole community until I was an adult.  When I first attended Omaha Friends Meeting and Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), they loved me before they knew me.  There was no sense that I had ‘earned’ their affection; they loved me just for being among them.  While there were rules and standards, not following them wouldn’t mean the love would end. 

My experience, I know, was not everyone’s.  (I have a friend of color who did not experience the meeting in the same way.) But within this community, I was accepted as a peer, not considered ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ anyone in the community.  Knowing that the love would be there no matter what I did shifted how I carried myself.

Thinking back to my second-graders, I wondered how do you create spaces of respect within societal norms that are hostile to many? What is the impact of repeated experiences of disrespect, and what experiences counteract negative messages?

Dr. Joy DeGruy did an extensive study a few years ago focused on the impact of experiences of respect or disrespect for which she developed the African American Male Youth Respect Scale.  For the study, she interviewed 200 African American males (100 incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities, 100 living in the community) between the ages of 14 and 19 to understand the ways in which their experiences of respect or disrespect influenced whether they became violent or not.  She found that “the respect that African American youth feel promotes psychological wellness and social identity; conversely, a lack of respect compromises their identities and is viewed as a threat to safety” and that there was a strong correlation between experiences of being disrespected and later acts of violence.  Dr. DeGruy defines respect as ‘to regard twice, to give a second look.’ 

Her findings bring additional questions.  What does being habitually disregarded do to any of us?  What happens when we are truly seen and recognized?

The kind of peacemaking AFSC does begins out of this understanding, out of a sense that there is ‘that of God in everyone.’ No one should be discounted; everyone deserves a second look, a second chance.

The first week I was working for the Service Committee, I visited the office in Baltimore. There’s amazing work coming out of that region (take a look here). Many of their programs acknowledge the importance of respect, especially to those who may not have experienced it.  And their work reaches out to offer respect and recognition of each individual.   

AFSC staff Domnique Stevenson runs the Friend of a Friend program, designed by the participants, in four prisons in Maryland.  She says, “The men were concerned about the increase in violence between gangs/street organizations.  They recognized that young men were involved in those organizations because they were seeking a sense of family and/or community. We discussed the problems as the men saw them and brainstormed the range of solutions.  They settled on a mentoring model because it allowed them to recreate family and community.” 

Domnique had the mentors envision their younger partners (some incarcerated and treated as adults at only fourteen), write profiles, and consider their needs inside of prison and after release. The program focuses on conflict resolution, problem-solving and building positive relationships.  There are sessions on parenting, storytelling, managing anger, gender roles, and how individual experiences parallel to our unfairly structured society.

While it’s clear that Domnique was instrumental in the development of this program (the prisoners often aren’t allowed to meet unless she is on site), what’s distinctive is her role as the facilitator for the exchange of wisdom and respect among the participants.  The older prisoners are inspired to offer those younger what they may not have had: a sense of belonging, respect and family. 

Domnique says, “The most significant impact has been that many of the men feel that they belong to a special family of people who are trying to change their worlds.”  Often those in the program become peacemakers in the prison, practicing nonviolence to resolve conflicts and interrupt fights. Domnique notes, “We have situations where the mentors simply intervene. Two mentors who are very adept at dealing with conflicts stopped a mentee from attacking someone because they paid attention to this individual’s body language. They knew that something was wrong and intervened, preventing a potentially serious situation. These are skills that they have developed from years of experience in that environment, and skills that they share with others, though not every prisoner is capable of that kind of intervention.”

Domnique and those she serves in the Friend of a Friend program understand deeply that respect can be an antidote to violence.

“Educate and instruct our young folks,

who need social and political tutoring most.

Lecture them on unity,

instill and renew in them a sense of dignity.”

– Gerald ‘Soldier’ Dent, 2008, a designer of the Friend of a Friend program

In our day-to-day lives, we would do well to remember that respect is due to all whom we encounter.  Such actions can change the atmosphere and help to develop that warm space and acceptance I found long ago in Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative).  What a blessing that was for me.  And what a blessed space the Friend of a Friend men have found through Domnique and AFSC’s work.