Resolving conflicts peacefully

Harford Friends students use role-playing to arrive at nonviolent solutions

February 04, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Bernadette is ill and has a baby.

She is at risk of losing land that her family has farmed in a village in Rwanda since 1962. She is surviving with the help of neighbors and government aid. She needs the land to survive.

Frederic also is a villager. He possesses an ownership document for the land Bernadette is trying to keep. He needs the land to have a place to graze his large herd of cattle.

A group of other villagers must figure out who will receive the land, where Frederic will graze his cattle and who gets to make the decision on who gets what.

Donning African garb, eight students at Harford Friends School worked to use negotiation rather than violence to resolve the land dispute between the villagers. The students all stated their problem and how they would solve it.

"We are here to listen to everyone's concerns," said Rachel Rosenberg, 12, of Perryville, who was playing Frederic. "And to do that, we have to listen and try to understand the needs of others before we will get anywhere in our negotiations."

The role-playing that concluded on a recent afternoon was part of an initiative called Workable Peace, a two-week project aimed at teaching the students how to resolve conflicts.

"We offered this program this year because we want our students to understand the sources for conflict and learn the skills they need to deal with any conflict situation," said Jonathan Huxtable, headmaster of the school. "Whether it's a fight, a group situation or a national conflict, we want the students to be able to resolve it without resorting to violence."

The program was developed by the Consensus Building Institute - a nonprofit established in Cambridge, Mass., in 1993 - that works to improve conflict resolution.

The students received a packet that includes background information on the village and the problems at hand. They study the history of the people and receive confidential instructions on how to argue their character's point of view. They begin by writing down the problems as they see them and the desired solution.

The students also studied Africa and its culture in social studies.

"It's one thing to read about Africa and the problems the people face there," said James Pickard, who teaches humanities at the Darlington school. "But it's an entirely different thing to become a person living in Africa and see the problem through his or her eyes. It helps make their problems more relevant and important."

The program was an eye-opener for Clairellen Hurwitz.

"I learned how to negotiate, which is not something that I get to do on a regular basis," the 13-year-old Rising Sun resident said.

When the students started the program, most of them had only a rudimentary knowledge of Africa, Pickard said.

"Now they are definitely more interested in Africa and the people who live there," he said. "They really hone in on the problems the people face and the culture they live in. They are living it rather than hearing about it."

The lessons went well beyond the African culture, said Sarah Waldron.

"I've learned that even if you want something really bad, sometimes it just won't work out the way you want it to," said the 12-year-old Havre de Grace resident. "We have to think about others, but ourselves first, because if we aren't taken care of, we can't take care of other people. We have to have food before we can share food."

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