Phillip G. Finch, former board member of the education committee in the Dekalb County chapter of 100 Black Men. Photo by Noah Washington/The Atlanta Voice

SEOUL, South Korea – HWPL’s World Peace Summit had a particular local focus when the Atlanta Conflict Resolution Roundtable discussion took place earlier this week. The roundtable discussion was hosted by the International Law Department of HWPL which is located in Georgia. The discussion was moderated by General Director of International Law of the HWPL Atlanta branch, Elizabeth Doyne. Participants gathered to explore the multifaceted aspects of conflict resolution and the promotion of peace in the state, primarily through peace education and the role of the media.

The roundtable discussion invited several representatives from the Atlanta and metro Atlanta areas to take part in the discussion, including Victoria X. Vasquez, General director of HWPL peace education, Dr. Roger Harris, a former school superintendent and current co-chair of the education committee for the Dekalb County Chapter of 100 Black Men, Phillip G. Finch, former board member of the education committee in the Dekalb County chapter of 100 Black Men and Shuna Malcolm, founder of “Enough is Enough,” a youth program aimed at ending gun violence among youth.

Each participant brought a unique perspective to the discussion with different prompts to help guide the session, demonstrating the diverse ways in which individuals can contribute to peacebuilding efforts with their own shared goals and strategies. Harris cited his own personal experience as an educator and former Vietnam War veteran in his quest for peace in his own community.

“As a young man, I was a soldier, I was a marine in the Vietnam War, and experienced the atrocities of war, “ Harris said. “While I was there, I made a promise that if I lived, I would dedicate my life to working with children so they wouldn’t have to experience what I did. I spent 42 years after coming back from the war in education.”

Harris cited violence prevention in schools and communities and his desire to influence policy changes that could positively impact the public school curriculum.

“For me, I was losing many, many students from gun violence. What I realized is that, just like soldiers adapt to war and see the atrocities of war, it becomes so commonplace that you think that the abnormal is normal,” said Harris. 

A study done by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network cites that more than 80% of inner-city youth report experiencing one or more traumatic events. And 1 out of 10 children under the age of 6 living in a major U.S. city reports witnessing a shooting or stabbing.

“What I witnessed was that students are doing the same thing in neighborhoods. In fact, one particular gang member and his boys told me after they had killed a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old when I confronted them, that their explanation as to why they were warring with this other gang. They said, ‘this is the ghetto. This is what we do,’” Harris continued.

Shuna Malcolm expressed her dedication to ending gun violence among youth and her collaboration with the Atlanta Public School system, emphasizing the need for education on gun safety and emotional intelligence.

“One way to disrupt the peace in our community is not only by physical trauma but by emotional trauma as well, which can cause fear and anxiety inside our youth, making them afraid to go to school or even venture outside of the home,” said Malcolm. “It can also disrupt their daily lives, challenging them. It can make it seem like violence is an everyday norm.”

The participants of the discussion emphasized the urgent need for policy changes related to gun control and the prevention of violence, underscoring the importance of both behavioral and policy approaches to address the issue effectively.

“It can also take away their hope, which is very important, which can lead to children not being able to envision a better future for themselves and can have a profound impact on their mental health, leading to mental conditions such as PTSD and depression,” Malcolm continued.

The collective group summarized that the way forward is through educators teaching peace education and conflict resolution in the everyday curriculum.

A 2022 UNESCO study reveals that 80% of respondents in the global survey believe it is their responsibility to ensure that students feel safe.

“If you’re discussing the incorporation of peace education as a distinct discipline within public schools, similar to subjects like English and math, they have their own curriculum or can be seamlessly integrated into the existing curriculum,” Harris said.

But, in the pursuit of advancing peace education, Finch underscored the pivotal role of data and evidence in order to get local and state politicians involved. Stating that starting with data and  facts serves as a compelling foundation for initiating change at various levels. For instance, Finch cited that providing statistics revealing the alarming frequency of shootings among young people between ages 10 and 18 would provide a stark reality that cannot be ignored.

Finch also highlighted the importance of evidence-based impact assessment, citing the work of advocates who measure the effectiveness of their initiatives in reducing violence. Data and statistics, according to Finch, possess the power to persuade government officials to allocate resources for peace education, as these concrete figures provide a common ground for discussion and transcend emotional appeals.

“You’ve got to have those kinds of statistics. Statistics that you can present to a government official and say, ‘This is what’s happening in our community,’ ” said Finch.