What’s peace got to do with it?

Students and others participate in a Peace Week workshop at Valencia College in Florida. (Photo: Valencia College)

Many community college students arrive on campus from atmospheres rife with conflict— difficult home situations, crime-ridden neighborhoods and even war-torn or lawless countries. Many of them will graduate into workplace environments that, while relatively unlikely to involve violence, teem with conflicts of their own between bosses and line employees, or among colleagues at various levels.

Into these breaches step peacebuilding programs at community colleges, which aim to provide students with an academic grounding, practical knowledge and hands-on experiences so they can better navigate their early jobs, move onward to a peace studies program at a four-year university, and/or more deftly handle conflicts that arise in other spheres of life.

“Community colleges are everywhere, and they’re closest to the people,” says David Smith, president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, which hosts an annual community college peacebuilding seminar. “Half of their students want to get a degree as a tech, a nurse or a welder, and after this, they’re done with college. It’s as important to work with those populations as with transfer populations. They need to know about conflict and differences.”

During the annual gathering, community college faculty — who are mostly from the social sciences and humanities, but also include nursing, technology and business instructors — spend time at facilities like the Holocaust Museum, Institute of Peace, Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department.

Building the right relationships

Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Ohio began a conflict resolution and peace studies program in 2010, which offers a certificate that provides a background in the core theory and skills of conflict management. The program has articulation agreements with Kent State University and John Carroll University.

Program manager Tyler Olson, an adjunct faculty member, says the program’s creation was prompted by the connection to Kent State — which has had a program dating to the infamous Vietnam War era incident on that campus — as well as the recognition that Cleveland and surrounding communities experience conflicts of various kinds, in particular around race.

“That partially came out of a desire to equip the community with some tools,” Olson says. “Our certificate exposes people from the macro scale to the micro scale. We talk about international and interstate conflicts, group conflicts and interpersonal conflict. There’s a lot of (information about) how to get along in the workplace. Only a small fraction of our students go into the formal peace and conflict field.”

Prior to the establishment of the program, which won support from the Tri-C board based on a market research survey that showed area employers from all sectors saw the value in it, the college had a more informal, non-curricular center devoted to educating the community on both local and international conflicts, Olson says.

Two programs remain from that center. One is a student Peace Alliance that sponsors myriad programming, and the other is a campus affiliate of the international Sustainable Dialogue Institute, which mostly works to address social-identity-based conflicts.

Tri-C has added two new extracurricular programs since the certificate program was founded. One involves professional development for faculty, staff and students around conflict resolution, leadership, identity and civility, partnering in some cases with the college’s office of diversity and inclusion. The other, the Northeast Ohio Conflict Resolution Youth Symposium, partners with local high schools to teach basic conflict resolution to young people.

“There are so many ideas about what ‘peace’ means,” Olson says. “We’ve tried to move away from this ‘60s/‘70s, Vietnam, free-love era of peace — which was about love and happiness — to the idea that peace is about building the right relationships. To create the right relationships, we need to know what are the threats or perceived threats that get in the way of creating those connections in a healthy and constructive way.”

Start locally

Golden West College in California offers an associate of arts in peace studies, an interdisciplinary program that covers peacemaking and conflict management related to global conflicts, professional settings and students’ personal lives. Students analyze and discuss theories and issues, think critically about their role in the world, and learn how peacemaking applies to modern sociopolitical issues and other academic disciplines.

Program coordinator Fran Faraz led the vision and course-building efforts when it first got off the ground in the late 2000s; it became an associate degree program in 2011. The program is designed so students can transfer to nearby California State University campuses and private colleges in southern California, says Faraz, who was initially inspired by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to create such a program.

“For me, the events of 9/11 were very impactful, “she says. “After that happened, I wanted to do something. As I was talking to people, I thought about peace through education.”

She first started teaching Persian languages at Golden West and through that connection, had a discussion with the then-college president, who was receptive to the idea.

Since then, Faraz has been building alliances and partnerships all over campus, with the international and intercultural program, office of student life, and academic departments like communication, English and criminal justice, which have led to courses related to nonviolence and conflict resolution in all of those disciplines. And the program started offering fellowships in four areas: social justice, sustainability, compassion and diversity.

Outside of the curriculum, the college’s annual Earth Day conference began to incorporate the idea that “peace” means building just, sustainable communities. Students launched a Peace and Leadership Club that meets every week, a quarterly Peace Chronicle and fundraising for a Peace Pole in the center of campus that’s become a focal point for activities ranging from drum circles to rallies around gun control and immigration.

“We would like to join more with global campaigns for peace and activism around it,” Faraz says. “We want to address how to live in the 21st century with your friends and neighbors, compassionately in your community,” she says. “But I’m ready, and the students are ready, to have international connections with people who want to produce peace for the next generation.”

Serving the campus and the community

The 3½-year-old Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia College has a peace and justice studies curriculum that influences other programs, like criminal justice and nursing, to integrate peace studies into their curriculum, and provides community outreach through peace and justice events and activities.

Specific activities include: conversations on campus and in the community about subjects such as human rights, race and privilege; appearances by nationally known experts as speakers and scholars-in-residence; opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience through internships and service-learning activities; and workshops and courses for business, government, nonprofit and community organizations, in partnership with the professional continuing education branch at Valencia.

The genesis of the program dates to 2003 to an Introduction to Peace Studies course. Since then, the college has worked to integrate similar themes into courses in all academic fields, although Valencia does not have a formal associate of arts or certificate degree.

“We’re in strategic planning right now, looking at a pathway to a university or college around us,” says program director Rachel Allen, a humanities professor. “But we’re learning that integrating the principles and practices of peace and justice across the curriculum is probably a more effective goal. … A peace studies curriculum is fine, but if we can reach our 70,000 students across all the courses they take, that’s a bigger impact.”

Rachel Allen, director of the Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia College, facilitates Orlando Speaks, which fosters dialogues between police and residents. (Photo: Valencia College)

The institute developed the former peace and justice initiative in 2015, when the city of Orlando asked the college to train 3,000 employees around inclusion and diversity. The initiative had hosted conversations about race in response to the police killing in Ferguson, Missouri, and when Orlando faced similar allegations of excessive use of force, the city contacted Valencia, Allen says. “It began as an initiative and became an institute as the work grew, and we turned our focus from the campus to the community,” she says.

The Institute hosts a weeklong conference called Global Peace Week that features workshops, speakers and panels on hot-button issues related to the practices and principles of peace, nonviolence, mindfulness, listening and restorative practices, Allen says. The institute also features a robust interfaith program through which students visit various houses of workshop and centers of philosophical thought to build spiritual and intellectual bridges. And they’ve offered programs both internally and on contract to other entities around diversity.

“They’re looking at how to be more inclusive and welcoming to employees and customers,” she says. “Ultimately, our goal is to build a culture of peace in central Florida and become a model.”

In September, Valencia’s program was recognized at the United Nations, where Allen was invited to speak on the topic of the culture of peace.

Using the skills on the job

At some community colleges, peace and conflict resolution doesn’t take the form of a formalized institute or curricular program but permeates the culture nonetheless. For example, Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland has offered nursing students and faculty tools to determine how to handle workplace conflict and take leadership roles in their culture, says Lena Choudhary, an attorney who changed careers and is now an associate nursing professor at the college.

Choudhary and a colleague created a video for nursing students about incivility and how to have difficult conversations, along with others about conflicts with patients and their families, or between healthcare providers.

The other reason conflict resolution piqued Choudhary’s interest is that many nursing students are interested in doing international work for underserved populations. Next summer, MC students will have an opportunity for service learning trip to the Dominican Republic so they “can have a real-life experience to go to another country, find out who the stakeholders are and learn to have conversations,” Choudhary says.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.