Growing up in extreme violence, these Rochester kids want peace. Here's what that could look like
It’s loud in this converted church.
There’s a lot of chatter among the two dozen elementary students gathered around circular kid-sized tables at their after-school program at Cameron Community Ministries in the Lyell-Otis neighborhood. In front of them are markers and color pencils in plastic containers next to poster boards.
At one of the tables, a kindergartner adjusts a large paper crown on his head. On the front of it, there’s a cutout of the letters Q and U that he’s been wearing off and on since spelling class.
This is Chase. Chase remembers in detail the day two years ago when there was a fatal shooting on this block.
“We all playing outside and then we heard a gunshot,” Chase said. “All of us had to evacuate and go inside.”
A similar incident sparked the first student-led Peace Walk at Cameron Community Ministries nine years ago, and students today continue the tradition.
A lot of children and tweens in the program say they’ve been exposed to violence, and a lot of them have experienced the deaths of loved ones — many from violence.
That includes Chase.
“Someone in my family got killed that passed away and I was super sad,” he said.
Studying the complexities of peace
Peace isn’t just the absence of violence. It’s complex.
In 2019, a group of scholars at Umea University in Sweden formed a framework for three approaches to peace.
One is called ‘relational peace’ and it looks at webs of relationships between individuals, groups, and states. It includes behaviors like cooperation, attitudes like mutual recognition and trust, and ideas such as legitimate coexistence and friendship.
Most of the work that Cameron staff members are tasked with is about building relationships, in part by teaching children and teens life skills and holding restorative circles.
"We're involving the kids in leadership and training, to let them know that there are other ways that they can resolve conflict, besides getting involved in violence,” said Olivia Kassoum-Amadou, the program’s executive director.
Sixth-grader Jeremiah said the conflicts he’s been struggling with lately have been related to bullying, which he said has caused a ripple effect.
“I don't like being bullied. It kind of molded me into a bully myself,” Jeremiah said. “Because I bullied my brothers when … I really don't like that. It's just something that happened when I started getting bullied myself.”
Even when he follows people’s advice to ignore bullying or report it to his principal or teachers, he said it carries on.
“Sometimes I meditate try to calm my nerves, but it doesn't always work,” he said. “That’s why I punch walls."
Jeremiah has also dealt with death from a young age. When he was 7, a classmate drowned in a hotel pool while with her family. His dad died when he was 9.
“I have a lot more family deaths, but I’d rather not get into that because it will take forever,” he said.
Alternative approaches to forge peace in Rochester
Another approach to peace that researchers at Umea identified looks at the geographical spaces where peace does and doesn’t exist. The third approach looks at people’s ideas of peace, how they change over time and inform policy.
Cameron Community Ministries is in an area that has one of the highest crime rates within Rochester. So, another part of its mission is about helping people in the community who may be caught up in cycles of crime.
“We welcome everyone here … so we're here as a resource for them as well,” Kassoum-Amadou said. “But we also know that it breeds about a lot of things that could be detrimental to our children and staff here. So, we have to work both sides to be able to make it here in the community.”
Over the winter, the city of Rochester distributed grants for violence prevention programs around the city. Cameron, as one of the recipients, will receive a total of $300,000 over the next three years.
That money will be used to coordinate activities that center on culture, leadership, and community service. One early result of the investment is a new step dance team at Cameron.
That’s something third-grader Rahnya is delighted about.
“I found my thing that I’m probably gonna do for the rest of my life, so I'm glad,” Rahnya said. “I love step.”
But how does something like step dance constitute violence prevention?
“The discipline and the investment that the kids have made in it is phenomenal,” Kassoum-Amadou said. “And they're not out from that dangerous period of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. unsupervised.”
Rahnya feels safe here, she said, plus she gets a hot dinner before going home.
While the annual Peace Walk carries on as a tradition, it’s just one of the things she gets to be a part of here. It opens up conversations, but it doesn’t diminish the effects of violence on her life or anyone else's here.
“I feel like I lose a lot of people in my life,” she said. “I’m sad that I should be able to walk outside and not see people get hurt, and I don't want people dying in front of me.”