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January 17, 2010

High school students respond to violence with purpose, passion

By Daniel P. Smith


Like many Chicagoans, Briana Martinez saw the video clips of 16-year-old Fenger High School student Derrion Albert’s fatal beating at the hands of other Chicago teens. With horror in her eyes but faith in her heart, Martinez, a senior at De La Salle Institute, resolved to turn Chicago’s September tragedy into positive action.

“I kept thinking over and over that this is something kids shouldn’t have to be involved in. Nobody needs this type of violence in their life,” the 18-year-old Martinez said.

A Vicariate IV youth delegate, Martinez spearheaded efforts at her parish, Berwyn’s St. Mary of Celle, to bring the violence issue to the forefront, inviting area teens to discuss the impact of such violence and, more critically, the roles they could play as peacemakers. The first meeting on Nov. 14 produced a frank discussion and key talking points that Martinez later presented at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Youth Council’s meeting. A second gathering is slated for Jan. 16 at 1 p.m. at St. Mary of Celle.

“What we’ve quickly found out is that there are so many [teens] passionate about seeing the violence end and having their opportunity to get heard,” Martinez said. “With so many violent acts around us, these meetings provide an opportunity to hear the cries of those around us and give us a chance to work toward change.”

Sparked by a mix of current events and Catholic faith, Martinez is among an increasing number of Chicago area high school students making violence prevention and peacemaking a central priority, if not a way of life.

In December, more than 60 students from Maria High School, Hales Franciscan High School and Carmel Catholic High School gathered at Maria’s southwest side campus for a “Violence Awareness and Action Day.” In addition to sharing personal experiences of violent intrusions into their young lives, the students also heard presentations from members of the Southwest Organizing Project and CeaseFire.

“The Action Day gave students the opportunity to look at this issue from the perspective of how violence affects people and the world of our teenagers,” said Judy Bumbul, Maria High School’s campus minister and one of the event’s principal organizers. “One of the key questions posed to students was: What would be the Christian response?”

Francesca Tines, a 17-year-old senior at Maria and an event attendee, says the consistent presence of violence in Chicago puts her on edge. The Marquette Park resident said the program reminded her of the positive change she and her classmates could stimulate with a culture of respect and kindness that extended beyond her Catholic school’s doors.

“As we talked with one another and listened to the speakers, I think we saw that one group of students could make a change in everybody if we had the right attitude,” Tines said.

While violence is so often viewed as an urban problem demanding an urban response, the Action Day message was just as heeded by students living far from the city’s metropolitan core.

Natalia Lamberti was among a contingent of students from Carmel Catholic in Mundelein who attended the Action Day event and understood she had a responsibility to confront violence.

“Hearing other students share their stories and being able to see the world through their eyes was a real eye-opening experience,” said Lamberti, who lives in north suburban Grayslake. “So many of the students [from Maria and Hales Franciscan, two urban schools] had stories of neighbors, friends and family members who had been victims of violence.”

In a collective first step, students at all three high schools pledged a letter-writing campaign to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn requesting year-round funding for Cease-Fire, a group recognized for its efforts in quelling inner-city violence.

“There should never be a lack of these successful programs,” Lamberti said of CeaseFire and its like-minded organizations.

Upon landing back in Mundelein, the Carmel Catholic students, all members of teacher Sharon Smogor’s Chicago history and culture class, felt further inspired to share the message. With a focus on the policies to stop and prevent violence, particularly around schools, Smogor’s students spoke to the school’s various clubs about their experience at Maria High School and challenged each club to inject a violence prevention message into their work.

“The students were receptive. I think they saw how this event impacted us and how we all had a responsibility to respond,” Lamberti said, noting that many clubs joined the letter-writing campaign.

Rooted in their Catholic experience and faith, teen students continue carrying the peacemaking message into their schools and communities.

At Maria High School, student disputes are mediated in studentled peace circles, a form of restorative justice that provides students an avenue to resolve conflict and foster healing. The process allows students to recognize their role as peacekeepers as well as peace builders, a realization many then transfer to other facets of their lives.

“I believe our students understand the role they play in building up the kingdom of God and not tearing it down,” Bumbul said. “The students have asked themselves: If Maria High School can be a safe place, then why can’t we make our communities safer?”

It’s a question Briana Martinez continues to ask and plans to ask again to her fellow teens at the Jan. 16 gathering.

“You hear a lot about the negative in kids, but here’s a real positive movement,” Martinez said. “Kids are playing an active role in helping to solve this violence issue because they see it as an issue needing solutions.”