For Peace Warriors activists at North Lawndale school, surviving is No. 1 goal
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At his desk at North Lawndale College Prep High School, Gerald Smith keeps a small calendar that holds unimaginable grief.
In it, the dean and student advocate writes the name of each student who’s lost a family member, many of them to gun violence. Then, he deploys the Peace Warriors — students who have dedicated themselves to easing the violence that pervades their world.
The Warriors seek out heartbroken classmates. They offer a hug — and a small bag of candy.
Since September, Smith has added more than 160 names to that little book — roughly one-fourth of the student body at the West Side school’s two campuses. That doesn’t even include those whose friends have been killed.
“We would run out of candy,” Smith says.
It is hard and often anguishing work to keep the peace. North Lawndale’s Peace Warriors do it in small and large ways. When they were invited to Parkland, Florida, after the school shooting there in February, they answered the call, uniting in what’s become a national youth movement aimed at stopping gun violence.
Weeks later, North Lawndale seniors Alex King and D’Angelo McDade walked on stage at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., fists raised. Says King: “We knew this was going to be in the history books. And, for me, it was, like, ‘Wow, I’m actually being heard.’ ”
They continue to press their solution to urban violence: more jobs and investment in low-income communities like theirs.
But that’s the long game. First, the Peace Warriors must survive — and help their peers do the same.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning!”
A small band of Peace Warriors greets students in the school’s main foyer — after those students go through a bag check and metal detector.
This is when the Warriors get a sense of how the day may go and where they might need to step in to maintain calm.
A few dance to old-school soul over the sound system, until a young woman arrives, sobbing. Two Warriors embrace her, escorting her to the school office to collect herself.
When the group began in 2009, there were 17 Peace Warriors. They spent much of their time breaking up fights — “interrupting nonsense,” they call it. Since then, their ranks have grown to more than 120 — and fights have dropped markedly, Smith says.
Now, the Peace Warriors focus more on running “peace circles,” mediating verbal altercations between students and tense exchanges on social media.
Alexis Willis is among the newest recruits. Like the others, she had to learn the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before she could call herself a Peace Warrior.
The civil rights activist lived in the neighborhood in 1966 in an apartment just down the street. He chose that location to draw attention to segregation and extreme poverty — issues that persist there even today.
Willis, a freshman who trained in January, likes King’s first principle best: “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.”
She admits that, as a child, she sometimes solved problems with her fists. But as the level of violence has escalated in her city, and she has matured, she has been drawn to “this life,” as the Peace Warriors sometimes call their pacifist practice.
Willis says her resolve to help her classmates “do better” was only solidified when, in April, her beloved 16-year-old cousin, Jaheim Wilson, was shot and killed as he walked with a friend in an alley near his Chicago home.
“Nobody that’s 16 should have to die,” Willis says quietly.
Less than two weeks after her cousin’s death, she received her first Peace Warrior shirt with her name and an image of a large hand flashing a peace sign on the back.
“When you put on this shirt, you put on a target. People will test you,” Smith tells his students when first handing them their shirts.
Some students call them snitches or see them as meddling do-gooders. In recent years, Smith has had a harder time recruiting young men to join; unfortunate, since they are most often the victims of violence.
Alex King says he joined just because he wanted to wear the Peace Warriors shirt to school instead of the otherwise-required white polo. Soon, he came to see the group as family.
Speaking at the March for Our Lives, he shared the story of his nephew, Daishawn Moore, also 16, gunned down last May.
“Through my friends and colleagues, I found help to come up out of a dark place,” King told the crowd.
Full of rage and sorrow, he had planned to retaliate against his nephew’s killer until fellow Peace Warriors talked him out of it: “Everyone doesn’t have the same resources or support system as I was lucky to have.”
The alliance with Parkland unites the North Lawndale students with those from a different world — a wealthy and suburban one where shootings are far from the norm.
While students from Parkland and elsewhere push for stricter gun regulations, the Warriors have made poverty their target. Among other things, they want more funding for mental health clinics and schools in low-income neighborhoods. Both have seen cuts in recent years.
At North Lawndale College Prep, a publicly funded, privately run charter school, Smith says there once were four counselors, one for each grade. Now, there are only two for grades 9 through 12.
It means Smith and other staff — and even the Peace Warriors — have to pick up some of the slack.
The girl who’d arrived at school sobbing walks up to the school security desk, where Smith is tracking late arrivals. He knows why she wasn’t in class. Her boyfriend had just been shot to death. But why, he asks, is she carrying a bundle of clothing?
“It’s his clothes,” she answers before heading down the hallway in a daze.
Smith covers his eyes for a moment. His cheeks are wet with tears.
It doesn’t matter how many times this happens. He’ll never get used to it.
This wasn’t work he’d planned to do. The “reluctant” fourth-generation pastor, now 47, ultimately answered the call to work with youth. Now, he says he has a knack for spotting potential leaders, some of them also reluctant.
Days later, freshman Robert Cook sits in the dean’s office, awaiting a detention slip. Above Smith’s desk, red letters are stuck to the wall — a message where there used to be a clock. Smith never bothered to replace it after a distressed student knocked it down.
“This is KAIROS Time,” the message reads, using a Greek word that refers to a decisive and opportune moment.
Smith sensed that kind of moment when he accompanied the Peace Warriors to Parkland and later to the D.C. march.
This summer is another, as he and his students plan sessions to train more Peace Warriors.
“This summer is critical. Can’t wait until next summer. Can’t wait until November,” Smith says.
As Smith works, he stops and gazes at Cook, the dejected freshman. Has Cook ever considered being a Peace Warrior? The teenager says he gets in too much trouble.
“Peace Warriors aren’t perfect,” Smith tells him. “Don’t count yourself out. We need some strong young men.”
Maybe this will turn out to be another “kairos.” One of those critical moments.