Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Teaching Students to be like Martin Luther King

L. to r.: Madeleine and Audrey Cameron,
Angelo Cassiano and Madison Gibson
Who knew there was a school in Pasadena whose purpose is to train students to be like Martin Luther King? Asked to describe Pasadena’s Peace and Justice Academy (also known as PAJA), its director, Randy Christopher, replied:

“I want our school to be the kind of place where Dr King would have liked to send his kids.”

Welcome to PAJA, a unique school for activists founded five years ago by the Mennonites, a branch of Christians known for their commitment to peacemaking. (Less well known, even among Mennonites, is that King’s perspectives on Vietnam were shaped in part by years of conversation with Vincent Harding, who had served as pastor of Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago.)

During the last three years, four students of PAJA have been finalists—two of them winners—in the city-wide Martin Luther King Day Essay Contest, even though the school has only 23 students, grades 6-12. This contest is sponsored by the Martin Luther King Community Coalition, Altadena and Pasadena NAACP, Pasadena Unified School District, Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Congregations, and other groups, including the City of Pasadena. Finalists read their essays at Robinson Park during its annual MLK Day event.

Last year’s winner was Madeline Cameron, a 16-year-old with long brown hair, and a passion for justice. Home-schooled by her Mennonite parents, she and her sister started attending the school four years ago when they moved to Pasadena.

In her prize-winning essay, Madeleine spoke about the “futility of war,” and the need to focus resources on ending poverty—themes that King raised in his controversial sermon at New York’s Riverside Church in 1968, titled “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” Madeline quotes Dr. King, who asserted:

“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America.”

The students of the Peace and Justice Academy do not rely only on textbooks to learn about issues of justice and peace, they also engage in field trips that provide experiential learning. In her essay Madeline spoke about the plight of Mexicans crossing the border because she took part in a field trip to San Diego.

“Recently, five students from my school visited the wall between the U.S. border and Mexico,” said Madeleine. “Mexico was just a few hundred feet away, but because of the conflict between the U.S. and Mexico, the border was almost inaccessible, and highly dangerous. Many Americans resent immigrants, thinking that they take jobs desperately needed in this economy. In reality, Americans refuse the menial jobs that immigrants take; and furthermore, we are the main reason that immigrants are forced to come seeking work….The U.S. is creating a problem, but unwilling to admit that they are responsible for the economic destruction in another country. Is this not violence too?”

Asked whether training in peace and justice is practical, Madeleine, a senior, responded confidently: “I feel more prepared to go to college because I know better how the world actually works. I also know how to deal with conflicts in a nonviolent way. We have to look at both sides and understand their point of view.”

This year Madeleine’s 14-year-old sister Audrey is one of the finalists in the Pasadena MLK Essay Contest.

“I cannot claim to be as influential as Dr. King, but I do stand up for peace, serve my community, and strive to be my best self. I pursue peace, for example, by writing our government representatives. Recently, I wrote Representative Judy Chu, urging her to vote against a bomb strike in Syria. If Dr. King were alive today, he would have fought that proposal with the same determination he showed in opposing the Viet Nam War… Last year, I served my community by helping organize a blanket and canned food drive for the homeless and hungry. I also volunteer at a local homeless shelter, Union Station, making and serving meals to those in that transitional setting. For three years I have been part of the Thirty Hour Famine, a World Vision program in which participants endure hunger for thirty hours while raising money so others may have enough to eat. Lastly, I strive to be my best self. That may seem trivial, but I truly believe that achieving peace in the world is only possible once you have achieved it for yourself.”
She believes that PAJA influenced her decision to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King.
“Everything we do is through the lens of peace and justice,” explained Audrey. “We begin each day with a quote by an activist or a ‘call-to-action’ video. We also learn about media literacy, how to use media to spread ideas.”

Angelo Cassiano, a 13-year Latino student, explained how thrilled he was when PAJA invited him to take part in an immigration rally at All Saints Church and he was interviewed by a Spanish-speaking TV station.

“My family and friends got to see me on TV!” he said excitedly.

Madison Gibson, a 12-year-old African American student, came to PAJA two years ago because she wasn’t thriving in her previous school:

“People were mean to me. And I didn’t learn anything. Here everyone is nice. We’re not a bunch of little groups, like in bigger schools. We’re like a big, happy family. Well, we sometimes have conflicts but we learn to work them out.”

Angelo agreed with Madison: “There is more communication and we feel closer to the teachers and principal.”

Angelo also appreciates the “labs”and field trips that enable him to understand history in depth:

“We went on a field trip to Manzanar, where the Japanese were interned during World War II, and we learned how the people there really lived. I feel we are being prepared for the real world.”

Besides field trips, PAJA students take part in peace events, like the Gun Buyback that took place in Pasadena last May, the “Seeds of Peace” conference sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religions at All Saints Church, and the annual Palm Sunday Peace Parade in which hundreds of Christians gather walk to the Paseo with palm branches in one hand and peace signs in the other, proclaiming that the “Prince of Peace” was actually a peace activist. (Last year’s parade even included a donkey like the one that Jesus rode.)

Peace and justice themes are integrated in all aspects of the curriculum. Christopher explained: “Our teens study the intricacies of algebra and geometry, and fund microloans for people all over the globe with money they DO NOT get from their parents. They not only perform community service, but learn the causes and cures of societal ills - and learn to empathize with those they serve. They study the lives of well-known and little-known peacemakers, and learn restorative justice techniques to use themselves.”

PAJA is fully accredited by WASC and all of its graduates (two, so far) have recieved early admission to their first-choice colleges.

Peacemaking sounded like a lot of hard work, so I asked the kids: What is the most fun you have had at the school?

“Making pies for peace” was the response from Madeline and the other students, whose faces lit up as they explained what they meant.

Last year PAJA collaborated with a comedy team called Ted A Company to bring the Peace, Pies and Prophets (a nation-wide tour) to Pasadena. The evening included a satiric show called “I’d like to buy an enemy” and was interspersed with a pie auction. This show not only generated a lot of laughter, it also raised funds to help the school and a group called Christian Peace Teams that goes to hot spots in the Middle East and around the world to foster nonviolent conflict resolution. Bidding on the pies went as high as several hundred dollars. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I bought three pies and now serve on the board of the school.)

PAJA is still a work in progress. Not content with its unique status as a peace and justice academy, it is in the process of becoming the first interfaith high school in the United States.

“We have always tried to represent diversity,” explained Christopher. “We’ve had economic, ethnic and racial diversity, but not religious diversity. We saw how religious differences were causing conflicts and wars. This seems odd because all the world’s religions teach tolerance, compassion, justice, and hospitality. We felt that an interfaith high school would reflect those values and promote peace.”

When Christopher and co-director Kimberly Medendorp learned that the Claremont Lincoln University (which began as Claremont School of Theology, a Methodist seminary) recently became an interfaith seminary, with students and professors from various faith traditions, they were inspired by this pioneering experiment in interfaith education.

“We saw a need for such a school here in Pasadena,” explained Christopher. “Our biggest fans have been the heads of Pasadena’s New Horizon (a Muslim school, K-8) and Weizmann Day School (a Jewish school, also K-8). They’ve spent a lot of years working to teach religious values to their kids, and then the kids have to go to a secular high school. The idea that these Muslim and Jewish students can continue their faith studies, and learn about other faith traditions, is very attractive.”

The new interfaith PAJA will have people of diverse faiths on the board as well as teaching classes. Students will learn about Judaism from a Jewish instructor, Islam from a Muslim instructor, and Christianity from a Christian instructor.

“Parents and students were ecstatic about this idea,” explained Medendorp. “By having an interfaith board, faculty, and student body, we can expand our students’ faith development by enabling them to learn about other faiths from believers in various traditions.”

How would King feel about this experiment in pluralism? In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King recognized the need to foster understanding among people of diverse religions as well as races: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."

This is a part of King’s dream that the Peace and Justice Academy is turning into a reality.


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