September 28, 2020 – It “really helped with cooperating with others, we can calm down.” These words from a 6th grader are probably the best account of what we hope to achieve through the Domestic Harmonizer Program (DHP). This is a program that the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) initiated 8 years ago, to bring conflict resolution into schools. This vivid testimonial was recorded by Dr. Briana Hinga, Associate Professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California who conducted an independent evaluation of the DHP that we implemented in the Stephen White Middle School and the S.T.E.A.M Magnet in Carson (Los Angeles Unified School District), and Ball Jr. High School in Anaheim (Anaheim Unified High School District). In particular, Dr. Hinga’s report concluded that the program had a significant potential to improve relations within the school communities. She noted in particular from her exchanges with peer-mediator students from the program that it had “prepared them to identify, mediate, and intervene when they notice conflicts.”
The DHP is WPDI’s peacebuilding and conflict resolution program in the United States built specifically for middle schools to help create safe and inclusive learning environments. A central assumption behind our program is that, in the end, it assumes that establishing a climate of peace in schools eventually rests on the capacity of the students and educators to make a difference. Our ambition is to provide them with resources and tools that will help to strengthen this very capacity. The program’s curriculum, workshops, and e-learning tools spans all three years of middle school and helps students and teachers build understanding, empathy, and dialogue both inside and outside of the classroom. Rooted in restorative practices, the DHP established a safe learning space for students and teachers build a deep understanding of conflict, and how to resolve it constructively in various contexts. The DHP was launched in 2016 with a pilot program and has since expanded to the Stephen White Middle School and the S.T.E.A.M Magnet in Carson and Ball Jr. High School in Anaheim. This expansion was made possible thanks to Verizon and the Bank of the West Charitable Foundation – donors who are committed to an ambitious vision where education benefits society by preparing future citizens to address conflict in nonviolent ways.
Having an evaluation of the DHP at these two schools during the 2019-2020 academic year was therefore critical to gain knowledge on the upscaling of our project even though the COVID-19 crisis prevented us from deploying our full effort at it. Dr. Hinga’s report found that the DHP was valuable at these schools as it delivered to teachers a completely new toolbox through which they could educate themselves and students about conflict in various contexts and help students navigate challenging problems in their academic classes and personal lives. As one teacher stated, “Every conflict can be boiled down to somebody having an unmet need, and I thought they [students] really did understand that, and that was good because that really helped them to reflect in situations of conflict to try to figure out, well, what’s the unmet need here.” Drawing from such testimonials, WPDI invited to deepen its work in the school community, by increasing interactions within the school itself but also by reaching out to parents and families.
Expanding the outreach of the program is indeed high on our agenda. We strongly believe that, ultimately, students are also to address conflict in their daily lives out of the school. This societal perspective is actually one the main conclusion of Dr. Hinga’s evaluation, noting that “This particular moment is marked by a political climate that makes salient the utility and necessity of conflict resolution education.” As our societies are shaken by the COVID-19 crisis or the growing awareness of entrenched inequalities and institutionalized racism, we have need for citizens who can cope with conflict in a constructive way. This is the very spirit of the DHP.