Rockford, IL: "To Bring Hope, Stability, and Healing"
In the Rockford project, On Earth Peace supported the work of Rockford Partners for Excellence, a diverse community group which grew out of the November 2009 Strategic Nonviolence workshop which On Earth Peace provided at a time of crisis in the city. The group is led by Samuel Sarpiya, a part-time On Earth Peace staff member serving as Nonviolence Organizer in Rockford.
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A Middle School is Transformed
Since Rockford Partners for Excellence (RP4E) was invited to work with West Middle School in the spring of 2010, continuing through the full 2010-2011 academic year, the changes in the school and community are both profound and exciting. Comparing the 2008-2009 school year, before RP4E began to work with the school, with the most recent school year (2010-2011), the transformation is evident:
- Incidents of violence in the school are down by 70%;
- police officers are no longer present in the school, or needed there;
- teachers, some of whom felt physically threatened by students, now look forward to the school day;
- parents who had given up on their children's school, are now seeing the transformation and are becoming involved at school;
- the Parent Teacher Organization had been dormant, but is now renewed and is a potent force for continuing positive change;
- previously, the fire alarm was set off by students on a daily basis -- but only twice in the most recent school year;
- the number of books checked out from the school library rose from 8,000 to 30,000 per year;
- these changes at West Middle School have also led to a reduction in gang violence in the surrounding community.
Rockford Partners for Excellence
-- Gathered Around a Vision; Choosing a Place to Start
After the November 2009 workshop, a diverse group of community leaders, activists and volunteers began to meet weekly to chart a course for positive community change through strategic nonviolence. They took the name, Rockford Partners for Excellence (RP4E), and began to envision the kind of city they wanted Rockford to become. They did not think in small ways. "Rockford beyond poverty, beyond racism, and beyond violence" is how they express their vision for the city, and is the goal toward which they are working.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" says the well-known proverb. For RP4E, the first step toward their bold vision for the city was to begin with one school and the community around it. They chose West Middle School, one of the most violent and dysfunctional schools in the whole city. Five principals had come and gone in three years. Police were required to be present in the hallways at all times. Students, parents and teachers were discouraged and had little hope for finding a positive educational experience there, so they were giving up.
Fortunately, the newest principal, Alex Brewington, welcomed the help of RP4E, working with On Earth Peace, and opened the door to positive change. RP4E volunteers began tutoring programs, started community sports, held parents meetings, and made themselves visible in the school. Samuel Sarpiya and RP4E "are walking the walk, right alongside us," said Principal Brewington, "and we are very glad about that." Gradually, attitudes and behaviors began to change.
November 17, 2009
From Crisis to Community Change
-- How the Rockford Project Began
"We are providing a focal point to bring together diverse groups and individuals to be a catalyst for change in Rockford," says Bessie Alberty, a member of an organizing team that has emerged to address broad community concerns in Rockford, IL.
Alberty was one of sixteen participants in the November 11-12, 2009, seminar, "Where Do We Go from Here? Creating a Hopeful Future for Rockford," sponsored by the Rockford Roundtable and On Earth Peace. David Jehnsen was the resource person for the seminar, which focused on skills of nonviolent leadership, community mobilization and lessons learned from previous community struggles.
Rockford has been living through tense times since an African-American youth escaping from police custody, Mark Anthony Barmore, was shot to death by white police officers inside a black church on August 24, 2009. The Barmore shooting has become a flashpoint for larger realities in Rockford: 17% unemployment, 4,500 suspensions of high school students in the last year, and a 40% high school graduation rate. Sixty percent of high school dropouts in Rockford have felony records, and eighty percent of dropouts are African American.
Alberty continues, "Using the principles we were taught in the training, our group is currently framing an issue we feel will have significant and much needed impact in our community. . . . Currently in Rockford there are many groups working. . ., but none actively seeking the involvement of everyone concerned, in a single focused effort as we will."
The training was convened by the Rockford Roundtable, an informal group of community leaders that has been meeting since earlier in 2009, and was co-sponsored by On Earth Peace, the peace and reconciliation agency of the Church of the Brethren. Participants included current and retired pastors, business people, a corporate consultant, an engineer, and a stockbroker, as well as an employee of the local Park District. The group reflected Rockford's racial and cultural diversity, with white, black, and Hispanic community leaders in attendance.
The Rev. Bob Griffin, of Rockford Renewal Ministries, shares, "I was impressed by the approach or strategy. . . [It] seems well constructed and doable." The value of the training, according to Griffin, was the clarity of the method, ". . . the steps to take to see needs addressed. . . with a strong coalition of participants from the community."
"We are looking here at the Kingian principles of nonviolence, of community-building, of nation-building," reflects Samuel Sarpiya, pastor of Rockford Community Church. " How do we create a city where investors will invest, businesses will thrive, and our children will be able to go to school, where that high rate of dropouts who end up in prison will change - where we can break that cycle? Not just the church, but the city as a whole, will accomplish that vision." Sarpiya moved to Rockford earlier in 2009 to plant a multi-cultural, peace-rooted Church of the Brethren congregation. Sarpiya connected with On Earth Peace as part of the 2009 International Day of Prayer for Peace campaign; after the Barmore shooting, he asked for strategy and organizing support, which led to the November 11-12 training.
In the November 17 follow up meeting, the organizing group began applying nonviolence leadership skills to frame a specific and narrow issue to pursue in the coming weeks: "To bring hope, healing and stability" to a specific middle school in Rockford, plagued by poverty, teacher turnover, and classroom challenges.
Pastor Sarpiya shares, "There was an immediate consensus that this is what we should do. It can be framed clearly; it addresses racial and moral problems in a nonviolent way, and it has the potential to bring the community forward to get involved. It has the potential to affect every cell of our community . . . My desire is that we will be able to look back, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and all those who worked for human rights-not just civil rights-that we can look back and say we fought a good fight and left a good heritage for our children, so that when they face the challenge of their generation they will be able to deal with it in a nonviolent way."
The organizing group meets again November 23 to continue their work.
See local news video of the training:
- Young Peacebuilders
- Social Change