By Urban Peace Movement

On Monday June 17th, Urban Peace Movement held a graduation for the Peace Ambassadors. For the past eight months, they had been meeting to strategize about ending violence. The youth shared meals and got to know each other beyond school campuses and bus stops. They discussed the most challenging issues facing Oakland today, and came up with creative ways to address them.

Peace Ambassadors are high school students from across Oakland, taking a risk to move in spaces beyond their neighborhoods to make peace on our streets a reality. Sitting in these meetings, one might be struck by the maturity, thoughtfulness and real passion they have for their communities; a side they don’t often share with peers, teachers or guardians. Each meeting included a training that wove political education, awareness practices/peace making tools and community organizing. It’s a strategy Urban Peace Movement (UPM) has been crafting for the past five years, with the goal of connecting youth to a deeper sense of who they are and how powerful they can be.

At UPM we often ask ourselves, where do young people from the flatlands of Oakland learn the resiliency tools they need to strive in a tough environment? Where can they find the motivation to end the culture of violence? How can we, and they, do more to influence their communities positively? It’s a big task, but sitting in these circles with youth talking through these issues, we often see how peace is possible.

This year Oakland Unity High School, Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, Dewey Academy, West Oakland Middle School and Oakland High School were all represented in the program. After months of trainings on the cycle of urban violence, deep listening, meditation, community organizing and design thinking, The Peace Ambassadors arrived at a project to create awareness and share peace making tools.

They agreed on a youth peace festival and a street theater piece titled, “Stop the Killing Start The Healing.” It was a continuation of last year’s Peace Ambassador poster project that depicted youth holding portraits of friends and family members lost to homicide. One poster with Shykelah Birchett, 19, reads, “He was my brother. We lost him when he was 17.” This poster project was endorsed by the City of Oakland, and became a billboard campaign that included 9 locations and spanned the International Boulevard corridor from 55th to 101st avenue in East Oakland in late 2012.

This year, youth decided to take the message to 14th and Broadway. At this popular hangout and commuter zone for youth from all over the city, they reenacted a poster using their bodies. Some youth held prop guns pointed at other youth standing behind a prop picture frame that read “R.I.P”, while more youth leaders sat on the floor giving out paper hearts that both promoted the peace festival and suggested a practical tip for conflict resolution. Tips like breathing techniques, or coping with loss.

The youth peace festival, “Turn up for Peace,” was held on Oakland Unity High School’s campus in collaboration with 106 KMEL, and part of the 8th Annual National Silence The Violence Day.  It featured speakers, performers, live art and demos on healthy eating. Hundreds turned out to participate in activities like juicing with Oakland Food Connection and S.O.S. Juice, and to hear celebrity music artists such as IAMSU talk about recently losing his cousin in Richmond to gun violence. It was a day filled with possibility, remembrance and celebration. Peace was marked by dancing, music and knowledge being passed down from older generations like Jerry “Big G” Elster who, since being released from San Quentin, dedicates time to speak to youth about sticking to core values as a way to prevent violence.

At the graduation, youth leaders gathered with friends to celebrate their accomplishments. A friend of co-facilitator Rayna Smith and Peace Ambassador Mario McGrew commented on how deeply their own life has been impacted by their friend’s involvement. They witnessed changes in them, and in turn learned more about positivity. It’s a sign that the Peace Ambassador’s determination is contagious, and their impact is felt in many corners in Oakland. For the graduates, it’s a step in gaining the leadership skills they need to navigate their neighborhoods and one that sets them up for success.

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