The Common Good
July-August 1995

Urban Peacemaking

by Peter Wirth | July-August 1995

Neighbors work together to take back their streets.

"I miss having my children do the things that I used to do." Members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) heard sentiments like this one over and over again as they canvassed their "target" neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Whether it's going out in the evenings, trick or treating on Halloween night, or walking down to the Boy's and Girl's Club alone, current urban reality often does not allow activities that people outside the inner city take for granted.

CPT's Project in Urban Peacemaking is an effort to help neighborhoods reclaim such everyday freedoms. The project is sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and General Conference Mennonite churches of North America. From September through December 1994, team members Jeff Heie, John Reuwer, Tammy Krause, and myself worked with local people in Washington, D.C., to create solutions to problems of violence and security. Two team members spent much of the previous spring searching for local peacemakers interested in applying their lessons from the peace movement to dangerous urban situations. Several groups in Columbia Heights, including the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, invited CPT to join them.

Columbia Heights is a predominantly low-income neighborhood in the heart of the diamond that the District of Columbia forms. It is in transition, with many white, Latino, and Asian people moving into what was not so long ago an almost completely African-American neighborhood. An increasing number of middle- and upper-income homeowners are moving in down the block from subsidized apartment buildings.

In spite of five schools and several GED and educational enrichment programs in an eight-block radius, at least 48 percent of its adult residents have less than a high school education. In a recent 18-month period, according to police statistics, there were 12 homicides, 257 assaults, and 75 other drug-related crimes in a 12-square-block area.

Upon being invited to work within this context, CPT adapted a Listening Project to discover what neighbors actually thought of their community. Based on a model from the Rural Southern Voice for Peace in North Carolina, the Listening Project consists of trained volunteers conducting personal interviews with residents around issues of community safety and violence. With the information gathered in their detailed surveys, CPT began looking for small, achievable ways of creating a safer environment for the neighborhood.

Many residents named a particular crack house as the key danger and frustration in the area. Ten years of effort by individual citizens had failed to end the filth, noise, and threats from the addicts, drug dealers, and prostitutes that frequented the house. The near-unanimous opinion was that it could not be closed in a short period of time.

Neighbors and CPT joined forces to find out who owned the house and close it. After two weeks of frenetic negotiations with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the police, building inspection authorities, and other city agencies, the house was inspected and ordered closed. CPT members, Sojourners Neighborhood Center staff, and local residents also helped the house tenants to find new homes and store their belongings.

Neighbors soon came to identify the "dangerous" tenants of the house as victims themselves. Said Sharon, one of the tenants, "I don't really know why, but you have gone out of your way for us, for strangers. That's beautiful."

Department of Public Works personnel finished bricking closed the first-floor windows and doors of the house on a December afternoon. Neighbors and friends from around the city gathered in the dusk for a vigil. They lit candles, gave prayers of thanks, sang, and shared the exhilaration of having completed one small step in taking back their neighborhood. A common theme was the power of people when differences between neighbors are put aside and they concentrate on common concerns.

CREATIVE PEACEMAKING is a long-term investment. The crack house closing is a small step in the continuing efforts of the people of southern Columbia Heights to reclaim their neighborhood. Ongoing activities like block meetings, citizen patrols, and self-defense and neighborhood defense classes are all necessary in the work toward a violence-free community.

Tammy Krause, who worked with the CPT project on a short-term basis, desired to continue the work they had begun. She joined the staff of Sojourners Neighborhood Center to build and strengthen bridges in the community. Perhaps most important, neighbors need to believe they can make a difference and learn to support each other in the struggle.

Peace teams are one way to spark such a neighborhood movement. Says CPT member John Reuwer, "Well-trained and disciplined peace teams can engage and vanquish evil with the love of Christ in a way that violence never can. There are alternatives to more police, more guns, and more prisons."

COLE ARENDT is a full-time member of the Christian Peacemaker Corps on loan from the Mennonite Board of Missions Voluntary Service. He has lived in Columbia Heights for nine years.

Stories to Tell

How to help the media spread your news.
by Peter Wirth

Most organizations do not realize it, but access to the media is there for the asking-especially if your program includes travel to a Third World country. For many people such a trip is a private experience; at best they speak to a church or civic group where an audience of 30 people is a good turnout.

Vivian Cunningham, a nurse midwife who went on a Witness for Peace (WFP) delegation to the Dominican Republic, had a very different experience. "I was impressed by the number of people that the story reached. Almost everybody that knew me had seen or heard in the news," she says. "Even weeks later people were commenting-friends, clients, co-workers."

The delegation generated 36 articles and interviews over a two-month period, including feature stories in local papers; radio news interviews; network TV news interviews; and appearances on hour-long radio and TV talk shows on network, public, and cable stations. A syndicated radio station broadcast an hour-long, call-in interview with two delegates to 125 stations reaching an estimated audience of 700,000.

While the WFP delegation also arranged speaking engagements, their media work reached hundreds of thousands of people in Central New York and across the United States. What made this delegation different?

First, they were motivated to share their experience as widely as possible. "When we have an opportunity to have a firsthand experience it is important that we share it to encourage more people to be involved," says Ann Tiffany, a longtime activist.

Second, they made using the media a priority from day one. It was not an afterthought or add-on activity, but integrated into their planning. Otherwise media work can easily get lost in the fund raising, planning, packing, and training before a trip and the exhaustion and demands of normal life afterward.

One person was assigned to arrange media coverage when the delegation was being recruited. He arranged interviews prior to departure and scheduled a few phone interviews while they were in country.

While the delegation was in the Dominican Republic, newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations were contacted to see who was interested in an interview or a talk show guest. When the delegation stepped off the plane, the news media were waiting. All the delegation had to do was assign people to the various scheduled interviews.

The cost of this media coverage was only some stamps and telephone calls-nearly free publicity that can help the sending organization achieve its goals.

The media are a powerful tool. You can use it to recruit volunteers, raise awareness about an issue, educate the public about conditions in the Third World, or help raise funds to balance your budget. And when North Americans travel to the Third World as volunteers or on fact-finding delegations, it gives them a unique opportunity to bring back the stories of ordinary people there who will not likely ever by interviewed on the network news or quoted on the wire services.

Instead of complaining about the media, learn how to use it.

PETER WIRTH is the founder of GW Associates, a public-interest media consulting business. Living Media, a 60-minute cassette tape designed to give activists the skills necessary to get their message out, is available from GW Associates, 702 S. Beech, Syracuse, NY 13210; (315) 476-3396.

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