To the members of the service-learning program Lead Peace, a tree means something different from a mere plant.
As previous and current members of the group gathered in Kwanzaa Church in North Minneapolis one evening in June, the teens recalled what they had learned.
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“The roots were the causes,” one said.
“The trunk was the main problem,” added another.
“The leaves were symptoms,” said a third.
Around this hypothetical tree are flowers that represent the resources available to help. But what counts the most to the Lead Peace kids are the flowers that they plant around the tree: the ways they found to solve these problems and help their struggling community – by tutoring first graders, collecting cans of food for the Salvation Army, volunteering at shelters, packaging food at Feed My Starving Children, and more.
Illustration by Iman Jafri
When the Lead Peace project started seven years ago, the idea was to take sixth, seventh and eighth graders from schools in some of Minneapolis’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods and have them come up with answers to community problems. By doing this, organizers hoped the kids connect to their community, peers and their own emotions.
Volunteering to play with children at Mary’s Place – a family shelter in downtown Minneapolis- stands out to high school sophomore Marilyn Johnson. “I’ve never been in that kind of situation. I really don’t like to see people like that. I want to help.”
By teaching others about compassion, the young volunteers from three North Minneapolis schools also learned about compassion. As Josseline Rochac, a quiet seventh grader said softly, “Not only do you help the community, you help yourself. Either way, you’re a little part of the big community, so you help the people of the next generation.”
The project is a collaboration between north side schools, Hennepin County, Kwanzaa Church and the University of Minnesota. University researchers found that Lead Peace students, who meet weekly in groups of eight to discuss community problems and plan solutions, developed stronger interpersonal skills and felt stronger connections to school and peers than a comparison group of similar students not served by the program.
Student surveys show that the level of peer connectedness among Lead Peace students rose 2 percent after two years in the program, while it decreased 13 percent in the control group. Interpersonal skills increased slightly for Lead Peace students while they dropped 12.8 percent for the control. The sharpest difference appeared in cooperative behaviors: Those of Lead Peace students increased by 18 percent and those of the comparison group decreased by more than 8 percent.
Pam Russ of Lead Peace
According to Hennepin County social worker Pam Russ, the Lead Peace program was started by the Minneapolis Community Education Department, but they needed to “beef it up a little” so Russ came to support what they had started. She and Ed Irwin, head of Kwanzaa’s youth programs, now lead the program.
A social worker for 20-odd years, Russ believes firmly in the philosophy of empowering kids, since “I think that kids have the answers.”
Right now, Lead Peace is made up of sixth to eighth grade students from three North Minneapolis K-8 schools: the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, the Cityview Performing Arts Magnet school, and the Lucy Craft Laney Community School. The latter of these schools was initially used as the comparison group, before Lead Peace began serving it as well.
According to Renee Sieving, associate professor at the U of M’s School of Nursing and the lead evaluator of the project, many other youth programs are “crisis-oriented,” while Lead Peace focuses more on preventing trouble by building relationship skills.
“They [the kids] learn to manage situations that might be stressful to them without blowing up,” said Sieving. “They learn to not let negative emotions take them down. They learn about recognizing those situations and being gentle with themselves and with others. … So we work on them understanding their own emotions.”
For the kids of Lead Peace, even the process of understanding emotions can be made into a community service project. As members of the group talked about empathy that night in June, seventh-grader Tyrik Thompson spoke up and said that it was more difficult for a boy to show compassion.
“Girls show their feelings more,” he said.
Irwin gently asked what feelings it is all right for a boy to show.
“Anger,” Tyrik answered.
“I’m really concerned that guys don’t have permission to cry,” said Irwin. “How can we help them?”
The kids got right down to business.
“We could show the guys different ways to handle stress and let out feelings,” said Josseline.
Toniyetta Davis, a freshman at Jackson State University come September, suggested starting a guys’ group, where they could talk about their issues.
Chaia Xiong, who will start college at St. Olaf in the fall, recommended teaching guys that “You don’t have to be this way. It’s just a stereotype.”
Chaia and Toniyetta were part of the very first group of sixth graders in Lead Peace. The lessons they learned have stuck.
“Ever since eighth grade and even throughout high school, I’m more willing to volunteer in the community,” Chaia said.
Toniyetta said, “It’s where I learned to be a leader.”
Sieving said that participation in the service projects of Lead Peace increased the confidence and self-image of the students. “When kids see themselves planning projects, working, doing what they planned, and seeing other people in the community grateful, it makes them feel proud. … You see yourself as this leader and someone who can make a difference in somebody’s life. …You know that you have the capacity to do great things.”
Toniyetta agreed: “I felt like I had something to offer them.”
Marilyn mentioned another Lead Peace project, where the students made a video on sexual harassment. “Everyone got to put their two cents in,” she said. Students had to motivate each other to get into the project and, at the end, there was a real feeling of ownership.
Ed Irwin of Peace Lead with a group of students
Sieving said kids build connectedness to peers by having to cooperate like this.
Noryda Pich, a sophomore at Patrick Henry High School, said “because of my years of working with Lead Peace, I learned to express leadership and communicate with other people. … I became more outgoing.”
Program leaders hope to expand it. According to Sieving, they have requested a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has helped fund the small project for several years. Sieving said that Lead Peace would like to expand to other schools, along with adding a place for parents, and a summer program.
Also, the Minneapolis School District want to expand service learning programming to 30 schools throughout North Minneapolis. They are using Lead Peace as a kind of “role model,” said Sieving.
Regardless of the program’s size, one lesson will remain the same. As Irwin told students that night: “If we all see the leader in ourselves and we all recognize it, other people will recognize it, too.”