After a year away, Community Peacemakers at DePaul return to CPS classrooms.
Since 2011, the Community Peacemakers program, a student-run organization at DePaul University has been physically and emotionally present within Chicago Public Schools classrooms in an effort to help reduce violence against youth in the city. Working closely with Chicago Public School’s Office of Service Learning & Civic Engagement, CPM members served as college mentors for high school students.
While CPM’s partnership with CPS fell through and the peacemakers paused their work for over a year due to COVID-19, they pivoted their focus to work with other student organizations, collaborate with different offices on campus and provide peace circle spaces for DePaul students.
“One of the beauties of CPM is that everyone has issues they face and these individual experiences, and yet we’re able to connect and provide a space where all of that is validated,” said Yukiko Mayorquin, a senior coordinator for CPM.
Intrigued by their mission, Mayorquin joined CPM in her freshman year with a limited understanding of restorative justice practices. She now helps lead weekly resource-based training for members. Due to the continuously changing nature of the restorative justice theory, these meetings gave members a chance to regularly build their knowledge and foster a deeper understanding of violence in Chicago.
“[Restorative justice is] never just going to be this one definition, this one fact because it is defined by the community,” Mayorquin said. In and out of CPS, restorative justice can look like moving away from zero-tolerance policies, which in 2015 the American Federation of Teachers called “a failure” because of its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown youth, or aggression replacement training and a focus on social and emotional learning, the latter being used across different Chicago schools.
After regaining a connection with their CPS liaison this year, peacemakers returned to classrooms during an extremely challenging time for students.
According to a survey conducted by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 64% of the polled parents believed their child’s development would suffer lasting impacts due to the pandemic with 71% of them being primarily concerned about emotional development.
Some studies found an increase in U.S. teenagers experiencing severe depression and anxiety within just the first couple of months of the initial lockdown. Data provided by the CDC revealed the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits for 12 to 17-year-olds from mid-March to October 2020 increased by 31% compared to 2019.
While Mayorquin mentored students struggling with a range of different social issues, she noticed mental health becoming a recurring topic months before the pandemic even started. They not only were curious to learn about the subject but also felt strongly about making mental health resources more accessible. She helped her previous classroom create an art gallery centered around mental health issues.
“Everyone had different interpretations and artistic visualizations of what mental health was like and what certain mental illnesses were like just different projects to reflect depression, loneliness… all those things that come with being in high school and being a teenager,” Mayorquin said.
Martria Clifton, an English teacher at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School, recognized similar patterns of thinking in her own students when interacting with the peacemakers. She recalled them asking about depression and suicide — specifically, ways to recognize symptoms in their loved ones at home.
“I can see the students being very open and bringing those issues to light, and maybe through it all, with this collaboration with DePaul University, we can actually solve some problems,” Clifton said.
Throughout her 10 years of teaching, she witnessed firsthand the issues that unfold within students if their social and emotional issues aren’t addressed correctly.
“They can actually bring that into the classroom, and sometimes, if they don’t know how to work through those issues, you have this big conflict. It will spill out with each other and other students … and actually, it spills out in the community,” Clifton said.
A peace project created by some of her past students hung proudly on the wall of Clifton’s classroom this year. It was a quilt, with each section describing how they will contribute to bettering their community. Phrases included “stop the drugs,” “stop the bullying” and “education is power.”
Header image by Samarah Nasir