Mary E. Klassen -
Because the U.S. military actively recruits in public schools, Elkhart Advocates for Peace and Justice is working to bring a counter message.
“Nurturing Peace in our Community Schools” takes an emphasis on peace education into school lunchrooms at three high schools: Elkhart Central, Elkhart Memorial and Concord.
“Our objective is for students to know about a wide range of information from alternative, peace-orientated sources before they make a dramatically life-changing decision to sign up for military service,” said Wendell Wiebe-Powell, one of the leaders of the counter-recruiting effort.
Fellow member Jorge Vielman notes that one doesn’t have to serve in the military to be a good citizen.
“Working at peace is an option that the nation doesn’t present to young people,” he said.
The volunteers who spend time at a “Peace Education Table” during lunch periods emphasize what they are for more than what they are against. Wiebe-Powell encourages volunteers to let the students know they respect those who serve in the military but want students to be aware of alternative information, perspectives and peace-oriented opportunities.
Many students are concerned about how they will pay for a college education, so one of the volunteers’ goals is to share information. They talk about alternatives for funding higher education and career and volunteer service opportunities outside of the military. They also share information about the realities of military service and war that military recruiters do not tell students.
“We’re trying to show them options they haven’t known about before,” Louise Claassen said.
At the table, labeled with a banner saying “A different way to serve,” volunteers visit with students, answer questions and provide handouts with information. They also test students’ interest in creating a peace club in their school. Since the start of the effort a year ago, more than 50 students in the three schools have expressed interest in being part of a peace club.
Budget guessing game
On a recent visit to Memorial High School, Vielman and Claassen set up a guessing game to see if students could say what percentage of the federal discretionary-spending budget goes to certain causes — education, health and human services, military, transportation and other categories. They reported most students knew the military receives the largest share but did not know the extent of the difference between military spending and spending on education and other services.
Claassen said volunteers heard strong affirmation from the school social worker, maintenance engineer and assistant principal at that visit. Another time, an assistant principal said, “I’m so glad you are here,” and noted recruiters from different branches of the military are regularly present in the lunchroom.
The Elkhart Community Schools superintendent has welcomed these volunteers to the high schools.
Elkhart Advocates for Peace and Justice aims to be in each school once a month and seeks additional volunteers.
The group has qualified for a $1,000 grant from Mennonite Church USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network. This will help cover the cost of curriculum and speakers for peace clubs, as well as exhibits and handouts used in the lunchtime witness.