The De-Mobilization of Hate: Addressing Mass Violence in Schools and Society
No society is perfect. At the Heartland Democracy and Hamline University co-hosted event: The De-mobilization of Hate: Addressing Mass Violence in Schools and Society, Bjorn Ihler, the evening’s keynote and native Norwegian, can attest to that. Norway, renown for the healthiest people in the world, was the site of two sequential terrorist attacks in 2011.
Bjorn describes through story how he came to be in the time and place where his sense of safety was forever altered. He describes a happy childhood in Oslo and a summer camp on an island just off Norway’s coast that was a beloved place for the country’s teenagers to camp. He describes the events of July 22, 2011, on that tiny island, the 77 lives lost to mass shooter Breivik, and his own encounter with him. It’s the story of a bullet fired from the gun of a man dressed as a policeman that grazed him, while he came to terms with leading a very short life. Bjorn was 20.
He lived. Survivors and families and friends all grieving from the loss of loved ones told themselves that this was a one-off event that would never happen again. But as we all know, that is not the case. Nearly eight years later, this violence continues, as does Bjorn’s mission to counter hate with peace. As a One Young World ambassador and a Kofi Annan Foundation Extremely Together Young Leader, he’s an academic, activist, technologist and storyteller working to end extremism.
He starts from a place of story. If we can use stories to listen and actually hear, we can change hearts and minds, he said. This is exactly where he started when he thought about his story and Breivik’s story in parallel. Bjorn became curious about how extremist views developed and went right to the source to talk with former extremists. He discovered they all had a similar pattern: a violent denial of diversity. They want everyone to have the same values and lifestyle. This means that when they encounter people that are different, they distance themselves and thereby dehumanize them, which can lead to violent action.
After a ten-minute break, we reconvened to hear from each panel member. James Densley, a fellow of the Hamline University for Justice and Law and co-leader of the mass shooter database project violenceproject.org, focused us around fear. Is fear that is constructed around “othering” to blame for a rise in crime? When we construct narratives using fear it’s to make sense of our grievances we hold like it’s not fair, it’s your fault, which leads to the idea that it’s okay to dehumanize others.
In James’ work with Jillian Peterson his co-leader, and students, they’ve built a database documenting 50 years of violent mass crimes and conducted interviews with incarcerated mass shooters. Their work has received global media attention. It acknowledges definitional challenges, reporting challenges and a whole host of statistical problems that cloud our understanding of how this data has been tracked since the 1980s.
James talked about the increasing consumption of 24-hr news with a heavy hand on violent crimes and the “Trump Bump” as contributors to fear, but ultimately a broader systemic change is needed. Be sure to see Jillian’s and James’ TEDxHamlineUniversity Talks here ((link: https://www.theviolenceproject.org/).
Christian Alberto Ledesma, assistant principal at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and former elementary school teacher in New York City and Minneapolis, began his story with his ten-block proximity to the Twin Towers on 9.11. The fear for him and those in his school moved from fire drills to bombings with no inkling that school shooters would be the next terrorist threat.
With over 17 years on the front lines as an educator, he points out the need to increase mental health support and find ways to move into a protocol for helping disengaged kids without further stigmatizing them. When we don’t get it right, it creates the “otherization” we need to avoid. For kids struggling in school and with their peers, he discussed how they conduct daily check-ins and rely on the staff’s gut feelings as experienced educators to flag behavior – which is great in many ways, but it’s not a process or official response.
Ahmed Amin, assistant principal at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis who holds a BA and M.Ed from the University of Minnesota, shared his experience with Heartland Democracy. In work with the nonprofit over years and at Sanford, he’s connected with youth by being vulnerable and creating a third-party way, i.e. literature, to have hard conversations with kids.
It cannot be all about a punitive response, he said. He reminded us that kids replay in school what adults are modeling for them at home and in their communities. We can start to have more effective impact by creating opportunities to counter hate at school, modeling respectful behavior and demonstrating we can unlearn negative behavior. He cautioned educators to not forget the part after addressing the issue: you have to build them and the community back up.
Kari Anderson Slade, as a coach, teacher and coordinator in the Minneapolis Public Schools for 22 years and adjunct faculty at Augsburg, believes in talking more openly and acting more urgently. We need to get our feet back on the ground to deal with the reality in our schools, which is why she found the aerial view of students marching single file out of a school after a shooting so disturbing. She wants to address the anxiety that’s on the rise in schools. She witnesses cultural identities that go unnoticed. For her part, she’s starting chipping away at those issues in her project, Breaking the Ice Off MN Nice.
She’s witnessed the power of art to bring out conversations, noting Nell Painter’s call and response art: You Say, which reminds us that hate is woven into the fabric of our country and historical trauma lives in our bodies. Kari works with activists and artists including Iliana Zephier and Tish Jones and first and foremost, approaches any opportunity with cultural humility.
The evening provided a great deal of context around the issues we face in our schools and society when it comes to mass violence. The speakers echoed story, empathy and vulnerability as resounding paths to answers and new behaviors for better outcomes. These activists and educators all had takeaways for the audience, including:
- Listen to our kids, they’re our biggest allies in the building. They know when the environment or a fellow student’s behavior feels toxic.
- It’s imperative that we create some space in school for active listening.
- Consider how to move away from the five+ mandatory mass shooter drills per school year, recognizing the trauma that instills in our children up to 60 times+ over grades K-12. Listen to our kids, they’re our biggest allies in the building. They know when the environment or a fellow student’s behavior feels toxic.
What will you plan to do to address these issues? We’d be open to hearing your constructive thoughts.
The De-mobilization of Hate: Addressing Mass Violence in Schools and Society event was held at Hamline University on Thursday June 20, 2019.