June 24, 2017

Jerzy Nowak’s Story III: We Started Dreaming Together

The Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention

Thirty-two dead at Virginia Tech, resulting from a damaged mind. Nearly 3,000 dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania resulting from twisted religious fanaticism. Another 1,700, possibly more, in Hurricane Katrina, resulting from wind, water and human carelessness. Uncounted more deaths in tragic events every year in the United States and across the world. Nothing can erase the grief those losses left, or make sense of their senselessness. But humans do sometimes find a way to create something positive from their pain. At Virginia Tech, Jerzy Nowak closed his personal account of the 4-16 tragedy by recounting the creation of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which now occupies the space in Norris Hall where the shootings, including that of his wife, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, occurred:

Remember Francine [his stepdaughter] who was handling the media? She was giving interviews in both French and English, and the French BBC asked her what do you think should be done with Norris Hall? And she said, you know, there should be a peace center there. And the media took it on and it was all over Canadian newspapers and some here. And then she came to me and said I hope it’s okay that I suggested there should be a peace center in Norris Hall. And that’s where the concept started.

There was an announcement made that Norris Hall will not be used for classes. There will be offices. A few weeks later the faculty members who lost their spouses had a gathering and one of them said well, what will happen with Norris Hall and how about this peace center we’ve heard of through the media? So then on a visit with the provost who was introducing a new employee and who came to my house, I said, I have this concept of violence prevention and promotion of peace, and I said I don’t mind competing for this space if there was a competition. And he said the space has been allocated but people are refusing to move in. So, long story short, the competition was announced and it was overwhelming to me that without announcing or advertising that we were developing this concept, we had close to 20 people around the table during our first meetings. Literally it was spontaneous. This was the positive outcome of this tragedy.

Discussions at the Center.

A few people had PTSD but a large group of people became dynamic. People started communicating with each other. Different disciplines were coming together. I worked with engineers and everybody from across the campus. And we started dreaming together. The program is student-centered. The mission is research, education and leadership to prevent violence, promote peace and enhance human security, to provide opportunities for student engagement in prevention of violence and contribution to peacemaking. An immediate outcome of creating the center was a contribution to the post-traumatic healing process, with primarily the families but also the entire community, the community who interact with us and who heard about us.

To fulfill this primary goal of student-centered mission, I spoke to the students who started the Teach for Madame program. My wife was called Madame by her students. Some of them spontaneously came to me and said they had this idea to teach French culture and language in the Harding Elementary School. I talked to them about the teaching philosophy of my wife, and her contribution to early childhood education. I actually had a suitcase of props of hers and I had put it in the garage so I could think later what to do with it. So the next day I brought this trash bag and said here are these props. She made them all — she was a really passionate teacher. The students started a 501c(3) charter organization raising money and building a community around it.

We’re trying to develop two concentration areas, violence prevention and conflict resolution, and peace studies. We’ll be developing a minor. The fundamental approach to this is the students will do it, and it will be multi-disciplinary. We will also try new approaches to develop leadership skills — not teaching about leadership but actually developing leadership skills. The first thing we’re going to organize is a program working in the high school. My daughter is planning to organize a studies for peace movement, affiliated with the students for nonviolence club, in her school as a branch. In the longer term we are aiming at the development of an effective student support network that includes evolution of self-governance, developing responsive protocols for safety and security plans, awareness of post-traumatic stress symptoms, enhancing recovery. Unless students are part of it will never work. Students have to take responsibility. There’s a violence prevention committee which has members from the campus and the town.

We plan to have 32 peace fellowships supported by 32 endowments, which is symbolic. Interest from the endowment will be used to foster the student activities we’re talking about.

The major challenge in this society, I believe, is securing a safe school environment as a key obligation. We hear about school violence over and over again. This society is destroying itself. We live in a gun culture with media violence and too much crime and guns too readily available. Thus the process of creating a safe schools  is  more important than ever before in ensuring stress free learning environment.