Cruz Verdugo says that according to statistics, he should have grown up an angry and violent person.
But the work he's done with the Youth and Peace Conference gave him an outlet to transform anger into action opposing violence and hate.
More than 200 students and adult volunteers from all over Tucson, and some from Sonora Mexico, gathered on Saturday, April 2, for the fifth annual Youth and Peace Conference at Sunnyside High School. The free event, entitled "Expression and Communication: The Art of Preventing Chaos," included an opening speech by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, 12 peace-building workshops, art expos and dialogue circles meant to inspire hope and progress against violence in the community.
"In terms of facts, we have no statistics," said Verdugo, a senior at Palo Verde High School and a member of the Youth Leadership Team that organized the event. "We have no documentation about people stopping violence using what they learned at the conference. It is more of an individual thing. I believe it gives peace of mind to the people who volunteer, help out, and come to the conference."
While the most popular of the workshops was about sex and consent, workshop topics ranged from healthy relationships to mindfulness to how to behave on social media.
"What was memorable was that there were a lot of similarities in the summaries at the end of the dialogue circles," said Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa, adult advisor to the youth leadership team and president of the Culture of Peace Alliance. "We have somebody from each group come up and report their highlights. They all felt that effective communication had a lot more to do with listening than talking."
The leadership team, composed of seven high school students, spent the last few months developing the theme, creating guidelines and choosing workshop topics for the conference. In appreciation for the efforts of the youth and adult leaders, the mayor's office issued medals of recognition and a proclamation declaring April 5 as Youth Peace Day in Tucson.
"It's like forging metal," Verdugo said. "It has to get to a certain temperature in order for things to start, you know, molding into what they are supposed to be. We had a couple debates. We didn't like each other at some points, but it was really nice to see how teenage drama didn't get in the way of creating this conference."
Though the youth are the creative forces behind the conference, it was made a reality through the collaborative efforts of multiple organizations. The lead agency, Culture of Peace Alliance, or COPA, worked with over two dozen sponsors and donors, including the Sunnyside Unified School district, to fund and organize the event.
"There is a lot of violence in the world," said Mary Veres, director of public information for the Sunnyside Unified School District. "All you have to do is turn on the TV or the radio. Students need help in separating out what they are constantly hearing. This centers them back on how people should behave with each other. I think they learn a lot that, hopefully, they can take back to their own schools afterwards. We want to support any organization that is supporting kids, whether they're our kids or another district's kids."
With the success of the conference only days behind them, the team is already looking ahead to their next big event. COPA will be holding a nine-day Summer Institute beginning on July 5. Though the details and location are yet to be determined, the schedule will include certification classes on theories of nonviolence, dialogue circle facilitation and empowerment so that the youth in attendance can then, in turn, teach these topics to their peers.
Verdugo, who is in his third year on the Youth Leadership Team, is now a member of the Nonviolence Legacy Project crew of certified nonviolence trainers. He will graduate at the end of this semester.
However, in order for the Summer Institute and next year's Youth and Peace Conference to go ahead as planned, they need better funding and a group of committed partners to create a sustainable budget, Kaur Khalsa said.
"I'm a very pessimistic person," Verdugo said. "Realistically, I don't think this conference is ever going to put a real dent into the fabric of violence in our society today, but I do believe that, year after year, the more we do this conference, it becomes more of a brand name and the more people are going to start incorporating this conference into their lifestyle as a tradition. You know, coming to the conference and spending a day thinking about peace. I believe that is more effective than any jail cell there is in America."
For information about the Summer Institute, keep an eye on cultureofpeacealliance.org. For other questions about attending an event, becoming a donor, or getting involved in the leadership team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.