Invoking the words of Gandhi and Thoreau, a young Ventura teacher is spreading the message of nonviolence to all who will listen.
Wearing a pin proclaiming “Victory over Violence,” 23-year-old Leah Wells leads a class in nonviolence at a downtown Ventura church. Her students are young, middle-aged and old, but they share a common goal: making peace.
Dressed smartly in pearls and a black skirt and sweater, Wells teaches the course after a full day as an English and French teacher at St. Bonaventure High School. She begins one evening with a video decrying violence. Her students, gathered in the basement of the Church of Religious Science, quietly watch it.
Its message is clear: violence is all around.
“Everywhere you look, you see it,” the video says. “It’s in the school. It’s in the park. It’s everywhere.”
Students read a passage written by pacifist and folk singer Joan Baez. They discuss ways to calm angry people. Wells leads them in discussions touching on the death penalty and the economics of war. The evening culminates with a speech by Carol Rosin, a former defense company official who urges their help in keeping weapons out of space.
The course is structured around “Solutions to Violence,” a book developed by the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C.
Two years ago, Wells started working as an intern for the center’s founder, noted writer and teacher Colman McCarthy.
McCarthy wrote for the Washington Post for several years, but also is known for the nonviolence courses he developed to teach students how to resolve conflicts peacefully. His reach has extended from poor urban schools in East St. Louis to wealthy suburban schools in California, says an article in the nationally published Education Week.
“We are peace illiterates,” he told Education Week.
Leah Wells would like to change that in this corner of the world.
She wants to see courses on nonviolence offered in schools as well as juvenile detention centers in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties.
“So many of the peace people are working with good kids, but we’ve got to focus on kids that are struggling,” she said.
The Georgetown University graduate said she was inspired by her own parents. They taught her to do the right thing, that one’s word is one’s bond and that people should fight for justice, she said.
“Violence comes from fear, fear from misunderstanding, misunderstanding from ignorance,” Wells said. “Ignorance is addressed through education.”
She has taught nonviolence classes at a high school near the White House and at a juvenile prison in Maryland, she said. Next fall she will be teaching an elective course in nonviolence at St. Bonaventure, assuming that 20 to 25 students at the Catholic school sign up for the semesterlong offering. That will mark the first time St. Bonaventure has offered such a course, said the principal, Brother Paul Horkan.
Wells said Los Angeles High School is already offering the course, and officials at various juvenile facilities are considering it.
Such classes, though, are hardly ordinary. California schools offer training in conflict resolution to staff and students, but not usually as the separate courses that Wells envisions.
Bill White, administrator of the state Safe Schools and Violence Prevention Office, said schools usually offer conflict resolution as an extracurricular activity. Some of these peacemaking skills also are incorporated into other classes, he said.
“It’s not a stand-alone course,” White said. “I really don’t know how many of those there might be.”
Dealing with the approvals required by education and government does not seem to sway Wells’ fervor.
“She keeps pushing for what she wants,” Horkan said.
Recalling the words of Thoreau, she puts it another way.
“You are your own majority of one,” she said.