Adults have no monopoly on problem solving. If policing, prison and other conventional methods aren’t working, maybe it’s time to ask young people what they think should be done and really listen to what they say.

I began teaching classes in nonviolence theory and practice in a maximum-security juvenile facility near Washington, D.C., in 1998. The young men and women incarcerated there were being detained for myriad crimes: gang-related issues, shooting family members or violence against siblings or peers, for example. These young people had a few things in common: They were all people of color, all poor, all with low levels of literacy. Yet these qualities did not impede their ability to internalize the values and tenets of active peacemaking. As I worked with these young women and men, we all began to uncover the true meaning of nonviolence: listening to each other, validating each other’s experiences, figuring out how to make things more just, and becoming more in control of our emotions and responses to anger and violence.

By many people’s standards, I should not have been there teaching the people whom society deems unlovable, unteachable and unreformable, and who are at the end of a heavy-handed legalistic punitive society, all victims of finger-pointers rather than problem solvers. Yet the nonviolence classes at this juvenile prison worked because of faith in the creativity and self-expressiveness of each young person. I entered the jail ready to hear their stories in their own words and to address the issues most affecting them, like physical abuse at home, substance abuse and escalating verbal conflict.

In my estimation, violence stems from misunderstanding, which comes in comfortable positions who make decisions affectinfrom lack of communication, which comes from ignorance in the true sense of the word–and ignorance is combated only through education and dialogue. To truly get at the root of a problem, as a society we must abandon our ageist ideologies that adults have a monopoly over access to community building and problem solving. We must reincorporate young people back into the loop. This begins by listening to them and straightforwardly addressing their concerns and grievances.

In the first presidential debate, George W. Bush labeled “at risk” kids as “kids who basically can’t learn.” This stereotype haunts kids, especially minorities, making escape from these externally imposed confines more precarious. What is it like to be heard and understood? What is it like to be an adult with stature, a stable life, a voice and clear language and thoughts to express that which pleases and displeases? What must it be like not to be discounted based on race, age, appearance, location or other transient factors? Perhaps before our communities can make progress toward more peaceful relations, we need to hear and accept the daily complications that make life perilous for kids, in their own words and language, absent judgment and malevolent suspicion.

The recent smattering of gang-related shootings in Oxnard opens a door of potential dialogue for a long-standing and gravely important problem. First, designate a permanent means of addressing the complicated issues surrounding gang violence in Ventura County by institutionalizing classes in alternatives to violence specifically for gang members, creating a safe space for them to learn concrete methods of conflict management. Peace is not static; it is a forever-changing dynamic that requires finesse and negotiation and consistent maintenance. Peace is not the lull between explosions. To create a lasting peace, we must equip our young people with the teachable and learnable tools necessary to make competent, broad-minded decisions.

Next, give these young people the chance to be articulate and play an active role in making their communities better places. Offer the option of intra-gang and inter-gang facilitated dialogues by an impartial third party. Gandhi provides a wonderful guideline for such an encounter: Describe all that is shared in common against the one unshared separation, claiming a different gang. Allow them to become policy-makers and set the guidelines for creating safer communities. Ask them how to begin making things as right as possible rather than handing down mandates that might not address the real issues of why the gang violence has recently escalated.

If heavier policing, stricter sentencing and more time in juvenile hall or prison are not making a positive difference, then we ought to ask those directly involved what they think ought to be done. Their answers might just surprise us.

* Leah C. Wells is Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. She teaches a nonviolence class at St. Bonaventure High School and is director of the Southern California chapter of Nonviolence International. She is youth coordinator for Season for Nonviolence 2001.