29 April 2007

The opposite of violence is participation

“…children regarded the opportunity to participate in various activities as having the opposite effect to violence.”
From SOS Children's Villages Report Januray 2004 “Seeing Beyond Violence: Children as ResearchersPDF version
“[T]he opposite of violence is participation.”
on Frameshopisopen.com April 7, 2007
Denying someone the opportunity to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect their life is to do violence to them. This is the subtle side of violence. This is the kind of violence that we can easily overlook when it is perpetrated by benevolent, but nonetheless despotic leaders who give every impression of having our best interests at heart. This is also the trickiest form of violence to root out because it is so deeply embedded in so many of the habits of thought that we have inherited from enduring this same violence in many forms throughout our lives.
For instance, whenever we make a decision for the good of our children without giving them an opportunity to participate in the process, then we run the risk that we may have done them a disservice. Of course, it is a risk that is easily dismissed when they are very young, but it is one that grows everyday, unless we act to address it.
The fact is that children, when they are young, will never miss the opportunities they never had because they are basically programmed to assume that just about everything that happens to them on a regular basis is by definition normal. This is why abuse is such a difficult cycle to break, each new young victim takes abusive behavior to be the norm. In the same way, when I was young I accepted that the adults telling me what to do, how to do it, and when was simply the normal way things are done and since it is normal then it is, defacto, also the correct way.
When I realized that I have a passion for working with children I naturally assumed that it was my duty and responsibility to provide activities for them all the time and to make all the decisions about what is expected and acceptable. Since my first time in charge of kids was as a Camp Counselor this worked out great. Later, when I was working in child care settings with large groups of young children I began to realize that there were some problems with this way of thinking. It was when I began to seriously reflect on my own schooling and had been out of formal schooling environments for a few years that I began to think differently about what is versus what should be normal, correct, and possible.
As I said the possibility of doing violence against children by excluding them from the decisions that affect their lives is one that can be minimized through action. The action that minimizes our risk of perpetrating the inadvertent violence of excluding children from a decision is to make a regular practice of including them as much as possible in discussing the decisions you make on their behalf. It is inevitable that you will make decisions that they do not like and occasionally that you cannot discuss with them, but the latter should be the exception, not the rule.
In school or group settings the challenge of providing opportunities for participation are very different, but the necessity of preventing violence is even more urgent. The challenge is actually very straightforward, how can we reasonably provide children with the opportunity to influence the creation, administration, and enforcement of the rules and policies of the school or group. Meeting the challenge is not going to be easy, although there are several models to choose from. The Democratic School Movement, exemplified by Sudbury Valley School, for instance, is a direct application of the principle of full participation by virtue of membership in the school community, rather than according to membership in a privileged class of people within the community (such as staff, parents, administration, etc.).
I do not believe that every school needs to abandon the distinctions between different members of their community, but they can root out the ways that their institutional governance condones subtly despotic violence against children by well-meaning and benevolent adults who may not know any better.
Businesses are another area where the benevolent despot model is pervasive. What would our work lives be like if we acknowledged the rights of every stakeholder to have a voice in the policies that determine how the company relates to it’s employees, the environment, and the local community in which it is located?

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