With all the gun violence in the headlines, one may deeply consider their deeper causes and solutions that many are not talking about.
Since January 1, 2018 we have experienced a reported 18 school shootings – that is in just two months. Every time I hear or read about young people being slaughtered it brings untold grief and many tears to my eyes.
It also propels me back 23 years ago when my only son Tariq (whose 44th birthday was on March 6) was so tragically murdered by a 14-year-old when Tariq was only 20 years old. Seeing that there were victims at both ends of the gun – and to honor my son in a positive way – I forgave my son’s killer Tony and founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (www.tkf.org
) to address this malaise in our society. Youth violence is now an epidemic in our society where gun violence is the second biggest cause of death for young people, where serious attention is urgently needed.
TKF, in its 23rd year, has created a successful, viable and affordable solution to curb youth violence. While it is important to pass responsible gun laws, outlaw automatic weapons, eliminate easy access to guns and do more thorough background checks – I don’t believe that is the deeper answer for solutions that can turn these shooting trends around.
I started TKF with a simple premise that violence is a learned behavior. No child was born violent. If you accept that as a truism it follows that nonviolence can also be a learned behavior. But the key is YOU HAVE TO TEACH IT, as youth is not going to learn nonviolence through osmosis. Having now taught nonviolence worldwide to students through the work of TKF and having personally spoken to over a million students I know that these values of nonviolence and peacemaking are not only teachable, but our students are hungry to learn them. Here is how TKF has developed its Safe School Model, which comprises of four different programs:
1) Peacemaker Assembly:
Our signature program includes myself and Ples Felix (the grandfather and guardian of my son’s killer) live on stage where we are introduced: “this man’s grandson killed this man’s son and as you see they are here together on stage in the spirit of compassion and forgiveness as brothers.” I would never have met Ples had his grandson Tony not murdered my son. We are very different – he grew up as a Christian and I practice as a Sufi Muslim. We have been together now for 23 years teaching nonviolence and peacemaking. We will continue to do so until we are no longer able to do so. If you have not already viewed our TED Talk please check it out at: go.ted.com/azimandples. It has had over 800,000 views, and if you are so inspired please share this widely with your friends, family and network. It will showcase TKF’s work and hopefully will bring more resources to TKF so we can be at more schools.
Tony, now 37, is going to parole in October of this year and join us at TKF. I have been trying to get him released for over 12 years and am finally thrilled that he will be on TKF’s team. Tony is well educated in prison, twelve units away from his degree in Child Psychology and a voracious reader that has studied all the major religions and classic literature. He will share with the students his testimony and tell them when he was 11 he joined a gang, and when he was 14 he murdered my innocent, unarmed son. He can talk about spending the last umpteen years in prison, now wishing he could turn the clock back. When he joins Ples and I at these assemblies, he will indeed save many other young souls who might would have otherwise followed in his previous footsteps. We have saved Tony, but he will save many other young souls who may have been considering joining gangs and choosing a life of crime and violence. I believe that adequately demonstrates the power of forgiveness.
2) 10-Week Program: The second TKF program is a 10-week restorative practices curriculum taught by TKF staff during school hours where they learn how to make better choices, and deal with difficult emotions like anger, depression, disrespect, shame, guilt and other debilitating emotions. They learn how to develop empathy, compassion and forgiveness in order to become nonviolent leaders committed to peacemaking. The students learn how to repair damaged relationships, fix situations nonviolently and heal through forgiveness. They learn that peacemaking is a proactive effort and they have a part to play in promoting peace in their homes, school and community.
3) Peace Club: We also provide for a Peace Club on campus, which essentially is a leadership development club where we highlight 50 different titles that teach various skills, including how to be a nonviolent leader, and how to role model and teach these values. We teach that as nonviolent leaders they can never choose violence because it always makes situations worse not better. They have to learn that you cannot destroy violence with more violence. You can’t destroy dark with dark – only light can do that. You can’t destroy hate with hate; only love can do that. We teach that they must ALWAYS respond in a good and nonviolent way even when they are violated, as I was able to do. Realizing that anger is unexpressed grief, we teach that bullies also need help, and it’s in our capacity to be empathetic towards bullies and others who are displaying bad behavior.
4) Mentoring: Finally, our fourth program is mentoring. We have learned in Southern California Middle Schools, with typically 1,000 students, 8 to 10 percent are the at-risk kids likely to end up in gangs and a life of crime. We connect these kids with TKF mentors who diligently work with them teaching the above values in their homes, schools and communities. The mentors bond with these kids, and those relations mature into long-term support and friendship.
So, when considering solutions to the bigger problems society faces, we can look to the results of these programs.
In schools where TKF has its Safe School Model, we see increased attendance, higher SAT scores, a drop of expulsion and suspensions by 70 percent, as we teach the important values of empathy, compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking.
Often expelled and suspended students end up in gangs and then in the juvenile criminal justice systems. It costs the taxpayers $10,000 a year to provide free public-school education. It costs $140,000 a year to incarcerate a youth for one year, and even after spending that, the recidivism rate is 80 percent nationally. TKF’s safe school model costs $50 a year per student. A modest investment to save lives of our young ones!
Our ability to reach more schools is compromised by the lack of financial resources. That is the sad part, as I spend as much time raising money for TKF as I do teaching these important values. We have several schools waiting for our program, and it is my hope that one day the Department of Education can fund TKF and then we can be in every school that needs our program. In the meantime, we rely on individual, corporate and institutional funding to continue our work.
It is my sincere hope that in my lifetime we are able to get TKF funded and in so doing expand our work across our nation. In this way we can put an end to this malaise and return to being a civil society!
And in that space, my sisters and brothers, is where growth resides.