By: Pete Hutchison, YES Program Manager and Flint resident
Sitting in my office in Flint, Michigan reflecting on the tragedy that has taken place in Connecticut, I’m not sure what to make of it. After spending 39 years trying to prevent violence generally and youth violence specifically, it seems that there should be something profound to say. Yet as I sit here grieving for parents that will have an empty place at the table tonight, I’m not sure what the lessons are.
Certainly, it opens the door to a conversation about the accessibility to mental health services for our young. But this young man does not represent the entire population of young people in our country who suffer from the pain of mental illness. Having been honored to work with students suffering from a wide spectrum of mental health issues in a self contained classroom, I can personally attest to all the wonderful gifts that those children possess and the fact that we need to empower them just as we need to empower all young people, providing them with the opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of what it is. These youngsters do, however, require a specialized type of care for that empowerment to become a reality and we as a society need to guarantee that they get it.
The events of last week also point out the need for a frank conversation about the availability of firearms in this country. It appears that we have come to look upon the use of firearms as a legitimate means of conflict resolution, losing sight of the consequences of this strategy. It is apparent through our media, movies, video games, even our everyday vocabulary that we have granted firearms a favored position in our society, a quick and easy means to solve any problem. Unfortunately, with their relatively easy accessibility this is a solution that is too easy to invoke. The guns used in Connecticut, and too often on our city streets, are guns bought by goodhearted, law-abiding individuals that through a variety of means fall into the hands of people who use them for inappropriate purposes. I think it is time to look at the gun policies in this country.
I can’t help but be struck by the fact that we don’t seem to understand non-adversarial ways of solving conflict. Our methods of mediation appear to be lacking when it comes to reaching agreements in which both sides gain something. One doesn’t have to look far as we approach the cliff in our legislature, or the campaigns waged in our recent elections. How often do we tell our children “attack the problem not the person,” but when they watch their role models they see something entirely different being played out. This occurs daily on our streets, our schools, our homes, and our places of employment. The art of peaceful discussion is forgotten and we seem to be quick to follow the path of finality, where no one wins and a whole society loses. Maybe it’s time to add peaceful conflict resolution to the list of 21st Century skills that we feel our children must know.
Sometimes it seems as though we are becoming more and more of an isolationist society. One in which our reality is defined by reality television; our relationships are confined to Facebook and other social networking sites. As we walk down the streets and see people, do we acknowledge their humanity or are they simply obstacles to our destination? Is that car in front of us traveling the speed limit a person trying to obey the law or is it a stupid driver that needs to be in another lane? I’m afraid that as we spend more time locked up in our houses, offices and cars, we are losing site of the fact that the world is populated with people that think, feel and love just like we do. It has often been noted that we have sanitized war and that makes it easier to kill, I wonder if we haven’t sanitized life as well and if it’s not time to acknowledge the humanity of all humankind regardless of who they are or what they look like.
What transpired in Connecticut was a horrific tragedy. What happens on a smaller scale in cities across the U.S., and here in Flint all too often, is also tragic but does not always make national headlines. What is the solution, what can be done, what can one person do to help solve such a pervasive, deep rooted problem? It seems to me as I sit here and mourn the deaths of 26 of our nation’s heroes, there is a lesson to be learned. We can’t give up. We must continue to teach our children the ways of peace, love and compassion, not just for their friends but for everyone and the most effective means of teaching these lessons is to be the best role models we can be. The programs of the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center all work from a foundation of empowering young people to be positively engaged in creating a better place in which to live. To change the world begins with one simple act of kindness. It’s a step that we can all take young and old, today as we remember those that died in Sandy Hook Elementary, those that died on the streets of Flint, those whose lives have been shattered needlessly throughout our country and the world. It is not insurmountable, it is a lesson that has echoed through the ages and now must be in our hearts and actions as we move into the coming years.