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Peacemaker Movement Expands Citywide Culture of Peace

Reverend Mante is quick to admit that what keeps him motivated is the kids they work with.
Change Your Fate Photography
Reverend Mante is quick to admit that what keeps him motivated is the kids they work with.

After working for three years with the student population at South Side High School, Alive Community Outreach is expanding its Peacemakers Program to all of the high schools in the Fort Wayne Community School system.

The organization’s vision, according to Executive Director, Angelo Mante, is bold but simple: a beloved community free from the cycle of violence.

And to that end, its Academy’s peacemaking curriculum is rooted in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of nonviolent conflict reconciliation.

Mante sat down with Julia Meek to talk about the program, what the addition of on-staff peace advocates will afford this student-led movement, and how its pilot program at South Side High School ranks as a model for change.

Find out more about the Peacemakers Program at the Alive Community Outreach website.

Below is a transcription of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Reverend Angelo Mante, welcome.

Angelo Mante: Hello.

Julia Meek: Just about three years ago, you were organizing the new Peacemaker Academy model at South Side High School. Now that project is ready to go city-wide. Congratulations. How does it make you feel right now?

Angelo Mante: Incredible! We never imagined being at this point, right now, when we started out. If you asked us what our long term vision was, I mean, it may be something like this, expanding into all the schools and advancing this work, but how fast things have taken off, and the impact that we've seen and experienced at South Side has just been, it's humbling. It's just, it's amazing.

Julia Meek: And it's very, very well deserved. Again, congratulations.

Angelo Mante: Thank you.

Julia Meek: So briefly, what is a peace advocate's role in a high school setting, like the Fort Wayne Community School system?

Angelo Mante: The model is still being worked out. And at Southside, peace advocates, they do a lot of different things. At South Side we didn't start out having a peace advocate like we will at these other schools so things will look a little bit differently.

But the biggest responsibility is to recruit peace makers. Cause this is a student led movement. We have a summer academy and so the peace advocate will be recruiting students from their schools who will be a part of our summer academy and they will walk with them and mentor them throughout the course of the year to really help those students with whatever it is that they want to do.

We're giving them the framework for change, but they're the ones that are initiating it. So that's number one. But other than that there's a lot of mediations that happen throughout the course of the day, walking the halls, being in the cafeteria, just building relationships with students.

 At South Side we actually have a Peace Room. That room is a healing space so there's just mediations but all kinds of stuff and for students that are in that room all day.

 Julia Meek: This is meant to be really an action based organization within a school system, but it really involves the students themselves taking active roles. Is that an easy thing to even consider doing let alone making it work?

Angelo Mante: It's easier than anything I've ever done. What surprised us coming into Southside we didn't know how ready they were to step up and to be the change, to be the peace that they want to see.

They just needed some skills, they needed to be equipped and empowered to do it. It's not a hard message to get students to rally behind by any stretch.

 Julia Meek: Did that surprise you? Or were you counting on that?

Angelo Mante: It surprised us? We were hoping for that, I wouldn't say that we were counting on that; we had this framework with Kingian nonviolence. And we did some early pilot trainings with young people and it seemed like they were really responding to it.

 And so that was the seed for us that said, okay, you know, there's, there's something here, let's give this a shot. And that's when we approached the principal at South Side back then. And we had the academy that summer in 2021.

 And I think from the jump, from that first summer, we were like, alright, let's get ready to buckle up. Because these kids they are...we got to keep up with them. (chuckles) You know, because we're giving them this framework for change, and then what we do, the role we have in all of that, too, is a part of our model, we call it "top down bottom up" which is if you want to get anything done, right, if you want to create change, you need that grassroots movement and people but you also need to be working with those who have the power and the capacity to make changes, whether it be from a policy standpoint or whatever.

That's our role in that too. So if our students want to get something done, if they want to see something change, we're kind of working with them, but also working with the administration. And one of the first things that we did that first year in our academy, we worked with the students, we asked them well, what do you love about South Side?

What would you, when you come back here 20 years from now, what do you want to see still happening here at South Side. So we had that conversation, but then what do you want to change? What are some issues of violence? What are some issues of injustice, whatever it may be, and so they created a whole list.

And then the principal came into the academy and looked at that list. And he said, you know, I'm concerned about this too and I'm concerned about this too. So we're already starting from a basis of agreement and alignment in terms of what everybody from the top all the way down to the students feel needs to change. And so now we're just kind of helping to keep the ball rolling.

Julia Meek: A solid basis, a solid foundation which you're building on it and keeping it staying strong.

Angelo Mante: Yeah.

Julia Meek: And public referendum's passing last November got this to be a reality, putting it in the public school system. Now, what does it take to get it going?

 Angelo Mante: So yeah, the referendum passing, us being part of this plan is just amazing to us. Because a little bit over a year ago, my 10 year vision was for us to expand into all the high schools and Fort Wayne community schools.

 And now, you know, we're here because of the referendum in the district and the superintendent, seeing the impact at Southside and saying, we want to see that and all the schools. So at this point, what we learned that first year, as amazing as it was, was that we needed a staff person in the school, we call them a peace advocate, to really help keep moving things forward.

And also to do some other things, intervention, mediation and that type of work. What we're gonna be able to do now is hire a peace advocate for every school. And so this year, the plan is to add North Side and Northrop and the very first thing that those peace advocates will be doing this semester with a few months that will have left is to recruit peacemakers, they're going to be going in there immersing themselves in the school, hanging out whatever they can go to that students are a part of, wherever the kids are, that's where they're going to be.

And then working with the administration with the counselors to identify 12 student leaders who want to change things who want to be advocates for peace. That'll be the first task and then we'll have an academy this summer, but for the first time rather than 12 students we will have 36 students, and then next year when we hire the Snider and Wayne advocates and get the ball rolling they'll, then recruit students for their school, and then we'll go into the next summer's Academy in '25 with 60 peacemakers. So...

 Julia Meek: (chuckles) It's exponentially already working.

Angelo Mante: Right. Right. Right.

Julia Meek: That is wonderful. And your core mission now is supporting families affected by homicide, and actively working on gun violence. That all makes it tough topic for another day, Angelo, all on its own. Meanwhile, though, how directly and how intensely do those very things drive your peacemaking plan?

Angelo Mante: Very directly, and very intensely. As you know, my personal story, you know, the murder of my cousin is what started this whole journey for us. And so there's that peace, it was very personally motivating for me.

But also, the support is critical and providing support for families, as long as there are families to support we want to do that. When we started the movement, even before we started it, we were asking the question, what can we do that would lead ultimately to less families needing support in the first place?

 So that's the question that led us to the peacemaker movement. I call it a movement instead of, it's not really a program. It's more than that. And these different areas that we're working in aren't silos either. But there was a young man that was killed a few days ago, that was a Southside graduate.

And there's a student from Snider a couple days before that, a current student who was killed. Almost with any shooting, even if it's not a student, or a young person who themselves are killed, every shooting, there's connections in the school system to kids.

So we're even starting to reimagine what that part of our work looks like and having that staff person that we have Cynthia, who's working in that area more integrated into the work that we're doing in the schools.

 That's the motivating factor for us, the shootings and gun violence and all of that, what we're hoping long term that the peacemaking work that we're doing is going to change that narrative, but it'll take time.

Julia Meek: Okay, nonviolence training and conflict resolution really being key in these situations, how do you establish them at that leadership level that you're talking about, but all the way through the systems?

Angelo Mante: It starts with the peacemakers. So in the academy, that's where we do our really intensive nonviolence training. That's three weeks and so we take them through the whole curriculum and go out, we do field trips, looking at Fort Wayne, we talk about violence in Fort Wayne, statistics and ask hard questions.

We look at history and so that there's a lot that they go through in the summer that we build on. That curriculum of nonviolence is the basis for everything that we do in the school. We're not going that deep, but for instance, we have an afterschool Peace Club on Thursdays. And that's open to any student.

Our academy is competitive and have to apply and go through that process but the Peace Club is open to any student. And so we're teaching things here and there as we can. Sometimes things happen, like with a kid gets shot in the school, and we're just talking about that and dealing with that.

But we try to infuse our nonviolence philosophy throughout all of our programming and then doing things like with art in the building. Just things as simple as Dr. King six principles. If you go in the Student Commons at South Side High School, all of the six principles of nonviolence are painted on the pillars there in the Student Commons, just making it more visible and making things like days of peace.

 We celebrate consecutive days of peace and cumulative days of peace. But every single morning as part of morning announcements, the peacemakers are on there with the principal and they say this is where we're at, you know, so that everybody's conscious of it. So it's part of that culture shift, that raising awareness and consciousness about violence and peace.

Julia Meek: It's pretty incredible the way things are working. Now as regards skill sets, for the peacemakers, for the leaders that you get in there and then all of the following that you hope to draw and grow with that. What do you look for in those advocates?

 Angelo Mante: We have a list of qualifications and preferred qualifications but I think what rises to the top? The non-negotiables? (chuckles) Really?

Julia Meek: Yes.

Angelo Mante: A commitment to nonviolence would be nice, you know. (all laugh) As, as a way of life, you know, not where I'm going to come and teach nonviolence and then go out and do other things, a commitment to nonviolence, and not necessarily Kingian nonviolence in particular, because a lot of people don't even know what that is.

 Julia Meek: It is a great guide to life.

Angelo Mante: Right.

Julia Meek: And you are using it; one does not have to know that to reap the benefits from it.

Angelo Mante: Right, and of course, we'll train our people and all that. But you got to be good with youth and comfortable with youth and have a demonstrated track record of working with young people from diverse populations.

There are other things that are important, but I think those two things are the most important. And be willing to step into an environment and really take ownership. Because what we've done at South Side has been amazing, but this isn't a copy and paste model. It’s very context driven. It's student driven.

So the students out at Northrop, or the students on at North Side, they may have a different vision. Now, there are certain pieces that are going to be consistent, like the academy and peace clubs and the way we do mediations and all that, but they have to be able to really go in there and see.

You have the eyes to see the possibilities and the ears to listen to the students as far as what they want to see done.

 Julia Meek: Great points. And you have had three years to get your act down, pat. You seemingly are. What have the results been activity and especially attitude wise, with everybody involved?

 Angelo Mante: Yeah, well, I don't know we have our act down pat. (both laugh) And we're still...we got a lot of work to do at South Side. But I just pulled up a couple statistics. The superintendent reported on this around the referendum, just talking about some of the statistics at Southside from last semester.

 So tardies were down at 9%, cutting class down 25%. Guns down 100%, fighting down 31%. Disruptive conduct down 19%, average F grades per student down 36%. We're not going to take credit for this but I think that we're part of that.

 Last semester, they piloted the other aspects of the Safer Schools plan. So the student advocates were there, the weapons detection system was there. So I think all those collective supports got us here to this place. But we've been, even before this last year, we've been tilling the ground and seeing this steady progress year in and year out.

And I think in terms of the attitude, that has been a big shift, because when we came in, I think there was some like, okay, what are these people? Who are they? What are they about? And then we didn't have a staff person in the building, too.

So we're trying to build relationships with not just students, but also teachers and staff, which is hard to do when you're not in the building with them on a day in and day out basis. But now that we have a staff person in there who's been able to build those relationships, they see that this is more than a program, because I think that was kind of the, Okay, this is another program.

This is a movement! This is a movement that you really see people buying into.

Julia Meek: Is it difficult to get the momentum building? That sounds like it just happened faster than you could even stop and analyze it. Did it surprise you?

 Angelo Mante: The speed of the momentum? Yes, it did surprise us. And it all goes back to that first group of students that we had in 2021. I think that the staff, the administration saw how passionate those students were.

 And one thing I've learned over the years about educators is that when they see their students getting excited about something, they tend to get really excited, that lights something up in them too. So I think that was a big part of it, seeing how motivated those students were and the things that they were able to do and get done that first year without having an adult staff person dedicated to this in the building.

And I think from there, that second year hiring a staff person to be in the building and having a great relationship with the administration, that has allowed us to do, you know, a lot of things. And when we have an idea, very rarely is it just shot down, they're like yeah, let's try it. Let's do it.

 This peace room, that has been having a dedicated space in the building was something that we just got this year. And that has been a game changer for us. And that's becoming part of the model for the other schools as well.

Julia Meek: It also allows you to think about the long term and generational changes that you are hoping to experience. What do you see in three years?

 Angelo Mante: Yeah, I...whoohuh...three years. Like I said, you know, a year ago, I thought 10 years from now I'd be where we are right now. So it's hard to even see three years out where we might be. I get the sense that the Southside is the model for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

I have a sense that Fort Wayne Community Schools and what we're doing in this district could become a model for other districts. Because what we're doing right now has been so effective quickly, and it's not rocket science either. It's really not. What we're doing is it can be replicated. That's one.

But I think the larger piece from a societal standpoint, what I'm excited about is that, you know we could talk about any particular social issue like gun violence, which is our motivating factor and obviously,

 I want to see long term homicides go way down in Fort Wayne and stay down, not just have a good year and say, Oh, things are going well, then the next year, it's up again, you know. Having a downward steady trend with homicides and gun violence in our community.

 But what excites me most that what we're doing is we're giving these young people a framework, a model for change, right? And so as they're graduating, they're going to go out into the community.

And whatever the social issue is, of that time, whether in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years from now, they're going to have a model for not just letting their voice be heard, but actually for organizing for change. That's the greatest gift that Dr. King gave us.

 Not any single political victory or achievement, but this model for social change that can be applied to a whole host of different issues--to any issue.

 Julia Meek: And a host of generations. That has to be an incredibly hopeful part of everything that you are doing right here, right now. This is a big deal and it's deceptively simple.

 I'm not saying it is easy, but the plan, like you say, it's pretty straightforward, Angelo. Bottom line with that teen death by gun violence and suicide, all those grim figures, the changes that you are making, the changes that you're seeing, this IS doable? Is this what we are hearing from you?

Angelo Mante: Yes! yes. But we have to attack the issue. You know, what is the issue? What's leading to teenage suicide? What's leading to gun violence in the community?

And that's another part of King-ian nonviolence, is about not just eliminating conflict, but getting underneath the conflict and trying to figure out what's the root issues here?

So if we're committed to doing that, and if we are training a whole generation of peacemakers to do that, then I'm very hopeful for the future.

 Julia Meek: And how do you stay motivated to carry on this mission and continue giving people hope as well, Angelo? Who inspires you?

Angelo Mante: The kids we're working with. The kids we're working with! And the families too that have been affected by homicide, and many of them transforming that pain into purpose, and action. That motivates me too, but the young people, this next generation, I mean, the Summer Academy?

In my role, I'm not in the school every day, in my role, I wear a whole bunch of different hats, and I'm raising money in writing grants. And then when I get to meet with them, and spend time with them, it's like, this is the why, this is my why, because I see not just their potential, but I see what they're actually doing.

And I say this all the time, we talk about the youth as our future, And I say, oh, well maybe, but none of us are promised tomorrow, right? Like they are our present. They are our now and we're seeing that happen. We're seeing them do the work right before our eyes.

That is what keeps me going. Because if they're able to keep doing that, and then the kids coming up behind them, we're able to work with them and continue--just thinking about the math of it, right?

 If we have 60 peacemakers every year that we're graduating from this academy, every single year, pretty soon, we're gonna have a whole lot of people, a whole lot of peacemakers in this community who are equipped to change.

 Julia Meek: What's next on your short and medium term horizons then?

Angelo Mante: So right now, really focusing on this expansion in Fort Wayne Community schools, because this is a huge opportunity for us and for this movement of peacemaking. We're not taking anything for granted at Southside either.

 It's still a very new young program there. So making sure that we continue to do the work there and double down there and not, you know, kind of turn away from south side to focus on these other schools that we're trying to start because there is a lot that goes into just getting things off the ground.

 I've had other school districts that are interested in having conversations, and I'm never lacking for ideas. They're things related to community based intervention that I'd like to see us do at some point. But right now, the focus is getting our peace advocates hired and trained, getting more peacemakers trained from the two schools that were adding, and really doing this well.

 Julia Meek: Building it and they will come.

Angelo Mante: Right.

 Julia Meek: That's a dream come true. Indeed. Let's look outside, or should I say all around the schools that your work is and will be happening in. What's going to change in those neighborhoods and spaces?

Angelo Mante: That's a good question. That's a good question, because the kids they leave school and go back into their neighborhoods and you know, the work that we're doing with the peacemakers, we're not really doing any neighborhood based work right now, but my hope is more along the long term changes, because there's still lots of issues, when you talk about the concentration of violence in the southeast quadrant, and all of that's changing.

You know this year, we haven't had one yet in the southeast, and we're at number six, I believe. Cause what are the conditions there, right? Peeling back the layers of the onion, racism and poverty and all of that, right?

 And just having students that are equipped with that knowledge and a framework for thinking? Our hope would be that they would be a part of the change, but there's a lot of positive things that have already happened, that has nothing to do with us.

 The city and other initiatives, I think that there's a lot of energy around so much of those things that I think we're headed, as a city, in a positive direction, and I can see us being a part of that, not necessarily spearheading any neighborhood level changes.

Julia Meek: Because we're all in this together.

 Angelo Mante: Absolutely.

 Julia Meek: And everybody has a chance to be showing it now.

 Angelo Mante: Yeah.

 Julia Meek: And meanwhile, where do you want all of this to take you and yours, and the city we call home? What changemaking can we hope and pray for as Fort Wayne's peace advocates take up this wonderful cause?

 Angelo Mante: How cool would it be if, and this was not our vision or idea coming into this, but you know, what if Fort Wayne is looked at as the model for peacemaking, for addressing violence, for addressing gun violence. How cool would that be?

You know, I think right now, it's just all right, we got to get this next phase right. But Southside has become this model for the whole district and if we're able to do at the other four schools, what we've done at Southside, I see us being a model for, for more communities.

That's as far as my little mind can see right now, because (chuckles) things have gone so fast, and opportunities have come that we didn't expect to come. But one thing about me, I am a vision person, but I'm also very methodical.

There are all kinds of opportunities, especially once you start to have some success with anything, opportunities that come and phone calls that come in and you have to really exercise discipline, say we're going to work on this and then whatever's next is next. This is what's in front of us that I'm really focused on right now.

 I'm deeply appreciative of all the folks in Fort Wayne but especially those who went to the polls on November 7 and voted yes for safer schools. I think not just the work that we're doing with the peacemakers, but all of the district's additional resources and support that those dollars will pay for are very much needed and will be put to good use.

Julia Meek: Reverend Angelo Manty is social activist and executive director of Alive Community Outreach. Thank you for making a difference in our community. Angelo, thank you for sharing the story with us. Do carry the gift.

Angelo Mante: Thank you.


A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.