2009/03/28: WNPJ Steering Committee Meeting - Plover

How to talk to adolescents  -- about alternatives to military service, about peace, about living a non-violent life -- was the focus of WNPJ's annual spring steering committee meeting held in Plover on March 28. A pediatrician, a high school teacher, and an Iraq war veteran shared the program, and WNPJ member groups from across the state reported on their current social justice projects. 

Photos and story by B. Christofferson (Cham Nusz, Deb Foster, group)

The frontal lobe of a teenager's brain -- the part that involves decision-making -- isn't fully matured yet, Dr. Carl Stafstrom, professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, explained.   Late adolescence is a critical period in brain development.  That accounts for some of the bad decisions and high-risk behaviors that result, and argues for "anticipatory guidance" on issues like driving, sex, drugs, eating disorders and others, he said.  To that list he would add military service, he said in an article in the professional journal Pediatrics (located here).

"Enter the recruiter," says Stafstrom, "a salesman wth quotas to meet," and a whole range of techniques to make a sale -- starting with promises of world travel, education, excitement .  Recruiters target the most vulnerable demographics,and  have virtually unlimited access to teens through the schools, Stafstrom said.   Although students can opt out of being contacted, that option is not publicized and most don't know it, he said.

To offer some counterbalance, Stafstrom provides pediatricians, family practice physicians, nurses, counselors and other who come into contact witrh adolescents with information they can share with the young people on the Selective Service system and alternatives to military service, including conscientious objection.  Although there is no draft at the moment, 18 year old males still must register, and if the draft were reinstated things could move quickly, he said.

Deborah Foster, a political science and social studies teacher at Northland Pines High School in Eagle River,  did not expect to be a peace studies teacher when a neighbor raised the issue across the fence a few years ago.  

But after a highly-charged, public and sometimes very bitter public debate and struggle and some "ugly, ugly, ugly" school board meetings, she is teaching a nine-week peace studies course for juniors and seniors that has become "an elective class that everyone takes," she said, and more than 200 students have taken the class.  It appears to be the only such peace studies program in the state, although Foster believes many other schools offer it as "part" of social studies classes.

An anthology assembled by Colman McCarthy is the foundation for the class.  When she submitted the list of readings with her curriculum, the president of the school board went through each one , highlighted parts he found "objectionable" and made a copy for every member of the board. One of the objectionable quotes, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from his famous Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam war: "Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Our greatest defense against Communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice."  He left Gandhi's material alone, she said, then realized, "I'll bet this man had never read this stuff," and considered it a small victory that he has now been exposed to it.  

At one point during debate on the course the board president said, "Isn't it time we teach students when it's the right time to punch somebody in the nose?"  (In the end he was the only "no" vote as the course, which had the support of the school administration, won approval 6-1.)  He refused to allow his daughter to take the course.

Foster's course covers the lives and teachings of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, as you might expect.  But it also includes sections on Poverty as Violence, introduces students to meditation (15 minutes unplugged from electronics), and challenges them in activities that practice tolerance and forgiveness in real-life situations.  Nonviolence, local peacemakers, environmentalism and vegeterianism all are discussed, as is "20th Century Genocide," which Foster describes as, "We kill everybody, then we consider, "Wow, did we maybe make a mistake?'"   And there is an action component, with students picking a service project like aid for the people of Darfur.

The class has had an effect after students graduate, Foster says, with reports from students working on humanitarian projects, pursuing a major or minor in peace studies in college, or becoming politically active.  One, she said, is even Young Republican president on his campus.  And having someone with a peace studies background in that role must be a good thing.  

Todd Dennis, an Iraq Veterans Against the War leader who is now a WNPJ staff member, ended the day with a reminder of all of the resources military recruiters have at their disposal.  "What Would You Do With 5 Billion Dollars" was the say's theme, and that number, Dennis said, was the recruiting budget in 2007.  Estimates are that it may have been as much as $20-billion last year, he said.

The Army's arsenal of recruiting gimmicks includes the seductive Virtual Army Experience, a multi-million dollar interactive "game" that the Army says simulates what it is like to be on a mission.  When the exhibit visited Milwaukee's Summerfest last year, it triggered protests from the peace community that succeeded in stopping the "game" -- which had allowed children as young as 13 to shoot from a Humvee at video screens with human targets -- and replace it with one more like a target range, with only those 17 and over allowed to take part.  To participate, young people are required to provide personal information which the Army uses in its recruiting efforts.

That's the public part of recruiting, but Dennis said much of the recruiters' information and access comes through the school systems, which allow recruiters virtually unlimited access to students, administer armed forces aptitude tests and share the results with the military, and generally make it very difficult for anyone wanting to present alternatives.

Dennis and WNPJ's antiwar working group are working to : create new recruiter access policies and get them passed by the school boards; get guidance counselors to change their release option on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery tests and promote the use of opt-out forms in schools;  and distribute newly-created truth in recruiting materials, including information on career alternatives to military services to guidance counselors in Wisconsin high schools.  See the work group's web pages at WNPJ.org for more information.

The program attracted about 25 people from WNPJ member groups, with its Plover location in central Wisconsin helping bring more participation from as far away as Antigo, Superior, and Eagle River, plus Wausau, Fond du Lac, Stevens Point, Waupaca, Wisconsin Rapids, Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere who briefly exchanged information on the wide variety of projects their groups are working on.  Jack Tiffany of Madison premiered his new video presentation on Wisconsin's peace vigilers during the potluck lunch, with Family Farm Defenders providing their specialty grilled cheese sandwiches.  Todd Dennis and WNPJ Co-Chair Chamomile Nusz organized the annual event.