Building Peace Across Chicagoland
Building Peace Across Chicagoland: Henry Cervantes and the Peace Exchange
by John Mjoseth
Davonte had a quick answer to Henry Cervantes's question, “When should the skills of de-escalation, of conﬂict resolution, be taught to young people?” Incarcerated in Cook County Jail for the fourth time, the 25-year-old North Lawndale resident responded, “I’d say as early as possible, I would say like the 6th, 7th, or 8th grades; in middle school.”
Cook County Sheriﬀ Tom Dart, in a conversation with Cervantes later that day, echoed Davonte’s sentiment. Dart commented, “In the school setting, I think. It’s clearly something that’s very relevant; to teach children conﬂict resolution, teaching them about other ways to address anger. Things along those lines will apply all throughout their lives, whether they're ever involved in crime or not.”
Cervantes, a community organizer, educator and activist, couldn’t agree more. Some of his earliest childhood memories are of domestic violence, and seeing, hearing, and avoiding gunﬁre in his Little Village neighborhood. The tragic loss of a sister when he was a teenager put Cervantes on a path to ﬁnd peace, and to help others do the same.
After graduating from Farragut High School, Cervantes threw himself into anything to address violence. He participated in rallies for immigrant rights, held vigils for gunshot victims, and gathered local young people for anti-violence marches. As an instructor for the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, Henry began taking his message to students in Chicago’s Southwest Side schools.
In 2013, Cervantes was nominated by Mikva Challenge to participate in the inaugural class of the Peace Exchange’s Peace Builder leadership program. The yearlong program encompasses extensive training in the causes and eﬀects of violence, a two-week international trip, and outreach to neighborhood youth. Henry’s class of ﬁve Peace Builders traveled to Thailand and Myanmar to study with peace leaders and activists in those countries. He returned to Chicago with a renewed commitment to nurturing peace through educating children and fostering youth leadership.
Now the manager for the Peace Exchange, Henry leads two programs: the Peace Builder leadership development initiative and Speaking Peace, a school-based program that helps elementary school students develop conﬂict resolution and nonviolent communication skills. Conducted at dozens of Chicago schools, Speaking Peace has trained over 2,500 children in peacemaking since its launch in early 2017.
This summer, Cervantes will take eight Peace Builders to Rwanda for two weeks. They’ll be accompanied by Carl Wilkens, the only American who refused to leave the country during the 1994 genocide and civil war that took the lives of nearly a million. Accompanied by documentary ﬁlmmakers from Free Spirit Media, the team will examine how Rwanda has recovered from such a horriﬁc catastrophe. When they return, Henry and his Peace Builders will share what they’ve learned about healing and reconciliation with children and adults from their neighborhoods.
31-year-old Cervantes, who continues leading twice-weekly peace education workshops at the Cook County Jail, has been recognized for his work by the Illinois Holocaust Museum in its Upstander Gallery. An avid reader, Henry’s particularly fond of this quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”