An Interview with Jodi Wing, Founder of the Art of Peace Club

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From the locker room to the playground to the Internet, there’s a different kind of learning that happens for kids, one rooted in social interaction, communication skills and self-confidence – and the issues that surround them. Traditionally, kids are expected to fend for themselves, navigating the waters of peer interaction, social pressures, and online image with little to no formal support. That’s Mom and Dad’s domain, right? Well, for the past six years, Author & Education activist Jodi Wing has made it her mission to shift this opinion, believing instead that children should be rigorously instructed how to develop abilities to cope with emotional challenges, deal with drama, and stand up for themselves and their beliefs through social and emotional life skills. The result is The Art of Peace Club, an innovative curriculum, workshop, and reading series currently operating in the Los Angeles Unified School District/LAUSD, our Nation’s second largest school district. I sat down with Jodi to talk about the history, the stories, and the next steps for her mission to bring the teachings of Sun Tzu to the tween and teen set.

What is the Art of Peace Club and how did it get started?

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The Art of Peace Club is transformative thought-leadership and prevention education. In 2009 I published my debut novel, a satire entitled The Art of Social War (HarperCollins.) It’s a story about unchecked strong emotions and exclusion—my field of study, and how it affects all parties involved. Taking the principles of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the preeminent Chinese manual on conflict and strategy, I applied them to modern day social life – the art of mindful winning as taught by Sun Tzu. The book resonated with readers in a decidedly non-fictional manner, and they proceeded to send me their ‘war stories,’ from their own ‘front lines of battle,’ asking me, what would you do? What would Sun Tzu do?

Just as I began researching my second book on this very theme, I met Carla Sanger, who founded LA’s BEST 26 years ago. LA’s BEST is the premier after-school enrichment program of its kind, not only here in L.A., but in North America. They care for almost 30 thousand at-risk children in 195 sites, from the bell to 6:00PM every school day. Carla mentioned that she was starting a progressive writing program, and invited me in as a visiting Author to observe a class, meet the kids, share my thoughts…

A visit was arranged the next week. I lucked into twenty-five 8 to 11-year-old girls; girls just learning to use their voices (which, all told, took me to my thirties to get fully comfortable with). At the end of class I asked the kids, “Ladies, what’s the best part about being a girl?” And you know, there were the expected murmurs about sparkly things, shoes, hair and clothing. But then I asked, “Well, what’s the worst part about being girl?” And they all looked at each other a bit, and finally a little 9-year-old said, “The worst part about being a girl is having to raise your babies all by yourself.” And all the other little girls nodded in agreement. It just floored me. I thought: this is a tragedy. These children are looking around their community and culture, and feel their destinies are already a fait accompli.

Fully activated and compelled, I stayed the course of the 10-week program. As we neared culmination, the funding ran out. I said to Carla, so invested was I, “What’s going to happen to my girls?” I had an idea: “Can I try something? I want to teach the girls the Art of War.”

And Carla said, “Great!”

That was six years and over 700 students ago.

I sat with the heads of education and evaluation, everyone at the District and City Hall, and I cobbled together an age-appropriate curriculum. With the team’s support and guidance, I was able to take Sun Tzu’s giant, 2500-year-old concept— essentially critical and creative thinking skills, the language of conflict and resolution, goal-setting and responsible decision making, and developed it into a dynamic, collaborative workshop series that would engage and ignite tweens-- 8, 9, 10 and 11-year-olds, ages where the education is relevant and actionable. And so, in 2010, The Art of Peace Club was born.

Every Day One of every Art of Peace Club I’d prompt: “Ladies! Sticks and stones will break my bones…” and by rote they’d respond, “But words will never harm me.” “Is that true? NO! Words are the new weaponry of choice.” And we go from there. Emotional fitness and safety are as important as physical fitness and safety.

After graduating 500 girls, in 2013 we expanded our reach and launched a new curriculum and series designed specifically for boys. Beyond sports, there are very few social impact programs for boys; almost zero for boys of color. I realized that we weren’t going to drive social change by teaching the ‘rules of engagement’ solely to girls; we needed to address both genders concurrently, ‘both halves of the sky.’

What’s the heart of the program?

You know how you grow up and one day you take a Yoga or Pilates class and someone teaches you how to breathe and you're like, 'Holy moly! If I had learned at 10 how to properly breathe, I could apply it to kickball and I'd have a fantastic core and stand up straight!" And my crux is, the one thing that we’re not directly taught per se – not in any socio-economic level, race, demo – is how to think about our thinking. How to identify, understand, and manage our impulses and emotions, to make the best choices possible. And that's really the heart of Art of War/Art of Peace: If we can control our emotions, we can control our actions, and therefore have some control over the outcomes of our conflicts. These are transferable life skills— keys to developing healthy boundaries and successful relationships, as well as honing in on the pressing hot-button issue of the day: workforce readiness. The seeds of clarity are planted at 8, 9, 10, 11. We learn the tenets, or principles (Authenticity, Patience, Accountability etc.) and we practice applying them to our daily lives.

Where is The Art of Peace Club right now?

Alina thank youSince 2010, I've piloted and evolved within LA's BEST/LAUSD in the K – 5 space, and in 2012 I partnered with FBI Education & Outreach in joint AoP/FBI Jr. Special Agents programs focusing on the transition years, 5th and 8th grades. I've set up Writers Rooms with my grads in the feeder middle and high schools (puts into practice what the children have learned: brainstorming, learning to pitch, collaboration on content creation), because we’re an inclusive community and, as they age up, the program grows with them. #WeGrowTogether, #WeSTAYTogether. It’s been almost six years ‘in the field’ to date; if I started with a child at 8, they're now 13. If I started with a child at 11, they're now 16. One of my main objectives was to investigate, to try and define 'What is 10? What does it mean to be 11? What do 12-year-olds think? What are the 13/14/15-year-olds doing, what do they want for their futures? How can I help create positive pathways for them?'

I believe that true empowerment is equipping children with the tools and skills they need to be successful, ethical people – and with practice these skills will translate to any possible situation they encounter or field they enter. It's like owning and adding to a tool kit to have at the ready, whenever conflicts-- internal and interpersonal, arise. It’s the foundation for workplace readiness.

It’s an amazing experience to participate in group and individual development, to see patterns and maturing behaviors. Especially in this relentlessly progressive tech age. In 2010 maybe 1 in 4 of my kids had a phone or other mobile device. Now it’s close to 100% digital immersion, multiple screens and platforms, all the time. I have 8/9 year-olds with Twitter feeds!

What about the aspects of digital literacy and the idea of kids “being excluded” in the digital space, that's something you guys talk about in The Art of Peace Club as well?

Constantly. The Art of Peace Club addresses the core principles of ‘SEL’, social and emotional literacy. There’s no way to go about this without discussing the impact of digital communication and safety. FB, IG, SnapChat, Whisper, Kik, UNow, Ask.fm, sexting and so on. There’s nothing more anti-social than social media; feelings of isolation and loneliness abound, and yet they feel the need for presence. There's a seamlessness with children now; they live ‘through’ their screens. Ephemera is real to them, as real as you and me sitting here talking today. But what they can’t or don’t always understand is that online activity has offline consequences. So we use pop culture and media imaging and messaging as gateways to discussing daily life issues. Chris Brown, Ray Rice, school/church/movie theater shootings, ISIS, GTA, Zombies… We practice situational behavior scenarios like, "OMG I accidentally wiped all the apps from my phone, I feel..." Well you feel like throwing the phone against the wall, but is your mom going to buy you a new one? No, right? So what are the consequences if you act? Together we analyze how to self-assess and problem solve, thinking an issue all the way through to the end, what it means to take personal responsibility, accountability for one’s actions.

Another hot word in education these days is ‘resiliency’. Teaching kids resiliency skills because, just as there was a broad sweeping statement for Millennials about narcissism as they grew up, we now have statements regarding the youngest generation and their inability to cope and their lack of resiliency.

SK2_6317The Art of Peace is indeed about teaching life and resiliency skills. It is citizenry and ethics, respect and self-respect, addressing issues of mental health, public safety, violence against women, and self-radicalization. We live today in a ‘flexible ethics’ culture. Bad behavior has become normalized, even celebrated and rewarded; undercutting and dominance are promoted as tactics to get ahead. I think we need a time out to sort it through. In AoP-speak we call this ‘Going Beige.'

Strong emotions—anger, jealousy, fear, greed, arrogance, are tricky to maneuver. If you blame others for a failure or a perceived slight, you act out. If you blame yourself, you shut down. There's something we practice called ‘active inaction’ – where, for instance, you can know that Sally makes you crazy every time you see her. But once you know that, you can choose to limit your exposure. In a world where violence is ever-present and risk/self-harm behaviors like cutting and bulimia are prevalent, it's important to understand how to manage frustration, how to learn from failure, how to reframe and turn lemons into lemon bars.

How are you looking to expand and scale The Art of Peace Club?

We’re taking the learnings from our ‘on the ground’ Art of Peace Club and seeking the support of corporate sponsors to scale with technology, creating the digital Art of Peace Academy, the SEL (social & emotional) version of Khan Academy. The beta site is up now. That’s the upside of technology. We will digitize and gamify our lessons, throw the interstitial series ‘up,’ to be pulled ‘down’ and shared well beyond LAUSD and our current social impact partners and collaborators, which include FBI, NCMEC/National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Common Sense Media, Geena Davis Institute, UN Women, NASA Education/Space Camp. And then we’ll train others to teach and spread the messaging.

What are some of the challenges of going national with this program or considering how to make this work in other schools across the country?

A huge challenge for me is a critical one: I am just one person. I’m a firm believer that while there are curricula all over the place (good curricula, for sure; but they're static) they need a dynamic delivery, and the right tone and style. It’s all in the ‘how to,’ of communicating in an engaging and fun way, in creating a safe environment. Happily, I have very supportive partners for distribution, from LAB/LAUSD, to C.I.S./Communities in Schools, to FBI and NASA/Space Camp. Moving forward the objective is to digitize and gamify our curriculum in tone and intent with input and attention from the very kids who are now our #Ambassadors and #Peacemakers. They come back to the program as interns and peer-to-peer advisors, they believe in the construct of the Academy. It is the ultimate PBL (project based learning) experience; the kids are brainstorming and scripting our lessons and content, in the new and ongoing Art of Peace Clubs as well as our Writer’s Rooms. And we're looking for strategic and corporate citizenship partners and funders to bring human and financial resources, to help us execute the art direction and engineering portions. I want the kids to do the work and ‘own’ the experience, and continue to grow together.

Any particular stories in your work at The Art of Peace Club that stands out?

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Well yes, so many come to mind. 6 years/700 + kids? It’s endless content and discourse all the time! There are fantastic behavioral turnaround stories, true transformations, as reported by the kids themselves, parents, teachers and admins. There is hilarity, radical empathy, positivity mash-ups and social consciousness, in spite of this take-down culture. I am heartened by this. And then of course there are the burn books and Insta-wars, catfishing and predatory behavior…

But, one very unsettling story: last winter in one of my middle schools, the Dean tells me that early on a Tuesday morning, a 7th grade boy broke up with a 7th grade girl via Yik Yak. So the entire school knew, and the girl was humiliated and embarrassed and upset… and then, she got mad. She Tweeted at her cousin who's in a local street gang and, on social media, they devised a plan for her to lure the boy outside at lunchtime. In a school of 1800 kids—and in LA, where everyone goes outside at lunchtime! A child put a hit out on a child using Twitter because of unkind things said on Yik Yak. A group of terrified girls thankfully reported with enough time to ensure that something devastating did not go down. But it too easily could have.

So here’s an example of something that was prevented-- what began on social media, was also prevented through social media-- and the ethical behaviors of the girls that alerted the Dean. But the lesson is the real-life consequences to what the girl set in motion by pressing ‘send’ in a moment of fury… now she’s in juvie and the gang member is in jail. He had high-powered weaponry in the backseat of the car.

Yik Yak, a digital communication tool was central to your story...do you talk to the kids about these kinds of location based anonymous apps that they're using now like Yik Yak, Whisper, Secret, etc?

I spend half my life on Urban Dictionary trying to decode what they’re saying! But yes, absolutely-- the level of disclosure is astonishing; I believe due to establishing trust at such early ages. I am very fluent in the technologies they’re using, they school me well—many times I think I’m learning way more than they are.

The thing about all things Internet is that it magnifies a basic desire that's hardwired into us: we want to be liked and we want to be followed. And really, that's the most passive, inauthentic, disempowering thing in the entire world. Having said that, it absolutely goes on, and it must be addressed. Worthiness these days is valued by the number of Likes and Follows. Girls learn very early that these apps and platforms are all about curated imaging – and people are watching. Sure, there can be positive reinforcement—well done at Science Fair or swim meet, but of course the opposite is also true. And so problems occur, they can happen very subtly and it can be very wounding. I was doing a workshop with 5th grade girls, discussing sharing passwords (um, why NOT to!) It’s become a bond of trust these days, especially with girls. "What, you don’t trust me? I'm your bestie!” But you and I know that they can be BFFs on a Monday, enemies on a Thursday. So they hack into each others’ accounts and see who's had play dates with whom and where, who said what to whom, text others from their accounts – that violation and the real-life overflow and mistrust can be very upsetting.

Do you think that we're really failing these young kids on a digital literacy side? Kids are left to just have to figure it out for themselves, aren’t they?

We are failing these children—and doing ourselves a disservice too, on a cultural, social and economic level. They literally are our future, after all. Social Security, among other things. All the curricula in the world won’t help any child (and again it’s not socio-economically divided, we’re all at-risk for something) if they’re struggling with understanding who they are, feel excluded, and don’t know how to process and synthesize the world around them. Trigonometry is awesome, but you must first feel capable of receiving information to set positive goals and learn ‘how to’ apply any teachings to your life, to be a useful and ethical person in the world.

And it's obviously not just disadvantaged youth that require those skills.

I believe we need this thought-leadership across the board, all children and adults. It’s a distinct advantage to learn and practice self-control. Having said that it is far easier to help a child, at the ‘root’—the age of 8 being the age of reason, than to ‘un-bias’ or remediate an adult, to ‘un-learn’ negative thinking and bad habits. To me it’s a no-brainer, especially in light of alarming statistics and issues—staggering drop-out rates and poverty, rape culture, 2.4 million people incarcerated in the US, 80% of women in prison are there for ’partner crime;’ active shooters in schools, churches, malls, in the workplace. But there’s very little education and direct-practitioning to children and families that’s not ‘band-aiding’ or after-the-fact.

Do you think the education system is going to come around and start to address resiliency and digital literacy in the curriculum?

There was a great meme on Facebook a while back; it was a picture of a swing set and it said, "The old PlayStation." Parents and educators are getting that kids are having way more complicated experiences today and it’s impacting them deeply. They’re having difficulty focusing, attention spans are shorter, anxiety is high and they’re frustrated more easily. For my part I’m very hopeful. I feel the narrative is changing, even beyond dedicated SEL programs like LA’s BEST and The Art of Peace Club. Big STEM advocates and global employers are now telling me that they’re having difficulty hiring and training great people. Not smart people, people who test well, mind you-- but good people. To your earlier point re Millennial-backlash, there’s an entitlement, an arrogance in terms of personal expectations, an expectation of rapid promotion and respect without having earned it that’s being reported.

Employees need to compromise and get along with colleagues, take pride in work done, negotiate and confront properly, commit to a long haul. That’s real life. STEM fields see this need for educational change and are looking to collaborate. I certainly see it and am a true believer in SEL at an early developmental stage, creating a ‘long-game’ approach to workplace readiness in North America.

Do you think that digital technology, that video games or some kind of digital experience, could actually teach these skills?

Yes, to a degree. Nothing can replace real-life interpersonal exchanges – but I know that positive digital experiences, a forum for self-expression and an inclusive peer-to-peer and parent community, can help one stay on track by engaging and practicing what I’ve mentioned above. To be ‘part of’ a movement is powerful and empowering. And that’s what we’re aiming to do with the digital Art of Peace Academy. We have lessons diving into all sorts of situations, behaviors and reactions—and we’ll be able to stay topical, evolve as our world does. And that's the beauty of where this could go with a digital delivery. Join the Club! Keep the conversation going! We’re now crafting, branding, and expanding so that we can teach millions of kids and families social & emotional literacy across America and beyond.