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Spartan Peace Project aims for change

October 1, 2018
Matt Ecklund, program support teacher and hip hop club adviser at McFarland High School, performs during the Spartan Peace Project last week. The year-long campaign aims to provide students with skills on empathy and the opportunity to discuss equity, hate and marginalization.

McFARLAND — What started as an effort to bring in a guest author to look at diversity, empathy and marginalization evolved into something bigger that will continue throughout the year at McFarland High School.

The Spartan Peace Project kicked off last Thursday with a morning-long event filled with speakers and a hip hop performance to jump-start the formation of a new club, Hip-Hop 4 Peace, at the school.

Two of the speakers were Arno Michaelis, a founding member of a major skinhead organization, and Pardeep Singh Kaleka, who is the oldest son of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin who was gunned down there on Aug. 5, 2012. The tragedy brought them together to start an organization called Serve 2 Unite and to write a book called “The Gift of Our Wounds.”

Michaelis and Kaleka also spoke the night before at the Parent Back to School Night and had dinner with members of different clubs at the school.

Students said afterward that meeting the speakers and taking part in the event at the school had been transforming.

“The message I really got out of this was forgiveness in general,” junior Nic Hall said. “It all comes back to the reason that people hurt people.”

Hall said as a person of color he hears hurtful things but he now feels empowered to help others understand how it feels.

“We even talked about how the victim must have empathy for the haters,” senior Hajar Bendada said.

Other students talked about how they learned they can turn “bitter into better,” look for what students have in common and how they have to keep having the discussions over and over again.

The initiative will continue throughout the school year through curriculum work, more guest speakers, service projects and club involvement, said Anne Nichols, assistant principal, who is part of the organizing group called the Spartan Peacemakers.

A teacher study group will provide the tools for culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and learning. Staff also will discuss “Gift of Our Wounds” and how it can be incorporated into curriculum. At the event, staff wore blue tie-dyed T-shirts with the project’s logo and the words “responsible, engaged and respectful” on the back.

The Spartan Peace Project began last spring when social studies teacher Angie Bazan, literacy coordinator Erin Fischer, librarian Sheila Fay and reading teacher Kelly Thompson wanted to bring in a guest author.

“The thing that initially spurred this is we are always looking at community,” Nichols said. “It is a very had time to be a teen. … We need to give and empower them with a voice.”

As the project evolved, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who is Nichols’ brother-in-law, led her to Masood Akhtar, a native of India and an American Muslim entrepreneur and activist who spoke at the school event along with Ozanne. Akhtar has been living in Madison for more than 30 years and started the statewide movement “We Are Many: United Against Hate.”

The other speakers included John Vaudreuil, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin. He also has supported the rule of law efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice by teaching prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in a number of developing countries.

Matt Ecklund, program support teacher, led the hip hop session along with Tyler Brunsell, a former student of Ecklund’s who is part of Supa Friends, a hip hop collective. Ecklund will be the adviser of the high school club.

Akhtar helped fund part of the project along with the district attorney’s office, the state Department of Public Instruction, the McFarland School District and the McFarland Education Foundation.

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