Creating Kind Communities

Caren Stelson: an Introduction

Wel­come to the fourth and last arti­cle in our series Peace-olo­gy: Find­ing High­er Ground. Our first three arti­cles dis­cussed the con­cept of High­er Ground, the infra­struc­ture of peace­build­ing in our class­rooms and homes, and the impor­tance of find­ing our own peace with­in. In this arti­cle, we explore com­mu­ni­ty build­ing through High­er Ground, with spe­cial empha­sis on the pow­er of kind­ness. Togeth­er, how can adults and chil­dren cre­ate gen­uine com­mu­ni­ty in our schools and beyond? What foun­da­tion­al ideas, activ­i­ties, and books, both for chil­dren and adults, sup­port this vital effort? Read on.

Joyce Bonafield-Pierce: Building a Foundation of Trust, Identity, and Community

I once had a pro­fes­sor from the Philip­pines at the Aus­tri­an Cen­tre for Peace Stud­ies who would open each class by say­ing, “Find the peace with­in your­self, so you can take care of the world!” I began try­ing out his invi­ta­tion, tak­ing a moment or two before each group I worked with to find my own sense of peace — a sense of calm and bal­ance — so I could bring a peace­ful self to my group. It helped me not only “be the change” I want­ed to see in my stu­dents, it made me real­ize the impor­tance of the ener­gy I bring to any group or task. As more of us start our morn­ing togeth­er this way, we find our­selves see­ing the gifts and strengths in our stu­dents, rather than focus­ing on their deficits. We also begin to see more clear­ly our own strengths.

Add to this a reach­ing out in a car­ing way to rec­og­nize and appre­ci­ate oth­ers in our com­mu­ni­ty — our class­room, school, or larg­er com­mu­ni­ty — and some­thing new begins to hap­pen. Teach­ers and stu­dents expe­ri­ence excite­ment, imag­i­na­tion acti­vates, cre­ativ­i­ty kicks in, trust begins to build, belong­ing is tru­ly expe­ri­enced, and moti­va­tion is unleashed.  Help­ing first our­selves (as they say on the air­plane) and then focus­ing on the needs of oth­ers are pri­ma­ry build­ing blocks to cre­at­ing a community.

In a school in Belle Plain, Min­neso­ta, stu­dents and teach­ers alike came alive togeth­er dur­ing “Kind­ness Week” — an all-school focus on the pow­er of kind­ness — reach­ing out to one anoth­er in acknowl­edge­ment and sup­port. Sim­i­lar­ly, a group of stu­dents in Fin­land let their kitchen crew know just how much they had learned about nutri­tion, grow­ing fresh veg­eta­bles in the school gar­den, and prepar­ing a meal. They cooked a lunch for the staff and all ate togeth­er that day.

Seek­ing peace with­in our­selves and oth­ers and reach­ing out in ser­vice to oth­ers help nur­ture the whole child in the stu­dent and the whole adult “on the rug” in the teacher. It helps us find new parts of our­selves by momen­tar­i­ly get­ting beyond our­selves in cre­ative efforts. It helps us find that High­er Ground we’ve been talk­ing about — that place that brings joy in see­ing some­one else thrive or be appre­ci­at­ed, that place that uses our imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty. Let’s find addi­tion­al ways to give our stu­dents room to find their calm space, use their imag­i­na­tion, let loose their cre­ativ­i­ty, and think of how we can make another’s day. We will dis­cov­er more of our iden­ti­ty and build a thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty in doing so.

Renee Dauk-Bleess: The Kindness Challenge

The impor­tance of edu­cat­ing for peace came to me a few years ago dur­ing my first year as an art teacher.  In Jan­u­ary of 2020, our school cel­e­brat­ed the world­wide pro­gram “The Great Kind­ness Chal­lenge. For an entire week, our school com­mu­ni­ty was devot­ed to the pow­er of being kind. 

The Great Kind­ness Chal­lenge is proud­ly pre­sent­ed by Kids for Peace, a glob­al 501(c)(3) non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion. Kids for Peace was co-found­ed in 2006 by Danielle Gram, a high school hon­ors stu­dent and Jill McMani­gal, a moth­er and for­mer ele­men­tary school teacher. What start­ed organ­i­cal­ly as a neigh­bor­hood group of kids want­i­ng to make our world a bet­ter place, has grown into an inter­con­nect­ed net­work of young peace­builders worldwide.

In 2011, the ele­men­tary school that Jill’s chil­dren attend­ed asked Kids for Peace to help cre­ate a more pos­i­tive, uni­fied and respect­ful school envi­ron­ment. As a result, The Great Kind­ness Chal­lenge was designed and pilot­ed with three Carls­bad, Cal­i­for­nia schools. Because of our inno­v­a­tive approach and wild­ly suc­cess­ful results, word spread, and a kind­ness move­ment was born. (www.great kind­ness

What struck me most about the “Great Kind­ness Chal­lenge Week” at our school was the inclu­sion of our local com­mu­ni­ty to cel­e­brate the pow­er of kind­ness.  A kick-off video show­cased local com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, var­i­ous busi­ness­es, fire fight­ers, police offi­cers, dis­trict office staff, high school­ers, city coun­cil mem­bers, and even the town may­or high­light­ing the impor­tance of kind­ness and cheer­ing on our stu­dents and school to make a dif­fer­ence dur­ing the Great Kind­ness Challenge. 

The cor­ner­stone of the chal­lenge was the Great Kind­ness Chal­lenge Check­list.  Stu­dents were encour­aged to try and com­plete as many of the 50 kind acts on this check­list, which could be edit­ed and tai­lored to our stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.  It involved kind­ness to self, kind­ness to oth­ers, kind­ness in school, kind­ness in our com­mu­ni­ty, and kind­ness in our world.

Kind Acts

I imme­di­ate­ly thought: How could I incor­po­rate kind­ness in an art project for that week? Know­ing the pow­er of a ran­dom act of kind­ness, the idea of a “Kind­ness Card” was born. Every stu­dent, grades 3 – 6, was giv­en a small 4 x 4 black scratch art card.  After watch­ing a short video and dis­cussing the rip­ple effect of one small act of kind­ness, we went to work on our one-day project. 

Kindness Cards
Finishing Touches

In this one small project, High­er Ground ideas of com­pas­sion, gen­eros­i­ty, empa­thy, kind­ness, grate­ful­ness, and friend­li­ness were all encom­passed. Stu­dents were encour­aged to give their Kind­ness Card to any­one in the school that day. We brain­stormed a list of pos­si­bil­i­ties: a class­mate who might be strug­gling or sad; a good friend, a younger (or old­er) stu­dent, some­one on the play­ground, bus, or lunch­room; a for­mer or cur­rent teacher or bus dri­ver; a local busi­ness own­er or work­er; a team­mate, a cus­to­di­an or cook or para­pro­fes­sion­al; a neigh­bor; a fam­i­ly mem­ber, the school nurse or sec­re­tary, or even our prin­ci­pal.  As stu­dents left, there was a hushed silence, but also an ener­gy, as they walked out the door with their Kind­ness Card in hand. 

To my sur­prise, I received sev­er­al cards on my desk. What an amaz­ing feel­ing to be the recip­i­ent of one of those cards! Even our prin­ci­pal men­tioned that out of the sev­er­al Kind­ness Cards he received, a poignant one came from a 6th grade stu­dent hav­ing major chal­lenges that year. On the back of his card, the stu­dent wrote “Nobody is per­fect …” a small moment of truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, in per­haps the only way he could. The next week, I asked stu­dents to whom they gave their Kind­ness Card, and how they and/or the oth­er per­son react­ed.  Many stu­dents expressed the hap­pi­ness, joy, and grat­i­tude they felt in being the giv­er or the recip­i­ent of a Kind­ness Card. 

Kindness Card
Kindness Card

Every­where stu­dents and staff looked, kind­ness was cel­e­brat­ed. Accord­ing to one of the teach­ers lead­ing the charge, “We want kids to know that kind­ness does­n’t start and stop at the school doors, but has a rip­ple effect through our community.”

Every Kind Act

Three years lat­er, our school con­tin­ues to cel­e­brate the “Great Kind­ness Chal­lenge,” an event that is cel­e­brat­ed not just here in the Unit­ed States, but worldwide. 

Kindness Week impact

That one week was a cat­a­lyst for me as a teacher. It made me pon­der how to authen­ti­cal­ly teach and mod­el peace, kind­ness, and com­pas­sion EVERY day.  It start­ed my jour­ney of peace lit­er­a­cy in the art room. It was the spring­board for incor­po­rat­ing Joyce Bonafield’s work to help stu­dents reach for High­er Ground, to do the right thing, and to cre­ate build­ing blocks for peace in a class­room. It inspired me to be “the adult on the rug” as Ellie Rosch­er points out, and pur­sue my own inner peace in order to ask my stu­dents to exam­ine theirs.  And the ques­tions that Sachiko Yasui pro­posed at the end of Caren Stelson’s non-fic­tion book Sachiko, a Nagasa­ki Bomb Survivor’s Sto­ry still speak to me deeply to this day:  What is peace?  What kind of per­son should I be?  Keep pur­su­ing answers to those questions.

Caren Stelson: Growing Hearts, Growing Communities

Sto­ries help us grow our hearts and by doing so help us grow car­ing com­mu­ni­ties. The pic­ture books The Big Umbrel­la and Maybe Some­thing Beau­ti­ful: How Art Trans­formed a Neigh­bor­hood each share the con­cept of build­ing com­mu­ni­ty with hearts wide open, with kind­ness, with wel­com­ing inclu­sion. Joyce’s con­cept of High­er Ground is woven through­out the pages in these books.

The book flap from The Big Umbrel­la by Amy June Bates cowrit­ten with Juniper Bates reads: Here is an umbrel­la. It is big, It is friend­ly. But it is just one umbrel­la. Who will fit under­neath? As young read­ers turn the pages, this big, friend­ly, red umbrel­la stretch­es its arms wide, with­out judge­ment, with­out ques­tions, shel­ter­ing one com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber after anoth­er until a whole com­mu­ni­ty is shel­tered under it from the rain. How is this umbrel­la like a class­room or an entire school? Can we cre­ate a whole com­mu­ni­ty shel­tered by our caring?

Maybe Some­thing Beau­ti­ful: How Art Trans­formed a Neigh­bor­hood, by F. Isabel Cam­poy and There­sa How­ell, illus­trat­ed by Rafael Lopez offers young read­ers anoth­er sto­ry about com­mu­ni­ty. Mira lives in a city that feels gray and depress­ing. But Mira has an idea. She is a young artist who decides to ran­dom­ly give her hap­py draw­ings away, much as Renee’s stu­dents gave away their “Kind­ness Cards.” Soon she meets a mural­ist, anoth­er artist who plans to paint the gray walls of Mira’s neigh­bor­hood, not by him­self, but by invit­ing any­one who walks by and picks up a paint brush. Through art, the neigh­bor­hood is trans­formed and so are com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who become artists that day. Based on a true sto­ry, Maybe Some­thing Beau­ti­ful reminds me of the com­mu­ni­ty Renee cre­ates with art in her class­room, the com­mu­ni­ty we have cre­at­ed among our­selves as peace­mak­ing teach­ers and writ­ers, and the com­mu­ni­ty that has emerged around Peace-olo­gy. Writ­ing these arti­cles has felt like a big umbrel­la and a col­or­ful mur­al of possibilities.

Ellie Roscher: We Never Graduate from Kindness

MacArthur “Genius Grant” fel­low and best­selling author George Saun­ders gave a con­vo­ca­tion address at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty in 2013 on kind­ness. A few weeks lat­er, The New York Times post­ed the tran­script. A few days after that, it had been shared over a mil­lion times. Now you can buy it as a book titled, Con­grat­u­la­tions, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kind­ness. The pop­u­lar­i­ty of his speech points to our desire to lead kinder lives. We under­stand in our bones that kind­ness is part of grow­ing peace in our community

Congratulations, By the WaySaun­ders tells the sto­ry of a girl he calls Ellen who moved into the neigh­bor­hood and went to his grade school. When Ellen was ner­vous, she’d chew on her hair. Kids most­ly ignored Ellen and occa­sion­al­ly teased. He remem­bers the look on her face while endur­ing being made fun of. Then she moved, and he nev­er saw her again. He nev­er made fun of her, and even defend­ed her now and then. But years lat­er, he is still both­ered by it. “So,” George reflects, “here’s some­thing I know to be true, although it’s a lit­tle corny, and I don’t know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are fail­ures of kind­ness. Those moments when anoth­er human being was there, in front of me, suf­fer­ing and I respond­ed … sen­si­bly. Reserved­ly. Mildly.” 

Peace work invites us to act bold­ly in the face of suf­fer­ing. Sim­ple dai­ly kind­ness, refus­ing to be com­plic­it when there is suf­fer­ing, ush­ers in peace for us and our com­mu­ni­ties. It is impor­tant to teach kind­ness to spread peace and to offer our chil­dren and stu­dents oppor­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice kind­ness. It is also impor­tant for us, the “adults on the rug,” to opt into kind­ness dai­ly as our every­day peace work in com­mu­ni­ty. Peace as kind­ness brings us back to our human­i­ty to respond to suf­fer­ing and live with­out regret. Kind­ness builds com­mu­ni­ty. May it lift us all on to High­er Ground.


For each Peace-olo­gy post, Caren, Ellie, Renee, and Joyce part­ner to learn and explore the mean­ing of peace by talk­ing and lis­ten­ing with each oth­er. If you’d like to share your ideas about peace, books, and chil­dren, please share your com­ments here, vis­it our web­sites, or con­nect with Joyce and Renee about their High­er Ground work.

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1 year ago

Won­der­ful read inspir­ing much self reflection!

Caren Stelson
Caren Stelson
Reply to  Lisa
1 year ago

Dear Lisa, thank you for your com­ment about our Peace-olo­gy arti­cle, “Cre­at­ing Kind Com­mu­ni­ties.” We real­ly appre­ci­ate you read­ing our arti­cle and reflect­ing upon the ideas. We appre­ci­ate you.

1 year ago

I work in teacher train­ing work­ing most­ly with young adults who will be teach­ing in pri­ma­ry school. This post has inspired me to spend 15 min­utes each time I meet them to focus on some­thing like this — ways to cre­ate a safe learn­ing envi­ron­ment for all. Be kind. Thank you for this inspi­ra­tion. We have also had some per­son­al issues at work and I think I am going to start putting notes of kind­ness in mailboxes.….

Laura Purdie Salas
Laura Purdie Salas
1 year ago

Beau­ti­ful post – thank you! I was sad to miss World Kind­ness Day, but love­ly to know there’s a Kind­ness Chal­lenge com­ing up in January :>)