San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Teaching Peace Reaps Benefits Across the Country

Is it possible to teach peace? Can this really make a difference in societies that seem to be more violent every day?

Celina García, director and founder of the Center for Peace Studies (CEPPA), of retirement age and a mere five feet tall, is convinced that teaching peace to children and adults not only works, it is essential. She has given workshops on alternatives to violence in schools and prisons and to professional groups in every part of Costa Rica, and has found the changes noticeable.

“The workshops open new avenues of behavior, whereas punishment for offenders provokes more aggressive feelings,” she said.

CEPPA is part of a worldwide movement to teach alternatives to violence, a Quaker concept developed by Lee Stern and the International Peace Research Association’s peace education program.

“Violence can be transformed,” García said. “It can work, but it’s an ongoing process. You don’t do one workshop and expect change.”

The program teaches creative ways of channeling feelings without the use of violence or aggression. In schools, for example, the common way of dealing with offensive behavior is to expel or isolate the student.

“It doesn’t work,” García said. “We are creating more violence. By integrating the offender into the class or the community, we are including, not excluding, the person, and he or she learns to manage conflicts.”

Alternatives-to-violence programs exist in many different cultures, and what is a solution here may not be the appropriate response in, for example, Lebanon, where years of civil war destroyed the people’s confidence in their institutions, or in El Salvador, where the schools have to deal with a lot of aggression, García said.

Programs for Peace

CEPPA offers four programs for teaching alternatives to violence: the Creative Response to Violence, Alternatives to Violence, an Integrated Response for Adult Women, and Reconstruction for a United Family, the latter two for domestic situations.

Some of the creative responses are as simple as applauding or praising a positive action because it builds self-esteem and makes the person feel part of the group. Much aggression is a result of low self-esteem.

The programs are basically techniques to develop cooperation, confidence and mutual affirmation of one another. As an integrated part of a group, we learn respect for others and we develop feelings for others, according to the program manual.

But techniques alone don’t solve the problems, García said. The surroundings and the facilitator must also generate feelings of confidence, support and cooperation. For example,  in most classrooms the teacher stands in front while the children sit in rows of desks.

Those in the back of the room may feel excluded and without value. A teacher sitting in a circle of desks with the students is still the teacher but can give attention and support to all the students.

The same is true of communities, organizations, states and even the United Nations, with their hierarchies and different levels of participation.

Techniques make problems and solutions visible. One technique for a class of young children is to give each one an orange. Have the children examine their oranges, then put them together in the center of the table or floor and have each child try to find his or her orange. Isn’t it natural for them to sort out the oranges and help each other?

In a series of 14 workshops in San Pedro de Poás, north of San José, 30 preschool and kindergarten teachers learned how to solve classroom problems using such techniques.

“This is the age when children are most active and impulsive,” said Alba Nidia Alvarez, a participant who teaches five- and six-year-olds in Grecia, a coffee town west of San José. “There is discrimination, name-calling and making fun of children from marginal homes or from Nicaragua because they are different.”

Alvarez finds the workshops have helped her integrate her classes so the children work together and respect each other.

“The techniques are like play to them, and all children like to play,” she said. “In one activity, the children make big drawings of a story. Each child in turn displays his or her picture while the teacher reads the story.

They help each other find their places and it’s a way for them to work together instead of against each other.”

Peace in Practice

In 2004, García and a team of volunteers journeyed to the Northern Zone to train teachers and community workers in alternatives to violence.

“This is an area with much aggression,” García explained. “It is poor, rural and has a large immigrant population.”

Last year, the communities of Pital, Los Chiles, Ciudad Quesada, La Fortuna, Florencia, Aguas Zarcas, Santa Rosa and Guatuso formed the Network to Construct a Culture of Peace, and held a week of activities focusing on peace: films, folk dances, parades, religious acts and children’s programs to promote cooperation and alternatives to violence.

In one activity, called a “garden of values,” participants made paper flowers and wrote the name of a value or quality on them. As they planted their flowers in a designated space, each person promised to keep that value.

García has taken her workshops to prisons, where men and women learn about alternatives to violence perhaps for the first time in their lives. Workshops with 25-30 prisoners and a facilitator seated in a circle start out by

greeting each other, the first lesson in interaction and developing confidence in others.

Using dynamics and role-play, they share experiences that have involved violence, and together explore alternative responses. At the end of three full days of examining nonviolence, each inmate makes an origami paper crane, the symbol of peace, and makes a promise to protect and guard this symbol.

García began searching for ways to promote real peace in her student days. In 1969, while studying in New York, she became acquainted with Lee Stern and the Quaker movement. Stern’s Alternatives to Violence Program interested her for its active role in making peace. In the following years, García and her husband, engineer Douglas English, traveled to many countries and lived in Egypt, which sparked her interest in peace education in volatile surroundings.

“I saw a universal need for a culture of peace,” García said.

She later became international secretary for peace education for the International Peace Research Association. Returning to Costa Rica in the 1980s, she met Martha Moss of the Monteverde Quaker community, in the country’s north-central region. Moss had worked with the Alternatives to Violence Program, and encouraged García to start the program here. So far, García and volunteer facilitators have presented the programs to more than 15,000 people, including prisoners, educators, nursing students, community workers, schools and church groups.

For more information on the Alternatives to Violence Program, to become a volunteer or to include the program in your community or school, contact CEPPA at 234-0524 or


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