UC Santa Cruz Professor Emeritus John Brown Childs teaches a course on transcommunality, his concept of peaceful conflict resolution, to men serving prison sentences at Soledad Correctional Training Facility. He is giving a talk about his experience Tuesday at the Cowell Hay Barn on the UCSC campus, part of the Emeriti Faculty Lecture series.
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Starting this month, 15 UC Santa Cruz students will take a course alongside 25 men serving prison sentences at Soledad Correctional Training Facility on a concept of peaceful conflict resolution known as transcommunality.
For five out of 10 weeks, the UCSC students will make the 1½-hour drive to the Soledad prison to discuss their readings in groups with the Soledad students.
The program was developed by UCSC Professor Emeritus John Brown Childs, 80, who started teaching a course on transcommunality to men in the prison almost two decades ago as a volunteer with Santa Cruz-based violence-prevention group Barrios Unidos. As a friend of the group’s founder, Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, Childs accompanied Alejandrez on trips to prisons; during one visit, one of the men in the prison told Childs he should teach the concept in a class.
Childs will talk about his experience teaching the course and transcommunality Tuesday at the Cowell Hay Barn on the UCSC campus, part of the Emeriti Faculty Lecture series.
Childs defines transcommunality as “a way of thinking and acting that respects differences among individuals, communities and cultures, while also seeking to coordinate those individuals, communities and cultures so that we work together.”
He said it’s essential that the thinking isn’t forced, but instead is built on relationships and being able to disagree constructively.
“In a way, it doesn’t matter whether you use the term or not,” he said. “But what I’m able to do with that concept is provide a kind of a framework that has elements in it like constructive disputing — that might be already being done.”
Childs hopes that transcommunality can be one tool people can use when striving for more peace in any situation. While this idea doesn’t work for everyone, when it resonates with someone it is powerful, he said. It’s also important in a more divided and polarizing world that is struggling to find common ground on many issues.
“As we know, we’re having really, really hard times in this society. Gun violence, for example,” he said.
Childs developed the concept of the course throughout his career. He and his wife moved to Santa Cruz in 1987 when he accepted an offer to teach as a sociology professor. He studied how diverse communities achieved peace. One of those stories included the peaceful resolution of the early 15th-century wars among five Iroquois nations, including the Oneida. Childs continued to develop that concept further and eventually published his book “Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion” in 2003.
After 18 years of teaching the course, Childs estimates that more than 1,200 men in Soledad have taken it.
UCSC students joined the course for the first time in 2019. The pandemic put a pause on it for the past several years, so this spring is the first full course to include UCSC students again. This will also be the first year Soledad students will receive UCSC credit for taking the class.
While the effects of teaching peaceful conflict resolution haven’t been measured using a scientific method — such as whether it reduces the frequency of violent incidents — Childs said he hears from Soledad students and staff that it has had an impact. He also sees how students continue to spread the message of transcommunality.
Some of his former students started teaching their own peacemaking course in Soledad. Others who have been released on parole have gone on to apply those teachings through their work in community organizations. One of his former students runs a home in a major Mexican border city to help other men recently released from prison to reenter their communities. One student in Northern California provides counseling to veterans, while another works in youth violence prevention.
For Childs, the concept of transcommunality is personal. On both sides of his family, his ancestors established communities that centered around peace amid violent oppression.
On his mother’s side, his ancestors are Native Americans from Massachusetts. He is a member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag — whose language he’s helping efforts to revive as he learns it along the way. His maternal ancestors started a community in upstate New York, from land given by the Oneida. They called the community “the place for equal people” in their native Ponkapoag language. In English, it was known as Brothertown.
His father’s side, the Childs, come from Marion, Alabama. The Childs were among six Black families who started the Lincoln Normal School, the first teaching college for Black teachers in the South after the Civil War.
“It’s taken me many decades, but probably about 20 or so years ago, I began to realize I was following in the footsteps of my ancestors in the pathway that they had been on,” he said. “I was doing that before I knew it. I’ve been following them.”
Childs was born in Boston’s Bataan Court housing project in 1942. After studying at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he went on to get his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo. While at UMass, he brought students together to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which ended with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. Childs was also a member of the Friends of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with whom he participated in the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama.
In addition to UCSC, Childs has taught at other institutions, including Yale University and at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where he was awarded the Fulbright “Thomas Jefferson Chair of Distinguished Teaching.” Last year, he received the University of California’s Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award — considered the highest honor for emeriti faculty.
Childs retired nine years ago but continues teaching the transcommunality course in collaboration with the Soledad teachers who organized a group called the Cemanahuac/One World Cultural Group.
Outside of his academic life, Childs spends hours listening to performances at Kuumbwa Jazz Santa Cruz.
What is transcommunality and how does John Brown Childs teach it?
Childs teaches transcommunality by first telling his students the story of where the concept came from: a Native American peacemaker named Deganawidah. Deganawidah’s ideas brought an end to the wars among five Native nations in upstate New York involving the Mohawks, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca.
The peacemaker first went to the house of a woman named Jigonhsasee. She provided food to all the warriors who passed between east and west to battle each other and she remained neutral in the war.
Deganawidah went to tell her the message that all people should love one another and live in peace. Jigonhsasee responded that it sounded great, but asked how it would be possible. Describing how the Haudenosaunee people live — several families in a longhouse — Deganawidah said the nations had to see each other as essential and individual parts to maintaining the longhouse.
While each Haudenosaunee family had their own compartment in the longhouse and lived independently, they had to work together to ensure the stability of the structure. When there was a hole in the roof, they all had to fix it together.
“If they had disagreements, they had to get together and work out those disagreements. If they couldn’t work them out, they said, ‘We’re still living in the same structure so we have to be able to work together,’” Childs said. “So the peacemaker said: ‘We should be like the longhouse.’”
Following Deganawidah’s metaphor, each different group could be the keepers of different regions. The Mohawk in the east would be the keepers of the eastern door; the Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga would be the next adjacent sections; and the Seneca would be the keepers of the western door.
“It was a brilliant metaphor,” Childs said, “because people lived in longhouses so it was immediately real and accessible.”
UC Santa Cruz’s Spring 2023 Emeriti Lecture with John Brown Childs takes place Tuesday, April 11, at 7 p.m. at the Cowell Hay Barn; it will also be available online. For more information and to register, click here.