Blessed are the Peacemakers

By Meg Sommerfeld — January 01, 1993 25 min read

Robert DeSena remembers the time he and his then-fledgling organization were first put to the test. It was 1979. A fight that had broken out between African and Italian-American youths at a luncheonette near John Dewey High School in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y., escalated to include contingents of Asian and Hispanic students. It looked like the altercation was about to erupt into a much larger incident.

At a critical moment, English teacher DeSena and members of a club he had started four years earlier at Dewey, called the Council For Unity, brought the leaders of each faction together in the school cafeteria and offered them a choice: They could either face the disciplinary action of school administrators and the police, or they could join the council and work out the conflict there.

DeSena had founded the council in 1975 to promote positive relations among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and to provide an environment where students could resolve their conflicts peacefully. This incident was its first major challenge.

The leaders of the fighting factions opted to work with the council, and the confrontation was defused. DeSena’s victory drew accolades and attracted attention to the small experiment under way at Dewey. Today, the council has become a fixture in 27 schools in New York City—19 in Brooklyn, five in Queens, and three in Manhattan. By all accounts, Robert DeSena and his Council For Unity are making a difference.

“It used to be a club, and then it became an organization, and now it’s become a movement,” DeSena, a stocky, dark-haired man of Italian ancestry, says in his heavy Brooklyn accent. If you take kids who have a conflict to resolve and bring them together every day, he says, “something’s going to happen. They just forget their ethnicity, and they begin to connect as human beings.”

DeSena and the council have their work cut out for them. In recent years, Bensonhurst and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn have been the sites of nationally publicized incidents of racial violence.

In 1986, 23-year-old Michael Griffith and two other African Americans stopped at a pizzeria in Howard Beach, a mostly white neighborhood, after their car broke down nearby. They were confronted by a group of white men outside the pizzeria, and Griffith was chased onto the Belt Parkway where he was struck by a passing car and killed.

Then, in the summer of 1989, Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American from the East New York section of Brooklyn, came with three friends to the predominantly white Bensonhurst to buy a used car. They were confronted by an angry group of young white men, and one of them shot and killed Hawkins. In the weeks that followed, black political and religious leaders led protest marches through the streets of Bensonhurst, where they were derided with racial jeers from hostile crowds of whites filling the sidewalks.

More recently, in the summer of 1991, several nights of violence erupted in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Crown Heights, after Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old African-American boy, was struck and killed by a car driven by a Hasidic rabbi. During a heated clash between Hasidic Jews and African Americans, Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian rabbinical student, was stabbed to death.

“We have kids shooting at each other because one group lives in private houses and the other lives in apartments,” says Edward Muir, director of the United Federation of Teachers’ school safety department. “Or one group lives on one side of the avenue and another group lives on the other.”

Race, he says, is yet another potential source of conflict. “Any difference,” Muir warns, “can be a cause of war here.”

In such an environment, he says, the work of a peer-mediation group, like the Council For Unity, “is an important piece of the solution.”

It is an early fall day, and the Council For Unity’s office at Dewey High School, a threestory building located in the southern tip of Brooklyn, is abuzz with activity. Several students are diligently pecking away at electric typewriters. Another answers a constantly ringing telephone, “Hello, Council For Unity, how can I help you?” Others are scattered, chatting casually in small groups—groups notable for their racial mix. Dewey’s population is 34 percent African American, 30 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent Asian.

In between conversations, Robert DeSena spots several unfamiliar students and walks over to shake their hands. “You must be new. Hi, I’m Bob DeSena,” he says warmly. He calls out to another student, “Hey, why don’t you show these kids some of the council yearbooks and get them oriented?”

It is this kind of welcome and friendly atmosphere that draws students to the Council For Unity. They are made to feel as if they belong. “I heard about it when I came here for orientation,” says Indigo Bethea, a 14-year-old sophomore at Dewey. “It seemed like the friendliest place in the whole high school.” Tiffany Crespi, also a sophomore, recalls walking by the council office at Dewey and thinking “everyone seemed to be like one big family.”

“If you look at what’s going on in this society, families are under siege,” DeSena says. “The school has been asked to compensate for that, but, for the most part, they can’t because schools are too big and too impersonal.” That’s where the Council For Unity comes in.

“We’re in competition with gangs and posses, which require a lot of conformity from kids,” DeSena explains.” They have to become, speak, dress, act a certain way.” But in the council, he says, “students can be themselves. That’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the streets, where you have to be a clone of the clique you’re in. You know, you join a gang, you get a jacket, you get your colors, whatever.”

In response, the council offers an alternative collection of customs and has created its own symbols, jackets, and colors. It also offers students a place to hang out at school that is unlike most institutional classrooms. The walls of the council’s headquarters at Dewey, for example, are painted with student murals that depict key events in council history, such as the 1979 dispute, and inspirational leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Everything here in Room 102, in fact, seems to be painted with symbolic imagery; even a storage cabinet is covered with a sea of multicolored hand prints. The council, asserts DeSena, is “a culture. It’s got its heroes, it’s got its traditions, it’s got founders, it’s got a value system, it’s got a philosophy.”

“It’s kind of like a good gang,” explains Justine Luongo, the council’s director of program activities and a 1985 alumna of Dewey. “The sense of commitment that it instills in students, and the feeling that once you are a member you are a member for life, gives them a sense of self-worth.”

Luongo, who was a member of the council as a student, says the program turned her life around. “My first year at John Dewey High School was a complete disaster,” she says. She came to Dewey from a very strict parochial school and, unable to cope with the high school’s less structured environment, began to cut classes and get in trouble.

“A friend of my mother’s, who also serves as a custodian at the school, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and took me to Room 102,” she recalls. “I saw a teacher working side by side with students on a project, and, from where I was standing, that’s not something I wanted to do.” At that point in her life, Luongo says, she “just wanted to hang out, and that would have been fine.” But something clicked, she remembers. “I said, `Hey, I’m going to give it a try.’

Through her experiences as a member of the council, Luongo learned that teachers did not always have to be in a position of authority to get her respect. “They could be your friend, and they could be your teacher, too,” she says. “And they don’t always have to be in front of a chalkboard.”

At most participating schools, the Council For Unity operates primarily as an extracurricular activity; chapters meet during students’ free periods or after school. But, at several sites, it has also become part of the fabric of the academic curriculum. At Dewey, for example, students on the council can receive social studies credit for their participation. These students spend one day each week outside of the building working on a community service project (the flexible schedule at Dewey makes this possible) and keep a weekly journal describing their activities. They are also required to work for one of the council’s committees and submit a written evaluation of their experience at the end of the quarter.

A primary philosophical tenet of the council is that the chapters be student directed. Teachers are involved but in a supportive, rather than an authoritarian, capacity. “The students make a lot of mistakes,” DeSena says. “They’re supposed to. That’s how they learn; that’s how they get confidence. The council is kind of applied citizenship. Kids are taking the concepts of government and the theories of democracy and cooperation and applying them.”

The actual student leadership structure varies greatly from chapter to chapter. At Dewey, the council is overseen by a six-member executive board and eight committees. The governing framework of the chapter at Susan B. Anthony Intermediate School in Queens, however, is more informal: There are no officers, and most decisions are reached by consensus.

One of the council’s major priorities is to teach students peer-mediation skills. “It’s one of the sexiest things right now,” DeSena notes wryly. But peer-mediation training alone, he says, is not enough because, at the end of each school day, students return home to the same old environment and value system. “Resolving conflict is the first step,” DeSena says, “but it can’t be the first and the last step.”

In an effort to melt the prejudices at the heart of many conflicts, council chapters host an array of multicultural events. Last year, the council chapter at Susan B. Anthony, for example, held a Passover Seder, took part in the African-American cultural festival Kwanzaa, hosted a “Brotherhood and Sisterhood Dance,” and learned about Irish traditions on St. Patrick’s Day.

The hope is that exposing students to the traditions of other cultures will foster greater understanding and tolerance. The St. Patrick’s Day gathering, notes chapter adviser and assistant principal Anne Johnson, eventually evolved into a discussion about New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ decision not to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade because of the exclusion of gay and lesbian groups.

With a student body that is 54 percent African American, 25 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian, and 3 percent white, and that represents some 53 different countries, the Anthony school “is a real United Nations,” Johnson says. And often, she adds, “it’s very hard to get people to coalesce around common goals when they are coming from so many different directions.”

Last June, the school’s council members performed a play called A Flower for Dorothy, a twist on The Wizard of Oz, in which the central character, a young girl, lives in a neighborhood that is changing racially. When Dorothy’s parents discover she has become friends with children from different ethnic and racial groups, they become upset and send her to bed. Then, in a dream, she goes on a quest to bring four knights in a racially divided forest together.

“It’s like a journey she takes to find out about different races,” explains 8th grader Lisa Henderson. “And, in the end, she learns that it doesn’t matter what they look like; people are the same.”

The play, which DeSena penned in 1983, is one of 26 he has written for council chapters to perform. Drama has become a central part of the council’s program, DeSena says, because “every piece of multicultural curriculum I’ve ever seen is boring; it’s used to beat kids over the head to appreciate other cultures. And, in a lot of cases, it’s resented.” Drama, he says, not only makes the topic more fun, but it also teaches students a variety of practical skills. He quickly rattles off a list: “They learn to articulate, they learn blocking, they learn how to project; they also learn about writing and choreography.”

Community service is an equally important component of the council’s agenda. This past fall, a chapter in the Fort Hamilton section of Brooklyn held food and toy drives for the needy. Students at Dewey have operated a senior citizen escort service and taken patients at the South Brooklyn Psychiatric Center out for lunch and bowling. This school year, they are running a recycling program and collecting clothes and food for victims of Hurricane Andrew.

“The whole notion of being responsible for and to the society you live in is key,” DeSena says. “We just went through two decades of self-absorption and self-centeredness. How are we going to get young people involved in the political process if we divorce schools from life, especially from community life?”

This school year, DeSena and the other teachers who advise the various council chapters are working with restaurants throughout the city to set up a “dining network.” Each participating restaurant will host a free dinner for about 15 families of council members. Breaking bread with neighbors from different backgrounds in an intimate setting, DeSena asserts, is one way to begin dismantling the racial and cultural barriers in each community. “Nothing gets done unless it’s personalized,” he says. “You’re more apt to work for change with people you know and like than for an idea.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge section, DeSena attended Roman Catholic primary and secondary schools. After graduating from St. John’s University in 1963, he earned a master’s degree in English at New York University. He taught at Eastern District High School and East New York High School of Transit Technology before moving to Dewey in 1970. During his tenure at the school, he has seen seven principals come and go.

DeSena’s understanding of the psychology of urban-adolescent culture is rooted in experience; he was deeply involved in gang life as a teenager. “I’m an ex-street guy,” he acknowledges. “I can’t afford to pass judgment on anybody because I used to be just like them.” He went through the typical rites of puberty and manhood in a gang, he says, “fighting and drinking and playing around with women and all that.”

Most of his peers did not aspire to finish school or to get a job. “If you’re at school after 16, at least back in my days, it was like, `What the hell is wrong with you?’ he says. “If you work for a living, you’re lame.”

Eventually, DeSena began to see the darker side of gang life. “The laws that govern your life, which you never really acknowledge or are aware of, kick in and destroy you,” he says. Back then, heroin was the drug of choice, and watching it destroy some of his friends’ lives, DeSena says, ultimately saved his own. “It just decimated street gangs all over the city,” he recalls. “It was like living in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You thought you knew somebody, and then, all of a sudden, there was something else living inside of them, that alter ego that heroin created.”

As a student at St. John’s, DeSena turned to religion in the hopes of straightening out his life. “Like everything I do, I did this to extreme,” he chuckles. “And that wasn’t too productive for me either. I think you end up trying to be perfect when you get religious and you want other people to be, too.”

Also at this time, a man about 10 years DeSena’s senior befriended him and helped keep him on the right track. This friend had married young and did not go to college; as a result, he continually encouraged DeSena to stick with his studies. “He was really trying to make sure that I didn’t follow in his footsteps, and he made me look at my friends in a much different light,” DeSena says. “He kind of showed me that they weren’t free, that they’d never be free, that the gang rules.”

What DeSena didn’t know, however, was that his friend was struggling with a heroin addiction. The friend called him one night, upset and wanting to meet. “I didn’t show up,” DeSena says. “And that night, he killed himself, jumped in front of a train.” The next day was April Fools’ Day. “When they told me he died, I thought it was a joke,” DeSena remembers. “It wasn’t.”

It was then that DeSena decided to become a teacher, hoping that he might be able to prevent others from suffering a similar fate. “I never forgot the street,” he says, “and I never forgot my commitment to kids who were never called on in class, who didn’t quite fit the so-called norm, who didn’t look socially or politically correct, who were outlaws and outsiders. Those were the kids that I wanted to go back and redeem because I felt I owed it to my friends who weren’t around anymore.”

As he began his teaching career, DeSena deliberately sought out the “difficult” students, and he discovered he enjoyed working with them the most. “The tougher the kids, the worse the kids, the better I liked it,” he says.

For many years, DeSena’s signature English class at Dewey was a course in mythology. He sees many parallels between the class—which featured an eclectic mix of American-Indian, African, Eastern-Mediterranean, and Greek myths—and his work at the council. “The kids,” he says, “were able to look at the common themes that govern life and govern all mythology, which forced them to look inward and look at themselves and ask, `Am I happy?’ `Where am I going?’ `What’s the purpose of life?’ `How will these myths help me get a richer vision of what life is all about?’ I think the council answers some of those mythological questions. We know why we are here. We know what our mission is. And we have discovered our happiness pursuing it.”

Each year, as DeSena’s responsibilities at the council have grown, his teaching load has correspondingly decreased. This year, for the first time in 27 years, he is not teaching any English classes, a decision he calls one of the most painful of his life. Still, he does not feel that he has truly left teaching. “I’m teaching now; it’s just that I’m teaching citizenship, I’m teaching politics, I’m teaching organizational health,” he says. “The Council For Unity is a culture, and I am a resource teacher for that culture.”

Clad in a purple, black, and jade running suit and a spotless pair of white New Balance sneakers, DeSena heads out of the council headquarters with a visitor for a quick lunch break. As he passes through the school’s hallways, he stops to chat with a group of students collecting signatures for a petition that criticizes a board of education proposal to make AIDS education classes focus primarily on abstinence. He signs the petition and promises to tell council members about it upon his return.

Seated in Spumoni Gardens, an Italian restaurant not far from the school, DeSena says the rapid growth of the council is taking its toll on him and the staff. “It used to be so simple,” he sighs. “We have a lot of stress on us, a lot of stress.”

The major push to expand began in 1986, after the death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach. Griffith’s death wasn’t the first racially provoked killing in Brooklyn in recent years; in 1982, an African-American transit worker named Willie Turks had been beaten to death in Bensonhurst by a gang of young white men. After that tragedy, the neighborhood came together to condemn the individuals who committed the crime. But the Howard Beach incident was different, DeSena says.

It was one of the first major incidents to receive a lot of national publicity. Previously, the community had the illusion, DeSena says, “that this incident with Willie Turks was an aberration. You think there’s a bunch of isolated punks; they beat up a black guy. And you think, `That’s really not this city.’ But, when it happens again three or four years later, and again two years later, you can’t really say this is an isolated incident.”

Following Griffith’s death, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, an umbrella group of some 63 prominent ethnic associations, began searching for successful community programs that were trying to address race relations. The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers’ union, a longtime supporter of the Council For Unity, recommended it to coalition officials. “The council is a very good example of what can be done,” UFT President Sandra Feldman says. “It gives you such a feeling of hope and restores your belief in the fact that we can teach racial tolerance and understanding. It does it in a way that also helps students develop strong relationships with each other, which they carry with them into adulthood.”

But DeSena and his students weren’t sure the council could be replicated elsewhere. “It was a crisis for us,” DeSena confesses. In the end, NECO gave the council $25,000 to start a chapter at Mark Twain Junior High School. If it worked there, then they would take it to other schools in Brooklyn’s Community District 21. “It just snowballed,” DeSena says.

Today, there is a council chapter in almost every school in District 21. And DeSena and other council supporters see the district as a model for further expansion because children can participate in the program from elementary school through high school. “We have to reach the children at such a young age,” says Domenic Recchia, vice president of the District 21 board of education and a Dewey and Council For Unity alumnus. “If we can catch them at the beginning, and teach them to respect one another, they can learn to get along better later in life.”

Since receiving the initial $25,000 grant, the council has forged a strong partnership with NECO and one of its member organizations, the Coalition of Italo-American Associations. The two groups have played a pivotal role in drumming up support for the project on the New York City board of education and among the business community and labor unions. Together, they are trying to raise $1 million to build an “intergroup relations” center at Dewey. The center would serve as the new headquarters for the Council For Unity and house a multicultural library, classroom space, conference rooms, and a computer center. DeSena hopes it will become a “living laboratory” of the council’s work and a resource center for the community.

The council is continuing to grow on other fronts, as well. Its alumni association, incorporated in 1983, today has about 700 members. And last year, a new chapter for parents of council members was established.

In the near future, DeSena expects to see the program expand into the city’s two other boroughs—the Bronx and Staten Island—as well as into parts of southern New York state and Long Island and, eventually, across the entire country. But, at the present time, the council has neither the staff nor the resources to meet the increasing demand and will need to solicit outside funds before it can continue to grow. “The problem we’re having is that the program has been so successful that we can’t accommodate the number of kids who want to get in,” DeSena says. “And I still don’t know what the answer is.”

Currently, new chapters must come up with an initiation fee of $25,000, which covers the program’s administrative costs, training for the chapter’s advisers, curriculum materials, other council resources, and supplies for special events. Although the fee drops to $18,000 in the second year and $7,500 the third, schools are finding it an arduous task to procure these funds during a period of widespread state and city budget cutbacks. Yung Wing Elementary School in Chinatown, for example, was only able to afford the program through a grant from the Fund for New York City Public Education.

The council staff is grappling with challenges on other fronts, as well. Some are rooted in external factors, which it has little power to change. For example, the enduring patterns of de facto segregation in the city translate into extremely homogeneous student bodies in some neighborhoods, which, in turn, make it difficult for chapters in schools in those areas to conduct an authentic multicultural program.

At Yung Wing Elementary, 90 percent of the student body is Asian. So, to compensate for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, the council there started a penpal program with Public School 177 in Brooklyn, a more racially mixed school. The program is supplemented with occasional student visits. DeSena acknowledges, however, that this will have a limited impact, especially compared with schools where children have day-to-day contact with peers from a broad range of racial and ethnic groups.

It is easy to find fans of Robert DeSena in almost every corner of New York City’s school system. No one seems to have anything but kind words to say about him, a remarkable feat in a sprawling urban school district known for its frequent and heated political skirmishes.

“Bob’s a dynamic individual, and he’s very streetwise; he knows just how the kids feel,” says Richard Grace, honorary chairman of the ethnic coalition. “Because he can communicate with them, I think that’s part of his greatest asset to the program.”

Many say it’s DeSena’s dogged determination that has made the council a success. “He doesn’t know how to say no,” says Johnson, assistant principal at Susan B. Anthony. “If there’s something you need, he’ll find it for you.” When her students were unable to attend a council event in Brooklyn, Johnson recalls, DeSena managed to conjure up several buses to transport them there.

Others cite his infectious lan and his undying energy. “Bob has this sincere passion for the organization that has caused it to grow tremendously,” says Luongo, the council’s program director. “This is his life. Everything about Bob is Council For Unity since the time he started it.”

DeSena is also lauded for his sensitivity and concern. Johnson tells how DeSena, whom she has only known on a professional level for about a year, recently came to the funeral of her sister, who died of cancer and left behind a young daughter for Johnson to raise. “When I saw him walk into the funeral parlor, I was so surprised,” she says. “Bob said to me, `When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.’ That touched me so personally.”

Earlier this year, DeSena received more formal recognition. He was one of four individuals honored at an annual awards ceremony held by the Boston-based Petra Foundation. This relatively new foundation was created as a memorial to Petra Shattuck, a teacher, lawyer, and human rights activist, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1988 at the age of 46. Each year, the foundation presents several $5,000 awards to individuals whose work either promotes racial justice; protects the autonomy of individuals, groups, or communities; or defends freedom of speech and expression.

“It was very clear that [the council] had done something remarkable and that he’d started an organization that was larger than himself,” says Mark Munger, a management consultant who serves on the foundation’s board. “By force of personality, by force of character, he has taught his students that there are different ways to solve problems other than blowing someone’s head off.”

But perhaps the best measure of the Council For Unity’s success is the fact that Dewey, the organization’s home base, has experienced no major acts of racial violence since its inception in 1975. Even in the wake of the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst incidents, and most recently, during the Los Angeles riots, the school has remained a relative island of calm.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” DeSena muses. “I find it ironic that I’m getting paid to do this kind of work because if I was a rich man, I’d do it for nothing. If my kids were told they would have to go back and just live with their own kind, I think it would kill them. They have really learned something that is overpowering.”

DeSena tells a story that seems to capture both the hope and the frustration of the Council For Unity’s work.

Outside the administrative offices at Dewey High School is a 140-foot planter. Back in 1982, members of the council, noticing that the planter was overrun with weeds, decided to turn it into a garden, to leave behind a living symbol of racial harmony for future generations of students to cultivate and fertilize. They planted evergreens—junipers, rhododendrons, and azaleas—and representatives of each ethnic and racial group in the council planted a weeping cherry tree. The students viewed them not just as plants, DeSena says, but also as symbols.

“The kids wanted to get weeping trees because they wanted to show the state of the world when nations are divided,” he explains. “They were going to plant them really close so their branches intermingled. But they decided to plant them farther apart, to show the kids who followed them that you can’t get brotherhood and sisterhood without labor.”

They called it the “Garden of Nations.”

Seven years later, the murder of Yusef Hawkins by a gang of predominantly Italian-American youths ripped Bensonhurst apart. DeSena says the killing devastated the council members.

When school opened that fall, the students returned to Dewey to find that the two weeping cherry trees planted by the council’s African- and Italian-American students had withered and died. “We came back a couple of days after the tragedy and were just dumbfounded,” DeSena recalls. “Of course, it’s coincidental; we’re not into parapsychology here. But just the coincidence of it wasn’t lost on anyone, believe me.”

DeSena’s students immediately held a fund-raiser to buy two new weeping cherry trees, so the African- and Italian-American members of the council could together plant new trees to replace the old ones.

The evergreens, DeSena is quick to note, are also still thriving in the Garden of Nations today. The students selected the evergreens, he says, “because they wanted to show a sense of permanence, that the longing for harmony and for peace is constant.”

“We may not get there,” he adds, “but we’ll sure keep trying.”

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Blessed are the Peacemakers