The affiliated university offers programs, workshops and outreach activities to teach de-escalation practices.
As the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence enters its fourth decade, its leaders continue to look to the future to ease the pains of the past and present.
“Part of our mission is to prioritize programs for young people between the ages of 12 and 24,” says Gwen Olton ’04, the institute’s acting executive director. “Teach them how to grow vegetables in our garden, how to cook and sew, and how to reuse clothes and recycle.
And teach them how to build a world where non-violence is the norm, which is no easy task in a city besieged by violence. The institute, which is affiliated with the University of Rochester, runs programs for students in the Rochester City School District that focus on conflict transformation as well as workshops that emphasize de-escalation practices.
“Young people are often less determined to deal with conflict than adults,” says Olton. “They are more open and receptive to non-violence, and more flexible in practicing new skills. We do this to honor the future of our urban community and create a world that will work for everyone.
“Nonviolence is not just about stopping and opposing what we don’t like, but about actively building the future we want.”
—Gwen Olton ’04, Acting Director of the Gandhi Institute
Kit Miller served as Executive Director from 2009 to 2021 and is now Director Emeritus. She is proud that the institute offers “a space of beauty, learning and safety, visited by thousands of people since 2012”. And she says focusing on youth has been part of the institute’s mission since she started working there.
“People in this age group make decisions that affect the trajectory of their entire lives,” says Miller. “They are also strongly affected by negative cultural influences. We want to inspire young people to give their best.
Rochester alumna at the helm
The institute was founded in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1991 before moving to River Campus when it became affiliated with the university in 2007. But its home for 10 years has been a 19th-century colonial building in the Plymouth neighborhood -Exchange, across the Genesee River from the River Campus.
“The institute has strong ties to the University while remaining its own organization,” says Olton. “The University continued to provide financial support for our operation, and we remained a resource for the University for workshops, conflict support, restorative practices and dialogues, and other requests.”
The mission of the non-profit organization is to equip people to use nonviolence to create a sustainable and just world for all in collaboration with local organizations, academic institutions, students and committed peacemakers. .
Olton says Rochester undergraduates have been “a phenomenal source of support” through volunteer work in his nearly one-acre garden, which includes everything from potatoes and tomatoes to cucumbers and wildflowers. . There are also many apple and pear trees on the grounds. This year, the institute launched a community garden model where neighbors and community members can adopt a bed and take food from the garden.
Olton grew up in Palmyra, New York, outside of Rochester, and graduated from college with a degree in philosophy and earth and environmental science. She worked two years as the Nursing Coordinator and one year as Complex Care Manager for the Office of Mental Health at Hillside Children’s Center before spending five years as Consultant and Director of Training and Practice Transformation at Coordinated Care. Services. She joined the institute in 2020 as Director of Training and Education. Olton says it was “a no-brainer” to take on the year-long role of interim chief executive last July.
“The opportunity to do this kind of work all the time — and to do it with others who are as committed to nonviolence as I am — was an easy decision,” she says. “As someone who grew up with a lot of conflict in my family, I found myself negotiating with different people at an early age. I had an interest in conflict and non-violence, and one of the reasons why I chose to attend Rochester was that it offered the opportunity to take a course on nonviolence as a freshman.
“I don’t think any one organization has the solution”
Olton says racist incidents across the country and ongoing violence in the city of Rochester are tough times for an organization dedicated to nonviolence. “I don’t think any one organization has the solution,” she says. “We have a diversity of ideas and strategies that we think will be helpful, and we’re seeing more collaboration among those of us who are truly committed to building a beloved community.”
A podcast project is underway to share the stories of community members who have been successful in de-escalation and non-violent work. “We’re so used to hearing what doesn’t work,” Olton says. “We want to reverse the scenario. There are many tools. It takes imagination and vision. Nonviolence is not just about stopping and opposing what we don’t like, but about actively building the future we want.
This future includes expanding current programs and building relationships with formerly incarcerated. Staff members work with prisoners in Attica and Groveland, offering guidance on practicing nonviolence in turbulent situations, and Olton would like to expand these efforts to other prisons and increase de-escalation work and support.
She also wants to continue to deliver programs for young people “in new and inventive ways.” Last summer, high school students from the Rochester School District and Monroe County were hired to make TikTok videos for the institute’s channel, @thegandhiinstitute, on the video-sharing app. The videos focus on content related to the institute’s four pillars: nonviolence education, racial justice and anti-racism, restorative practices, and sustainability.
“I hope the videos will reach young audiences and help us further our mission: to help individuals and communities develop the internal resources and practical skills needed to achieve a nonviolent, sustainable and just world,” says Olton. .