Practicing Awareness: A Living Memorial to Four Slain Kent State Students

In the spring of 2013, Kent State Professor Karen Cunningham used the YES! Magazine article "What Can Change When We Learn to See Each Other," to challenge students to practice empathy and compassion in their everyday lives, and then write about their experiences. The results, for both Professor Cunningham and her students, were life-changing. This is Karen’s story.
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Professor Karen Cunningham stands vigil at the Kent State University memorial to Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam War on May 4th, 1970.

When I tell people that I teach conflict management, I get one of three responses:

“Wow, that’s interesting.” (Yes it is!)

“We could really use more of that around here.” (Yes, most of us can.), or

“Conflict management ... what’s that?”

I’ve been privileged to teach with the Center for Applied Conflict Management at Kent State University for many years. I say “privileged,” because it really is a special program. The Center (originally called The Center for Peaceful Change) was established in 1971 as a living memorial to the four Kent State students who were killed on May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard. We offer an undergraduate major and minor in Applied Conflict Management, teaching about all kinds of conflict, from interpersonal through international, while giving students applied skills in negotiation, mediation, strategic planning, and nonviolent change.

Chalk drawing on the ground near the memorial to slain student Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University. Photo by Karen Cunningham.

In our Introduction to Conflict Management class, students learn and practice the basic skills needed for successful conflict management, including listening, assertive communication, and principled negotiation. Over the years, my students have reported some amazing results from practicing these skills. Some are young people who resolved issues with their roommates or improved their relationships with their parents. Some are working students who successfully negotiated raises or got a great deal on a used car. Some are married students who learned to communicate better with their spouses or parents who have improved relationships with their children. It’s especially gratifying when I hear from former students who continue to successfully use the skills they learned in class.

"I sensed that I needed to spend more time on awareness, perspective-taking, and empathy. Seeing people as human beings, and being mindful about the impact of our own behaviors."

Despite these success stories, I have always felt that there was something missing. I sensed that I needed to spend more time on awareness, perspective-taking, and empathy. Seeing people as human beings, and being mindful about the impact of our own behaviors. We certainly talked about these subjects in class, but what could I do to get students to actually practice those skills?

I ran across the YES! Magazine Winter 2013 National Student Writing Competition announcement while I was preparing for the Spring 2013 semester. Students were to read and respond to the YES! article, "What Can Change When We Learn to See Each Other" by Akaya Windwood, a story about what it might feel like to live in a world where people don't acknowledge your existence. The writing prompt was: “Imagine you accept Akaya Windwood's invitation to intentionally notice people you would normally ignore. Who would you notice? What would change for you and for that person?"

 

The story and prompt resonated with me because it addressed the missing elements in my teaching. I’d never had my students participate in an essay competition before, and I was a bit daunted by the challenge, since I would have 70 essays to review. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and decided to incorporate this as a new assignment, focused on developing awareness. I instructed my students to go beyond the prompt. Instead of imagining that they had accepted Akaya Winwood’s challenge, I required my students to actually do it—to literally get out and notice people they usually ignore for a period of one week. After that week, they were to write about their experiences, using the writing prompt.

Karen Cunningham assigned her students to go out and notice people they usually ignore, from the bag clerk at the grocery store to the custodian at the residence hall, for a period of one week. Photo from Walmart, Flickr. 

 

The assignment produced some remarkable experiences. One student stopped to talk with a homeless man and learned that the man had once been a prosperous local business owner, until he lost everything in the recession. Another student befriended the custodian in her residence hall, eventually learning that the woman was battling cancer as she worked each day.

A young international student wrote about how she and her father had grown apart over the years. While working on this assignment, she realized how much we take for granted the people we love the most.

A student in the military befriended an elderly Vietnam veteran while riding on the bus.

"We both were changed in that moment and learned how simply picking our heads up from looking at the ground, you could enjoy such a beautiful moment.”

A nursing student saw an elderly woman sitting and having coffee alone in the cafeteria, and took the opportunity to sit and talk with her. The woman had a family member who was battling a serious illness, and truly appreciated having someone to talk to. Another student, when dropping her daughter off at day care, saw a little boy who was crying. His mother had been yelling and making belittling remarks to him. The student took time to comfort the little boy, holding him until he fell asleep.

The reactions to the experiment were incredibly positive:

“Even the thought of actually viewing the world around me has changed my perspective for the day. I am happier and I find myself striking up conversations with people more often. At times, the conversations I had would help me see a different point of view on certain issues thus helping me be slightly less selfish daily.”

“Making other people happy with such a simple courtesy, made me more joyful throughout the day.”

“This experience was incredibly eye-opening, and I had a sense of joy running through my body. By simply saying hello to this woman, I was quickly engaged in a conversation full of laughter, sadness, and honesty. We both were changed in that moment and learned how simply picking our heads up from looking at the ground, you could enjoy such a beautiful moment.”

It was heartwarming to see so many students genuinely connected with the people they acknowledged, and how they saw these people not just as human beings, but as people with important stories to share. These were some of the best reflection papers I’d received in years.

Over the past few semesters, I have been trying to cut back on assignments. I let the awareness exercise and its accompanying paper go by the wayside, and didn’t assign it again. That was probably a mistake. This spring, I’ve reinstituted the awareness practice. It’s my hope that practicing awareness and mindfulness will give my students greater insights into how each of them has the ability to help make the world a better place.