Voices of South East: Building a culture of peaceful progress in Fort Wayne, starting with students

A new program at South Side High School seeks to build a culture of peace in Fort Wayne, and it's doing so one group of dedicated high school students at a time.

The Peacemaker Academy, a nonviolent leadership program for rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors, completed its first program this summer with 12 students participating. These students will help pave the way toward reducing violence, both at their high school and in the community, as a whole. 

“The goal is to institutionalize nonviolence at South Side, to build a culture of peace,” says Reverend Angelo Mante, the Executive Director of Alive Community Outreach, a local nonprofit that facilitates the Peacemaker Academy. “This group is going to be the heartbeat of that. Part of the goal is to make a real impact in the school itself, but also the school being a training ground to create change on a larger scale.”

Peacemaker Academy director Angelo Mante leads the meeting at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church on August 22.

In making the decision to start the Peacemaker Academy at South Side, Mante was concerned people would incorrectly assume the school has disproportionate issues with violence compared to other area schools. He notes that this isn’t the case; there is violence in every school and society, in general. 

Instead, the Peacemaker Academy hopes to draw attention to disparities in perceptions residents might have about Fort Wayne neighborhoods by starting at South Side, a school that has been impacted by negative stereotypes.

For students who are part of the Peacemaker Academy's inaugural class, these stereotypes are driving their participation in the program, too. 

"I don't want to be labeled as a 'ghetto school' anymore," a student member of the program says in a promotional video (above).

"I'm tired of the 'South is bad' (rhetoric)," another student adds.

“Our ultimate goal is to reduce homicide and build a culture of peace more broadly in our community," Mante says. "There are a lot of students at South Side that, because of their geography and where they live, they’re affected by violence. We believe those who are affected by violence are key to transforming those conditions.”

Rev. Angelo Mante is Founder of Alive Community Outreach and Director of the Peacemaker Academy.

The first three-week Peacemaker Academy program was held June 28-July 16, using a peacemaking curriculum based on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent conflict reconciliation teachings.

During these summer training sessions, students created a vision of what a "culture of peace" could look like at South Side, and together decided to establish a Peace Committee to help realize that vision going forward. If they completed the summer program, they received a $750 award to help reinforce the idea that "peace pays."

The Peacemaker Academy meeting at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church on August 22, 2021.

While the Peacemaker Academy concept is new to Fort Wayne, the momentum behind it was set into motion several years earlier. Mante, a Fort Wayne native, was putting down roots in Atlanta with his wife and children in September 2016 when everything came to a halt. Mante received the news that his cousin had been killed in Fort Wayne. Shortly after, he found himself back in the city, officiating the funeral.

“I felt, even then as I was in the pulpit officiating my cousin’s funeral, that, 'It’s time to come back home,'” Mante says. “I don’t know exactly what that means, what I’ll be doing, but it’s time.”

Peacemaker Academy director Angelo Mante sets up a Zoom call for members who couldn't make the meeting on August 22, 2021.

Mante felt called to work toward a community of peace in his hometown, so he and his family picked up everything and moved back to Fort Wayne. Soon after, Mante and his wife, Marie, founded Alive Community Outreach, a nonprofit that seeks to build a culture of nonviolence through relationships and education.

“Where we started with Alive was with victim care,” Mante says. “We offered support to families, and we started doing a lot of research around what we can do to change the situation and move toward a community where there are fewer families to care for in the first place.” 

The Peacemaker Academy meeting at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church on August 22, 2021.

This approach of breaking the cycle of violence laid the foundation for the Peacemaker Academy. With one program under their belt, Mante and his team of facilitators have been thrilled with the outcome of the Academy so far. 

“It was way beyond what we expected," he says. "This blew my high expectations out of the water, and that’s because of the students. They were so engaged and committed to the whole process from start to finish.”

Caroline Shroyer talks with fellow students who are part of the Peacemaker Academy during a meeting led by director Angelo Mante at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church.

The 12 students who went through the Peacemaker Academy's nonviolence training created a vision together for how they’ll bring what they learned to South Side High School, using a Peace Committee of students, administration, and staff. They believe this multifaceted, collaborative approach will build a strong foundation from which more projects can emerge for years to come.

“The experience was so informational and such a loving environment; it just felt like a safe place for me to go to every day,” says Caroline Shroyer, a senior at South Side High School. “Even though it’s my last year at South Side, I’m excited to see where it goes from here. I hope to spread what I learned to anyone that’s willing to listen.”

Caroline Shroyer is a South Side High School student.

In addition to its core nonviolence teachings, the Peacemaker Academy also included guest speakers from the Fort Wayne community, ranging from local business leaders to a homicide detective to help bring real-life perspective to what the students were learning. They started each day with a peace circle, which Mante says was key to building trust and relationships. The day ended with a mindfulness practice, one of Shroyer’s favorite parts of the program. 

“Every day at the end of the internship, we would take 10 to 20 minutes to do a mindfulness practice," Shroyer says. "It was nice after hours of doing things to just take a second and breathe and focus on taking care of yourself. I think everybody needs to get in the habit of taking a step back and breathing and relaxing yourself from the stresses you went through that day.” 

Dazhon Ware talks with fellow students who are part of the Peacemaker Academy during a meeting led by director Angelo Mante at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church.

While Mante's initial plan was to only include South Side students in the Peacemaker Academy, a New Haven student who Mante knew from another organization, Dazhon Ware, was adamant about being part of the program. 

“I really wanted to get involved," he says. "Pastor Angelo wanted to create leaders in the community, and that just stuck with me. I couldn’t leave him alone. I was like, ‘Let’s make this work.’”

Dazhon Ware is a New Haven High School student participating in the program.

Ware’s persistence paid off, and he was included as the only student outside of South Side High School in the Academy. He is a junior this year.

“The biggest challenge for me was knowing that at the end of the day, I won’t be able to do this with everyone else," Ware says. "They’re going to South Side to make it work, and I’ve got to go to New Haven and make it work by myself. I’m planning on bringing it to my school and forming a group--a program where we take people in and teach them what I learned from the Peacemaker program. It can give them people to look up to.”

Dazhon Ware talks with members who are part of the Peacemaker Academy via a Zoom call during a meeting led by director Angelo Mante at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church.

With Ware, the teachings from the Peacemaker Academy are already spreading beyond South Side High School. Mante has even bigger aspirations, hoping to expand the program to other area schools.

“Long term, we want to see this program in every school in Fort Wayne,” Mante says. “More long term than that, let’s say that we have 12 students from each high school going through this every single year, we’re able to help institutionalize nonviolence. We believe that will have a major impact on violence, at large, in the community.”

The objectives are written on the whiteboard at The Peacemaker Academy meeting at First Wayne St. United Methodist Church.

In other words, Mante is building a culture of peace in Fort Wayne, starting with students who will create a ripple effect in the community for years to come. 

“We hope that if there’s an issue within the school, the students are able to organize around and impact that issue," he says. "It gives them confidence for when they’re a little bit older and there’s a larger issue in the greater community, they have those skills to take with them to organize social change in a way that’s constructive.”

Learn more
To learn more about Peacemaker Academy and enroll, visit its website or Alive Community Outreach's Facebook page.

This story is a part of Input Fort Wayne's Voices of South East series, running from August-September 2021 and funded by the Foellinger Foundation. For more information, read the first story in the series.