Preventing Radicalization and the Role of Community Colleges

Much has been reported lately about the backgrounds of the Tsarnaev brothers who are alleged to have committed the Boston Marathon bombings.   We now know much about their Chechen backgrounds, immigration to the U.S., and their life in Boston.  Both brothers attended college:  Dzhokhar, the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, and Tamerlan, Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC).  In Tamerlan’s case, at the time of the bombings he was no longer a student at BHCC, which he had left to pursue a career in boxing.  At BHCC, he is reported to have studied engineering.

Community colleges today find themselves as the primary gateway for immigrant populations desiring to develop occupational competency, improve literacy skills, and overall assimilate into American society.  In Tamerlan’s case, little has been reported about his time at BHCC, but it appears that his purposes for being there matched those of many immigrants: preparing himself for a  successful career.

Immigrant youth who seek community college experiences to better themselves are often at personal and professional cross roads.   Many are struggling with their identity – what is it be American? – or coming to terms with their religious beliefs and values. Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource examines the important role that community colleges can play in making immigrants feel welcomed and accepted and as a result reduce radical and anti-social behavior.    In the book, Henry Ford Community College, a school that has one of the largest Arab-American populations in the U.S. is discussed:

 “Community colleges have seen a rise in the numbers of international students, many of whom have fled conflicts in their homelands. This is resulting in large ethnic and diaspora concentrations on a number of campuses…. Henry Ford Community College is located in Dearborn, Michigan, a city that is nearly 40 percent Arab-American. Walking down Michigan Avenue and seeing the shopkeepers and grocery signs in Arabic and English leaves the visitor with the impression that this community is straddling multiple cultures.…The college is pursuing a programmatic initiative that examines peace and conflict within an Arab-American context.”

The book raises the obligation that community colleges have to these groups.

 “As we continue to be challenged as a nation by concerns about youth extremism, encouraging the exploration of conflict prevention and resolution approaches in places like Dearborn is more important than ever before. The students in many community colleges classrooms bring with them powerful, often wrenching experiences. Many students are survivors and witnesses to violence and abuse, and still others harbor deeply held frustration and anger. Under the right conditions, these students are willing to share their experiences in the safe environment of a community college classroom.”

And what can, under the right conditions, take place.

“It will be up to experienced faculty to create a sensitive and tolerant environment for students to share their experiences if they choose. Many of the current civic, business, and education leaders in Dearborn started college at Henry Ford Community College and have since become pillars of their community. A colleague at the school shared that recently he was approached by an Arab-American high school administrator, who reminded him that he had been the colleague’s student years before. The administrator began quoting from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which he said he has never forgotten and that he quotes often to his students. In the work, the protagonist rejects violence as a viable solution to social and ethnic conflict and chooses to work to enforce the principle on which the country was founded:  “all men are created equal,” from the Declaration of Independence. It is from these communities that important role models will come for a generation of youth who are frustrated and angry and, if not exposed to peacebuilding, may engage in destructive behavior. Community colleges both in the United States and elsewhere have a crucial role in fostering peaceful approaches to solving problems brought on by political events and social conditions.”

The educational paths of the Tsarnaev brothers remind us of the critical influence that educators  must play in promoting peacebuilding and reducing radicalization.   Community colleges, because of the large numbers of immigrants that they serve, have a special duty in this regard.

Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource will be published by the U.S. Institute of Peace Press in June 2013.

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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