Establishing Social Justice Through Peace

Healthy Communities Depend on Diversity


By Sonnie McFarland

What an opportunity we have to meet in New Orleans, at the 2009 Annual AMS Conference and/or Peace Retreat following the Conference, where we each of us will contribute to the healing process taking place in this city that is suffering great pain from the devastating winds of Hurricane Katrina.  As I contemplate my part in weaving a tapestry of support and encouragement for the people of New Orleans, I am moved to dig deeper and become more aware of how this catastrophic event affects the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being of the current and displaced residents of the city.

After reading the book, After the Storm – Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina, my eyes see more clearly and my heart fills with compassion and love for those so negatively impacted by the physical destruction of the hurricane, as well as the social injustice that occurred once the storm subsided. We witnessed social injustice as we saw thousands of people stranded and ignored for days in sub-human conditions, families sent away to live in unfamiliar cities with minimum government assistance, and people receiving little or no government assistance to make it possible for them to return or rebuild their homes and neighborhoods.

The other side of the coin, however, the inspiring part of this story, is the ground swell of support that came, and continues to come, from private citizens and organizations around the world. This response is social justice in action and offers hope and healing to counter balance the disillusionment, the frustration and the anger suffered by the displaced citizens of New Orleans. Many in our Montessori community contributed to the New Orleans effort and continue to be meaningfully involved in other humanitarian projects throughout the world. It is my belief that with more understanding and concentrated effort, we as an international Montessori community, can do even more to establish social justice through educating ourselves and our children for peace.

I have heard it said that: “There can be no peace without social justice,” and I have also heard it said, “There can be no social justice without peace.” Which is it? They are both intimately connected and mutually necessary for the other to exist. If we focus exclusively on creating social justice and ignore the principles of peace, such as understanding and patience, we create further injustice through our potentially insensitive actions. On the other hand, if we focus on peace exclusively and ignore inequality and injustice around us, it is impossible to realize a peaceful community.

Recent research done by Linda Groff and Paul Smoker (UNESCO, 1997 pp. 105 -109), provides clarity and understanding to the interrelationship between social justice and peace.  This work suggests that Peace can be viewed as having six levels.

1)  Peace as Absence of War.
2)  Peace as the Balance of Power
3)  Peace as Organizations Doing No Harm – (Social Justice)
4)  Peace as No Harm Done to People (Social Justice)
5)  Peace as No Harm to the Environment (Sustainability)
6)  Peace as Holistic Inner & Outer Peace (Encompasses All of the Above)

The sixth level of Peace is seen as the most basic and comprehensive because other levels are ultimately based on the ability of each individual involved to be in touch with their spirit of love and compassion.  The well-known song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me,” reminds us that for there to be a lasting peace, it must begin in the heart of each individual.  Our master teacher, Maria Montessori, discovered this truth as she observed children and created a beautiful philosophy and practice that keeps alive the peaceful, loving spirit within each child. She challenges us by saying, (Montessori, 1989, p. 2)

“Not in the service of any political or social creed should the teacher work, but in the service of the complete human being, able to exercise in freedom a self-discipline, will and judgment, unperverted by prejudice and undistorted by fear.”

As Montessori educators we have the opportunity and responsibility to educate ourselves and our children to be peaceful global citizens.  To do this we must emphasize both inner peace as well as the outer peace of social justice.  Some practices that support this work include:

  • Appreciating & understanding ourselves
  • Appreciating & understanding others
  • Problem solving
  • Study of and immersion into other cultures
  • Involvement in local service learning
  • Involvement in national & global humanitarian projects

Social injustice stems from the prejudices and frames of reference buried deep within each of us.  These unconscious mindsets create our attitudes that, in turn, color our thinking and decision making.  Learning to observe our thinking process and consciously replace the negative frames of reference with reality, allows us to experience connection and compassion with others.  The deepest and most authentic social justice requires that we see the other as equal to us.  When our actions are motivated by a need to “fix” another, we view ourselves as separate and the other as less than ourselves.  Conversely, when we recognize the other as equal, our hearts are filled with a natural compassion to serve.  In this state we enter into a process of healing where there is a sense of mutual respect, positive regard and transformation.  The term “Service Learning” describes this reciprocal process of all parties experience the joy of mutually serving and learning.

As we move toward our gathering in New Orleans, may we use this as an opportunity to deepen our commitment to establishing greater social justice through peace.

To locate and link to various Humanitarian Projects that are appropriate for schools, go to and then to Peace Activities.


Troutt, David Dante, (2006), After the Storm – Black Intellectuals Explore The Meaning of Hurricane Katrina. New York:  The New Press.

UNESCO and a Culture of Peace – Promoting a Global Movement, (1997) Paris:  UNESCO Publishing.

Montessori, Maria, To Educate the Human Potential, (1989) Oxford:  Clio Press.


Sonnie is a leader in the field of peace education.. She currently chairs the American Montessori Society (AMS) Peace Committee and is a Peace Education instructor for several Montessori Education Centers.  In addition, she consults and presents nationally, as well as internationally.  Sonnie has written two books, Shining Through – A Teacher’s Handbook on Transformation and Honoring the Light of the Child – Activities to Nurture Peaceful Living Skills in Young Children. Her background includes over 35 years as an Early Childhood Montessori Teacher and/or Head of School.  She is a former member of the AMS Board of Directors.

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