Constituent Spotlight: Michael Townsend
Jul 22, 2013
Rotarian works to achieve ‘victory over violence’ through annual peace summits
Michael Townsend felt helpless to stop the senseless violence shattering the lives of so many American families—including his own. Only last January, a random shooting in Memphis tragically ended the life of his 20-year-old cousin, Albert Spencer, a FedEx driver who had just enrolled in college to pursue a degree in technology.
Townsend worried about his three-year-old grandson growing up in a society filled with gun violence. Then last year, he happened to attend a “Victory Over Violence” exhibit at the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Center in Chicago. He left with the conviction that violence could be conquered when people worked together. As a longtime Rotary Club member, he knew what miracles could be achieved by working together for a common cause.
“Rotary has nearly eradicated polio worldwide and that’s an awesome accomplishment,” said Townsend, a senior educational consultant and project leader for Governors State University’s Metropolitan Institute for Leadership. “I thought, if we could do that, then we can make a major dent in reducing violence. I went back to my Rotary Club in Park Forest and proposed a peace summit to teach better ways to treat our fellow man and overcome violent acts through dialogue. I’m happy to say my fellow Rotarians were very enthusiastic.”
“We thought it was a great idea,” said J.N. Settles, Sr., assistant governor for Rotary District 6450. “Everyone within the Rotary district was pretty convinced we had to do something with all the killings going on in Chicago and the escalating number of veterans committing suicide. Because of Michael, the summit came to fruition.”
The daylong event took place on October 20, 2012 at the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Center, with nearly 300 people in attendance. It consisted of seven workshops and brought together political groups, clergy, school officials, youth, parents and Homeland Security. One workshop gave tips on how to know if gangs are in your neighborhood. Others focused on social justice and restorative justice, particularly the method of using mediation sessions in schools to resolve conflicts among students.
“We also had an activity called ‘The Art of Peace,’ that gave kids the opportunity to express themselves through dramatized poems,” Townsend said. “It was very moving.”
John Ostenburg, a fellow Rotarian and mayor of Park Forest, said Townsend was the perfect person to organize the summit.
“Michael is a great person with a lot of enthusiasm,” Ostenburg said. “He’s committed to things he believes in. He was able to organize a very successful summit and now others are being planned.”
The next Chicagoland Peace Summit is scheduled for October 19 and will focus on strategies to end violence.
“We’ll have experts and best practices workshops and discuss ways to communicate better with young people,” Townsend said. “We’ll also find ways to network with other organizations dedicated to peace. We need to connect across the entire state and across the country to share resources and work together on projects.”
Townsend realizes that the problem of violence is complex, and much work still needs to be done.
“Violence isn’t going away overnight,” he said. “The upcoming summit is going to tackle the issues of jobs, education, parenting skills and gun control. There’s no way we should have that many guns on the streets of Chicago. I’m from Tennessee and I was a hunter. But an AK-47 is a war weapon. There are a lot problems in the system that we need to address.”
Townsend said that Rotary District 6450, under the leadership of Patricia Merriweather, has asked each Rotary Club to sponsor some type of peace event or initiative.
“We have to take this into our communities,” said Townsend, a Flossmoor resident and former longtime resident of Olympia Fields. “We’re going to stress involvement in our communities. I know people have caring, courageous hearts and will stand up to violence. The average gang member doesn’t want to be in a gang. They want to live—but they have nothing to live for.”
Settles said Rotary District 6450 has decided to make the Chicagoland Peace Summit an annual event, and the idea is appealing to other clubs nationwide.
“Rotary Clubs from around the country have called to see how they can connect with our peace summit or start one of their own,” he said. “We’re even expanding outside of Rotary. We’re hooked up with The Peace School in Chicago and we participated in Peace Day in Chicago.”
Townsend said he strongly believes that “victory over violence” is not some idealistic fantasy but an achievable goal.
“My cousin’s death was so unnecessary,” he said. “Albert was a great, hardworking guy who had so much promise. I think of him everyday. And I think of other gun violence victims like Hadiya Pendleton. There are too many. Those acts of unnecessary violence impact all of us. I’m committed to putting an end to the violence. I want to know that my grandson is going to be okay. We have a lot of work to do—but we can do it.”