Squashing the Beef


“What can we do about the violence in Birmingham?”

By Max Rykov

I’ve heard that question countless times, usually in response to a tragic and heartbreaking incident when one of our residents loses their life. What’s missing from many of the answers is a consideration of perhaps the most volatile dimension of our beings. We hear about mental health, but not often about emotional health. The emotional realm, the realm of feeling, of the heart, can be so chaotic. It fuels passion and desire, and unchecked, can lead to disastrous results. A person’s emotional well-being, and their ability to tap into the feeling that they are loved, is critical to preventing conflicts. Fortunately, there are people actively working to equip people of all ages, in and around Birmingham, with the skills needed to understand their emotions to resolve conflicts peacefully.

ACE Social and Emotional Learning

Matthew Smith’s life changed when his younger brother, Joshua, along with two of his friends, was murdered. He was only 22 years old and killed in his sleep by a man who was owed $30 for pot. Much of the conversation around the murder centered around the fact that drugs were involved. The reality was, Matthew’s little brother didn’t smoke pot. Yet three people died, and another was sent to prison for the rest of his life. In the aftermath, Matthew and his mother decided to do everything they could to prevent something like this from happening to any other family. Matthew had a background working in wilderness therapy and teaching dating violence prevention, so he saw the solution through an educational lens. His mother, a nurse,

Matthew Smith

added a clinical perspective. The Alaquest Collaborative for Education (ACE) began.

ACE works to teach people how to deal with their anger, understand their emotions and learn skills to better care for themselves. They operate in the field of social- and emotional-based learning, a field that has produced evidence-based practices for teaching the skills people need to understand and handle their emotions. ACE’s mission is to make Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) an integral part of education in Alabama. They believe that if people know how to deal with their emotions, they don’t kill each other. That has become Matthew’s life’s work.

ACE started with a nine-week pilot program at McAdory Middle School in 2016. It was Matthew, 15 students, and a volunteer, and they used an SEL curriculum called Overcoming Obstacles that had worked in other places. The testimonials from students, parents, and teachers proved that the program was succeeding. But in order to make a long-term impact, Matthew understood Social and Emotional Learning needed a presence in schools even when the organization isn’t there. So they are now piloting a Culture Coach initiative to empower educational leaders to adapt SEL to their own schools. Each school’s culture is different, and therefore each culture coach will operate differently. Matthew believes the SEL Culture Coach program is where ACE will have the most impact. Children’s of Alabama has become a huge advocate of ACE’s work. The need for preventative emotional healthcare is clear, and ACE is providing real solutions in our schools.

The Peace Keepers

Unfortunately, the people who need the most help aren’t in the places where Social and Emotional Learning classes are held. For those whose life circumstances have led them to “fall through the cracks” of society, who often resort to guns and drugs to survive, there is another form of help.

Walter Umrani, a 30-year veteran supervisor for Chevron, moved to Birmingham from New Orleans where he worked with an initiative to bring peaceful conflict resolution options to those most vulnerable to resorting to violence. In New Orleans, Walter and a group of men walked in the most “dangerous” neighborhoods, and just talked to people. They listened, provided information about job opportunities, and came with positivity and love. Walter told me once, in the infamous Calliope Projects in New Orleans, he spoke with a man who dropped his gun and his drugs, and with tears in his eyes, expressed his desire for another way of living.

Now, Walter and a group of people called the Peacemakers are walking the streets of Birmingham and offering that same love and support. They’re also providing another solution, the Squash the Beef Hotline. At any time, you can call that hotline at 205.757.0647.

If someone is involved in an interpersonal feud, the Peace Keepers will offer to mediate the dispute, and their success rate when both conflicting parties agree to meet in person has been nearly 100 percent. Right now, the Peacekeepers are providing training for people to be certified in conflict resolution, so that their network of peace can grow and affect hundreds, if not thousands of lives in our city.

May peace be with you.

One Response to “Squashing the Beef”

  1. Walter Umrani says:

    I am so impressed with your excellent writing skills and reflection Sir.
    We will continue to help To make Birmingham an example for America.
    Thx. Walter Umrani
    Peace Makers of Birmngham

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