While I know that funders often want numbers and data about how the Gandhi Institute’s work is successful and effective, I want to share something that feels hard to quantify: how working at the Gandhi Institute for the past four and a half years has influenced my life.
When I started at the Institute, I was shy to speak in groups and lacked tools to apply nonviolence. I remember attending a class a colleague of mine taught and being afraid to share my opinion on the reading with the other six participants. Over the next couple of years, through the Gandhi Institute, Kit (the Director of the Institute) supported my participation in a number of high quality trainings: in restorative circles, peace circles, community conferencing, anti-racism and racial justice, Nonviolent Communication, trauma resiliency, and grief and empowerment work with Joanna Macy. I began to collect tools and knowledge about what nonviolence was in theory and practice. All along the way, I’ve been challenged to put these skills into action by teaching others. I remember the first time Kit proposed I lead an exercise in her Nonviolent Communication class. “Me?” I asked, with a squeaky voice.
Because of these opportunities and the support to both learn and teach, I’ve grown in my confidence to articulate the ideas and methods of nonviolence. I’ve grown in my facilitation skills to handle increasingly challenging groups with intense emotional dynamics. I am amazed that through the support of the Institute I’ve grown confident enough to give presentations on conflict transformation and communication to a room of strangers as well as facilitate multi-day workshops on nonviolence that I’ve personally designed.
Yet the most meaningful to me is that I’m becoming more of the person I want to be: more space for compassion, love, patience, understanding, generosity, kindness, and truthfulness to address harm and injustice. It is through being at the Institute that I’ve had the opportunity and support to practice all of these qualities–because they are valued here, as much as efficiency and productivity are valued in other work places.
I believe the Institute is unique because the organization is dedicated to more than just providing programs; we are dedicated to how we work together when in conflict, how we share power at staff meetings, how we greet visitors, how we take care of the house, how we collaborate with other organizations, and how we interact with distressed neighbors. All of these things can be invisible. Yet the how makes up our lives. As Gandhi taught, the means are as important as the ends, because the end result will reveal all the parts that came together to make it.
I cannot say how many youth we’ve touched through the Gandhi Institute’s programming, nor the particulars of how their lives have changed. I can say how my life has been nourished and reshaped over the past four and a half years of being here.
As the Institute currently struggles for funding, please consider what you may financially give to the Gandhi Institute, so that we can touch more lives.
I know that I was able to come here because financial resources were available to hire me, first as a Mennonite Service Volunteer, and then in 2012 as full-time staff. I sincerely hope that what I’ve experienced can be made available to those who come after me, whether through a nonviolence club, social justice class, community workshop, or by working at the Institute. Please donate for these people to come, who have beautiful qualities waiting to be watered and tended.
Please use this link to donate now.
For those who have donated already, I give my sincere thanks. I hope sharing my story may bring you joy and meaning, knowing you’ve invested in something precious and worthwhile.
In deep gratitude,
Shannon Richmond currently serves as
the Associate Director at the Gandhi Institute.
By Matthew Townsend
When I arrived in Rochester two and a half years ago, I felt elated to find so many beautiful hiking opportunities nearby. I’d lived for the previous three years in Central Illinois, where a few isolated woods dot the expanse of corn and soy monocultures. One of the nearest large forests – Hoosier National in Bloomington, Indiana – was roughly as far from Champaign as the Adirondacks from Rochester. Here, in Western New York, I’d finally feel at home. I wanted to hike all the time – planning to enter the woods almost every week.
These plans have never come to pass, but I have visited many parks in our region. I took joy in finding anew park for each hike – a huge change from the scarcity of places to explore in the Midwestern plains. After a time, though, I came to miss one aspect of hiking the same parks over and over again: you see them in all seasons.
In the spring of 2013, I decided to explore the eastern side of Letchworth State Park, south of Mount Morris, New York. The western side of the park is highly developed, allowing sightseers easy access to the massive cataracts that run through the park. Comparatively speaking, the eastern park is quiet, unpeopled, and rugged. Looking at an aerial map, I decided to hike down Dishmill Creek – which runs a winding course through woods and fields before emptying in the Genesee River below.
I was stunned by the beauty of the hike – the creek poured over dozens of small waterfalls and ran through shady gorges. As I trudged through the waters, crayfish and minnows darted away from my feet. Mesmerized, I decided I would return to Dishmill Creek. Later in the season, the creekbed fed me – wild red and black raspberries grow through the creek’s clearings, along with mustard and other wild edibles. I decided this would be the park I would hike in all seasons. I returned with a friend in the late summer and returned with more friends next spring. Mark, Deborah and I shared a lunch of vegetarian sushi next to the largest waterfall on the creek, which was sublime. I came alone in the fall, perhaps the most captivating season at Dishmill Creek, with auburn leaves drifting down the creek through golds and greens and blues and whites and blacks and browns and grays.
After my autumnal hike, I committed to revisiting Dishmill this winter. I would then know the park in all four seasons, and the idea excited me. I grew up in Florida, so the winter of my inner thoughts is magical and beautiful and comforting. On the morning of March 8, 2015 – the final morning before significant melts of the year – I decided to head to the creek and capture my Narnia-like visions of the place on digital film. Temperatures were just above freezing, so I layered myself appropriately, found my snowshoes and drove down to the park.
No more than 20 minutes of hiking had passed before it occurred to me that this hike – which I’d anticipated for more than a year – wouldn’t be as thrilling as I’d hoped. The reality of the forest in late winter differed from the imaginings born of my sun-baked Floridian brain: it was sterile, stark and somewhat dangerous. With about two feet of snow on the ground, the whole forest held a blazing white sameness, completely swallowing the creekbed.
If I didn’t know the hike so well, I would have taken it as unremarkable. I stood still for a moment and looked down at my snowshoes as I angrily realized several of my needs would likely be unmet by this hike: beauty, comfort, creativity, ease, and safety. The hike would be hard going but would present few opportunities to use my camera. It would be cold, wet and laborious.
After cursing the forest aloud, I decided to press forward. I accepted that some of my particularly life-giving needs would not be met by this hike. I reflected that while most of us don’t volunteer for situations in which our needs cannot be met easily, such situations are unavoidable in life. Not every disease is cured. Not every relationship works out. Not every test is passed. Under these circumstances, the application of nonviolence is especially urgent. It’s easy enough to approach someone nonviolently when we think our needs can be met. Yet, in hopeless situations, when our grief and loss become overwhelming and we can find no way out, violence can so easily re-enter the picture. Violence is our last resort, but it is our favorite last resort.
Ninety minutes passed before I arrived at my most beloved waterfall on Dishmill, little more than a mile from the road. I removed my snowshoes and carefully slid down the gorge to the falls’ plungepool, where I’d taken several stunning photos in previous seasons. As I expected, the view was unremarkable. The bright greens and deep browns of the small gorge’s moist microclimate were completely absent. The waterfall wasn’t large enough to properly freeze midair, so it just looked like a snowy wall. Dull ice stood around its edges, having lost its luster in the above-freezing temperatures.
What I expected to be the most visually compelling portion of my hike was nearly featureless. I closed my eyes in defeat and then heard the creek bubbling under the snow as it ran along the south wall of the gorge. I stood for several minutes and enjoyed the soft sound before climbing back up to my snowshoes.
As I trekked back to my car and out of the forest, I gave thanks for the hike. I realized quickly that it wouldn’t be what I wanted, but I had committed to seeing my photographic muse in every season. On that day, it meant continuing a hike I knew would be difficult – out of respect to the forest and to the promise I had made myself. In the end, my needs for beauty and peace were well met – and they would not have been if I had turned back early. What seemed hopeless was not.
All of this makes me wonder about our commitments to our companions, our communities and ourselves. Too often, I find myself in a place in life where my needs aren’t being met and I fear they cannot be met. I find myself with questions I cannot answer and pain I cannot ease. In the past, I’ve turned away from these questions and this pain – anger quickly morphs into some subtle form of violence against self or the other. These days, I try to sit with that anger, find quiet and wait. I pray and I listen and I try to accept that months or years may pass without answers to certain questions. Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by this – fear sparks and then demands kindling. I do my best to maintain my silent vigil.
I think Dishmill Creek offers some lessons about this vigil. Within a few weeks, that bare basin will be visually arresting yet again. The snow will melt and the waterfalls will flow. The moss will grow green, and the brambles will once again offer fruit. Life comes at us in seasons, and some of those can be harsh and indefinite. At times, we wait without knowing what we’re even waiting for. The beauty of nonviolent practices is that we can wait peacefully. We can turn away from life-destroying alternatives and towards patience. In patience, we give the universe a chance to catch up with our needs inventory – or to help us redefine our needs. While I often find cultivating that patience frustrating, it becomes more exciting every day.
by Kit Miller
Five days ago I got the call from my friend Dominic about Marshall’s death. Some section of my mind has been turning over the significance of his death, life and our relationship in the time since.
It’s been many years since I could imagine what my life would have been like without learning Nonviolent Communication and knowing Marshall as I did. Since the late ’90s I was privileged to know him, briefly as a student but with far more time spent as an organizer in Rochester as well as in Oakland during my time at BayNVC, as a fellow Center for Nonviolent Communication board member for five years and perhaps a little as a friend.
Like countless others, I’ve got hundreds of memories of Marshall. Some were infuriating, many hilarious. There were few small moments in his company for me (good, now the tears are finally flowing a little) from an exchange with a parking attendant as we left a Berkeley, CA lot to one of our first conversations during a Wisconsin IIT about bodhisattvas to bookstore visits in whatever part of the world we were in to seeing him calmly walk past heavily armed teens, guarding the boundaries of a favela in Rio.
In the days I spent time with him, I was elbow deep in raising and being raised by my kids. It was inspiration from him and especially from my first Nonviolent Communication teacher Rita Herzog that helped me in my early attempts to change my personality from impatient over-achiever to something more present and hopefully more loving. It was their influence that helped me to find a new way of relating to our son Alec who the world would view as my step-son when I wanted us to see each other outside those static labels.
Our oldest daughter Molly especially loved Marshall. She refused to go to school when he was in town. He would of course take her side, once memorably inquiring how it felt for me to be my daughter’s jailer!
I remember Marshall in Oakland very un-characteristically looking chagrined when I mentioned that my then 11 year old daughter Audrey liked how much he swore (at the time she was experimenting using swear words like an artist would try working in water colors or oils).
It was also due to my work with Marshall and CNVC that I traveled and was away a lot during what turned out to be the last years of Molly’s life. I still struggle with my choices then. And, it was due to the tremendous influence of the work in my life, marriage and relationships that my family survived as well as it did after her terrible sudden loss.
Marshall’s and Valentina’s home was one of the places where I spent time during those early months after Moll died, learning to accept the unacceptable. I will never forget how kind they were to Audrey and me. I won’t forget sitting in their dry Albuquerque backyard, reading Pema Chodron out loud to Moll as I did every day that year, to offer her spiritual food, the only contribution I had left to make to this beloved child.
Just last month while visiting Oakland, I walked past the church with my friend Annie where I helped to organize Marshall and Valentina’s 2005 wedding and where we held the West Coast memorial service for Moll less than two years later. At the time, I mentally marveled how our lives twined together in such unexpectedly wonderful and sad ways.
Today much of what I do as a leader relates to what I saw Marshall do, and not do. I saw him struggle with knowing how to become liberated from old structures, and I have never stopped studying systems as a result. I became a devotee of celebration and appreciation because of the struggles he had at times with offering appreciation, due to a fear he expressed to me, that people would interpret his gratitude as approval. I have become passionate about understanding how to use rank and privilege in the world as medicine, partly in reaction to Marshall’s struggles in that realm. Regardless of what he did or didn’t do, he never stopped teaching me.
Travel well, Marshall, and please continue your blessed trouble-making on the other side.
By Erin Thompson
We kicked off our Season for Nonviolence film series at the Gandhi Institute on Wednesday night, with Malik hosting a viewing and discussion of The Black Power Mixtape. In a succinct 1.5 hours, the film chronicles the birth, rise and dismantlement of the Black Power Movement between the mid-1960s and ‘70s. While the Black Panthers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality and similar organizations pursued justice and equality via political and economic channels, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) developed as a spiritual, creative branch of the struggle. Through poetry and prose, visual arts, music and other creative mediums, artists probed Black America’s consciousness by expressing their unfiltered emotions and rawest experiences in their quest to survive and thrive in America. The sheer intensity and volume of creative output during this period was remarkable. Themes of self-determination, solidarity and the celebration of Black culture were prominently represented.
As a Generation X born, bebop/soul/funk/Golden Era Hip Hop loving, child born to socially aware and involved parents, I yearn for a return to the honest, restless, urgent aesthetic that characterized so much of the BAM. Without getting into an extended comparison of today’s mainstream “Black” music and urban arts institutions with those of the BAM era, let it suffice to say that an enormous opportunity exists to turn on our urban youth to the potential power in their words, music, and art. Indeed, the delivery of spiritual, and emotional sustenance still undergirds any lasting grassroots movement for social change. Therefore, while song and dance are not a solution to the challenges posed by intergenerational poverty, political manipulation and educational malpractice, the ability to affirmatively frame the struggle to overcome those impediments to human dignity in uplifting, visceral, artistic expression is a tactic that we as a society cannot afford to lose to history.
I am making it my business to orient myself within the current paradigm of urban artistic expression, to identify the redemptive elements and to trace and emphasize the connections to the art that serves as my (artistic) frame of reference and informs my worldview. The motto “each one teach one” resonates with me, and I aim to do exactly that as my awareness expands. To that end, I welcome feedback and suggestions about contemporary art that empowers and stimulates activism.
The following is an open letter sent to the following New York State and United States representatives on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 19, 2015.
Dear Chairman Fagan, County Executive Brooks, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Schumer, Governor Cuomo, and President Obama,
My name is David Sanchez. I grew up in Liverpool, NY, half a mile from Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in the country. As a child, I remember being told stories about the lake that was, once full of beaches and merry go rounds. On days with high winds, these stories sounded especially fantastical as dead fish and stomach turning smells surfaced from the water. I’m writing this letter in hopes that you and I can be part of preventing the creation of another story of a lake “that was.”
New York State (NYS) has made history by banning hydraulic-fracturing to avoid the environmental degradation that states like Texas, Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have only begun to see. As we learn more about the waste being shipped from Pennsylvania to be processed in NYS and Crestwood Midstream’s potentially explosive plans to store methane and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in the salt caverns along Seneca Lake, it’s clear that the residents and elected officials of our state need to move further to take a stand to guarantee our land is livable for all who call it home for generations to come.
Today on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m joining the group of over 180 New Yorkers and thousands internationally who are putting their careers, bodies and consciouses on the line to say no to energy practices that put ours and future lives in danger. As I commit civil disobedience today as a Seneca Lake Defender, I’ll remember King’s words saying “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him [sic] is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” Do know that on the other side of this decisive ‘no’ lives a passionate commitment to be apart of shifts of the consumption of the finite resources on our only planet. Climate change, the increase in population, and urbanization offers New York and the United States the opportunity to set a global precedent in shifting to sustainable resources. We need to act now.
I’m asking your direct support on the following issues: Create a ban on storage of methane and LPG gas in unsafe facilities and on shipment of fracking waste to NYS waste plants. Investigate the barring of the public from Reading Town Court hearings. Review and extend the appeal of the September 30, 2014 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling allowing Crestwood to store methane and LPG at Seneca Lake. Support policies to shift to sustainable energy and transport systems for NYS. Accelerate local, state and national policies to support the growth of local food and economic systems that make adjusting to climate change viable.
Support New Yorkers by supporting the dedicated people standing by the now pristine Seneca Lake that is.
Looking towards the future,
As defined on the Positive Peace Warrior Network website, Kingian Nonviolence is “a philosophy and methodology that provides the knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary for people to pursue peaceful strategies for solving personal and community problems.” Formulated by Dr. Bernard Lafayette and David Jehnsen, Kingian Nonviolence is one of the foundational philosophies of nonviolence the Gandhi Institute utilizes to teach community members about the significance of nonviolence to the construction of a just, equitable world.
Grounded in six principles, the second principle of Kingian Nonviolence reads “The Beloved Community is the Framework for the Future”, with the beloved community essentially being “…a world where people of all races, genders, cultures and generations are living in unity with each other.”.
While I wholeheartedly agree with the radical humanists sentiments conveyed by the second principle, there is a, perhaps intentional, vaguery encircling the second principle’s proposed method for the assembling of beloved community.
Amidst this vaguery, I offer radical Black feminism, in both theory and action, as a method by which beloved communities may blossom. Unlike the feminisms deployed by various groups of white women uncritical of how white supremacy operates in their lives, also known as “white feminism”, radical Black feminism sprang from the minds of various Black women dissatisfied with the racism within the, often very white, women’s movements and the sexism within male-led organizations advocating “Black Power”.
By taking into consideration the various intersections in which systems of domination operate, radical Black feminists broke ground in liberatory struggle by offering a framework which rejected narrow-minded thinking in relation to identity, paving way for nuanced scrutinizations of the world’s social ills, especially in reference to the plight of Black women.
In her piece entitled Resting in Gardens, Battling in Deserts1, humanities and political science professor of Williams College, Joy James, gives both historical context to radical Black feminist thought and action, as well as a sampling of projects taken up by those who operate from the radical Black feminist banner. From actions taken to dismantling military and prison industrial complexes, to challenging global state governments to honor human rights law, James’ article is a non-exhaustive overview of radical Black feminist agendas.
One may argue that these agendas may be, and are often, acted out detached from a radical Black feminist framework. However, agendas which do not operate from an anti-racist, feminist framework are extremely likely to reproduce violence upon people marginalized because of race and/or gender; these people often being Black women and other women of color.
bell hooks, the widely acclaimed Black feminist scholar, coined the term imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in order to give language to the ever-present, interlocking systems of domination undergirding our society. And, as suggested by both the second principle of Kingian Nonviolence and The Combahee River Collective’s statement on radical Black feminism, when one system of domination is operating, more are never far behind.
The expansive, and ever expanding, range of ideas grappled with by radical Black feminist thought, from sexuality to art, offers a social justice framework capable of considering the predicaments of the multiply marginalized among us; a methodology established for incorporating the needs of the most downtrodden into the blueprint for a transformed society.
So, here, I implore the reader to study the works of radical Black feminists such as Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, June Jordan, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, Barbara Smith, Michelle Cliff, Anna Julia Cooper, and countless others. Support organizations that operate from a radical Black feminist framework, such as the Black Youth Project 100, the Audre Lorde Project, or Black Girl Dangerous.
The radical humanism inherent to radical Black feminism often goes misunderstood, or outright disregarded. If we are to build beloved communities of integrity, radical Black feminism cannot be ignored. “Liberation” means nothing if it doesn’t apply to everyone.
1. James, Joy. “Resting in Gardens, Battling in Deserts: Black Women’s Activism.” Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century. (Ed. Herb Boyd. Cambridge: Southend Press, 2002.) 67-77. Print
We’ve had lots of students reach out to us recently as part of National History Day. Here’s one Q&A exchange between a student and Gandhi director Kit Miller.
1. What do you think India would be like if Gandhi hadn’t existed?
It’s hard to say. If a violent war to kick the British out after 200 plus years of colonial rule had occurred, in such an unstable region of the planet because of its political and economic value to global powers, anything could have happened.
2. How did Gandhi impact the world?
Gandhi’s 20 plus years of work in S Africa definitely had a major effect on that country and the amazing work of Mandela and countless others in ending apartheid in that country as peacefully as they did. Globally the emergence of nonviolence as a form of political expression was supported by Gandhi’s qualities as a human being. Because he lived nonviolence, and didn’t just use it as a means of political change, his life still matters tremendously as a source of inspiration to people of many nationalities and faith backgrounds.
3. What do you think Gandhi’s main leadership qualities were?
Humility, curiosity, perseverance and faith.
4. If you were in Gandhi’s shoes, what choices would you’ve done differently?
Again, hard to say. I’m not a man of a certain religion and nationality who was born in 1869! However a couple of things stand out. I think I would have tried to have more compassion for my own family, wife and sons, who were so affected by the life choices I was making. Gandhi’s relationship especially to his oldest son Harilal was a source of pain for the family for years and I wish it could have somehow been handled differently. The other thing, if I could go back in a time machine, would have been to somehow prevent the ‘divide and conquer’ efforts that the British successfully made between Hindus and Muslims that led to the bloody partition of India into Pakistan.
5. Which speech of Gandhi’s really moved people the most and how?
I’m not sure. He gave thousands of talks over the course of his decades of work, which is amazing given that he was painfully shy as a young person. I think what suited him more was his years of writing and the various journals and newspapers that he started and worked on. More than public talks, that was his major means of communicating his radical ideals to the masses.
6. How did Gandhi inspire you to become an expert on nonviolence?
I don’t think of myself as an expert on nonviolence but as a student who tries to use her life to submit to both the discipline and the structure of nonviolent ideals. Over time this has led to many changes in my life, both internally and in how I spend the resources of my time and money. Gandhi’s life and message have inspired me to take this up as a life-long path.
7. What do you think India would be like currently if India hadn’t split up into two?
I believe it could be more prosperous as millions and millions of dollars have been pumped into the militarys of India and Pakistan to defend borders, which impoverishes both countries, both materially as well as spiritually. If the extraordinary nonviolent leadership of one of Gandhi’s colleagues, Khan Ghaffar Khan, had been available to India after the British left and Gandhi was assassinated, I think it could have had an important effect on the world. Khan was Muslim and from the Northwest Territories so was automatically considered to be part of the new country of Pakistan. However, after partition occurred, he was incarcerated for decades by Pakistan for espousing Gandhian principles. What would global politics look like now if a Muslim man could have become as globally recognized as standing for nonviolence as Dr. King later became? I wonder about that and how it could have affected US choices even today.
8. How did Gandhi affect lives today?
In a survey of CEOS a few years ago, Gandhi was listed as one of the top 5 leaders of all time. He’s recognized as an innovator and someone who, without lots of money, or an army, or a government position, changed the course of human events. I think and hope that human beings will study and more importantly try to emulate his life for years to come. His thinking about sustainability and the importance of local economies was visionary and entirely relevant to today’s issues.
9. What are some key events that made Gandhi “The Father of Our Country” and how?
Gandhi’s life and contribution rightfully have been a source of pride for Indian people for decades. His life and message has inspired many efforts and projects on the grassroots level in India.
10. How was Martin Luther King Jr.a big part of Gandhi’s legacy?
Dr. King demonstrated the universality of nonviolence through grounding it in Christianity and through supporting its flowering in a different time and culture. The work of King and his many, many colleagues, who deserve to be equally well-known in many ways, was creative. They didn’t try to copy what happened in India, they made it their own. Like Gandhi, King espoused a lived practice of nonviolence, not just the use of nonviolence as a political tool. If more people from the civil rights era had truly taken up nonviolence as a living practice, I think it would have had a major positive effect on the US over time that would be felt today. I feel sad that King’s life was cut short and that he did not have the opportunity to develop this approach for decades like Gandhi and Khan did.
by Kevin Varney
I’m on the other side of the world and I’m watching reactions to the Ferguson grand jury decision unfold over social media…and I’ve been struck by something in the nature of the statuses, articles, or photos shared by my facebook friends back home.
Each and every one of them reflect that person’s own experience in America. It’s fairly obvious to me who’s liberal, who’s conservative. I can tell who has experienced some form of racism, and I can tell who has been pretty sheltered from it. From my conservative friends, I often see a certain color-blindness and desire to uphold “personal responsibility” as the issue. They sincerely believe, with all their heart, that America is the same for everyone as long as you work hard and act respectably.
Now, I’m not a conservative, I’m definitely more progressive on most social and fiscal issues, but I have always admired that very basic ideology underlying conservative thought – That anything is possible if you work hard. Doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you started from. It’s all about where you want to go. It hearkens to an incredibly idealistic view of our country, which I sincerely want to believe in. But I think that where this way of thinking fails is in its inability to reconcile certain realities in our country’s past and present which go against this view of America.
There are very real harsh realities in our country. To put it in the most basic terms, life is different for people based on their background. If you’re black or brown or yellow, it’s different than if you’re white. If you’re a woman, life is different than if you’re a man. If you’re poor, it’s different than if you were rich. If you identify as LGBTQ, life is different than if you identify as straight. If you’re an immigrant, it’s different than if you were born here.
For young men of color, especially black men, these difficulties are all too real. These difficulties are institutionalized and present at every level of our society. It doesn’t matter how you dress, what degree of education you have, etc…Black men are always looked at with a level of suspicion and distrust, especially by law enforcement. And then, when things go wrong, the victims are blamed. As if their way of dress or demeanor was somehow responsible for the misguided perceptions of the perpetrator. This is wrong and it needs to change.
There’s something profoundly wrong in our national dialogue when all I see or hear is the dehumanization of the “other side.” This mentality must stop.
We must try to understand the other side. We need to stop vilifying the anger that is displayed at the verdict of the Ferguson case. There is a reason that this incredible anger exists.
To my friends (especially my white and non-black friends), who espouse the ideals of personal responsibility and to those that sincerely doubt the prevalence of racism in our society- instead of just writing off the peaceful protesters or even the violent rioters, please try and understand what these people are feeling. There’s a reason that so much emotion is behind this whole case. It’s opened all kinds of wounds in America that have long been simmering beneath the surface.
It is time for us to embrace true equality in America. And true equality doesn’t just come into existence by pretending that it’s here. We must all work for it. And we start that important work with a little empathy for people that are different from us.
~Kevin Varney is a former intern at Gandhi
by Erin Thompson
The Gandhi Institute has been working closely with the Industry Juvenile Detention Center in Rush, N.Y. to establish a Nonviolence Club at that facility. Recently the Institute brought senior Kingian Nonviolence trainer Jonathan “Globe” Lewis to Rochester in order for him to conduct a two-day nonviolence workshop (October 3rd and 4th). The overlapped timing of these two endeavors created a small window of opportunity – on Thursday, October 2nd, which is Gandhi’s birthday – in which to introduce Jonathan and the Industry youth to each other. The results were equal parts sobering and heartwarming.
The afternoon at Industry started with our small group being buzzed through the double doors of the heavy, barbed wire-topped gate. Institute Director Kit, interns Al and Hoody, Globe and I all patted ourselves down to ensure we weren’t carrying any restricted items. Despite Industry being categorized as a “limited secure” facility, the reinforced doors, metal detectors, loops of barbed wire and curt demeanor of the Industry personnel all smacked of law and order, and an undercurrent of tension permeated the somber halls.
Once we were processed in, we met with a friendly face in Youth Division Aide Debrine Williams, who has worked extensively with the Gandhi Institute in the past. Debrine has clearly taken her Industry charges under her wing, referring to them as her “nephews.” Debrine’s group was the first of three sets of young males to file into the auditorium where the session with Globe was to take place. As the young men took their seats, they eyed us warily, probably trying to find the common denominator in our motley cast of characters. Globe was outfitted in an electric green bubble vest, white tee shirt, loose jeans, sneakers and baseball cap. The appearance of the rest of us ran the gamut: from shaved heads, to twists, to flowing hair; from skinny jeans to baggy khakis. Black, white, female, male.
By the time all the participants arrived, a good 15 minutes of the one-hour time slot we negotiated for was behind us. I made some brief introductory remarks and quickly turned over the program to Globe.
A practitioner of Kingian Nonviolence strives to suspend snap judgments. Globe, as the hip-hop attired counterpart of his conservatively draped mentor Dr. Bernard Lafayette, brings this point to a head. Globe’s power lies not only in his obvious mastery of the concepts he presents, but in his ability to meet his audience “where they’re at.” For this particular group of young men, this meant speaking directly to the decisions they made which led to their incarceration, and to the central role each of them plays in determining the trajectory of the rest of their lives. The stark reality is that for some time into the future, these guys (ages 12 – 17) are going to be confined together and unable to exercise control over many elements of their lives that those of us on the outside take for granted. Globe proposed the adoption of a nonviolent mindset as a practical alternative to feeding into the destructive anger and aggression that can accompany incarceration. Do the time affirmatively, and don’t let the time do you.Emerge from within these confining walls with a stronger sense of self than when you went in. Your life matters! Without any air of judgment, personal responsibility and mindfulness were put forth as the foundations of purposeful living and community building.
Throughout the session, Globe made his way through the aisles handing over the microphone to those with something to say. The fellas quickly got over any initial shyness and many shared stories of their ongoing struggles and successes. They encouraged each other to avoid falling in with those who are fixated on negativity. They spoke about how they look forward to being out in the world, and putting their lives back together. One young man asked about how he could learn more about nonviolence training.
The short period of time we had with the young men of Industry felt both tragic and triumphant. If an ongoing Nonviolence Club is established, I am certain that good things will come of it. What is daunting is the recognition of societal norms which function to keep places like Industry at maximum capacity. The Industry session was humbling, and reinforced my appreciation for the work my colleagues at the Gandhi Institute do on a daily basis.
During dire times, humans seem to have a natural inclination toward the arts as a mechanism to relieve the pressure of feelings otherwise incommutable. Whether we’re referring to the practices of the ancients to perform dance and song for their gods in exchange for blessings, or the sorrow songs passionately sung by enslaved Black people to convey their shackled inner lives and yearnings for freedom, art has been the medium people have turned to time and time again to give substance to that which can’t be said.
However, the so-called ‘cultural elite’, those who live under the impression that legitimate art is only that which is hung in the galleries of lavish neighborhoods, where hundred dollar wines flow like water. The art of this privileged few tries its best to erase the lives of the majority, giving special apathy to those who live on the margins. This is art produced under the delusion of plush fantasy, built upon others’ backs.
Despite the efforts of the upper classes to discourage the production of art that speaks to radically different experiences, where various societal structures are unabashedly named as the forces that cause suffering and notions of taboo are simply done away with. These works of art, where various societal structures are unabashedly identified as forces that cause suffering, have been essential components to movements for social justice; from Harlem Renaissance artists boldly proclaiming that “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” , to writers living during the Civil Rights/Black Power era, such as Lorraine Hansberry, who actively chose to depict Black people’s lives without relying upon misinformed notions of Black humanity to give their works zest. Arts, in all of its manifestations, have pulled movements for change in directions that would have otherwise been inaccessible, because works of art constructed with an abundance of integrity and technical skill can activate people’s imaginations in ways that speeches and lectures can’t.
To not give those artists committed to liberatory struggle as well as the production of quality works of art credit is detriment to cultivating a world where people are able to creatively live as their entire selves. Artists dedicated to these missions are extremely reliable for capturing experiences that would otherwise decay into vague recollections and dust. To deny the contributions of these artists is to erase skillful encapsulations of human reaction to social phenomena.
This said, when eighteen year-old Michael Brown was slain in Ferguson, Missouri by Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, the outcry of the artists was imbued with a wave of indignant pain only the most tragic social phenomena are capable of triggering. This tragedy, within the context of post-Zimmerman America and continued further violence directed toward Black youth,such as Renisha McBride, was met with a global outpouring of art.
Artists of all disciplines released wave after wave of material in the weeks following Brown’s killing and the community led protests against the FPD’s refusal to penalize Officer Wilson for his actions as well as general lack of respect for Brown and his family. A statement of solidarity, published on Red Wedge Magazine’s website,signed by artists across the country and abroad, serves as a microcosm of the energy artists have channeled into producing art which grapples with the reality that the state deems Black lives disposable.
Beginning with the writers, a poem entitled not an elegy for Michael Brown, by award winning poet Danez Smith, begins with the line, “I am sick of writing this poem”, and goes on to question the masses commitment to justice for Brown and other slain Black youth. In this same literary vein, various DC-area poets contributed to the development of Dear Ferguson – A DC Community Poem, searingly read by internationally renowned DC based spoken word artist Pages Matam. Both poems add compelling perspectives and fresh language to the discourse surrounding the events continuing to erupt in Ferguson.
In Philadelphia’s iconic LOVE park, two actors, Lee Edward Colston and Keith Wallace recreated Brown’s last moments right in front of the park’s eponymous ‘LOVE’ sculpture. By having Wallace wear a white T-shirt with holes resembling bloodied gunshot wounds torn into the back while lying face down and motionless for an hour, the two artists received mixed messages from spectators; from those in respectful awe of the artists’ creativity to those who degraded the pieces message to pure spectacle by having their portraits taken in front of Wallace’s still body.
Within the musical realm, a deluge of tracks have been released by artists in various genres and all levels of fame. Releasing an intensely emotional track alongside a very vulnerable statement on the nature of living as a Black man in America, rapper J. Cole’s track Be Free is a somber conveyance of a simple desire for a liberty most African-American’s will never experience in today’s world. Getting to the root of the Ferguson community’s, and by extension all Black people engaged in struggle against the state, frustration, Lauryn Hill unveiled the melancholy Black Rage. Tenderly singing lines such as, “Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person”, a reference to theDred Scott Case of 1857, Hill centers the history of Black people being dehumanized, abused, and exploited, revealing the historical context of the Ferguson community’s rage.
And, although met with some backlash by local police departments, visual artists, such as University of Missouri – St. Louis student Howard Barry, have not stood idly by as their counterparts have been feverishly creating. From photographs depicting uncensored police brutality against Ferguson protesters to an upcoming exhibition of the works of two-hundred and fifty St. Louis area artists, the visual arts have been essential in tugging at people’s consciences, using the universal language of imagery.
In the city of Ferguson itself, a Before I Die wall was constructed by a group of teachers in hopes that the community would use the artpiece to support their efforts in imagining a future without the realities that led to Michael Brown’s death. And, in their calls for acts of solidarity, the people of Ferguson requested those capable of organizing street theatre performances join them on the ground, hinting at an abundance of artwork created, and in production, by Ferguson community members themselves.
Painter Cbabi Bayoc told Art in America, “…a lot of art will come of this”, in reference to the aforementioned events of this summer, and we have all the reason to believe him.
- March 28, 2015 1:00 pmThe Pachamama Alliance’s Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium
- March 31, 2015Kingian Nonviolence Workshop w/ Jonathan Globe Lewis
- April 16, 2015 6:30 pmWhat You Say Next Can Change Your World: A Series in Nonviolent Communication
- April 19, 2015 3:00 pmStrategic Action for Social Change
- April 23, 2015 6:30 pmWhat You Say Next Can Change Your World: A Series in Nonviolent Communication
- On Being Shaped & Nourished by the Gandhi Institute March 24, 2015
- Commitment and Patience: Keys to Embracing Nonviolence in Our Dark Hours March 9, 2015
- Remembering Marshall Rosenberg February 16, 2015