#BeMoreCircles – Baltimore’s Summer of Peace

I often wake in the morning with ideas and insights my subconscious labored over in the night. This morning I came to consciousness with my son’s little body curled against me…and the  image of dialogue groups scattered throughout the city throughout the summer in public spaces around public events.

Intentional, accessible conversations and reflections on the fringes of First Thursdays, or during Concerts in the Park, or after the public pools let out. All summer we will be gathering together. As we do, we will be wondering how to reconcile the beauty of humans together (which we see daily in our city) with the chaos of humans together (which we saw on Monday).

Why not wander towards each other so we can wonder out loud together?

#BeMoreCircles

Building bridges between communities, between generations, between races. Just. Between. …seems to be at least ONE solution towards the #OneBaltimore we are beginning to see emblazoned on poster board and message boards around our city and throughout social Media. To some, this may seem idealistic or unattainable, but there is a long standing method that facilitates this process…

…Speaking with each other.

Not speaking to or at or even for but WITH.

Too often when we gather with crowds, we go with our friends, and we stay with our friends. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that there is not a mechanism or space to make or invite new meaningful connections with others, even if we wanted to. Open spaces for dialogue surrounding public events could change that.

Summer of Peace
At my high school, we created community in the public space of our courtyards through sidewalk chalk and the question: “What does a blended school mean to you?”

So how might this look?

I can imagine myself trekking up to the Pagoda on a Sunday afternoon, finding some shade a decent distance from the concert stage, laying down a few more blankets than I need, and propping up a poster that simply says “#BeMoreCircles :Speak and Listen here”. People wander over. Share some snacks. And get to wondering.

Perhaps we have weekly “Points to Ponder” suggested on a #BeMoreCircles Facebook page. Perhaps we’ve established weekly themes, so there is some continuity between these organic conversations that might pop up around the city. And perhaps afterwards people can take their insights from that physical meeting and share them in that virtual space. Continue the connections there. Build upon these new relationships.

For some this may feel like TOO much. For some, not enough.

Think of all that might go wrong!

What if someone just takes my snacks?

What if someone sits down and never leaves?

What if folks start arguing?

What if..

These are fair concerns. Something else to consider is the simple fact that even if we are gathering in public spaces, we are gathering in “our” public spaces. We are venturing to the events in “our” park, but we are likely unaware or uncomfortable venturing into “other people’s” parks. Are they safe? Am I welcome?

Something like this takes courage…and perhaps at least a little training.

I might mention, here, that I have a degree in conflict resolution, training as a multi-cultural educator, and have spent hours in and beyond the classroom locally and internationally sitting with groups of people and asking questions around culture, creativity, and conflict.

I only say this to acknowledge that the commitment to peacemaking is indeed a long journey and we are all at different places as we seek to understand the roots of conflict in ourselves and our fellow human beings.

But on a picnic blanket adjacent to a concert seems like a safe place to start.

If you are intrigued by this possibility, reach out. I’ve tagged a number of my peacemaking sisters and brother in this post hoping to get a conversation started. Asking what we need. Who we might partner with. How we might train folks quickly for a Baltimore Summer of Peace.

Advertisements

The People vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom…

“I feel as though some people in this classroom get heard more than other people.”

Jordan makes this declaration after the class has collectively spent three weeks writing, revising, and justifying a syllabus for a “Leadership” course. Many of these students have been in class together since their freshmen year. They have moved through a “Community Development and Global Citizenship” course their sophomore year, so it seemed a logical progression for this junior year leadership course that everything, even the syllabus, be determined for the students, by the students.

When they submitted their drafts electronically, I color coded each group’s proposal so that as we wove it together, the tapestry that emerged refracted the multiplicity of their view points and voices.

Syllabus

After all of this, after the “collab-abus” was signed into law by (apparent) mutual agreement, I sat at the front of the room basking in the presumption of egalitarian victory, assumed it must be a communal emotion, and asked:

“How are you all feeling right now?”

Empowered?

Triumphant?

Grateful to your benevolent teacher?

Any of these responses would do.

Instead…

“…some people…”

In moments such as these, when our intent and our outcomes seem so disparate, it is easy to fall back on defense mechanisms. Righteous Indignation is one of my favorites. In my first five years of teaching, this would have undoubtedly been my response. I might have defended “some people,” insisting that this was the ultimate example of irony brought forth be teenage self-involvement.

Instead of asserting this accusation must be false, I considered that it might be true and asked…

“What do the rest of you think of that?”

What emerged was a conversation that rocked not just me, but all the students in the class to their core. One student in particular, Gabby, put herself in the middle of it all and asked…

“You mean… ‘some people’ like me?”

If it please the court, let us consider the case of The People vs Gabby.

Gabby is the quintessential “good student.” She is always eager to participate, loves group work, is prepared for any Socratic Seminar, and is happy to share her thoughts on everything. She’s… a lot like me. In fact, her freshmen year she transferred into my Honors English class because “Everyone is always talking about you and I feel like we have the same personality and I know I’m just going to love it in here.” Be still my heart.

VS.

Jordan, on the other hand, at the end of her sophomore year told me she WOULD NOT be signing up for the Leadership class because, “I feel like you have favorites.” Be still my righteous indignation. Jordan frequently finds herself in the role of hard truth telling, speaking what others are muttering under their breaths but do not have the courage or freedom to say. Jordan will raise her hand (I will brace myself) and she will say it for them.

You may have guessed…Gabby is white, Jordan is black. “The People” vs “Some People.”

If you’re asking yourself “Well why should that matter?”

Umm…because we’re in America, and it matters.

If you want further proof, let’s talk about the self-segregation of the leadership class itself.

I stopped creating seating charts for my Signature students about three years ago. What emerged, over and over, was a fascinating study in “why are all the ____ kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” Sometimes our lines of identity are not externally visible. Other times we wear them in our sportswear, head coverings, skin tones. Students (read humans) if left to choose, too easily settle and sort into this stratified cultural gravity.

At the onset of this conversation about whose voices are heard, one half of the room (predominantly white) sat gaping while the other half (predominantly African-American) sat nodding.

But…because we’re in America (and because we’re talking about Millennials), race is also not the ONLY thing that matters in this scenario. This was also about the tyranny of the extrovert. The hand-waver. The stream of consciousness live-Tweeter. Ours is not a culture of good listening. The introverts too, regardless of skin tone, were ALSO feeling marginalized.

So when Jordan called us on our “some people”-ness, it could have been interpreted as a the ultimate #fail.

That is, if you don’t have a context for transitional democracy.

One of my favorite people and teachers often jokes that the classroom even at its best is a study in “Benign Dictatorship.” That is, no matter how inclusive and responsive the teacher is to the needs of the students, the teacher is still the central force driving the politics and governance of the class. A one party system.

I remember when I took the course “Conflict Analysis and Resolution” for my Masters, it was a shocking realization that democracy, at least initially, can be more chaotic, conflictual, and even violent than dictatorship.  All those voices, opinions, and directions from all those citizens makes for a noisy society. Despotism is much more ordered. Neat. None of the untidiness of dissent to clutter up the place.

Rule of law, it turns out, creates the conditions for dissonance…but also the conditions for eventual (if only occasional) harmony.

But before the harmony, comes the tears.

After class, as I counseled Gabby, as we considered how we could have so unintentionally silenced so many, the solution was elegant:

Listen.

So we did.

To Jordan. (Who I thanked for speaking up and asked to tell me more).

To the introverts. (Who consequently started an initiative called “Hear my Voice.”)

To the people.

It is a great squandering of opportunity that we do not understand public American classrooms as the ultimate space to witness democracy transforming itself…again and again.

If we stop listening during the tune-up, confuse the dissonance with disaster, we slip out before the reflective pause, and miss the orchestral triumph to follow.

Tomorrow…the people’s opus.

(NOTE: To read Gabby’s Reflection on this moment, click HERE. It became her college essay)

I to Lance, America

The first black boy I ever looked in the eyes was already in prison.

He was 19. I was 21.

We sat across from one another, a foot between us, eyes closed, as the facilitator gave us the following instructions:

“Decide who is A and who is B.”

“This exercise will be done in silence. No talking, no laughing, no touching, no smiling or other facial gestures.”

 “A, keep your eyes closed throughout the next part. Your partner will be looking at you. Now B, open your eyes …”

I open my eyes and study the young man before me. With his eyes closed, he looks more like a boy then a man. Light brown skin, medium height. Handsome.

“Look at this person in front of you, who has the same desire you have to feel good and safe and loved, who has your same will to survive … the same desire you do to make sense of his or her life … Take this rare opportunity to look at this person without embarrassment …”

We are in a Minnesota correctional facility. I am here volunteering. He is not. I am a Senior at Carleton College, a semester from graduation. But this program has created a space where we can, for a moment, feel our true equality.

Look into his/her face; you may see clues that reveal traces of sadness, hope, fear, loss … like having loved someone who died, or left … We’ve all experienced these things, so find it in your partner’s face … Then realize that it’s in your face too … and it’s all right … See all the common experiences you share … of being hurt, of being lonely … of feeling shame, of being scared, of feeling worthless, of praying for help … of feeling guilty and ashamed, of looking for some kind of relief, some kind of peace … moments of joy, pride, satisfaction, and of the yearning we all have to love and be loved.”

We are both participating in an organization called the “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP). This organization was founded in the 1970’s through a collaboration between the Quakers and inmates at Greenhaven Prison in New York. The inmates there were, “ concerned with the ‘revolving door’ they clearly saw in their institution. Youth were appearing in prison for fairly minor offenses, only to return (sometimes multiple times) for increasingly more serious and violent crimes.” They were desperate to try something different. Their lives had been characterized by violence. They longed for peace. So they asked themselves who knew how to make peace…the answer was the Quakers.

See that your partner is like you … and appreciate that s/he trusts you enough to let you look at him/her while his/ her eyes are closed … What a gift! And realize that s/he can trust you — and you can trust him/her, because you see how much the same life is for both of you…

One of the most profoundly surprising things about AVP is the egalitarian power structure. One might assume that the instructors and facilitators of the program are the volunteers who have come into the prison to offer advice or guidance, that the students and participants in the program are the inmates. But I sit across from my partner as his equal. He may teach me. I may teach him.

… At a real level you know this person … s/he’s just like you … So allow your heart to soften and your compassion to grow as you recognize these things in your partner.”

For whatever reason, my partner and I shared an immediate affinity for one another from the onset of this two day seminar. So when we moved into this exercise called “Human to Human,” there was no question that we would choose each other as partners. Move through this powerful experience together.

“Now B, I want you to give your partner the greatest gift you can give him or her: I want you to keep looking at him or her, with total understanding … total forgiveness, total compassion for all that s/he’s experienced … for anything s/he could reveal to you … Whatever stupid, violent, ugly, shameful, crazy thing you could find out about him/her. You understand, don’t you? … Show him or her you understand through the power of that divine love in your eyes … Allow that compassion to beam from your eyes so that you’re bathing him/her in love … You don’t have to “try” to do anything; just relax and get your ego out of the way and let divine love shine through your eyes.”

I’m a crier. This has always been. When I was a child it was a source of constant embarrassment and vulnerability that I couldn’t hide the hurt of every slight, couldn’t hide the compassion for every creature. So now, as a grown woman, I sit across from this young man with tears in my eyes. It’s not pity. It’s love. Love for him. Love for humanity. Mourning, perhaps, the circumstances that divide our lives.

“Now A. what I want you to do now … before you open your eyes, is to bring to mind those things in your life that you want to let go of … all your burdens … your loneliness, pain, shame, fears, hopelessness, weariness, your secrets … all of it … Be prepared to let them all go. Because you can do that …

 Now. I want you to open your eyes and look straight into the eyes of love across from you …

 My partner, I suspect, is not a crier. But as we are given permission to see each other, gaze at each other, love each other unfettered, if only for a moment, he too begins to fight the tears that will betray his own vulnerability. I see him swallowing his emotions.

 Receive the compassion, understanding and forgiveness that are there … You can let go of those burdens now … all your pain and shame and secrets … Surrender it all into the eyes of love … Let it all go. Your partner understands … S/he really does … You can allow him/her to see the real you … maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to be seen by anyone …maybe for the first time … Because it’s OK.”

I feel compelled to do all things we’ve been trained to do in the face of pain. Smile. Reach out. Look away. But I don’t do any of these things. Neither does he. We have committed to face our humanity in this moment, and neither of us break. Together we are courageous.

After the experience, we are allowed some time to process, but we both struggle to know what to say.

“When you looked at me…” my partner begins, but doesn’t finish. The question is implied.

Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?

“Now, both of you close your eyes. We’re going to switch roles.”

Were it that easy.

After this experience, I walk out of the prison back to my life. My partner does not. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be my last AVP experience. I intended to do more. Intended to come back. But I had friends to tend to. Classes to finish.  Life offered me other paths. My degree opened other doors and opportunities.

He remains behind. He is my equal, his life as valuable, but our constraints cannot be exchanged.

I have thought of him often. Could never forget his face. His eyes. Somewhere along the way, though, I forgot his name.

It was not until this winter, in the wake of Ferguson, that a powerful compulsion came over me to remember his name. To tell this story. To tell mine. Because our story is not our own. Somehow, ours is America’s story. America’s Incident. America’s Tableau.

“Now, for just a minute. sit and just look into each other’s eyes, with no games, no pretense, no power trips, no staring competitions, no roles at all … without your act, your front, your present. Don’t smile or make any other facial gestures. You can relax and just be you and just human beings on the path, who have recognized each other.

I began pouring through my journals from college. Certain that somewhere within them I would find this young man who I carried with me. As I read various entries, I moved through this potent time in my life of deep loves, deep thinking, deep failings. I brought these journals with me over winter break.

One night I could not sleep. I left the warmth of my bed and in the darkness of my Great Aunt’s farmhouse, I once again delved into the past looking for that moment. Searching for him…and then, there he was. I found him.

Lance.

“Before you close your eyes again, give each other some nonverbal expression in appreciation for what you have just experienced together. “Now close your eyes. Feel that experience you just had. That deep sense of your common humanity. of the goodness that’s there in each one of us …”

I close my eyes and weep again. Lance. I’d found him again. Found his name. Loved his name.

Immediately the power of it struck me.

Lance: An instrument of attack. A method of healing.

America’s story. Our story.

Like the trust lift and the trust leap, this exercise calls for a huge amount of trust and community feeling in order to succeed. If the group has not built up that kind of environment, it will be uncomfortable to say the least, even traumatizing perhaps and probably should not be done. Since the exercise can be very powerful for people, we often schedule a break right afterward so they can have some silent processing. After the break, re-gather with a sharing about their experience of the exercise.

His name may be a symbol, but he is a man. A real man. I don’t know where he is. Don’t know where his life took him after that experience. I wish, though, he knew I carried him with me. Into Baltimore. Into St. Frances Academy. Into public schooling. Into diversity training. Into a degree in conflict resolution. Into Kibera Slum in Nairobi Kenya. Into parenthood. Into this moment.

America needs all her children.

Needs us to face ourselves.

Needs us to sit across from each other,

eyes closed,

then eyes opened.

Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?

Lance.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

“Human to Human”

Purpose: To have an experience of Transforming Power, of our common humanity, and of the goodness within each of us. To experience empathy and trust. To learn to see self and others more clearly, beyond the masks.

Time: 30 to 40 minutes.

Materials: None.

(“Human to Human” Taken from AVP Manual for Second Level Course)