Colour-coded: Decolonising Hearts, Minds & Spirits

It was another one of those silly games, those apparently pointless games that lie at the heart of conflict transformation and experiential learning.  ‘Lifeboats’ is primarily designed to harvest information from the participants in ways that are fun, kinaesthetic and, often, sneaky.  In this case, why don’t we set up an exercise that is deliberately provocative, deliberately oriented towards a dominant white culture narrative and experience?  

In ‘Lifeboats’, the story is that we are all in a ship – maybe on the Mediterranean or the Nile, the Brahmaputra or the Boac; in this case, the St Lawrence – and it’s going down.  The ‘passengers’ are assured that we are well equipped with lifeboats, no lives will be lost – but that we like to be organised about who gets into which lifeboat.  So, all those wearing blue today will get into this lifeboat over here.  All those who are pastors will come over here to get into this lifeboat – which may include those wearing blue now required to switch lifeboats.  A boat is reserved for those who access new media, whether online, print or broadcast every day, another for those who play a musical instrument.  The latter are asked to tell us which instruments they each play, and would they please play us a tune.  The pianos start playing, the djembes are tapped on knees, fingers fly off air guitars and the flute adds its dulcet tones – to laughter.  There are other lifeboats for those born outside the country, for those who have been taught to fear the police. 

Then there is one for those born in the decade in which Little Boy and Fat Boy were dropped (Hiroshima and Nagasaki; 1940s), the decade of the ‘Bennett Buggies’ (1930s), of the ‘Day the Music Died’ (1950s), the fall of the Berlin wall (1980s), that Martin Luther King was assassinated (1960s), that saw Nelson Mandela elected into South Africa’s highest office (1990s), the decade in which Wilbur Howard served as the first Black Moderator of the United Church of Canada (1970s), in which ‘Indian Residential Schools’, first opened in 1848, finally closed (1990s).  It requires talking with your neighbours:  what in the world are the ‘Bennet Buggies’?  who are Fat Boy and Little Boy? who is Wilbur Howard? 

Eventually, the lifeboats are filled, distributed between the 1940s through to the 1990s.  Once there, each group is asked to sing a song from the decade in which they were born.  We’ll eavesdrop on my group, that of the 1950s and the ‘day the music died’.  We are one francophone Haitian woman, a Taiwanese migrant who served as a Member of Parliament for a nearby riding [district], a Jamaican African-descendent church executive, as well as three white, dominant culture people.  We can’t seem to reach a decision.  Only half of us were even here in the 1950s and the pleas of the native-born for Elvis or Sinatra or Jerry Lee or Bill Haley or Chuck Berry or Patti Page or the Everly Brothers or Fats Domino are declined.  We weren’t here, the other three say.  Oh yeah, right.  The Taiwanese man suggests, interestingly enough, ‘Que será, será… the future’s not ours to see…’  Doris Day.  And so we sang.  Badly.  

The 1960s sing ‘Yesterday’ a Beatles classic.  Over protests that they were infants in the decade in which they were born, the 1980s sing the theme song from Sesame Street.  Over in the 1940s, they sing ‘I'm looking over a Four-leaf Clover'.  It’s the largest group and in the middle of the group, one woman is crying into the arms of another.  She is MJ, of Korean origins.  To her, our song, 'Que será, será' sounds like something else; not Spanish but a Japanese song she learned as a child.  She is in distress; her group is caring for her.  Almost thirty-five years into the Japanese occupation, she was born, given a Japanese name, learned Japanese songs.  Her younger sisters, born post-occupation, were given Korean names; she kept her occupier name, a reminder of the pain of occupation, of grief and loss and dislocation, so present. 

Back to the 1950s.  ‘So you did that intentionally, right?’ Michael asks.  What?  That we ask questions skewed towards the dominant culture with expectations that you’ve been here long enough to ‘get with the programme, assimilate?’  Perhaps, yes.  Sidelined again.  

In a workshop provocatively entitled ‘Colour-coded:  Decolonising Hearts, Minds and Spirits’, 29 participants spent an April Friday evening and all day Saturday exploring issues of race and racism. Here in this country, we have seen branch plants of Black Lives Matter, rising up in distinctively Canadian forms.  We have lived through, observed, the submission to Parliament of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), its 4,000 pages and 440 recommendations going mostly nowhere and then the seven years of Truth-and-Reconciliation storytelling, gut-wrenching testimonies of 150 years of European settlers attempting to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.  We began on a sunny but crisp Friday afternoon, forming a circle in the still dormant gardens of a Toronto area United Church.  Six Nations of the Grand River Territory Elder, Renée Hill-Thomas, gathered the men, keepers of the fire, to light the four sacred grasses, huddling against a stiff breeze, smudging our circle in a ceremony of grief-cleansing.  Grief-cleansing.  Women, keepers of the water, passed a cup of water, allowing some of it to pass through our chilled fingers, purging pain.

Once back inside, we set up sacred space and gathered together our intentions, settling into discomfort as a place of learning:  to understand colonisation and decolonisation within the gob-smackingly arrogant concept of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ (flag piercing the skin of our land, they say, now ours), to get at what we bring and what we seek, doing the personal as a gateway into the systemic, grasping the necessity to not run away from difficult conversations. 

In the hours that followed, we examined issues of identity, what shapes us, conditions us; how we learn to ‘other’ the other, how we arbitrarily exclude and include, how to identify, interrupt and disrupt unconscious bias, the unmerited privilege dominant cultures harvest without thinking, the systemic reach of personal prejudice.  

Using a tool called ‘Creating a Violent Society’, we examined in small groups the intersectionality and common roots of all oppressions, laughing hysterically at times as we traversed this dangerous territory; through story-telling by Michael Blair and Renée Hill-Thomas as well as Reginald Crenshaw, African-American, Anglican and a monk, presenting race as both social construct and social contract. It is not DNA that puts some people at one end of a continuum racialised to privilege and, at the other end, to not-privilege; it is socially constructed, agreed-upon, often supported by the latter through unconscious or conscious internalisation of endless messaging about who’s who and who’s not. Perhaps most profoundly, we talked about de-colonisation as a joint task of colonised and coloniser:  we all have unlearning to do, as oppressed peoples confront their capitulation and oppressors their cluelessness.  

We recognised the tendency of the dominant culture, upon hearing stories too hard to hear, retreating into self-flagellating guilt, a place centred on the suffering of the self rather than on the task of moving beyond guilt and into action and allyship:  who grants it? what does the dominant culture need to do or learn in order to earn it?  what is the grace and forgiveness available when we allow ourselves to accept our conditioning and begin the work of consciousness?  

Towards the end of the training, we heard a story offered by LeDayne McLeese Polaski, Executive Director of the BPFNA, a painful story of the challenges of entering into difficult conversations, to which the participants responded with advice from their own experiences. How do we take risky steps into conversations we’d rather avoid, conversations that seem to hold the prospect of a price too high?  Go along to get along?  Or find the words, take the risk, reframing the issues through understanding and un-learning. 

In a closing circle, led by Renée, we ritualised our learnings, our hopes, our commitments to ourselves and to one another, to a world looking for love. 


Love & Fear, Grief & Grace

Of all the coverage post-Charlottesville, one CBC radio interview stays with me in particular.  Megan Williams of The Current interviewed a former member of the Canadian White Nationalist group known as Aryan Nation, Tony McAleer. 

The host mentioned a photo, now seen around the world, of a young, white man who was part of the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend, and played an audio clip of an interview with Peter Cvjetanovic.  She asked:  ‘What do you hear in his words? 

Tony McAleer replied:  ‘Fear. As human beings, we operate from one of two places. We operate from love or we operate from fear.

'When the U.S. census came out in 2000 showing a demographic shift, predicting a white minority within 40-50 years, there was a spike in membership in and support for white supremacist groups, based on the narrative that white genocide is impending, and their ability to control their own destiny is disappearing—and it's simply not true.  They carry this irrational fear about. I know from having dissected my own personal history.

'Deep down inside these are fearful people and they're driven to these groups by a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, and coming from a place where they don't have that within themselves. The fuel driving it all is toxic shame. It's really less about the ideology of why people join these groups than it is about anger - for reasons unrelated to ideology. But the ideology gives them a framework within which that they can try and make sense of it and blame others. But it's a very false narrative.’

The interviewer asked for clarification about ‘toxic shame’.  Tony referred to a University of Maryland study that showed that ‘the number one correlated factor in the history of somebody joining a violent extremist group is childhood trauma.’  Trauma creates ‘an unhealthy sense of self at a much deeper level – a toxic shame.’  ISIS recruits, he continued are not scholars of the Qur’an but troubled youth, looking for meaning, belonging, purpose.  Tony describes his own childhood trauma in a well-to-do home; ‘I went out into the world emotionally hungry and I made very poor choices.  Ideology was not the cause but it ‘gave me permission to act out the violence and anger that was deep inside of me.’  He cautions, however, that childhood trauma is a key factor but not a predictor. 

‘Ideology and identity become intertwined,’ he said.  And, referring to his work with an organisation called Life After Hate that assists people leave white supremacist groups, ‘if you attack the ideology, you also attack the identity, defences go up and they shut down.’ The task, he said, is to reconnect them to their humanity.  ‘I believe that the level to which we are willing to dehumanise another human being, for any reason, is a reflection of how disconnected from our own humanity that we are.’  

In our work with Partera, we understand that the same fuel that drives a white supremacist ignites social and political violence of all sorts – and the task remains the same:  how do we reconnect people with their humanity – and with the humanity of the other over what may seem like insuperable barriers?  Is it possible to value the identity of the other without feeling threatened, that to do so somehow erodes my own?  Whether it’s Naga, Rengma, Bodo, Kharbi or Garo in North East India – where more than 600,000 people have been killed in violence that pits Christian tribes against Christian tribes, indigenous against the Muslim migrant – or in Mindanao where Moros, Lumads (indigenous) and Christian settlers struggle for land, resources and autonomy – or Nuer and Dinka in South Sudan, Kurds and Turks – mantles of religion or tribe are drawn over essentially economic conflicts, staking out meta-meaning, deepening fears and raising recruitment potential.  And here in my own country, the echoes of the uncovering happening to the south of us are clear.  

I recall an encounter with a paramilitary soldier on the banks of the River Opón in Colombia in the early 1990s. I was there with Christian Peacemaker Teams, accompanying villagers in the rebuilding of their communities newly-reclaimed from the ELN.  As his heavily-armed compañeros scrambled up the banks of the river, making themselves at home in front of the terrified villagers, some of us engaged the apparent leader in conversation.  After a polite request that they move on, I asked him if he had children.  I pulled out photos of my own children and closed enough of the space between us to show him Emily and Gillian.  He replied, ‘Yes.’  ‘Boys, girls?’ I asked.  I still remember: ‘Three boys and a girl.’  ‘They must miss you.  Do you get home often?’  He looked down at the red soil at his feet and mine.  ‘Do you know what you want?’ I asked. To my surprise, he raised his head and said, ‘Peace.’  ‘Then we have something in common. That’s why we’re here, as well.’  In no way deluded as to the capacity for atrocity of this group, stories of the week before sharp in my mind, I asked, ‘But I don’t understand your methods, how you get to peace with guns.  Wouldn’t it be great if they could all be tossed into the Opón.’

Why not love?  Why does hate seem easier, more energising for some?  Tony McAleer concluded the interview with Martin Luther King: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Fear mars us, mars me, emerging in disguise as anger, hatred and violence against others.  Love makes the impossible possible.  Grief was my response to Charlottesville, a ripping, tearing grief.  I give the last word to African-American poet, Adrienne Maree Brown, who invites, in response to the UNCOVERING, both grief (and outrage...) and grace-filled collaboration.  With thanks for drawing my attention to this piece of his artwork, see friend and colleague, Ken Sehested's, Prayer & Politiks.


The 104: Women Rising!

Imagine this.  Decades of death, hundreds of thousands killed.  Men raiding, burning, killing, committing mind-numbing atrocities against their neighbours, retaliation following upon retaliation.  A collage of images of women and children; their villages and homes still smouldering in the background, gathering the children, rescuing the pots and pans, stoking fires, warming dahl. 

And then imagine those women leaving their pots for awhile, 104 of them, rolling up their sleeves, hiking up their kurti, elbows out, taking all manner of transport from Nagaland and Meghalaya and Manipur to Guwahati in the state of Assam to get themselves trained, equipped to step out of their place, to take their place.   

Please donate to make this happen!

War is a rather gendered thing

The Washington Post has named the North East of India as one of the six most under-reported war zones in the world.  Six hundred thousand people have died.  Male combatants make war and male combatants are given priority at tables of peace negotiations.  Women are expected to accept ‘top-down solutions imposed on them’ in the course of discussions to which they have not been invited.  As if ‘you need a gun to get to the table’. 

A recent op-ed in the Toronto Star posed the question:  ‘Why are women not included in peacebuilding efforts?’  Exactly our question.  Because we know it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.  The International Peace Institute analysed 156 peace agreements and found that, when women are included, there was a 35% increase in the chances of accords lasting more than 15 years.  We know that ‘equality between the sexes is directly linked to peaceful societies; better security for women means that countries are more security and experience lower levels of conflict and war.’  As one of my posters says, ‘When any society marginalises 50% of its population, it condemns itself to a permanent warrior culture and permanent underdevelopment.’  Then why the ongoing exclusion? 

Women who have had the opportunity to challenge social norms that limit their participation at tables of all sorts – from the kitchen table to tables of economic, social and political decision-making -- are like butterflies emerging from their pupa.  Enter these 104 women, sleeves rolled up, leaving the kitchen to the family to sort out, ready to transform themselves into agents of change, agents of peace.  They’ve had enough.  They’ve had enough of the domestic violence within that escalates in tandem with identity-fuelled violence without.  Weary of losing their mother’s grip on sons training for war.  Weary of starting over again.

I’m thinking, women bring a different perspective, more aware of the economic, social, cultural and political rules that get in the way of their agency – and in the way of peace; perhaps less attached to the history and the boxes that divide tribe from tribe.  And so that’s where we’ll begin.  I am imagining that very large circle of 104 women and finding out what they believe they bring that’s different; what’s missing and why they are confident they can fill the gap.  And what do we need to do in order to make that happen.  STAY TUNED! and DONATE!



The Torturer and the Tortured

Frank Chikane was a member of the South African Council of Churches when the system known as apartheid separated out the races as white, privileged, worthy of ruling, and black, less than, caged into volatile townships, their very volatility demonstrating the wisdom of the arrangement.  An articulate and witty activist devoted to bringing down the racist régime of FW de Klerk, Rev’s Frank Chikane found himself one day imprisoned, beaten and tortured, the torturer a white member of Frank’s own church denomination. 

Following his release, Frank reflected on this horrifying juxtaposition of torturer and tortured, both finding their mandate to torture and to resist to the point of imprisonment and torture within the pages of the same sacred text.  

Here in the Philippines during a training for students, aged 17 to 25, I reflected out loud with the students on a thought similar to that above:  how is it that those of the same religious tribe both excoriate and cheer enthusiastically the man who now occupies the White House?  What tenuous and contradictory sinew connects them?  

The same question arises here.  While still the mayor of the city of Davao on the country’s southernmost island of Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte, was keen to do some ‘street cleaning’.  In a poll taken not long before he became president of the country, 49% of the mostly Christian citizens of the city were Ok with the mayor’s death-squad methods.  Now, seven months into his presidency – which he won by doubling the votes of the other two major candidates, it is widely reported that his various ‘wars’ (on drugs, drug dealers, insurgents and people who disagree with him) have piled up an impressive body count of 6,700.  Asked in an interview late last year if he actually kills people himself, he demurred only slightly; ‘about three recently’, he responded.  Today’s news raises the count by seven in a bloody encounter with ‘unknown gunmen’ in Quezon City. 

Duterte’s Peace Implementation Panel Chair bragged to me that she had wrenched a peace agreement from the recalcitrants of the long-standing Mindanaoan civil conflict in five days, ridiculing the Colombians who had taken four and a half years to get to the same place with the FARC.  The day I arrived here, Duterte terminated both the talks with the New People’s Army/National Democratic Front and the long-standing (since 1995) Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) which enabled the ‘consultants’ on the other side to enjoy some freedom of movement as they worked through the elements needed for peace.  The following day he set his lawyers to the task of figuring out how to withdraw without too much fuss from the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights whose signatories have ended all practices of capital punishment. 

While given to both sexist slurs and groping as well as God-talk, Duterte has found himself at the receiving end of scathing critiques from both Roman Catholic and Protestant Bishops.  In my usual unscientific survey of cab and tuq-tuq drivers, they seem little bothered by his excesses, they tell me, as their rear-view mirror silver and gold crucifixes glint in the mid-day sunlight. Besides, the crime rates have gone down.  The ends seem to have justified the ends. 


International Women's Day: Born an Un-Person

My mother was born a non-person.  It was two years before little Barbara Alice Starr, unbeknownst to her, was allowed into that category of human person.  Although the majority of Canadian women had the federal vote by 1919 and a female MP (Agnes Macphail) had been elected to the House of Commons in 1922, the British North America Act (BNA) – our constitution – refused women’s entry into the Senate because they were not considered ‘qualified persons’ – specifically, over the age of 30, holding land valued at least $4,000 and resident in the province of their appointment.  The BNA did not contemplate that that description would ever include anything other than men and therefore felt no need to specify.  (I note that I turned to the Canadian Encyclopaedia for this information, one of the contributors of which is named Barbara Alice Starr McKenna, PhD(c).  Cool.  A Canadian history scholar, granddaughter of an illiterate Irish peasant-woman, she taught for many years at the University of Western Ontario.) 

The theme for our local International Women’s Day event was hope. The Executive Director of our local women’s shelter spoke of her struggle to come up with content for her address.  It seems as if we are in retreat, she said, going backward – slipping back, I would say, into that place of not just non-persons, but, as my friend added, as targets.  Norah Kennedy lamented the seeming impossibility this far down the road of our ‘liberation’ that US voters would elect a man whose misogyny, sexist behavior and language, his xenophobia and racism, were well known, rather than, well, a woman. 

Since then, it has felt like open-season.  Not that we had reached some kind of feminist utopia – these words and insults and inequities have never gone away; it’s the mainstreaming of it all that makes it so disturbing.  Having reached a point that we can say ‘It’s 2015’ – our new PM’s response when questioned about his appointment of equal numbers of women and men in his cabinet – it’s now 2017 and the air feels different. 

The slide presentation at our event included a comparative list of those attributes celebrated in women and those celebrated in men.  Rather discouraging.  Under ‘women’, we find co-operative, supportive, cautious reserved, nurturing, domestic, beautiful, small.  Under ‘men’, we find competitive, leader, tough, self-reliant, handsome, tall…  Wow.  Back into our boxes.  Or have the boxes never changed?  One young woman at our retreat centre once insisted that she was not a feminist.  It seemed not the right moment to ask questions.  Where are we going? 

As I find in my work in zones of conflict around the world – and all sorts of workplace environments, these lists remain all too true.  The speaker yesterday talked about the number of times her daughter was called ‘pretty’ at a birthday party.  And that’s right next to, she noted, ‘perfectionism’ – body-, looks-discontentments that take women and girls down all sorts of dark holes of self-loathing.  And social media have raised it to a new level.  It means that we remain colonised into patriarchy and our role as objects – of desire, lust, admiration, of envy.  What are we teaching our daughters when we dress them in clothing and make-up designed for objectified desire and admiration?  Early sexualisation has our daughters and granddaughters preening by kindergarten before they are even quite clear what for.  We are like fish swimming in waters of subversion, washing over us, around us, everywhere, hardly distinguishable from anything else – telling us who we are and who we need to be.  For what? For whom?  And how does one break out, refuse, drain the fishbowl when our dissent might kill us? 

And yet there is hope.  Endless hope.  Read on about Women Rising!