Recently we completed the first five years of our philanthropic effort, called Shanti Foundation. This is a good time to reflect on what we have learned and what we have been able to do.
Starting a Foundation is a bit like beginning to write a novel: there is the stack of paper, the idea, maybe part of the plot, but it is all a bit vague. Just as a novel often takes the writer where he or she had not planned to go with the story, so the Foundation also developed a life of its own. We knew we wanted to support and help generate intercultural understanding, but where were the actual projects? We stumbled on the Amala Foundation, itself still in its formative stage, and things developed from there. After meeting other funders through the local Community Foundation and being exposed to nonprofits and their programs in Austin we found more organizations worthy of our support, such as iACT and Creative Action. Through internet research some international organizations came to our attention, especially after we had our own website and found organizations with similar names and goals. While we appreciated all the work that was done for local immigrant victims of domestic abuse, we felt the missing piece in this effort would be an educational program for perpetrators. We offered seed money to get such aprogram started.
Of course, with all the major disasters around the world from floods to earthquakes to refugee crises we could not stand idly by, but offered our small contribution to those relief efforts. Where peace, intercultural understanding and art could intersect we made baby steps of support. Since we will never have enough money to see any problem to its optimal solution, we have learned that our role and impact lies in offering seed money to worthwhile projects with the hope that they will germinate and flourish in able hands. The Amala Foundation has grown and blossomed beyond any expectation and now helps thousands of youths to become peaceful leaders.
When we add our small contribution to major initiatives already in place in international organizations we do so in the knowledge that proven leaders have found a way to a solution and we help add a few more bricks to that road.
For the International Day of Peace event we partnered with Houston-Tillotson University, a historically black university. Since it was also Hispanic Heritage month it seemed a fortitious confluence of cultures in which to insert a contribution towards bringing in the guest speakers. The event was part of an Invited Writers Series. Both speakers were Hispanic poets from San Antonio. Carmen Tafolla is the present Poet Laureate of Texas and Octavio Quintanilla teaches at our Lady of the Lake University.
Carmen and Octavio
Students, faculty and community listeners were treated to a rich feast of language, that spoke to peace, drug and other wars, displacement, and the untold history that minorities still have to make others aware of. It became clear, that there is still much to do in peace building between ethnicities and races here and abroad.
We see it every day in politics, in religion, in traffic, in the workplace and at home. It is not always recognized as such, but whenever someone pushes his/her way of thinking and acting as the only right way without considering other points of view it is a form of bullying. That is why the programs of Creative Action and now their partnership with Austin ISD’s department of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) are so important.
The goal of this partnership is to bring a new attitude and a new vocabulary of interaction to the students of all grades. With the help of professional actor-educators who involve the children in role playing and problem solving through fun skits in a week-long series of sessions these programs have shown that it is possible to change the whole climate of interaction. In schools, where several grade levels have gone through the program over a number of years teachers report a vast reduction in bullying and positive approaches by the students to potentially serious situations. Right now these programs serve about 20,000 students in all Austin ISD schools as well as the adjacent region.
Creative action defines its mission by four Cs:
Creative Artists (the freedom to express themselves and discover who they are)
Courageaous Allies (shifting from fearful bystander to courageous bystander)
Critical Thinkers (learning to analyze a situation before jumping to conclusions)
Confident Leaders (applying all the tools learned over many years to become thoughtful adults who can lead others)
Bullying often has a cultural component (wrong color, wrong parents, wrong sexual orientation, false sense of superiority). Learning to recognize and work on these issues at a young age and in a climate where STEM education is pushed on children and teachers will let this generation emerge more whole in their overall outlook on life.
We salute and support Creative Action for their important work.
Last weekend we were privileged to take part in events at two of the organizations we support.
One was the Open House at the nearly completed new home of Creative Action. Though it was a cold and drizzly day, the acrivities inside brimmed with excitement. Children could dress up with masks from a treasure chest, others tried to thread necklaces and bracelets from colorful beads, including letter cubes for their names. Meanwhile, older visitors could try their hands at African drumming, making a rhythmic and joyful noise. All this pointed to the new potential of Creative Action, which can now offer many activities and classes in its new home in addition to the many school
classrooms around town.
The other event was the festive travel along the Silk Road, that AFSSA (formerly SAHELI) has put on for more than twenty years. As it was last year, this major fundraiser was held in the stately rotunda of the Bullock Museum. While the Silk Road idea was visible in the many dinner selections from various Asian countries, the highlight was the live auction which hoped to raise enough money to meet a challenge grant from a newly impressed foundation. The many high bids I heard throughout the bidding cycle let me assume that the challenge was met. In addition, many local vendors had offered items for a silent auction. Those ranged from the desirable to the indulgent. Entertainment from Chinese lions dancing all through the hall, a very young talented volinist, and some Bollywood dancers rounded out the festive evening.
Every summer we look forward to the ever-changing use of origami cranes.The SAHELI fundraiser of “1000 cranes for peace” is highlighted by an installation of 1000 paper cranes that groups of people have folded and others have “bought” for $10 a crane. Our foundation contributed 100 cranes this year (folded by others).
Recently SAHELI has changed its name after twenty years of service to the Asian-American community and is now called AFSSA (Asian Family Support Services of Austin). This reflects a broadening of their mission from support primarily for victims of domestic violence (mostly women and children) to a more inclusive orientation, that will also address the issues leading to domestic violence and helping men become bettter men, husbands, fathers.
This year the 1000 cranes hung daintily on nylon strings from the “rafters” of a “house,” a simple house-shaped steel frame. The multihued cranes filled the inner space rather delicately, symbolizing the fragility of relationships in our houses. The slightest movement or draft turned the cranes on their axes, just as outside pressure can disorient relationships. AFSSA acts as the safety strings and the “house” where people can come into safety and can reorient their lives.
Holy week seems to unite, yet Jews celebrate early in the week, while for Christians the end of the week becomes important. Even though these festivals fall together, their meaning separates those who celebrate. Religion still puts us in different boxes more than commerce, work or geographic location. If we could perceive the various faith communities as individual drawers in a large cabinet and their content as sharing the same space, we might even find that some items can be “misplaced” from one drawer to the next. Whole drawers might be exchangeable in a well-made cabinet. Therefore, let us concentrate on the cabinet as a whole. We should be guided by the overarching structure and meaning of the Holy or Numinous. Individual drawers (faiths) are full of cultural clutter, traditional trinkets, sediment of sentiments. These obscure the substance and meaning of the Holy.
Spring is traditionally a time to clean out winter’s accumulation of dust and worse garbage. It asks us to evaluate what we can or even must throw out and what we should keep. Let this also be a time for mental and emotional spring cleaning, so that our inner house becomes redy to open up to guests who may bring surprising gifts of insight.
A few days ago Nelson Mandela died. A fighter for equality of his people in a harsh white regime with a colonial mindset, he spent 27 years in prison. During that generational period he went from being a fighter with weapons to a non-violent fighter. This transformation was surely not without inner pain and struggle. But he had learned from Gandhi, whose fight for India’s freedom started in South Africa, that in the end only the moral high road has a chance to win over demeaning powers. Gandhi, though, could hope to end colonial rule and drive the British out of India, while Mandela, in contrast, had to reconcile with the white segment of South African society and prove to them that the country can and must be shared.
In a recent Red Bench discussion, conducted under the auspices of iACT, a local interfaith organization, the topic was US versus THEM, or can we create a truly inclusive society? Even though eight round tables discussed this issue, it seemed the crux of the topic was circumvented. As humans we have a tendency to draw a circle of safety around ourselves. We may include family and friends, maybe members of our congregation and a few colleagues, but beyond that lies the great “THEM.” When our survival depended on exclusion, this may have been a natural response. But our world has grown. We buy goods and food from all over the world, we connect through various media with far-flung relatives and friends, whose circles may be entirely different from ours. From barn-raising to cooking a holiday feast we have found out that we go farther with cooperation. Our circle has to become bigger in this interconnected world.
This may be the greatest lesson of Nelson Mandela’s life. He came out of prison as a man without hatred and with the newly acquired language of his white countrymen. He knew that only through a long road towards cooperation the country could achieve reconciliation. Intercultural understanding is exactly that.
We all experience bullying in some form or another. Advertising bombards us, store clerks ignore us, fellow travelers cut us off in traffic. Those are often behaviors learned a long time ago. That is why a program I could witness this week is so important.
The local organization Creative Action has combined art and drama with the anti-bullying/anti-discrimination message and created a most effective program for school children. In five one-hour segments two young actors create situations to which the children react with their own ideas of how to avoid or divert them. The children get totally involved and fully internalize the intended message. Their ideas are spot-on and creative. They realize that they can be a target or a bully themselves. The role they are learning is that of the bystander. But not the do-nothing bystander. They fully understand the transition from bystander to courageous bystander. And they are taught to be careful with their courage, and not jump in without considering their own safety.
the important driangle of actions
Creative Action has numerous in-school and after-school programs, which engage young people in responsible social behavior that leads them to become confident, creative adults who can become leaders in their own families and communities. Since many schools cannot teach these skills within their curriculum, Austin is fortunate to have Creative Action bringing these programs to schools in need.
It was a long concert, but the organiizers wanted to be as inclusive as possible. Invocations from the Islamic, Christian, and Hindu traditions opened the concert and set the tone for the evening. We saw a young musicians collective of underserved youths perform right before an Indian sarangi master with a local ensemble. Carribean music next to Pakistani music. Personally, we didn’t last through the later Latino performance.
The audience was a loose assembly of Austinites united in their love for peace. There were the very young, the not so young and a sprinkling of young-at-heart older people like us. Did we create peace on that evening? Possibly not in the larger sense. But the peace and fellowship of those present was palpable. Ethopian and Latino food sustained those who came for the whole evening.
After a summer of drought the whole day had been blessed with heavy rain. Even though this may have kept some from venturing out, the rain stopped right at opening time. In the greater scheme of things the rain was another peace blessing.
Last year we tried our hand at creating an event for the International Day of Peace. This year we are happy to co-sponsor a peace concert in Austin, which is organized by the Amala Foundation and Wobeon. It will be an evening of international, intercultural music. Peace can only be achieved when we respect each other and get to know each other. What better way than to listen to each other’s music? We cannot bring the whole world together, but we can start in our own town, which hapens to be quite multicultural. But often we find that musical taste, like church, remains segregated. Latinos flock to Latino music, blacks listen to music from the black traditions and whites have their own choices. Immigrants like us go and taste the music and the food from various cultures, because our childhood cultures are not strongly represented. By doing so we have discovered new styles of music and have taken a liking to some of them. That is what intercultural understanding is all about. Come and join us.
For details go to http://www.amalafoundation.org/concert-for-peace/