Special Greeting by Huston Smith, author of "The World's Religions" and AHIMSA Advisory Board Member
Summary of event by Mitch Hall:
On an overcast autumnal Sunday morning, representatives of 24 local, non-profit organizations gathered for four hours in the sanctuary of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery (CA) for a meeting convened by board members of AHIMSA (Agency for Human Interconnectedness through Manifestation of Spiritual Awareness). Founded in 1993, AHIMSA is “dedicated to the advancement of a harmonious and nonviolent world by exploring how religion, science, and social action impact our awareness.” Previously having sponsored annual conferences, publications, and dialogue events, the AHIMSA members wanted to explore the dimension of social action in concert with kindred others. They were concerned about such issues as local youth-gang violence, and the 30% dropout rates from school of African-American and Hispanic males. They wondered whether social benefits could accrue through collaboration among people whose separate organizations were, each in their own ways, “building a harmonious community through violence-reduction and the promotion of social and economic justice.”
Bent over and moving slowly at 90 years of age, Huston Smith, a distinguished scholar and best-selling author of The World’s Religions (in print since 1958!), gave, in a resonant voice, an inspirational, good-humored welcome in which he referred to Gandhi’s legacy of working to secure justice without the use of force. The facilitator of the day’s proceedings was B.K. Bose (BK), founder of the Niroga Institute, which teaches the transformative life skills of mindful yoga, breathing, and meditation to under-served populations, such as children with special needs; minority, at-risk, and incarcerated youth; the elderly; and those suffering from serious illness. BK moderated the five-person panel discussion in which he also participated. He read biographical sketches of the other participants and asked them each to address two questions. "Would you please narrate an event in your life that helped propel you into this work?" "What is the greatest challenge you are facing, and how are you tackling it?"
In answer to the first question, Nipun Mehta, founder of Charity Focus that does creative volunteering--from random acts of kindness, to the Karma Kitchen where diners eat in a restaurant for free and have the opportunity to donate so that a future, unknown diner can enjoy the same treat, to building websites for community non-profits--spoke of an incident when he was a teen and had been vomiting from the effects of riding over bumpy roads in India on a friend’s motor scooter. A stranger passing by stopped to offer him a slice of lemon and to tell him to suck on it as it would help settle his stomach.
Cherri Allison, an African-American attorney founded the Family Violence Law Center that served 7,000 victims of domestic violence last year and will serve 10,000 this year, regardless of their ability to pay. She spoke in a heartfelt way of an incident when she was five years old and ran into her mother’s room after hearing her mother screaming to find blood streaming down her mom’s face from being bludgeoned by a boyfriend during an argument. She spoke of how the police would do nothing to help and of later in her childhood seeing the Perry Mason show in which that justice-seeking lawyer brilliantly won each case he represented, and, she quipped ironically, “in a half hour.” She resolved at about the age of 12, to become a lawyer both to serve victims and to have a lot of money for it, too. However, as an adult, she quickly learned that most lawyers do not serve the poor and those who do are not earning lots of money for it.
Gonzalo Rucobo, the founder of the Bay Area Peacekeepers, works diligently in the high-violence areas and schools of Richmond and San Pablo to prevent gang violence, get kids out of gang and into productive activities, console victims’ families, defuse rumors, stop retaliation, train police officers in cultural competence, and educate about alternatives to violence. He movingly told the story of how he got into gangs himself as a teen, including being a shooter of guns, how his parents’ divorce affected him, how racist attitudes and failure to provide his Hispanic family protection on the part of the police led him to think gangs were the only protection, and how his wake-up call to turn around the direction of his life came when his wife and daughter where shot at, but fortunately not hit, in his car. He expressed amazement that, in view of some of the misguided choices he had made as a youth, he was sitting on this panel today.
Pancho Ramos-Stierle of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education, was so moved by Gonzalo’s story, that he paused before going on to narrate his own. He told about why he had chosen to study astrophysics and to search for other planets that might also have intelligent life on them and then why, partly precipitated by hearing the story of the plight of an underpaid menial work at UC Berkeley, he abandoned his Ph.D. program there in protest against the university’s ongoing research to develop more deadly nuclear weapons.
Finally, BK spoke of the inspiration he gained as a boy when he studied and practiced yoga with monks in the Himalayas. He reflected on the twin spiritual goals of self-realization and selfless service as his calling in life. The more we serve selflessly, the more we realize our true selves. The more we realize our true selves, the more we can serve selflessly.
For the second question, about the greatest challenge they were facing, BK called on the panelists in the reverse order. Pancho found his own mind was his greatest challenge, calling for a need to spend two hours of each day in deep silence so he could go out into the world more fully embodying the message and values he represents. Gonzalo asked wryly about which one of the many greatest challenges he ought to address before settling on the challenge of bringing unity to his community in which even different churches can be at odds with one another, let alone gangs. Cherri finds herself, at times, overwhelmed by the amount of violence in the community, so her challenge is to let her light shine and lead by example in simple, daily acts of practicing human decency in each of her relations. Nipun sees challenges as opportunities for tapping into deeper creativity and transforming a scarcity mentality into a recognition of abundance. For BK, the challenge is the lack of awareness of so many people to recognize the power of personal transformation.
After the panel discussion, BK invited all attendees to break out into three groups, each with a focused topic: best practices, policy advocacy and promoting public awareness, and research and evaluation. Each group chose a person to take notes and to report back to the final plenary gathering at the end of the conference. A lot of excitement was generated in the report-back session. Many were concerned to build on the momentum of this initial networking. One of the emergent themes was the importance of inspirational stories about creative altruism in action. Nipun recommended that an Internet social network can easily and freely be created, that particpants can join in a moderated Internet discussion and that a blog with stories can be posted. Many other ideas were reported, and it was planned that a report be posted on the AHIMSA website and on the network’s new space, once it is created.
One participant, Aeeshah Clottey of the Attitudinal Healing Connection, noted how non-profits are notorious for their turf wars and how this initiative is truly refreshing and promising. So many more stories, interpersonal connections, and ideas were enthusiastically created at this meeting. The consensus seemed to be that this was a wonderful beginning and that much good can emerge from it, provided participants continue to do what they can to make the collaboration work. AHIMSA generously provided a light lunch where meaningful dialogue continued. It was announced that the next AHIMSA annual conference will be held on Saturday, November 7, 2009 at the Bade Museum of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. The theme will be Action for Social Change. Stay tuned.
AHIMSA Berkeley (Shireen Burns, Nik Warren, Henry Baer, Kumar Mehta,
Snjezanna Akpinar, Ruth Richards) http://www.ahimsaberkeley.org/
METTA Center for Nonviolence Education (Pancho Ramos-Stierle, Shannon Miller,
Erika Christie) http://www.mettacenter.org/
NIROGA Institute (B. K. Bose, Judy Dunlap, Rosalind Lwin, Ellarae Miner
http://www.niroga.org/index.php and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jGxEw2x5Y
Institute for World Religions (Snjezana Akpinar, Kien Po) http://www.drba.org/branches/iwr/
Charity Focus/Karma Kitchen (Nipun Mehta)
Karma Clinic (Binal Shah, Darius Sohei)
Family Violence Law Center (Cherri Allison) http://www.fvlc.org/
Ella Baker Center (Crystallee Crain) http://ellabakercenter.org
Oakland Leaf (Mirella Rangel, Jonas Juhlin, G. Reyes)
Green for All (Alli Chagla-Starr)
People’s Grocery Oakland (Brahm Ahmadi, Max, Marcelo Garzo)
Bay Area Non-Violent Communications (Marina Smerling, Marc Scruggs)
Non-Violent Peace Making Group (Eli Sasaran McCarthy)
Moraga Garden, Community Farm (Deva Rajan)
Health for Asian Americans (Mitch Hall)
http://www.chaaweb.org/ and http://psysr.org/ and http://nospank.net
Bay Area Peace Keepers (Gonzalo Rucobo)
Village Network (Matthew Edwards) http://villagenetworks.org/fairfax/
City Slicker Farms (Logan) http://www.cityslickerfarms.org/
Youth Alive (Deane Calhoun) http://www.youthalive.org/index.htm
Pace e Bene (Ken Preston) http://paceebene.org/
The Interfaith Center at the Presidio (Paul Chaffee) http://www.interfaith-presidio.org//
The Attitudinal Healing Connection of Oakland (Kokomon Clottey, Aeeshah Clottey)
The Interfaith Center at the Presidio (Paul Chaffee) http://www.interfaith-presidio.org//
Destiny Arts (Renee Heider) http://www.destinyarts.org/