I have had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate forgiveness and restorative practice workshops through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation and learn from various groups of middle school students for a year now. While I am greatly impacted by all the students I get to work with, this past session, a young man who I will refer to as Omar, had a very profound impact on my work and me. From the onset of the workshops, Omar was resistant to the idea of non-violence and using restorative practices. He pushed me to analyze and think more deeply about what it means to be committed to non-violence, not just in the ideological sense, but in the everyday world filled with violences, oppression, and injustice that we live in. He said his father taught him that if someone came at him, he was not only to defend himself, but give the person a “beat down”; it would teach that person not to ever mess with Omar again.
“Effective non-violence is not about putting the right person in power, but awakening the right kind of power in people.” -Metta Center for Non-Violence
I remembered my grandmother telling me about a group of girls who bullied my mom when she was in upper elementary school. These girls were always ambushing my mom in the bathroom taking her lunch money, her lunch or whatever they could take from her. My grandmother brought the issue up in school to no avail. Finally after weeks of attending school in fear, my grandmother had my mother meet up with the girls who were bullying her, and in very forward terms told my mother she either had to kick their ass or my grandmother would kick my mother’s ass. So, against a fence near the school, my mother, as terrifying as it might have been, fought those girls with my grandmother cheering her on. Those girls never bullied my mother again. My grandmother had survived two abusive marriages, and fighting back was one of the ways she learned to defend herself when she was the target of violence, especially during a time and culture in which police very seldomly protected a woman from an abusive husband.
Omar was speaking a philosophy that had been spoken and taught in my family. I also understood that in neighborhoods ridden with poverty, gangs, drugs, and all sorts of other violence there was a different code for survival, especially in the streets. Who was I to dismiss his father; to dismiss what Omar had learned from his father and his own experiences to survive. I grew up in neighborhoods where understanding and abiding by the law of the streets was what kept me safe. I didn’t know what Omar’s environment was like nor what he had to do to ensure his safety and survival. Restorative practice takes community effort and while an individual can commit to this kind of work, it is only within a committed community that the work can sustainably change behavior and thought patterns entrenched in violence. Omar was being guided by his father’s own experiences of safety and survival and whether I agreed with his perspective or not, I had to tread lightly for I wasn’t their to diminish the bond that existed between Omar and his father; the minute it sounded like I was saying his father was wrong, that is exactly what Omar would perceive.
My approach with Omar wasn’t to tell him that the only option was non-violent action, so instead it was about looking at consequences and ripple effects of violence. It was about teaching him problem-solving skills and what it meant to be intentional and mindful about his actions. In this context, whatever action he chose to take in the future, he would do so understanding the potential consequences, stand with conviction, and take responsibility rather than feel ashamed or dishonored. In other words, I was teaching him how to act and behave with dignity. Our decisions should be made with conviction rather than simply from a place of reaction, which allows us to have ownership over the decisions we make in our lives, leaving us feeling empowered rather than helpless.
“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim-letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
Toward the second half of the workshop series, I started to notice a shift in Omar. He began to describe scenarios and ask what would restorative practices look like in those situations. On one particular day, when we were discussing forgiveness, he asked what would happen if he forgave someone who kept doing the same harm over and over again? I responded that forgiveness was a process for him to let go of the pain and anger that enslaved him to the person that caused the violence & harm, but it did not mean he was accepting the person’s behavior, and it certainly didn’t mean he had to have a relationship with the person nor accept him/her in his life. We can forgive someone and still choose to never engage that person ever again. He also stated in a questioning manner, “But if you don’t stand up for yourself, people will think they can keep messing with you.” I told him that he was absolutely right. I went on to give him examples of people around the world that had and were using non-violent resistance to fight for their rights and dignity. The reality is we aren’t always going to engage with people who are interested in restorative practices or justice, though that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily revert to violence. I also explained that we weren’t always going to engage with people who were sorry for the harm they caused us, but in order to be liberated from our pain we would have to find a way to forgive.
It takes a greater commitment to resist and fight back without violence. I also exposed very complex historical examples of folks like Martin Luther King whose work was based on a philosophy of non-violence, but who had body guards who carried guns for protection. Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence, especially after his home was bombed, though many experts say that by the 1960s he abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defense. I also talked about Harriet Tubman who carried a gun for protection and told the very slaves she was helping to escape that she would kill them before allowing them to go back. She knew if they went back, they would be tortured and would compromise the work of the Underground Railroad.
Another students then responded, “yeah, but how are we supposed to be non-violent when everyone around us is violent,” to which Omar nodded his head. In a world in which achievement, performance, competition and acquisition take precedence over integrity, honesty, compassion, collaboration and community the worst is brought out in all of us, unless we are taught to intentionally approach life in a different way. When all around us exploitation and dominance of our labor, bodies and minds is occurring, we grow up angry, and we grow up thinking “I’m going to get you before you get me.” The how becomes one of the most important questions to ask and continue to ask ourselves as we embark on and commit to non-violence as a way of life.
“So how do I fix myself,” Omar asked hesitantly. I knew how difficult and courageous this moment was for him; he was breaking away from the philosophy his father, the man he looked up to and admired, had instilled in him and taken the first step to explore what forgiveness and restorative practice might look like in his life. Of course, the first thing I told him was how important it was not to see himself as needing to be fixed, for he wasn’t broken, and there were so many beautiful things to celebrate about him. When we feel better, we do better, and this is why we use our strengths to overcome our challenges. I ultimately wanted him and the rest of the students to understand that none of this is easy, and that we are all bound to make mistakes and be backed into circumstances where violence might feel like the only choice. However, learning alternative ways to violence through skills and strategies and working with a community of people committed to non-violence empowers us to continue to explore and discover restorative practices that lead to forgiveness and healing. And so, the second half of the workshop series we spent a lot of time focusing on skills, tools, and strategies.
Forgiveness can be a very difficult and complicated process, especially when the violence and harm are connected to deep systemic trajectories of dehumanization. Forgiveness is a process, and though there is so much I have learned about this process, I know, within the broader spectrum of society’s ills, I have so much more to learn. The students, though young, had some very profound discussions and never ceased to move me and challenge me to go deeper into my understanding of it, especially as I embark in understanding how to embrace forgiveness and restorative, non-violent practices in the work of resisting and confronting destructive power.
Watching these students discuss, reflect on, and own the process of forgiveness within the context of their own lives and experiences was a beautiful opportunity. While concepts of compassion, nonviolence, and restorative practice and justice become messy when the violence that is perpetrated is so horrific and generational, and when the perpetrators do not acknowledge the violence and harm, it is my hope that the strategies and skills the students have learned will allow them to be more aware of how to deal with conflict, navigate the pain, and ultimate take ownership of their healing.
“We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence. ” -Mahatma Gandhi
The students will continue to do work both in their school and community as peacemakers and facilitators of restorative practices. If they engage in the work now, they will be prepared for the difficult work when they become adults. Practicing forgiveness not only changes the karmic path of one’s life, but it also has tremendous neurological and biological benefits for those who are able to release the emotional and psychological trauma associated with the violence. If we engage our children at an early age to practice forgiveness and restorative processes, we are giving them a greater chance of peace.
“Giving and forgiving are matters of the heart. The more magnanimity we evolve in our hearts, the easier it is for us to give and forgive. The more we give and forgive, the more enriched our lives become, widening our circles to include not only those who we give, but also those who we forgive
Giving includes not just charitable gifts or material objects, or donating food and clothing. It is giving when we give of ourselves, our time, our service, our knowledge, even our organs; expanding our love and friendship in the spirit of advancing our humanity. Giving need not be a response of pity or sympathy, of helping the “poor” or the “needy.” It can be an exercise in building empathy and gratitude, opening our hearts, supporting a cause – a journey toward self-fulfilment and joy.
Forgiving or seeking forgiveness, though related to giving, is a much more challenging task than giving. It requires giving of one’s anger and ego so as to accept and embrace those we think have harmed us in some way. It is an exercise in utmost humility that enables us to seek forgiveness of any intended or unintended mistakes in any form. It is a process not based on forgetting the wrong or the harm done, but rather on remembering it so as to learn from it to not repeat it. Like giving, forgiveness too is ultimately good for the self.”
From the Ahimsa Center, Non-Violence in Thought and Action.