My only exposure to Gandhi, while growing up, was a statue we had at home of him and the movie, Gandhi. But my own transformation from using anger as a fuel for social change to using more love led me to visit the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence in Rochester, New York in October 2010.
Gandhi was thrown out of the first class area of a train in South Africa because he was Indian. This made him want Change. And using nonviolent means, he freed India from British rule.
Conversation with Kit
I truly enjoyed my conversation with Kit Miller, the director of the Center and staff member, George Payne who was my learned guide for the day.
What I took away most from my conversation with Kit was the openness with which she embraces skeptics. I learnt to see skepticism as opportunities for mutual transformation, when handled with humility and empathy.
I confess that I had grown up thinking people who hurt others should be punished and should suffer. It was “justice” in my mind and it is only in the past few years that I have learnt to view this issue differently. So being up close to someone working on restorative justice was special for me. While researching for this post, I learnt about restorative practices in Singapore and would love to hear from those involved about their experiences.
I like that I got to learn about not just the clearly positive parts about Gandhi but also how he was fully human, made mistakes and took responsibility for them. (The video below is a frank portrayal of him and covers both the light and shadow of Gandhi’s life.)
“Be the change” workshop
During the workshop on the day we met, Kit asked us, “What is Gandhi’s relevance today”. It’s sad that his name is mainly only in the history books (and even then I am not sure the children of today know who is was) because his work can help us heal so many kinds of relationships today.
I had read Marshall Rosenberg’s book on Nonviolent Communication, which is where I first learnt about this powerful communication method. Seeing Kit role-play this method during the workshop made it seem easy and inspired me to practise it more. I find that it is most difficult to practise it with those close to us so I’m looking forward to trying more diligently.
Honouring The Environment
The Institute is based by a river. George shared with me about their “Riverkeepers” project, in which students, members of the community and the staff clean the river periodically. They do this to save the wildlife, promote the idea of stewardship and thirdly, to change perceptions of such tasks from mundane to sacred. Manual work is given to those who have done a misdeed as a punishment. So this project helps people see all forms of labour as precious. (I offered one more interpretation: that clearing the physical clutter is a symbol for us clearing internal clutter from our minds, hearts, souls and bodies.)
Through this project, I understood how the Institute’s environment informs their work and how they positively influence the environment. Often we don’t see this connection to where we are and what is around us that needs care.
What really stood out for me was where the Institute is situated – at the interfaith chapel where people of different faiths can pray.
And this, below, was my favourite poster at the Institute’s office.
Gandhi is no longer a distant historical figure to me. In fact when we put people on pedestals, we somehow think we cannot be like these great souls, when in fact, they often want us to emulate their positive messages.
I had asked a few friends and members of my family what questions they may have for the Institute.
My mum sent me an email when I was in Rochester, saying, “If only a quarter of people practised what Gandhi did, the world would be a different place.” Yes, and the question for us to answer is whether we are one of the 25%.
And my friend, Melissa De Silva, sent me an email, “In terms of non-violence for ordinary people, I’ve wondered about non-violent communication – how we can disagree and work through conflict with those closest to us, family etc, without succumbing to ‘violent’ communication like exploding, harsh, rough tones, etc during arguments…”
If you have wondered the same, Kit shares how in my interview with her. You can also access materials by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. And the public libraries in Singapore carry a range of materials on nonviolent communication, including for parents and teachers specifically. (Use “nonviolent communication” as search words at nlb.gov.sg.)