I spoke to Kit Miller, Director of the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, New York on 20 October 2010. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Vadivu: How do you respond to skeptics and cynics?
Kit: I am a big fan myself of skepticism. For me, skepticism is an indication that you really want to be able to trust more than you do; that something is genuine and authentic. I love skepticism because skeptics ask the hard questions. They are the ones who say, “Does this really work? Show me”.
Cynicism is just a more hard-boiled version of skepticism. Cynicism is skepticism wrapped up in pain. Because if you become a cynic, you’re someone whose skepticism has hardened into hopelessness. You’re no longer sure or think things will be able to change. And you don’t want to risk your heart again in believing in anything.
What I want to do when I am with anybody, rather than convince them of anything is to offer them empathy for their experience. If someone said something like, “I think this stuff is a bunch of flakey nonsense”, then I would be tempted to say, “So you really want to have more faith than you do right now that what I’m saying can actually work”. And just stay with that truth for them. And be open to be educated myself. The more attached I am to having a certain outcome to anything, whether it is a conversation or in a project, the less likely I think it is to happen.
When someone is willing to share the gift of their truth, even if it is a truth that is really cynical, I really want to honour that and I think my experience is that when we’re not out to change anybody, people become a lot more open to change. ..I do want the world to change but I don’t want to force anyone else into changing… I don’t think educating or shaming people to try and do or see things differently changes anything.
I’m more interested in saying, “Let’s skilfully meet each other with our human truths”..Many of us are walking around with so much pain in relation to the systems that we are interacting with all the time that don’t serve us – whether it is the health care system or the education system…pick a system – they all seem to have their problems now…
…In that way, we have an actual dialogue. It’s not them lecturing me or me convincing them; it’s a dialogue in which we can both be changed. I learn better how to speak next time about it or have a sharper capacity to understand someone else’s perspective and hopefully that person walks away thinking, “OK, this idea has more merit than I thought it did”.
On Gandhi’s struggles
Vadivu: Do you know of times where Gandhi himself was tested in practising nonviolence? Or did it come naturally to him?
Kit: I don’t think it came naturally to him. He had years of practice that were very alive for him. When we were speaking earlier, I was saying that he was a person who was not afraid to change his mind. I think one of his gifts as a servant leader was that he didn’t think, “Oh I’ve said this three years ago so I have to say it forever.” He held to the truth very lightly and he kept looking for it all the time. And when new things would come in, he would acknowledge his past shortcomings and say, “Now we’re going to do it this way.” So I think he was very life-affirming in that way.
And I remember there was one time when he was in his early forties, and he was back from South Africa in India and the first national nonviolent action they had in India, there was a death or a couple of deaths as a result of the action. And he called that his “Himalayan blunder”. He said that he had made a mistake. He didn’t realise in such an enormous country with so many people as India how much more discipline would be required for people to really take up nonviolence; to be able to stay nonviolent even when they were provoked. It still feels a little of a miracle to me that is happened in the way that it did. But he always took that on when he learned of something that he had done an error…he took that on himself and those were often the causes of the fasts that he made, even the fast that happened after the partition when Pakistan was created. He basically took that on himself and said, “If I had been able to know more or lead in a better way, this wouldn’t have happened.” So he stopped eating as a way of taking that on and also as a way to try to get the people to try and stop killing each other. And it worked.
I think he was someone who was really aware and humble. And again, I urge you to read his autobiography because he speaks very clearly and beautifully about that.
On Kit’s personal introduction to Non-Violence
Vadivu: How did you encounter nonviolence?
Kit: When I had my third child and there were more children in our house than adults, I realised that something needed to change. I was a very good student and pretty successful person in business before I had my children. That meant I was very goal-oriented. And when my youngest was born, I decided I wanted to stay at home. I didn’t want to be a working mum anymore. I was really keen to stay at home….in just a few weeks I realised that it was an awful idea because… little people teach you that if you’re not connected to the joy of the process, you’ll go crazy…
I had to become a person of process – a person who valued what was happening in the moment instead of continually looking for the goal, the end-product. Or I felt it was my duty to my children to put them in the hands of people who knew how to do it and go back to do what I knew how to do which was to make money.
In that period, I ran into this work on Nonviolent Communication. This was pre-internet..about 17 years ago…we didn’t have a television so I had no way of learning through television and there were no books written on it at that time… There was one audio-tape so I would listen to the audio-tape in my car and finally went to an introduction [to non-violent communication] in Cleveland, Ohio and then began to be a student of the work.
Vadivu: How has it changed your life?
Kit: I am always 51% connected now to process, no matter how excited I am about a goal. I am pretty consistently now more interested in the means than the ends.
On changing systems
My interest now is in changing systems instead of solving problems. I have a mentor who retired from the UN last year, named Monica Sharma, and her voice is always in my head, “Kit, you must not be solving problems, you must be changing systems.” …One of the projects I love is our project [Restorative Rochester] on restorative justice…
On restorative justice
Vadivu: What are some of the myths and fears that people have with regards to restorative justice and how do you address those?
Kit: One myth that people have is that people will say anything to get off. So they want to have more trust than they do that it won’t just be an opportunity for people to not get sufficiently punished. Because we really have an idea now that we get people to learn through punishing them. When I ask people about that, “Do you think people actually learn by being punished?”, they often will stop and say, “I’m not sure”. “What did you learn when you were punished?” so often I’ll just stop with people and look at what their story is about it.
Then I’ll show then that a restorative justice practice holds people accountable; it has high degrees of accountability for their actions but also high degrees of support.
Because if you only hold people accountable, and don’t give them support, that’s just punishment. That’s when you’re doing something to somebody. If you’re only giving them a great deal of support, with no accountability, that’s when you’re doing something for people. That’s kind of like this permissive, “Don’t worry, don’t ever do it again”. But holding both things is when you’re truly doing it with [someone].
There are a number of organisations connected to this coalition. One of them has been doing restorative justice in the community for years and they have one high school in the city they have been working with where on the third year of really working with restorative justice principles, they’ve had extraordinary results.
When the principal of the school started, [there were] so many gangs, so many fights, so much ethnic violence going on that she had, during the first year she was there, 46,000 hours of kids being in school suspension. ..[They got] all the staff in the school trained in using circle technology – to sit down and use a talking piece, which they did preventatively. And then when things happen in the school, they would use the same format to resolve. Two years after they started, there was 260 hours of in-school suspension. So 46000 to 260…
One of the things we’re working on now is measuring how much money that has saved. Because that saved…I’m guessing…it’s got to be hundreds of thousands of dollars both for the school district and for the police department because the police department used to have about half a dozen police officers [when] there would be a riot, fires, fights happenening all the time there and now, nothing…
There is a beautiful video… on a school in West Philadelphia which was on a dangerous list and it’s not anymore. And it’s a very similar story to what’s happening here.We’re basically trying to ignite the moral imagination of the community.
Vadivu: You have this vision of being the most restorative city in the US. Why Rochester?
Kit: One is that we happen to be there. Gandhi has this concept called “swadeshi” which was to “think global, act locally”. So this is where we are. This is the home of Fredrick Douglass, the major hero in ending slavery in this country. It’s a home of Susan B. Anthony who was one of the major women to help bringing women’s suffrage in. She died before it happened but she worked tirelessly for fifty years and lived and died within ten minutes of this building… but the bottom line is that we’re here.
I had a mentor long time ago who said, “Want to know where you get your head at? Look where your feet are!”
If you want to improve relationships in your life, whether at home or at work through nonviolent communication, the Institute recommends that we:
1. Commit 20-30 minutes each day to a practice that supports contemplation and self-connection such as meditation and yoga. (For more ideas on contemplative tools, I find the the Tree of Contemplative Practices a good start, which we can adapt…obviously we don’t do marches in Singapore.)