excerpt from Peaceable Revolution Through Education by Catherine Cadden
Sixteen-year-old Zeke was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. I had the opportunity to work in high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area teaching nonviolence in a two-day workshop format. The first day was spent working on how to transcend our thinking, fixed ideas and our perceptions of others while connecting to human needs. The second day, we supported connection between students in the class as well as empowered them with conflict resolution skills.
By the second day Zeke had sat with his discomfort in a room with people he saw as Jewish, Gay, Black, Liberal, the wrong kind of White, and Female until he could no longer keep quiet. During a game, when it was a revealed that a Jewish girl’s older sister would be having a wedding ceremony the following summer to marry another woman, he did not hesitate to voice out loud what was happening in his mind, “That’s just wrong!
“Are you uncomfortable because there are people in here you are not used to connecting with?” I asked.
Zeke replied with reasoning to explain his beliefs about why certain people are just “born inferior”. After a monologue that stimulated agitation in several people throughout the room, he added, “Well, you know I hate these people. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a violent person. I wouldn’t want harm to come to them. It’s just I hate certain people.”
“Well, now I’m confused because you’re saying you hate these people yet you don’t want any harm to come to them. I am guessing you might even have some confusion about your feelings towards these people because you say you don’t want to be violent yet you speak of hate.” Zeke continued to listen with his arms folded across his chest, his eyes fixed on mine. “I’m still confused about your choice to be a member of the KKK. From what I’ve known they have created an amazing amount of violence against the folks you say you hate. Can you tell me why you joined? What was your primary motivation to join?”
Zeke looked right into me, “My dad is a member of the KKK!”
The room bristled with comments. One student, Terrance, chimed in, “Ah man, just cause your dad’s a hater doesn’t mean you gotta be one too!”
Nodding to that profound statement, I added, looking as intensely into Zeke’s eyes as he had into mine, “I’m actually hearing how much you’d like to connect to your dad. I am also hearing that maybe you feel conflicted about being a member of an organization that tries to create connection through violence and hating others.” Leaning toward Zeke, trying to tangibly soften the room with my presence, “Has this really met your need to connect with your father?”
Zeke’s eyes swelled with water but he was not going to cry, not in front of this group. “Yeah,” Zeke paused to take a full inhale and exhale audible to the room, maybe a bit from the gravity of the realization and a bit to stop the tears. “I guess I joined cuz I wanted to connect to my dad. I just wanna get along with him.”
When Zeke sat in an empathic connection that could afford him the opportunity to connect his own mind and heart, he realized that he had not joined the KKK because he hated certain people but rather, he was desperate to find a way to connect with his father.
He walked up to me after the workshop, “You know, that was the first time I felt fear begin to leave my body. I’m actually relieved.”
With his new clarity he began to assess the effectiveness of his choice and decided that hating others was not truly his path, not an expression of his authentic presence. He was able to get past the enemy images his mind had created and the fixed ideas he had about himself to see what he needed. Zeke quit the KKK, developed all sorts of friends, and continued to work on various strategies to find connection with his dad.
We, humans, are in constant motion to meet our needs. What strategies we choose will be defined by how connected we are to the needs that motivate that choice. Engaging the heart by developing a quality of listening that can identify needs creates a mindful presence in our ability to connect. The mindful heart clarifies the human needs that are alive in the moment. With clarity of what is truly needed for the being to thrive, the heart then connects to the mind for solution.
The mind wants to offer possible solutions each moment we engage it. Ondrea Levine describes the mind this way, “There is a pie and your mind says, ‘Go ahead, have some.’ Then after eating the pie, your mind says, ‘I wouldn’t have done that if I were you.’ And this is the mind to whom we go for advice?” If we engage our mind without the listening of the heart we run the risk of making choices based on our evaluations about the person. The heart’s listening for human needs dissolves the judgments, restoring the opportunity to connect and create understanding.
Education is about relationships. Creating empathic connections and non-judgmental learning environments, we support integrating emotional pain so learners can learn. With clarity of intention to connect, an authentic presence, and a focus on the human needs that are alive, we establish an empathic connection with our students. This allows a self-full awareness to develop in learners which inspires them to make effective choices to meet their own needs as well as others’ needs. Their decisions become life-serving, allowing us to access the endless possibilities of learning.
If I can internalize what I wish to see in my classroom then I begin to contribute to peace, ease, and learning for my students and for me. My mentor, Gloria Cooper, once said to me, “When you teach, you bring a field of energy – the field is of your choosing.” When I looked within and asked myself what would I enjoy my field to be, I decided I wanted it to be as Rumi describes in his poem:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
With Zeke, I did not see him as wrong for his behaviors or beliefs. I saw a human being expressing himself. By seeing him as human, I was able to engage the heart’s mindfulness of listening and the mind’s heart-full ability to find solution, allowing me to meet him in Rumi’s field. If I want my students to respond compassionately, take responsibility for their words and behaviors, and make life-serving decisions so they can reach their fullest potential as learners, then that is exactly what I must do.
I have learned that the most valuable tool I can bring into the classroom is LOVE. Each day, having set my intention for connection and brought my full authentic presence to the moment, I Listen for the human needs that are alive in each word or action, Observe what is actually happening in the given moment and Validate it as true for each individual’s experience, and Empathize to create a quality of connection that builds trust, understanding, and alliances for learning.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other,
doesn’t make any sense.
You can order the entire book, Peaceable Revolution Through Education, in paperback at these online retailers: