Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Coming to the Table: Now more than ever

Posted July 18th, 2016 by Tom

More people dying. More funerals. More tears. More rage. More division. More frustration.

Many of us feel numb and helpless in the wake of the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota by the police, and the killings of police officers Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, and Michael Krol in Dallas, Texas, and Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

We struggle to figure out what we can do that will make any difference.

Our world desperately needs love, compassion, justice, truth, understanding, peace, and healing. We talk about these and other ideals every time such killings show up on social media and in the news; recorded on someone’s phone. But what can we actually DO in the face of racism, injustice, and terror? An all-too common theme heard in churches, community groups, schools, around kitchen tables, and elsewhere across the United States is a desire to have deep conversations about race that will actually make a difference but not knowing how to go about it.

In order to transform our world, we need to transform how we approach confronting the problem. Old, fear-based, us-versus-them reactions haven’t ever worked, yet we keep reverting to them. We need a fundamental shift in our approach if we are to achieve a fundamental shift in our world.

Last month, I participated in a 3-day Leadership Training Institute and 4-day National Gathering organized by Coming to the Table (CTTT), a non-profit organization I’ve been involved with since its inception ten years ago. After this week-long immersion into workshops, dialogue, and relationship-building experiences with a large group of deeply-committed people from all across the United States and Canada, I feel more strongly than ever that Coming to the Table offers valuable tools for people trying to figure out what to do. As another participant wrote,

“There are precious few forums where descendants of slaves and enslavers can engage in meaningful dialog about what the legacy of slavery has done to this country and how to move forward.”

IMG_6100CTTT has a Vision for the United States of a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past—from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. The Mission of CTTT is to provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal these historic, traumatic wounds.

And let’s make no mistake. These recent killings – like so many before – all stem, at least in part, from the legacy of slavery in the United States; unhealed wounds around issues of racism that continue to haunt our nation.

I know from experience the Coming to the Table Approach to acknowledging, understanding, and healing these wounds can make a positive difference. It’s a practical approach that seeks to create a space where people who are serious about the work of undoing racism and oppression can feel safe-enough to participate deeply; to share their stories, listen to the stories of others, and see each other as ultimately-connected human travelers in this challenging journey of life. It’s more than creating a space for people to talk and feel better and go home. The CTTT Approach requires effort and commitment; a commitment to stay at the table when the work gets messy and hard, which it does and will.

The central framework within Coming to the Table is the STAR Program; Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience. STAR brings together theory and practices from neurobiology, conflict transformation, human security, spirituality, and restorative justice to address the needs of trauma-impacted individuals and communities. Traumatic events may have a range of harmful effects on everyone involved, including victims, perpetrators, witnesses, bystanders, health professionals, law enforcement or military, clergy, family, and friends. If the traumatic wounds are not addressed and healed, they will persist and have further harmful impacts, and be passed on to future generations.

Two resources that help create a safe-enough space for this work are Touchstones and the Circle Process. Touchstones are a set of principles people agree upon when beginning “deep dialogue” together. Some examples of such agreements might include being 100% present, listen deeply, be open to new ideas, agree not to try to “fix” or correct others, maintain confidentiality, expect non-closure. More examples can be found here. Touchstones allow groups of people to establish ways of “being” with each other; to create a “container” for the often-difficult conversations to follow.

The Circle Process is another way to create a container for participants to feel safe enough to be in the space; often with people they consider to be “the other,” and perhaps even perceiving a threat to their safety or mental or emotional well-being. As Kay Pranis writes in The Little Book of Circle Processes, this tool “draws on the ancient Native American tradition of using a talking piece, an object passed from person to person in a group and which grants the holder sole permission to speak.” Utilizing the Circle Process is a way of bringing people together in which everyone is respected, has the opportunity to speak without interruption, share their stories, and where everyone is equal. Pranis also notes that Circles can create a container strong enough to hold anger, frustration, joy, pain, truth, conflict, diverse world views, intense feelings, silence, and paradox.

The Coming to the Table Approach to achieving the above Vision and Mission involves four interrelated practices. Uncovering History includes researching, acknowledging, and sharing personal, family and community histories of race with openness and honesty; Making Connections to others within and across racial lines in order to develop and deepen relationships; Working Toward Healing is exploring how we can heal together through dialogue, reunion, ritual, ceremony, the arts, apology and other methods; and Taking Action, actively seeking to heal the wounds of racial inequality and injustice and to support racial reconciliation between individuals, within families, and in communities. For a more thorough understanding, download the free CTTT workbook, Transforming Historical Harms.

As Michelle Alexander recently wrote,

I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals.”

This work of undoing and replacing racist structures and systems – in our nation and in ourselves – is hard. It takes courage and commitment. If we are to make a difference, we need a different approach. There are many organizations and individuals doing important and powerful work to confront racism and injustice. The Coming to the Table Approach offers a way in which all the other stuff we are trying to do can work better.

When we decide, as a human family, that love, compassion, justice, truth, understanding, peace, and healing are more important than skin color and ethnicity, political parties and religious affiliation, who wins and who loses, who’s right and who’s wrong, and our fear over what we might lose when we create a just and equal society, we can transform our world. If we are ever to break free from these cycles of violence we continue to find ourselves caught up in, we have the responsibility to do the work. The Coming to the Table Approach can help.

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Remembering Peter Norman: an oft-forgotten white man in the Black Power movement

Posted June 29th, 2015 by Tom

I remember the moment well. I was 14-years old. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were astounding. I was a fledgling long- and high-jumper in junior high school. When Bob Beamon broke the long jump world record – not by inches, but by almost two FEET – it became one of the most amazing moments in sports history; and certainly inspired this skinny, little, long jump aspirant.

1968But that’s not the “I remember the moment well” I refer to in the paragraph above. The iconic moment that lives forever from the 1968 games is the medal awards ceremony for the men’s 200-meter race. Tommie Smith won gold. John Carlos, bronze. They stood on the podium with heads bowed and black-gloved hands raised high in an act of defiance to highlight, and protest against, racist injustice in the United States.

The white guy who won the silver medal? Who stands in front of them? That’s Peter Norman. He’s the Australian sprinter who won silver. What I never knew until I learned about it on Facebook, is on the left breast of his jacket he wore a small badge that read: “Olympic Project for Human Rights” – an organization set up a year earlier  to oppose to racism in sports.

Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympics for life. But they became instant heroes in the black community for sacrificing personal glory for the greater good. History has also held them up as civil rights icons.

What isn’t well known in the United States is that Peter Norman became a pariah in Australia. Though his time in 1968 would have earned Gold in Munich in 1972, he was ostracized and never ran in the Olympics again. When Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, Norman – the greatest Olympic sprinter in Australian history – wasn’t invited to participate in any capacity.

When he died of a heart attack in 2006, guess who eulogized him and helped carry his coffin? John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

He paid the price. This was Peter Norman’s stand for human rights, not Peter Norman helping Tommie Smith and John Carlos out,” said Smith. “He just happened to be a white guy, an Australian white guy, between two black guys in the victory stand believing in the same thing.”

Here’s to Peter Norman. Thank you for standing tall for justice and freedom.

(Read more about this inspiring story here)

A Message for Peace

Posted July 31st, 2014 by Tom

cjp_logoYesterday I received an email from Daryl Byler, Executive Director of the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University. EMU is a place I have studied and will continue to study issues of trauma, restorative justice, conflict resolution, and other subjects, with an overall focus on building Peace. Daryl’s message, on behalf of the faculty and staff of the CJP, moved me deeply. Having studied in May with friends and peacebuilders from Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Haiti and elsewhere, Daryl’s message touches my heart, and the hearts of many friends around the world. I share his words here with my friends in the hope that we will all redouble our efforts to build peace… everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Nobel Peace Prize 2011 — blessed are the peacemakers!

Posted October 15th, 2011 by Tom

When the Nobel committee in Norway announced that this year’s Peace Prize was being awarded to three women, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, African peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and pro-democracy campaigner Tawakul Karman of Yemen, I was thrilled. Only twelve other women have won the Peace Prize in its 110-year history (what’s wrong with that picture?).

My personal interest is enhanced by the fact that two of the recipients are alumni of schools at which I’ve also had the privilege to study. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School, which also sponsors the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program.

Leymah Gbowee earned a master’s degree at Eastern Mennonite University in conflict transformation. She attended the Summer Peacebuilding Institute and has completed the STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) program.

Congratulations to the Nobel Prize committee for your wisdom. This year’s selection focuses unmistakably on peace.

Teardrops on the City

Posted June 24th, 2011 by Tom

White man with a guitar leans on black man playing a saxophone. Both are dressed in black and white clothes. White album cover. Everything about the Born to Run album cover is black and white. Very little about Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons was.

They didn’t make an issue over a black man playing in an otherwise all-white band in the early 1970’s when the wounds from Jim Crow and the recent Civil Rights movement were still fresh and raw. When they weren’t welcomed in certain towns or hotels, they just played their music elsewhere. They rocked. They danced. They engaged in soulful kisses. They laughed. They invited us to join them “when Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.” They chipped away at America’s racism by living its opposite.

From Eric Meola, the man who shot the iconic photo:

Is it, as so many writers have stated, a declaration of the friendship and camaraderie between the two men? Yes. Was it a deliberate, premeditated statement by Bruce about race relations? Probably not. Yet it became that, and by including Clarence from the beginning, Bruce chose not only the one remaining band member he most identified with, but the one who happened to be black. In an album of saxophone solos, from “Thunder Road” to “Jungleland,” it seems an obvious choice. And, a brilliant one which came to symbolize far more than any of us could have envisioned.

Those who know me well understand just how deeply I was impacted this past week by the passing of The Big Man, Clarence Clemons. I believe the last time I wept at the death of a “celebrity” was when Jimmy Stewart left us in 1997. The story of It’s a Wonderful Life (“no one is alone who has friends”) rests at the core of my philosophy of life. The music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band provides the soul; the soundtrack for the life of my family since Lindi and I fell in love dancing to “Crush on You” twenty-six years ago at my old haunt, Pat & Mike’s Cinema & Restaurant.

Our three daughters used to create dances to perform to Bruce’s music (they shimmied and bopped a tremendous Hungry Heart). We drove to Tacoma in 1988 with our four kids and our dog Harley to wait in line for 33 hours outside the Tacoma Dome in a non-stop drizzle to buy tickets — long before internet sales — to see the band during the Tunnel of Love tour. Lindi and I have taken road trips during several tours to see Bruce and the E Streeters multiple times over the course of a week or so. Highlights include several concerts being perched in the very front row; our elbows resting on the stage. Lindi’s hands resting on Bruce’s knees during a guitar solo. Me furiously strumming Bruce’s guitar as he held it out to several of us during a Born to Run solo riff.

We met the Big Man one time at a hotel bar in Calgary. I walked up to him and pointed out Lindi and our friend Angel at a nearby table.

Angel’s from New Jersey, says I.

Is she now, replies the Big Man.

Her birthday is the same as yours.

Is that a fact.

I lean in close and whisper. She used to sneak into your club in Red Bank when she was underage.

Then she owes me money! he thunders. Get her over here!

And so we got our photo of Lindi and Angel with Clarence. Truly one of the highlights of our many encounters over the past quarter century with Bruce and the E Street Band.

My feelings are strong. The sense of loss is tremendous. Knowing I’ve heard Clarence play his saxophone for the last time is heartbreaking.

I’ve waited a week to write about Clarence’s passing because I couldn’t find the words. I still can’t. So I’ve shared a few moments with you. The best words I’ve found were written by Dave Marsh. I hope you will take the time to read MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race. Marsh helped me unpack the myth and recognize the impact that Bruce and Clarence have had on America.

Bruce and Clarence acted out their drama, which is our drama, in the exact same spirit as Twain, and with the exact same ambiguous result. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was stuck because he had no ending. The ending he used is preposterous, obviously. But not because it’s over-reliant on the hand of God. The real problem is that it’s predicated on a false idea: Freeing one slave. You cannot free one slave, and since the slave owner is in the same prison as the slave, just like any other jailer, you can’t free two either. It’s all of us or none of us.

And I’ve never read more clearly and succinctly where so much of the responsibility lies for undoing racism and privilege in the United States:

What I am saying is, America’s race problem has never been solved because white people refuse to recognize that it is only action on their part that can solve it.

These two quotes, of course, are seen here out of context. Read the Marsh article in full. Then play the Born to Run album in full. Then ask yourself once again about your role in righting the wrongs in our world.

Rest in Peace, Big Man.

(thanks to Backstreets for providing so many wonderful links to stories about Clarence, and for all you do for those of us who Ramrod down E Street on our way to the Land of Hope and Dreams)

Healing Constellations: another tool in healing the legacy of slavery

Posted May 3rd, 2011 by Tom

When Belvie told me over the phone about her experience with “healing constellations” at a conference she recently attended in Boston I didn’t really get it.

“It’s hard to explain” she said. Then she told me she invited the man who led the process to join us in facilitating the all-day workshop we were scheduled to lead at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco on April 22. So I knew she must have been greatly impacted by her experience.

Belvie Rooks and I have worked together many times now. We’ve led workshops and done presentations on what healing from the legacy of slavery looks like in in several states; at conferences and colleges. We’ve developed a deep and trusting relationship so I had no concerns; just curiosity. I was unfamiliar with Dan Booth Cohen but ordered a copy of his book, I Carry Your Heart in My Heart, and read about the use of constellations as a healing tool with men in prison serving long sentences; many serving “life without the possibility of parole” for murder. It’s a powerful book. It helped me understand the constellation process better… sort of. Many questions remained, which isn’t surprising when I read in his book, “Even in the most ordinary case, a Family Constellation is difficult to explain or fully comprehend.”

At their core, constellations operate from the same basic foundation that the STAR program at Eastern Mennonite University does: that historic traumas, harms experienced by people many generations in the past, continue to impact us today. Science proves this. It turns out that traumatic events create physical changes in the genes of those impacted. Those genes are passed on to future generations. Trauma is inherited (check out this YouTube clip: the key part begins at 1:52 after the beginning).

The concept is that the constellation process reveals hidden dynamics from past trauma and allows participants to transform and heal. Having now experienced this process one time I am even more intrigued and look forward to learning more. I believe that many people who attended the workshop that day would agree that constellations may well be another valuable healing tool in dealing with the historic trauma of slavery and its lingering legacy today.

I’ll write more in the future about constellations as I learn more. What I experienced that day was a combination of things that I still have a hard time putting into words. So rather than try to explain what happened from the perspective of my limited base of knowledge, I strongly encourage you to read what Dan wrote about our constellation experience on his blog.

Katie Couric’s Interview with God

Posted August 31st, 2010 by Tom

My friend Molly Secours has written a brilliant and thoughtful essay entitled “Katie Couric Interviews God About Ground Zero Mosque.”

I encourage all my friends to read it. I look forward to your thoughts…

The day after Thanksgiving: National Day of Listening

Posted November 27th, 2009 by Tom

StoryCorps imageHow often do we engage in deep conversations with other people? How well do we listen? It seems to me that the unwillingness or inability to effectively listen to each others’ stories is a significant contributing factor to misunderstanding and damaged relationships.

The folks at StoryCorps have created the National Day of Listening for the day after Thanksgiving. The idea is that we set aside an hour to record and share conversations with family, friends, or neighbors. They even provide an online do-it-yourself instruction guide. You can listen to examples from others here.

I applaud StoryCorps for this initiative. Having a national day of listening strikes me as strong evidence that we don’t practice listening very well or very often. I like this concept and only hope some of us will make listening a more important part of our everyday lives so we don’t need to set aside a special day to do so.

Youth making a difference in Ghana

Posted March 18th, 2009 by Tom

ibc_1_studioedith.jpgThe home page on my computer is set to Happy News. To these folks, virtue, goodwill and heroism are hot news. They offer timely stories, geared to lift spirits and inspire lives.

I recently ran across “Curious Minds” — a story from Unicef about  young people on the radio in Ghana talking about AIDS, education reform, and other social topics on this program carried by Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.

Because radio is such an important medium throughout Ghana, reaching over 5 million listeners, ‘Curious Minds’ is changing the way children and adults think about each other and communicate with each other. 

Go to the site here and watch the brief video clip.  I believe you’ll be as inspired as I am.

One love, one heart…

Posted December 24th, 2008 by Tom

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid al-adha, Bodhi Day, Kwanzaa, or simply pray and live for truth, mercy, justice, and peace, I offer you two minutes of Bob Marley’s gift to the world–presented by artists from around the world through Playing for Change: Peace Through Music.

One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right

(thanks for sending this to me, Dain. I love you, brother)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry