Honoring nonviolence

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On Sept. 11, members of the community joined the Walk for Peace, which began at the Veteran’s wall at Highland Park and ended at the Gandhi Institute in the Plymouth Exchange neighborhood. (Photo by Hannah Betts)

Kit Miller believes Rochester can become a model for cities around the world, if it embraces nonviolence in a significant way. 

Miller, director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and others will mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday today, through an interfaith prayer meeting at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the city. 

Representatives from eight faiths will participate in the ceremony led by Muhammad Shafiq, executive director at Nazareth College’s Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. Arun Gandhi, founder of the Gandhi Institute and Gandhi’s grandson, will deliver the keynote. Monroe County and the city of Rochester have both proclaimed Oct. 2 as Gandhi Day. Officials will read proclamations at the meeting.

The Gandhi Institute has always celebrated Gandhi’s birthday. The celebrations this year began last month. The Beacon posed a few questions to Miller about the institute’s efforts to call attention to nonviolence.

Kit Miller with La’Ron Singletary, chief of the Rochester Police Department, during the Walk for Peace.
(Photo by Hannah Betts)

ROCHESTER BEACON: Why did the Gandhi Institute decide to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday in such a big way this year?

KIT MILLER: Gandhi is one of the most remarkable, transformative leaders of the 20th century.  His perspectives on the unsustainable costs of violent mindsets, of war, of unbridled consumption only become more relevant as time passes. Working with the India Community Center, we decided to try to use this special anniversary to lift his message far and wide. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: What were some of the events you organized and how were they received? 

MILLER: Events commenced on Sept. 11, a day which in the U.S. is remembered as a day of violence, terror and loss. But in the world of nonviolence, Sept. 11, 1906, marks the first date of Gandhi’s use of strategic nonviolence to affect an interfaith protest again the South African government in Johannesburg. So we began on Sept. 11, with cosponsors Veterans for Peace and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. We hiked from the (Vietnam) Veterans’ wall at Highland Park to the Gandhi Institute in the Plymouth Exchange neighborhood. Participants in the walk taught each other about the more than 200 strategies for peaceful nonviolent action as they walked.  It was wonderful.  Close to 140 people participated.  Since then we’ve held workshops, lectures, an innovative one-woman play, an open house and an ongoing exhibit of Gandhi photos at the India Community Center that is truly remarkable. Thus far more than 600 people have participated in the activities. The India Community Center has partnered with us on each event; we could not have made this happen without them!

ROCHESTER BEACON: What is the role of nonviolence today? Is it effective in a climate of conflict?

MILLER: Through a surprising win of a national contest, last year the Gandhi Institute created a global social media campaign called Nonviolence Now to highlight nonviolence to young people globally. We launched the campaign at the United Nations a year ago today, had a full-page ad in Newsweek in December, and reached over 3 million people. Nothing like it had ever happened before. As part of that effort to create fresh content for the project, we discovered that there are dozens of nonviolent campaigns happening around the world continuously. As a result, one team member now sends out a weekly newsletter to hundreds of people around the world documenting 30-50 nonviolent actions and campaigns each week. 

According to research by Erika Chenowith and her colleague Maria Stephen, nonviolent civil resistance is becoming increasingly more effective (twice as likely worldwide) as a way to create political change and post-conflict is far more likely to yield a democratic society. In my view, as resources globally become more strained and unequally distributed, nonviolence is the only way we can realistically pass on societies to our children that holds promise for democratic principles and freedom for women and other historically suppressed populations. Our other choice is to envision our children in increasingly more fascist and unequal societies.  What future would you like to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

ROCHESTER BEACON: Does Rochester embrace nonviolent forms of action enough? What can we do?

MILLER: No city in the U.S., that I am aware of, sufficiently embraces nonviolence. Here are my top three things we can do:

  • I would change the way we teach children about social studies and history, including the nonviolent history of the first 10 years of the American revolution and about nonviolent resistance over the last 100 years, with at least as much focus as we now teach the facts about wars.    
  • I would teach nonviolent communication in every school, workplace and faith community, and strengthen the use of restorative practices as an educational strategy that experientially teaches perspective taking, empathy, courage and active listening as capacities vital to the creation and preservation of an open and just society. I would ask adults to use restorative practices wherever possible for community building and addressing harm. In the courts, I would implement the use of restorative practices wherever possible to increase access to justice and to deal with the root causes of harm and disputes. 
  • I would ask that systems thinking be taught and utilized as a way for people of all ages to understand that the mindsets of violence and racism create systems and patterns that endlessly generate harm, inequality, poverty and other ills, both locally and beyond. This widespread capacity could leverage the enormous efforts of local government, agencies, faith communities, area volunteers, philanthropists, nonprofits and others and lead to the creation of a wonderfully just, peaceful and sustainable Rochester, a model for cities around the world.  

All of this will become only more important in the coming decades, as our region will doubtless become a sanctuary for people fleeing the impacts of climate disruption. How we learn to respond to change and uncertainty will help set the stage for the adult lives of children in grade school right now. 

The interfaith prayer meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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