For AFSC’s Area Office of the Carolinas, this year’s Peace Day was much more than a one-day ceasefire. Peace, for us, rather than an absence of violence, is about building community through cultural sharing, celebrating diversity, and developing personal relationships based on respect and trust.
In Greensboro, our Day of Peace was a two-day tour of the city for a visiting delegation from AFSC-Indonesia. We used their visit to highlight aspects of Greensboro’s culture and activism.
New Garden Friends School
Monday morning, the Associate Head of New Garden Friends School, Jane Carter, led us and our guests through both the upper and lower campuses so that we could share some different ideas with the students about the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, two days later. In a high school class, and in a group of 7th and 8th graders, we showed students two short films about the effects of war on society and on individuals, and brought with us our visiting AFSC staff from Indonesia, Jiway, Nurul and Wiweid.
The first film was made by an international student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro from South Korea. She tells of a once-united Korea, and how the two regions were divided by external forces. Once the war broke out, and a line was drawn, her family was also split, unable to contact each other on either side. Though the support from powerful nations is long gone, the two sides never reached an agreement, and remain in a state of armistice. Nothing has been won through the bombing and fighting, but she is often reminded by her grandmother that much has been lost.
The second film is based on the United States’ spending on wars over the last 10 years. In Iraq and Afghanistan alone, we have spent more than 1 trillion dollars. A number that large is quite incomprehensible. But our summer interns had a few ideas of how better to invest those dollars. Our cities could use community gardens as a way to create jobs, feed the hungry and build relationships between neighbors; local and state governments could use that money to hire more teachers, better teachers for public schools, and could provide scholarships for higher education; in our own city of Greensboro, citizens can hardly get from one part of town to another, and would greatly benefit from an improved public transit system.
After the films, the team from Indonesia explained some parallels between our two countries, and how they thought both could be directed towards a peaceful society. They expressed their belief that youth are the key to the future, and explained some of the projects they had done with young people. In Indonesia, tensions have been rising over the last few years, owing to increased religious extremism. AFSC-Indonesia is partnering with youth groups to lift up a different worldview.
In Yogyakarta, a dispute between street kids and transvestites led to a multicultural dance performance of Javanese horse dancing and ethnic-Chinese lion dancing. This performance, and the rehearsals leading up to it, became a forum for mutual understanding as they all worked toward the same goal.
In West Timor, around the time of the annual Protestant Easter parade, tensions had increased between religious groups and there were rumors of a planned attack on Muslims and mosques. Young people from different faiths took the head of the parade with a peace torch and banners celebrating diversity. When they reached a neighboring Muslim-majority town, they were greeted with applause and cheering. This Peace Torch, now touring the rest of the country, has become a symbol for “Unity in Diversity,” which is Indonesia’s national slogan.
The students were attentive, and in the short time we were there, we were able to engage in some discussion. Many of the students had ideas of their own about how they would spend a trillion dollars, from local police enforcement to charities, or a mansion for themselves. Both at the high school and the middle school, students made connections between the lack of funding for education and their own lives. Though New Garden Friends School is a private, Quaker school, and most of their educations have not yet been affected, they saw the potential for difficulties in their future. These are kids that see peace at work every day. When asked if they had been affected by war, the answer for most was “not directly.” But by the end of the hour, they seemed to understand that they did not have to see soldiers in the streets or hear bombs going off to feel the impact of a nation at war.
Guilford College and the Underground Railroad
After talking with students, we headed next door to Guilford College, where Max Carter, Director of the Friends Center and Head of Campus Ministries, welcomed us and brought us to the cafeteria. Professor Eric Mortensen, Religious Studies, joined us during his lunch break to learn more about the variety of spirituality in Indonesia and offer his perspective on Islam in America.
Indonesia hosts the largest Muslim population in the world, given that around 80% of Indonesians subscribe to the Islamic faith. The other 20% of the country, however, is made up of Christians, Protestant and Catholic, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians, and each region has a different demographic. But the extremist form of Islam seeping into all five major islands has no sympathy for other belief systems. Even the Muslims of Indonesia have been targeted and attacked for following an “impure” interpretation of Islam.
Following our meal, Max began a tour of local Quaker history, specifically as it related to the unauthorized transport of slaves to their freedom in the north. The very woods that compose Guilford’s backyard were a known stop on the Underground Railroad. As we learned the different ways our Quaker ancestors risked their own lives to save the lives of thousands of escaped slaves, I reflected on the contradictions they must have had to reconcile. Lying, especially to an officer of the law, would never have been acceptable to the Quaker community, but they kept secret their hidden passages and harbored refugees because they had to obey God’s will that all human beings have the right to freedom. The runaways who spent days or even weeks in the heat of a Carolina summer running through the mud with no shoes and no food are the real heroes; without taking a stand from the inside, change would never have come to our country. But when I think about the white folks who risked their homes to share it with a black man, I wish I could see more like them in our own time. Slavery is no longer the divising issue; police no longer ask for "freedom papers" based on the color of one's skin; schools are no longer allowed to refuse an education to children living in their district. But many similarities are to be found in today's society, regarding a person's legal right to exist. I choose to be one of those who cannot accept this privilege simply because it was given to me. Freedom is a right that must be shared to be authentic.
Following our Quaker tour, we stopped by HandyCapable, a non-profit that fixes up donated computers and offers them at a low price or for free to low-income families, schools, or handicapped persons. Our office has partnered with them to provide Movies Without Borders, a filmmaking class for immigrants and refugees, with the hope that their personal stories, through the media of short film, will have some affect on the dialogue in America surrounding migration.
The class brings together people of different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities, and provides support for each student through a partner and group sessions. AFSC-Indonesia focuses on the potential of youth, and was interested in learning about this tool as a means to strengthen diversity across the archipelago. They talked with Trish Perkins, from Handy Capable, and our own Lori F. Khamala to understand the dynamic of the class and examine the potential for duplicating the class in an Indonesian context.
Every Tuesday morning, the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) invites community members from around Greensboro to meet at a bakery to discuss issues surrounding democracy. Topics vary from education, to working with religious groups, to engaging youth activism.
This week, we heard from Jiway and Nurul about the issues surrounding democracy, diversity and inclusion on the other side of the world. The similarities were astounding, and we were able, as a group, to start thinking about creative ways to address these issues. One of the things that struck the group was the lifting up of a national, multicultural identity in Indonesia as a response to violence from a fast-growing force of radicalism within a branch of Islam. For Marnie Thompson, of F4DC, this was an “interesting and more positive reframe for me on nationalism, which I have generally felt mostly negative about, given the US version.” The group was invited to bring Indonesia’s peace torch here to North Carolina, and will be thinking of ways to tie it to the work that goes on in Greensboro.
International Civil Rights Center and Museum
Later in the morning, we took a tour of the historical site of the Greensboro sit-ins from the 1960s. The former location of the Woolworth’s store where four black students from North Carolina’s Agricultural & Technical State University (A&T) demanded to be served at the lunch counter, is now a museum honoring those four men’s legacy and a cultural center for civil rights activism
The tour begins with what the Museum refers to as the Hall of Shame: a visual history of racist attacks all over the country, many of which took place in the South of long ago, but some in the last quarter of a century, in New England or in the Mid-West. We are then taken into different environments of a segregated America. Transportation, education, health care, and entertainment were all very different for blacks and whites.
Experiencing this representation of my national history was very interesting for me. Our guests knew very little about our Jim Crow history, and I felt the Hall of Shame following me as they discovered more and more of the institutionalized racism of our country’s past. I also feel my own experience as a white female from Connecticut living in Greensboro has given me the opportunity to know children who would have a hard time understanding such an environment as reality, but also to know adults who remember what it was like to be kicked to the ground for using the water fountain meant for white folks. Our elders’ memories are now becoming history. The ICRCM makes history personal again, so that we might prevent it from repeating.
Our visit to the museum was a reminder for me that any great movement in history is made up of small, organized action performed by a few brave souls. This is the work AFSC is involved in, from Greensboro, NC to Washington, DC to Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Rally and City Council Meeting
After lunch and a short time to regroup, we once again headed downtown to share some of Greensboro’s contemporary activism with our guests.
In 2001, Greensboro’s City Council voted to close the White Street Landfill in the eastern part of the city. The city had been sued by residents of Nealtown Farms in the ‘90s, based on accusations of environmental racism. By the start of 2007, all residential and commercial waste had to be brought to a transfer station. But less than two years later, a Councilman suggested that the landfill be reopened, as its closing had cost the city and residents up to millions of dollars. Many have questioned the motives and morality of reopening this foul-smelling health hazard. While Greensboro’s entire demographics place African Americans and Hispanics at almost 50% of the population, the community affected by the landfill is over 84% African American and Hispanic. Some contend that if the landfill were located in a predominantly white neighborhood, reopening its gates would not even have been suggested.
After several years of fighting against the City’s motions toward reopening White St, residents of the neighborhood have strengthened their voice beyond their simple demographic to include support from all areas of the city, all races, all classes and students at area colleges, most notably, A&T University, continuing its legacy of equal rights advocacy.
Several companies proposed waste management strategies with the city, and eliminations had finally brought Gate City Waste Services to the top. The final decision to reopen under that contract was to be brought to a vote at the City Council meeting on Tuesday.
Students from A&T, along with other community organizations scheduled a protest to take place before the meeting, so they could share their displeasure and concern with the Council once more before their fates were sealed. Beginning with a march from A&T’s campus, a rally gathered at the city’s municipal building. Hundreds of people held the plaza, a high turnout for an issue-related protest in Greensboro. The idea that many of the city’s own would be exposed to foul smells, vermin, cancer, and other health risks brought a large crowd together in solidarity, the first of its kind in local politics for a long while.
When Gate City Waste Services withdrew their bid at the last minute because of the controversy it has dragged up, the crowd felt they had finally been heard, but knew that, as Mayor Bill Knight says “The problem is still there. It hasn’t gone away.” The city still needs a solution to the money leaking out of town through waste transport, and the citizens must still hold their decision-makers accountable for the health and safety of Greensboro. During the Council meeting, many public voices were heard, not only on the issue of the landfill, but on the Council’s attitude and process throughout the situation.
I was proud to walk away from that meeting with Jiway, Wiweid and Nurul, able to call myself a citizen of Greensboro and participate in the activism that is part of America’s rich history, but I was also reminded how very little we have come since the Greensboro Four took their seats at the lunch counter.
What is Peace?
We will not have peace in our society if our cities’ representatives neglect to take a stand for human rights issues. We will not have peace if we wait for the money to talk, instead of listening for the voices of the marginalized. Peace will only come from our children examining their place in the world alongside their neighbors’. Peace will come from honest discussions about “hot” topics and those that are sometimes forgotten. We will find peace when we learn from history’s mistakes; and when we find our common goals and celebrate our differences. The International Day of Peace means nothing if it means nothing but a ceasefire, for “peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)