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Shambhala Sun | May 2011
You'll find this article on page 32 of the magazine.

Making Peace in America's Cities

The Dalai Lama inspires a new generation of urban activists who know that inner and outer peace are one. BARRY BOYCE on two cities where they’re making a difference.

As you venture into the core of any city in America, there’s always an area—or two or three or four or five—where the housing stock is not so good, where vacant lots are strewn with debris, where public high-rises loom over concrete plazas or courtyards of dirt, where clutches of young men hang out idly on street corners, where sirens punctuate the soundscape, where there are corner stores aplenty but few supermarkets, where whole blocks contain rotting hulks in which homeless women and men squat, carrying their lives in shopping carts. Some of these districts are infamous: Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Compton in L.A., Southside Chicago, East St. Louis, South Philly, North Miami. And in some cases, virtually whole cities, like Newark in New Jersey or Oakland in California, seem to bear the mark of underprivilege, where the glittering modern economy is hard to find. Together, these urban areas are home to millions of people in the United States, and vast enough to constitute a country of their own. Most of us avert our eyes. Some people go there to make peace.

How can we cultivate peace on the front lines of America—the hard neighborhoods that are only miles, sometimes mere blocks, from some of the most affluent addresses on the planet—where lack of opportunity goes hand in hand with violence? In every one of these inner city neighborhoods there are inspiring people who spend their days and nights trying to address that question. They are working in schools, in juvenile detention halls, in housing projects, on the streets where the homeless hang out, even in city hall. They are urban peacemakers. For them, peace begins at home.

When we think of making peace, we tend to think first of world peace. The peace sign, for example, recalls the antiwar movement, but a new meaning for peace activism has been developing. It’s about bringing peace to the front lines within your immediate surroundings—your neighborhood, your community, your city, your country—and in the hearts of the people who live there. The heroes mentioned most by people in this peace movement are, not surprisingly, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., for whom peace within the heart was the source of creating genuine peace in the world. Gandhi’s ethic of being the change you seek is the rallying cry for many who feel that, as Oakland activist Brenda Salgado put it to me, “your head needs to align with your heart.” King’s admonition to bring together love and power inspires people like Ali Smith, the Baltimore activist who told me, “If I can be a more holistic, well-rounded, loving, and peaceful person, that’s what will make me the most powerful in helping other people.”

When talking about bringing peace and action together, many people look to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for inspiration. He has become the foremost proponent for the principle that lasting peace in the world results from genuine peace within ourselves. While many prefer to focus on inner peace alone, the Dalai Lama has, like Thich Nhat Hanh, been instrumental in redefining the peace of mindfulness practice as something that must find its way in the world to be genuine. A private peace is a selfish peace, and no peace at all.

Mindful peace is not a product of meditation, according to the Dalai Lama. It’s there all along. It’s just that when we make the conscious effort to pause and leave space, we can discover a natural warmth and openness that helps us see how to cultivate peace in the world. Peace becomes something tangible, applicable to our immediate surroundings. For several decades, the Dalai Lama has been talking about “secular ethics”—that compassion and affection toward our fellow beings is our birthright, not an ideology we adopt from our religious or cultural background. Politics, including political and social activism, can be a compassionate act, not just a way to advance an agenda that opposes the other guy’s agenda.

With that in mind, Robert Thurman, cofounder of Tibet House U.S., has been wanting for some time to hold a peacemakers conference on the East Coast headlined by the Dalai Lama, similar to one Tibet House sponsored on the West Coast in 1997. Thurman feels the 1997 meeting broke new ground by bringing together people who made a direct connection between inner peace and outer peace, and were working to make that manifest in their lives and communities. “Outer peace,” Thurman said, “can only come from inner peace, inner peace can only come through understanding, and understanding can arise only from realistic, spiritual, and ethical education.”

During a chance meeting, Thurman mentioned this aspiration to Drew Katz, a New Jersey philanthropist. “I found this idea of a peacemakers conference on the East Coast utterly inspiring,” Katz told me, “and I suggested Newark as a place to do it—because of the incredible challenges the city has faced in terms of violence and poverty, but also because of its dynamic and progressive mayor, Cory Booker.” The mayor was delighted by the prospect, as was the Dalai Lama. Convened by Tibet House and the Drew A. Katz Foundation, the Newark Peace Education Summit will take place May 13 to 15. It will feature more than thirty presenters from diverse backgrounds who will guide participants through an exploration of how peace can be cultivated in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, cities, and the world at large.

On the occasion of this important meeting, I talked to peacemakers in Newark— where, as a result of this summit, new forms of urban peace activism will undoubtedly be added to the work already being done there—and in Oakland, a hotbed of activist groups bringing together inner and outer peace. The people I spoke with in each place stand in for scores of others who are doing work that focuses on housing, food security, at-risk youth, education, environment, and social justice, as well as many other areas. As Oakland youth worker Chris McKenna told me, “There are so many groups these days who bring some form of reflection or contemplation or mindfulness into their work, even if it’s as simple as ritual periods of silence or gestures that recognize everyone’s value and dignity. Our various groups see ourselves as interconnected, networked. We’re making a soup together, and awareness is a key ingredient. We encourage fundamental curiosity toward life and question views we’ve inherited about food, housing, economy, justice. We don’t just try to fix things to make them fit a version of what the city should look like from the outside. We discover together what it could look like from the inside.” Those who look at these communities from the outside are viewing them with a wide-angle lens and they see mostly pain and dysfunction, and they are afraid. The peacemakers witness the faces in close-up, and see beauty and an indomitable human spirit, and they are inspired.

Newark is known as Brick City, some say for all the brick high-rise housing projects built there in the sixties. Many people know it only as the home of one of the major airports serving New York City, or as parts of the backdrop for Tony Soprano’s drive during the title sequence of “The Sopranos,” which pokes plenty of fun at Newark. But Brick City is a very real place, with a population of about 300,000, which is now starting to grow slowly after the exodus and long decline that followed the 1967 riots. About a third of Newark’s children are born below the poverty line, fewer than half graduate from high school, and violent crime is high. There were 105 murders in 2006, the year Cory Booker became mayor. By 2008, the number had dropped to sixty-seven, but rose again, reaching eighty last year.

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