By Jessica Ciccarelli
Black Lives Matter. I can barely begin to express how excited I was to see the KIPJ including the Black Lives Matter movement in The Art of Peace symposium. On a campus where “majority white” and “white privilege” seem like massive understatements, it was breathtaking to see the Institute for Peace and Justice take on such an important peace and justice issue.
Kimani Fowlin and Renée Watson, in their “Poetry and Performance for Peaceful Protest” workshop, gave us inspiring performances, vital history and understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, and invaluable emotional context for the incredible loss taking place across our nation – not only today, yesterday, last month or last year, but for decades. Renée and Kimani pushed deeper understanding and compassion, while still taming some of our “white fragility” with realizations that privileged white students are not the only ones who think police brutality is a recent phenomenon. Still, we have so much to learn.
They began their workshop with a personal performance. “If we expect you to make yourselves vulnerable with your own pieces,” Renée said, “then we need to share some of ours.” As Renée shared a piece of poetry with us, Kimani danced to the rhythm of her words. Next, they put us in a circle and asked us each to say one word about what we were feeling at that moment. Hopeful. Afraid. Nervous. Excited. Broken. Joyous. Each of the twenty to thirty attendees spoke their feelings to life in a circle of strangers. Then, having made ourselves vulnerable, Renée and Kimani played music and asked us to place sticky notes with a few personal words on walls of pictures of African American Men and Women lost to police brutality. An emotional process for all involved, I’m sure, but perhaps more emotional with the realization that we have long since passed the point where we could ever give voice to every name of every individual lost to ignorance, lost to denial, lost to an enemy often seen only to those victimized by it. We are responsible for the structures of violence upheld by the construct of superiority carried in the color of our skin.
We separated into groups and were each given a story. Some older, others newer. Each one the tale of an African American life lost to police brutality. This story became the impetus, first for the conversation, then for the poems, and last for the protests. After a few read their poems aloud, we each took a favored piece of our poems and put them together in theatrical presentations for peaceful protest. What a powerful way to get people emotionally invested in what is too often a very divisive issue!
Each of the groups gave their presentation to the workshop. Some sang, others chanted, most including the power of repetition. So we continued chanting, singing, and repeating similar essences.
A young black man.
Killed in the process of being arrested for crimes that often don’t exist.
Killed in terrible ways.
So much blood.
By the end of the workshop, we could no longer find reason in the murder of so many thousands of black lives, so we did like so many before us have. We took our anger and pain to the public spaces of USD and showed others what we had just spent two and a half hours struggling over. My only sadness comes with knowing there were so few students to witness this incredible journey Kimani and Renée took us on.
USD is a campus that prides itself on change and impact, but still is so dishearteningly disconnected from the reality of racial privilege and racism in America today. I was overjoyed, I am overjoyed, to see the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice join hands with USD’s Black Student Union in an exploration of how art can be the impetus for changing the incredible violence and police brutality taking place against our black brothers and sisters. If our peace and justice institutions don’t stand up against injustice, then who will? Thanks to the IPJ for taking on such an important issue, and thank you to the BSU and Renée and Kimani for taking us through such a difficult conversation in such an exceptionally inspired way. I know I learned something and I believe most everyone else would say the same. It is through workshops like this one that we can finally start being the change we want to see in the world. Because it really is through acknowledging our own privilege and changing ourselves that we can really start changing the structures and institutions of violence that the quest for peace demands we change.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.