From the Team
I jogged past the iron bars surrounding Fresno High School (FHS), my hometown alma mater. It was the Friday before the school’s spring break. The oppressive heat of a Fresno, California spring doesn’t punch like the fists of its summers. It is more like an open-handed slap, the kind that bruises a child’s skin as punishment for simply being a child.
As sweat dripped from my forehead, I saw a Black male teenager being arrested by two police officers outside campus. “If you see someone being arrested, it can be supportive for everyone’s safety if you stop and witness. This is especially true if the arrested person is a person of color, and even more true if you are white”. These words from my colleague and dear friend, Leonie Smith, echoed through my head at that moment. I first heard them during a Responsible Bystander training, an offering Leonie co-developed and facilitated at a meditation center last fall.
“There must be a reason for it. There’s probably nothing you can do. Just keep running”. This harsh voice followed Leonie’s. It is old and familiar. I attended FHS during the era of “No Child Left Behind”, a time when increasing numbers of children of color were forced behind bars. That harsh voice frequently controlled me as a student at FHS. Although I was in the statistical minority of white kids within the student body, white privilege protected me throughout high school. It influenced my decisions to turn away from my criminalized peers.
Since Leonie’s voice is far more beautiful than the played-out harsh voice, I decided to listen to her and witness the arrest. I was also able to prevent the arrest of a second teenager by applying nonviolence techniques I learned from Leonie and other activists at the Nonviolent Global Liberation retreat in Santa Cruz, CA. As I read Miki’s most recent newsletter, ‘Steps toward meaningful action‘, my understanding of the situation came into focus. I am sharing my account of the experience here, and using the steps as a framework to deepen my reflections.
My account of the experience:
Around 8:30am on Friday, April 12, 2019, I stop jogging to witness a white police officer arresting a Black teenager in front of Fresno High School (FHS). A Latinx cop searches the teen’s backpack on the hood of a police car. I do not hear anyone informing the arrested teen of his rights. A Latinx teenager approaches the scene and starts talking to his arrested friend. “We’re like cousins”, the friend tells one of the cops when asked why he is there. The white officer puts the arrested teen in the back of the police car, but both officers allow the friend to stay and talk through the slits in the car window.
A third police officer, who is also white, arrives around 8:45am. He steps out of his car and begins yelling at the friend within minutes. The friend tries to explain that he has a close relationship with the arrested teen. The third officer continues yelling, and the friend eventually yells back. The cop moves towards the teenage friend, stops within a foot of his face, and threatens to arrest him for truancy.
Recalling lessons learned from nonviolence activist trainings, I witness while actively working to transform my enemy images of the police officer. Holding the intention to support everyone’s safety, I step toward the situation. I recognize the Latinx teenager as more vulnerable, so I focus my attention on him. “Hey, I know you’re worried about your friend”, I say to the Latinx teen. He briefly stops shouting and looks at me. The third officer continues to yell over my voice. “Can I have a moment to speak with him?”, I ask the officer.
“Sure, go ahead”, he responds. He walks away from the Latinx teen and towards the other officers.
I continue speaking to the Latinx teen. “I know you’re worried about your friend. I am too. That’s why I’m here. I am concerned that you might be hurt or arrested if you stay, though. I encourage you to go on campus”. The friend listens to some of what I say before shouting an expletive at the police officer. He then walks through the iron bars and on to the FHS campus. Blood rushes to my feet, and my heart beat rises when I realize the friend is safe in that moment.
The next moment, I turn my attention back to the officers and the arrested teen. I hear the officers explain why they suspect the Black teen of armed robbery, even though they didn’t find any weapons. They say he was in the neighborhood where the crime took place, he was sweating a lot, and he fit the description of the suspect. The third officer looks at me mid-conversation and asks, “Excuse me, are you a school official?”.
“No, I’m just concerned and decided to witness”, I respond.
“Oh, ok, well thanks for your help with that kid”, the officer says. I notice myself wanting to shout at him and blame him for escalating the situation, but I stay silent. I return to the practice of transforming enemy images, neither challenging nor affirming his misrepresentation of my intention.
The two white officers eventually leave in separate cars. The Latinx officer gets in the driver’s seat of the car holding the arrested teen. As the engine starts, I walk towards the slotted window. “Don’t say anything other than ‘I need a lawyer’. That’s all you say, over and over, until you have a lawyer. Nothing else! Ok?”, I say to the arrested teen. He looks at me and nods his head before the car pulls away.
Steps toward Meaningful Action:
Notice. I noticed the two voices in my head before I stopped to witness. When listening to the harsh voice, I noticed tension in my body. Memories of the many times I walked away from criminalized classmates plagued me. I recognized a rising sense of disempowerment and failing integrity. Leonie’s voice illuminated the possibility of using my white privilege in service to a nonviolent outcome. Making a conscious decision to stop and witness, I recalled specific lessons from many nonviolence trainings: maintain embodied presence, set intention, listen with empathy, transform enemy images, and hold safety for all while supporting those most vulnerable. That last one is a key component of Leonie’s Responsible Bystander model. These principles helped me hold the possibility of a nonviolent outcome as I made moment-to-moment decisions.
Mourning and Analysis. It may appear paradoxical to combine the emotional process of mourning with the seemingly impersonal process of analysis, but they are profoundly intertwined for me in relation to this experience. Mourning happened in the moment, and it continues to happen. I mourn the past, knowing that my blind adherence towards the harsh voice contributed to disempowerment for me and my high school peers. I mourn the present, especially for these teenagers who are two of too many children detrimentally impacted by systemic racism. I mourn my silence when the white police officer misrepresented my intention. His words, “thanks for your help with that kid”, implied that I was a partner in controlling the teen rather than an advocate for his safety and freedom. I mourn that I failed to respond in clear alignment with my values.
Analysis and mourning are most obvious to me when I travel through my deep past. The pattern of hiding behind white privilege goes beyond my lifetime. My father, who was born and raised in Fresno by refugees of the Armenian genocide, embraced white identity and encouraged me to do the same. My grandparents’ terror influenced their decision to assimilate in a city where racism and xenophobia mingle with toxic air pollutants. My ancestors wanted safety, freedom, and belonging. They believed whiteness was the appropriate strategy to meet these needs. By the time I was born, the survival strategy of embracing whiteness while turning away from “others” became an entrenched behavioral pattern.
I must clarify that this analysis of my Armenian ancestry is neither comprehensive nor condemning. First, the factors contributing to assimilation of immigrant groups in the United States is far more complex than I am presenting here.* Second, I hold immense love, respect and compassion for my dad and Armenian ancestors. Yet it is still important to investigate the impact of assimilation on my life. It enables me to mourn the pain of my family, reckon with my decisions, and make conscious choices going forward.
Reframe as needed. Miki’s description of reframing fits well with my experience of the police officers, especially the third officer. She says, “If we see the police as a part of the working class that was pushed into working for the elite we will act differently than if we only see them through the lens of the impact they have as instruments of the state, without holding in the mix their humanity, including their potential to shift”. A similar reframing happened for me at the scene. I made a conscious choice to transform enemy images of the police as I witnessed. Throughout this process, I noticed my nervous system settle in the intensity. I am convinced this helped me stay as calm as possible as I approached the escalating argument between the white officer and Latinx teen. Had I approached that encounter without connecting to the officer’s humanity, I believe the risk of further escalation and harm could have changed the course of events.
Discern and Care. I am gaining more insight into what I bring to this life as I age and mature. Although I do not always like to admit it, an important factor to consider is my social location. As an adult woman with white skin privilege, I have more status quo power than the two teenagers. Honest acknowledgment and rigorous discernment of my social location helped inform my role, and enabled me to advocate more boldly than I had in the past.
I also experienced discernment as a moment-to-moment necessity. This continuously informed my decisions to care for all, especially for myself and the teenagers. Orienting towards embodied presence helped me gauge that I could step towards the escalated encounter with composure and effectiveness. It helped me feel my visceral reaction to the police officer when he mischaracterized my intention. Discerning that blaming and yelling might compromise my own safety, and therefore the ability to support the arrested teen, I made the best choice I could by remaining silent.
Because I was able to stay at the scene and continuously respond to each moment, I recognized another opportunity to intervene. I held knowledge about what the arrested teen might experience under custody. I also knew what he could do to protect himself from self-incrimination. It was vital to share this information with him before he was in an unknown situation alone. By discerning how to best take care of myself each moment, I was able to take the best possible care of everyone in the situation.
Support. I am fortunate to have many connections to NVC activists. Within hours of the incident, I received empathy from a friend who helped me celebrate the prevention of the Latinx teen’s arrest, mourn the Black teen’s arrest, and identify feelings and needs relating to my silence when the officer mischaracterized my intentions. She also encouraged me to do some shaking to help release residual trauma from the experience.
Leonie and I discussed the incident a few days later. She offered similar empathy, helped me understand that I did the best I could when I chose to remain silent, and helped me brainstorm other ways I could respond that were more aligned with my intention. These early conversations encouraged me to share the story with other friends, including non-NVC practitioners. As I recounted the story to more people, I received feedback that people were inspired to take a bystander training, witness arrests, and stay aware of ways they might intervene. It is my hope that this story will encourage others to act, to make mistakes, to learn, and to grow together. It is my hope it will support more freedom and peace in our world.
*If you are interested in learning more about the assimilation of Middle Eastern populations in the United States, I recommend John Tehranian’s Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority.
In the Humility Corner of her Celebrations and Mournings, Miki reflects: “I am seeing how challenging it is, in some situations, to release any attachment, and to come into a conversation truly ready to learn.” I recently experienced a related situation when I met with Leonie, my co-Steward at BayNVC, about our outreach efforts. Having reflected on the situation independently, I approached her with a proposal and asked for her thoughts on my idea. Instead of responding to that, Leonie offered a perspective that to me emphasized a collaborative, rather than transactional, orientation. Her response made all the difference. I realized I had come to her thinking about how to move forward on my idea, rather than how to engage with her about it, even though I value collaboration with her. I realized I had approached her with the assumption that she didn’t have time to engage, and that I often assume, without realizing it, a lack of availability in others for collaboration with me. Leonie’s graceful redirect opened my eyes to a blind spot that has kept me unnecessarily from the resource of others’ willingness. Though I know it will take a certain mindfulness on my part to keep that veil from falling back, the relief and expansiveness I feel has already impacted my engagement in local racial justice and community singing work.
ElizaBeth Simpson is the Resource Coordinator at BayNVC. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
I feel immense joy, gratitude, and awe working with such a collaborative team of compassionate, inspiring and supportive people. One of the things I value and appreciate most about working with the BayNVC team is that I am invited and encouraged to be my whole self at work.All of our meetings (whether one on one, small groups or the full team) begin with check-ins where we have space to share how we are doing emotionally, mentally and physically.
At BayNVC, authenticity is celebrated, vulnerability is held with great tenderness, empathy is always available, honoring individual capacity with compassion is the norm, support is routinely offered, self-care is constantly encouraged, and trust is the foundation of our team culture – dramatically different from typical workplaces!
Rather than detracting from the flow of work, I believe this wholehearted, whole person approach contributes to the flow and overall productivity. It helps us honor where each person is at with their capacity and organically adjust as a team. Showing up and sharing in this way contributes to a deep sense of companionship, connection and co-holding that is incredibly nourishing and replenishes energy; energy that can be used to do our work more efficiently. What a relief from putting on a “professional appearance” and hiding our authentic experiences, which drains energy and isolates us.
In this environment of care and compassion, I am inspired to joyfully contribute to the maximum of my capacity with wholehearted willingness and with my whole self; something I previously experienced only outside of work.
Sadly, these last few months have been the most challenging of my life, largely due to the loss of several loved ones. During this time, my team members have helped me mourn, not only the loss of my loved ones but also the gap between my enormous desire to contribute to the team and my reduced capacity to do so.
I have been generously encouraged to work within my limits and to let others temporarily take on some of my tasks when self-care and family needs are critical. How incredibly different this is from the usual attitude of a ‘workplace’ — where maximum productivity is valued typically without considering the cost to the people doing the work.
When a team member is feeling overwhelmed, we look for ways we can shift work, ways we can support and care for one another, and ways we can do our best work collaboratively within our collective capacity. It is our authenticity, and often our vulnerability, that allows for this natural flow of interdependence and creates a sense of ongoing abundance within our team.
I want to share and celebrate that everything I described above perfectly matches my experience working with the Nonviolent Global Liberation Community (NGL) as well. I treasure the friendships I’ve made within both communities and I’m looking forward to deepening those connections, as well as making new ones, at the NGL-CA Retreat in August.
If you are interested in experiencing what I’ve described here, I hope you’ll join us at one of our upcoming retreats. (NGL Poland is coming up in May!)
With love and immense gratitude for being part of the BayNVC and NGL Communities….and this abundant flow of trust and generosity,
Heather Austin is the Event Coordinator at BayNVC and welcomes connection with the community. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I want to be more kind and loving to my parents”. Almost a year ago to this date, I read this resolution to a dear friend. The holiday visit to my parents’ home a few weeks prior fluctuated between explosions of anger and joyful togetherness. This was common for my family, and it became poignant when I realized that my parents were undeniably aging. While I genuinely wanted to cultivate better relationships with them, my resolution became my command.
My mom unexpectedly died two weeks later. Our relationship drastically improved the last five years of her life, but I regretted some of the ways we interacted during our last holiday season together. I turned to my surviving parent with desperate urgency to be kind and loving with him. It quickly became clear that commanding myself towards kindness and love was like sitting on the couch while staring down a gym membership card to get fit. My empathy and care muscles atrophied, and I repeatedly injured myself carrying unrealistic expectations for our relationship.
During this time, I was a candidate for a job with BayNVC. I read through the core commitments on the website, and was instantly inspired by their gracious understanding and encouragement towards more capacity and resilience. I met Miki for an “interview” three weeks after my mom died. Our main topics of discussion were vulnerability and grief. Within minutes of meeting me, Miki generously co-held the most traumatic experience of my life.
I quickly found that my experience with Miki was not an anomaly. The core commitments vibrate throughout the BayNVC team. Leonie’s prioritization of relationships through open dialogue, empathy, and conflict resolution immensely benefits our community. Beth kindly invites me to assume innocence when I find myself triggered. Rebecca embodies the breathtaking dance of authenticity and vulnerability, which emboldens me to move to a similar rhythm. Dawn consistently honors caring for her life and interdependence, reminding me that they are not mutually exclusive. All of these women offered their empathic presence to me last year, tenderly holding me through my grief and the difficult “first” milestones without my mom. As I heal, I’m experiencing more clarity and strength. I have greater capacity to give what I can offer thanks to the love and support of the BayNVC team and community.
As the one year anniversary of my mom’s death approaches, I am happily reflecting on the recent holiday season with my dad. Even in the midst of some challenging moments with him, I noticed myself consistently walking the walk while talking the talk of nonviolence. The command for kindness and love shifted to a devotion to love no matter what. This is inseparable from the BayNVC team’s dedication to live the core commitments from the inside out. As Miki says, living in integrity is demanding, and incredibly life giving. With this community, I am celebrating the New Year with an appreciable diminuendo of commands as life-enriching relationships crescendo.
With authenticity and vulnerability,
Stephanie Smith is the Administrator at BayNVC. She welcomes connection from the NVC community. You can email her at email@example.com.