Metta’s Opinion

Q&A: Author Patty Somlo

Author Patty Somlo at Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa, CA. Photo courtesy of Patty Somlo.

Where do art and literature fit in the broader picture of peace and justice? That’s a question I’ve been fascinated with since 2009, when I served as Co-Founding Editor for a small book publisher. Part of my work involved reviewing manuscripts, contracting authors, and directing the design process. That’s how I first met the author Patty Somlo—by signing on her short story collection, From Here to There and Other Stories.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Patty elsewhere, including here. Through my former Metta Center role as Editor & Creative Director of Nonviolence magazine, I selected a couple of Patty’s stories for publication, because they reflected the organization’s mission to advance a higher image of the human, not to mention a greater sense of justice and dignity.

In Patty’s latest collection, Hairway to Heaven Stories, faith and spirituality play a key role. The 15 stories present a microcosm of many US neighborhoods in cities where people of different races, ethnicities, class and sexual orientation live in close proximity to one another, with neighbors being both strangers and friends.

Hairway to Heaven was recently published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a black-owned press committed “to practice literary equality and to embrace work that is informed by the social, political and cultural vigor of our times.”

So what do you think: Where do art and literature fit in the broader picture of peace and justice? Read on for Patty’s take.

What’s the inspiration behind this collection of short stories?

Hairway to Heaven Stories is a linked short story collection set in what had been a predominantly African American neighborhood that is now in the process of gentrification. The initial inspiration for the book was my desire to write about gentrification and the pricing out of low and moderate-income residents from many American cities. One morning, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a traditionally African American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. that was undergoing gentrification. A community leader who was interviewed said that many longtime residents of the neighborhood could no longer afford to live there. I was saddened by this news. I knew the neighborhood, because I had spent time there many years ago, observing classes at Malcolm X Elementary School, while finishing my bachelor’s degree in Art Education.

I had also experienced the effects of rising rents on a more personal level. In San Francisco, where I had lived for 20 years, and where my husband was born and started elementary school, rents and real estate prices started soaring in the 1990s with the dot-com boom, and then just kept on climbing. People were being evicted all the time, including low-income elderly, from homes they had lived in for decades. Once evicted, there were no places in the city these people could afford. Like many moderate-income renters in San Francisco, I worried that my husband Richard and I would be next. Finally, in 2000, when we wanted to move out of our noisy flat, we couldn’t afford anything in the Bay Area. So, we were forced to leave California.

I grew up in a military family that moved every year or two and continued to move around a lot as an adult. Home for me has been an elusive concept, so home and place have prominent roles in my work. I was attracted to the idea of a linked collection that centered on people living in the same neighborhood, with the neighborhood almost serving as another character. In several different cities, I lived in African American neighborhoods that had started to gentrify. These neighborhoods were usually more diverse than the rest of the city, which made them interesting places to live. When I considered writing this book, a time of so much division in this country, and misunderstandings about what it means to be an American, I realized that these neighborhoods represent what I view as the real America. A desire to portray the America I know was also part of my interest in writing this book.

The neighborhood in “Hairway to Heaven” is a fictionalized area set around Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. There is such a neighborhood, North Portland, and I did use elements of the real neighborhood in my book. But I also used aspects of neighborhoods I had lived in, including my Southeast Portland neighborhood, as well as making things up.

When my husband and I could no longer afford to live in San Francisco, we moved to a Portland neighborhood in the process of change. At one time, the neighborhood had been quite rough, with lots of crack houses. When we moved there, people were buying the rundown Victorians and bungalows and fixing them up. But there were still problems that carried over from the old neighborhood, ones that are common in urban America, including way too many homeless people living on the streets, petty crime and drug dealing.

One morning, I was on the 15 Belmont bus headed to work downtown. The bus always stopped a few blocks from my house to pick up and let off folks at the methadone clinic. I had become quite familiar with the men and women who went to the clinic, since I rode with them every day on the bus. They all knew one another and talked loudly, a great source of material for a writer. Suddenly, a story idea popped into my mind, about a substance abuser named Leticia, thinking that she saw Jesus on her last day of rehab. I quickly jotted it down in the little notebook I always carry and that grew into the title story, “Hairway to Heaven.”

“Outta Here,” a story in your book, ran in the Democracy Issue of Nonviolence (Summer/Fall 2016). That story features a character named DaVon Richards, a 14 year-old black boy with special needs. He’s fatally shot by a police officer, and we never learn of an investigation or anyone being held accountable. Were such omissions an intentional creative decision?

Yes. First of all, I felt we all knew how that would end, since the follow-up to shootings of unarmed black men nearly always have the same ending, with the officer not being charged. But the second reason is because I had a healing motivation for writing the story, which is why I wrote a somewhat more hopeful ending. When I started writing the story, I was, and still am, angry and sad about these killings of innocent black and brown men and youth and of feeling powerless to change it. Writing this was a way to grieve. It was also a way to reimagine a real-life tragedy and bring in some hope. While “Outta Here” is about a young African American boy shot holding a baseball bat the officer assumes is a weapon, I was moved to write this story following the 2013 killing of a thirteen-year-old Latino boy named Andy Lopez, by a Sonoma County deputy sheriff in the City of Santa Rosa, California, where I live now. Andy was holding a toy gun and the deputy said he thought it was a real gun.

In “Outta Here,” following the killing of DaVon Richards, money is raised for a baseball diamond in the neighborhood where the boy was killed. In my real-life inspiration, people in Andy Lopez’s neighborhood of Southwest Santa Rosa initially created a memorial park for him, near the site of his death. But they also fought for a real park, and their efforts succeeded. Two years ago, the county board of supervisors approved several million dollars more for the park, along with a name: Andy’s Unity Park. I recently read that construction has just been completed. It will be the first-ever park in Andy Lopez’s neighborhood.

A park, of course, doesn’t make up for a life. But it is a small step in addressing the needs of young people in neighborhoods that are so often neglected. It makes a statement about valuing people, and that was part of what I wanted to convey in my story.

Your stories tend to lean towards awareness and justice. Is there a relationship for you between entertainment and raising our levels of human consciousness? 

Yes and no. I don’t intentionally write fiction to raise consciousness. I’m mostly drawn to writing stories that reveal something about the human condition. I didn’t grow up in a close family, I don’t have children of my own, and as a military kid, I often felt like an outsider. I observed and listened to other people a lot, as a way to try and fit in when we moved to a new place. I’ve continued to do that as an adult, so observing people out in the world inspires my stories. These stories often involve the big issues of our time because they concern me – inequality, violence, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and immigration. My work often has a magical realist element to it, a type of fiction I fell in love with from reading Latin American and South Asian writers – and, of course, Charles Dickens! Magical realism can shine a spotlight on injustice. I’ve heard magical realism described as getting to the roots of reality, letting the reader see what can so often be hidden. Sometimes, this is done by making fun of reality.

For instance, in one of the stories in this collection, “Emergency Room,” a woman with a badly injured hand goes to the neighborhood emergency room for help. It turns out that the people she begins to meet there have been waiting for hours, some even an entire day, and no one has come out to help them. The story takes a real situation in the United States, that of often unaffordable and, therefore, inaccessible medical care, and exaggerates it a bit, to shine a light on the unfairness and absurdity of the system.

So, yes, I do think my stories can raise consciousness, and I, of course, hope they do.

In these times of “post-truth,” do you see a unique role for fiction to play in disseminating the truth?

Yes, definitely. Even many years ago when I worked as a journalist, I felt that the whole true story often wasn’t told by the media. In order to cut through the misinformation, I tried to interest readers in sometimes divisive issues by focusing on human stories. Fiction, even more than nonfiction, can help readers know and empathize with people they might otherwise not care about. Fiction works when whole, multidimensional characters are created, rather than stereotypes, and can help dispel stereotypes.

What about the link between art and peace—is there one for you as a writer?

Yes. Artists, writers and musicians have always been integral to movements for peace and justice, whether in the Civil Right movement, the anti-apartheid movement, or various anti-war movements. At this moment when we are seeing a renewed and energized effort to stop gun violence, I just saw a call for writing about individual responses to gun violence. Artists, writers and musicians nearly always are at the forefront of bending the arc a bit more toward peace and justice.


A former journalist, Patty Somlo has published three short story collections: From Here to There and Other Stories (Paraguas Books), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Hairway to Heaven Stories. She has been a finalist in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, and National Indie Excellence Awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and one of her essays was selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014.

Signing Off (But No Coming, No Going)

Dear Metta Community,

In the spirit of what my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would call “no coming, no going,” as of the end of March, I am taking leave from my work at Metta to prepare for the birth of my first child, who is due in May. I will also be turning my attention to completing my doctoral studies in Community, Liberation and Ecopsychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

As I reflect back on the past five years as the Director of Education at Metta, I am grateful for the profound education I received in my time here. My understanding of nonviolence has deepened along with you, through our conversations and interactions, and I am continually inspired by the way folks in the Metta community are living their lives and taking action for a peaceful, nonviolent world.

I am very happy to see the main program I worked on, Metta’s Certificate in Nonviolence Studies, continuing to be offered in new and innovative ways. Registration is now open, and the course starts May 2. This program has been “my baby” – its creation was the initial reason I joined Metta’s staff – and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to watch the program grow as I step away to take care of a new baby :).

As my roles and hats change, I’ll be carrying you with me!

With love and gratitude,
Stephanie Knox Steiner

 

Summer Internship for Petaluma Youth

 

Six-Week Leadership Intensive in Nonviolence

for Petaluma High School Youth

Dates: June 15-July 20, 2018

Stipend: $100/week

The Metta Center for Nonviolence is a Petaluma-based non-profit organization founded by UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Michael Nagler, co-founder of UC Berkeley’s Peace and Conflict Studies Program. Our specialty is nonviolence: what it is, how it works, and how to draw upon its power for building healthy communities of empowered individuals. Key projects include our online Certificate Program in Nonviolence Studies and Nonviolence Radio. We work with individuals and movements from around the world and have consultative status at the United Nations.

Program Overview:

Our Leadership Intensive in Nonviolence is a six-week program for Petaluma youth created to educate and train local youth leaders to face personal and societal conflict with practical life-and community-affirming skills. We also aim to prepare students to find more opportunities for training and higher education in areas explored during the program.

Students will learn the basics of nonviolence and have on-going in-depth exploration and training in conflict tools such as constructive dialogue, conflict de-escalation and by-stander intervention, restorative practices, and self-care. Youth will also work on a final project in which they will assess a conflict in their life or community and make a plan of action for transforming it with the skills they have acquired.

The Ideal Candidate is someone who wants to make a difference in their life and community. This person has had experience with violence and is committed to ending it, but feels that they lack inspiration or guidance for how to do it in a safe and effective way.

Location and Time:

The program will take place at the office of the Metta Center at 205 Keller St. Suites 202D/B. Program time runs from 9:30 am until 2 pm, Monday/Wednesday, with program starting promptly by 10 am, and lunch at 1 pm. Fridays are optional “office hour” days from for individual research and questions.

205 Keller St. Suite 202D, Petaluma, California 94952

The Application Process:

Interested candidates should send a letter of interest, including the following information:

1. Why they are applying to the program and what they hope to achieve through it for themselves and their community.
2. A story of how violence has affected their life and what they want to learn.
3. Name three resources they have explored from the Metta Center’s website.

Please include at least one recommendation.

Send all material to Stephanie Van Hook (Stephanie@mettacenter.org) by April 15, 2018.

 

 

“We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.”

–M.K. Gandhi

Is this #Enough?

If this is #enough, then what’s next?

“Protests come and go, almost no matter what the scale and entrenched regimes of violence and injustice wait them out.”

 

There have been far too many pious clichés in response to all these tragedies, but I’m going to risk one more: if – and it remains to be seen – this one will lead to a wave of awakening and permanent, significant changes to the culture of violence we are suffering through, then the violent death of those seventeen people may not have been entirely in vain.

What will it take to make that kind of difference?

We have very happily reached a point now where this is not an idle question. Enough systematic studies of nonviolence have now been done – a mere beginning, but what a difference it makes when until recently there was practically nothing – that we can be confident about some ‘best practices’ for many kinds of nonviolent resistance. One thing is clear: the walkout, in which something like 3,000 high schools across the country saw students taking action, with or without the support of their teachers and administrators, was a great beginning.

No less, but no more.

Protests come and go, almost no matter what the scale and entrenched regimes of violence and injustice wait them out. We need three things to parlay the solidarity and concern they evince into real change: continuity (what Latin American activists call firmeza permanente), determination, including the willingness to sacrifice, and of course strategy. To rely on some kind of atrocity (which this is) to galvanize our reaction is a recipe for sure, painful defeat. Look at Egypt, or almost any country that experienced “Arab Spring.”

Let’s do them in reverse order.

For an action to become a campaign and a campaign a movement (thanks to thoughtful activist George Lakey for those terms) it must have a credible path forward from the “effervescence of the crowd,” as we call it, step after step, to victory. Victory itself should be visionary to really work – remember Gandhi’s proud appellation for himself as a “practical idealist.” But the steps should be progressive, and realistic. In broad terms, for example, we have been working with ‘giant steps’ from institutionalizing restorative justice in the nation’s schools to our overstuffed prison system to – why not? – the deconstruction of war. In nonviolence, as in war itself, you have these steps but life happens: you have to be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities and regroup in the face of setbacks. Classic example: Gandhi fell back on non-confrontational forms of Constructive Programme, like spinning, when the regime blocked any path of resistance.

Determination is often the nonviolent answer to ruthlessness. Contrary to a popular misconception, nonviolence is not weak; it does not crumble in the face of stark repression, does not, as mentioned, shrink back even from sacrifice and suffering where that must be undertaken to awaken the opponent.

Firmeza or continuity means two things (as I see it). The first is more obvious, the second more important. The first is simply staying the course; not, even in the face of setbacks, giving up, going back to business as usual. For students, in particular, this can be difficult. Gandhi only called them out when he felt he absolutely needed them and their contribution to the movement was more meaningful than their studies.

As Martin Luther King put it, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering,” and thereby wear you down by the love-in-action that is nonviolence.

And nonviolence is the other dimension of this steadfast continuity: maintaining nonviolent discipline. Power comes from nonviolence in proportion to its depth and continuity. We may never be perfect at it; that’s Ok; but we should never stop trying to engage that spirit in deed, word, and as far as humanly possible even in thought. It is possible.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. The rest is emergent: we will discover it as we go.

 

Here I am at a local high school where I was invited to speak on a panel with students on March 14. I was joined by two Metta staff members, Stephanie Van Hook and Kimberlyn David (on a rare visit from the Netherlands). Here is the article issued from the local press about the event.

 

 

We also recommend checking out:

I Exercise My Right NOT to Bear Arms by Todd Diehl

Terrorism and Nonviolence, a New Story Animation

Grief is Not Enough by Michael Nagler

Love at the Barrel of a Gun by Michael Nagler

THE POST: A (Somewhat Biased) Film Review

For full disclosure: I’m a long-term friend of Dan and Patricia Ellsberg, and I was a more distant friend but also admirer of Ben Bagdikian. I lived through the era depicted in The Post, and since I see very few movies I tend to have strong reactions to those I do.

That said, I had a very strong, very positive reaction to this Stephen Spielberg film about the decision by Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), supported by her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), to publish the devastating “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. I cannot remember being so engrossed in a movie, and while it was not as transcendentally inspiring perhaps as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, it was uplifting and spell-binding for me. It depicts a “finest hour” of American democracy, which itself would make it more than relevant to our America’s present dismal time; add to this, however, the superb treatment of the women’s issue and the just plain great acting.

Advisory: If you go in expecting the film to be about Ellsberg and his struggle with himself to risk everything to release the devastating news to the public, or the role Patricia played in supporting him, you will be disappointed. That story is in the superb documentary by Judith Ehrlich, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” as well as Dan’s book Secrets and many other histories. The mark of a great filmmaker (or novelist, for that matter) is to have the restraint to tell one story at a time. I appreciate that enormously, as one who has yet to find that kind of restraint.

Now for the Metta Center angle: What does the film say about nonviolence? A lot. First of all, how raw courage and the power of that act of will by which a man or woman, seeing beyond the ordinary vision of personal gain and loss, decides to risk even perhaps their life for a higher cause. In Dan’s case, his career and his very freedom, e.g. to be with the wife he loved. In Ms. Graham’s case, the paper she loved and lived for, along with the rebuttal of the stereotype against women that they can’t compete in the “real world” of business or places of cutthroat competition.

Then there’s the glimpse it offers of what Johan Galtung named the “Great Chain of Nonviolence:” the way people low on the social/political ladder, seemingly without access to power, can reach the seats of the mighty through those near them, who know others on up the chain. In this case, the spectrum goes from street protestors (as I was) to an insider like Dan who “saw the light” (itself a lesson in the humanity and convertibility of our opponents) to the upper echelons of journalism and government. Then, a larger lesson of the more sobering type. Would a whistle-blower on that scale enjoy the protection of the Supreme Court today? What must we do to capitalize on these moments of brilliant courage to make sure they ratchet up to a permanent and beneficial change?

What a Satyagrahi Knows

This guest post was contributed by George Cassidy Payne, the founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International. He is also a writer, a domestic violence counselor, and an adjunct professor of philosophy. George lives and works in Rochester, NY. You can follow him on LinkedIn.


The most powerful force in the universe is not electromagnetism, gravity or time. The greatest force in the universe is Satyagraha, which technically means a firm or steadfast adherence to Truth. Satyagraha is the most powerful force in the universe because it is the universe. It is the moral dimension of the universe revealing itself through social and political action.

Mohandas Gandhi coined the term in 1906 while leading a nonviolent resistance movement against the British. He wrote:

None of us knew what name to give to our movement. I then used the term “passive resistance” in describing it. I did not quite understand the implication of “passive resistance” as I called it. I only knew that some new principle had come into being. As the struggle advanced, the phrase “passive resistance” gave rise to confusion and it appeared shameful to permit this great struggle to be known only by an English name… I thus began to call the Indian movement “satyagraha,” that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance” in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase. This then was the genesis of the movement which came to be known as Satyagraha, and of the word used designation for it.

Tactically, there are four main components that must be in place to activate Satyagraha. Firstly, a Satyagrahi must comprehend that all life is interconnected. From the ant to the aurora borealis, all life forms-including physical, mental and spiritual-are one at the source of their creative purpose.

The second principle is that persuasion overcomes coercion. That is to say, there is a long term advantage to convincing an adversary to understand and empathize with your perspective. Compelling opponents through intimidation or bribery is only temporarily effective, and it always has unintended consequences.

Thirdly, a Satyagrahi knows that ends and means must be aligned. Mohandas Gandhi referred to a surgeon who uses contaminated tools and expects a successful operation, which is an attitude that is both illogical and irresponsible.

Fourthly, a Satyagrahi is transparent in all matters. In any struggle the truth is pursued in good faith, with an open mind, and with sincerity. Gandhi once wrote, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”

Underlining each of these four components is a conscious belief in the spectacle of bravery—the type that can only be manifested through voluntary acts of suffering. If you would conquer another do it not by outside mechanisms but by creating inside their own personality an impulse too strong for his/her previous tendency. In this way Satyagraha taps into the “Law of Reversed Effect,” which states: “The greater the conscious effort, the less the subconscious response” or understood another way: “Whenever the will (conscious mind) and imagination (subconscious) are in conflict, the imagination (subconscious) always wins.”

A Satyagrahi knows that our ancestors from the dawn of life have suffered pain and deprivation-it is part of our collective nervous system. When others see bravery in action, there is an imagination-stimulus that gets galvanized. Of course this impulse may be crusted over by custom, prejudice and hostile emotions, but it is still ingrained in all of us. Inevitably, a nonviolent resister submitting themselves to bodily suffering for the sake of a noble cause rouses people’s moral conscience. Since feelings are more contagious than appetites, no other strategy is more effective in combating injustice.

When these four components are in place, there is almost nothing that the force of Satyagraha cannot achieve. It literally has the power to bring down dictators without firing a single shot. Satyagraha can make the proud see the plight of babes and it can make children mightier than the most formidable systems of oppression. Satyagraha brings refreshing aid to the sick and it uses the healing qualities of nature to bring health to the masses. Older than the hills, Satyagraha is an infinite, everlasting goodness that makes constellations burn with passion and the eyes of the poor glow with dignity.

A Word from Volunteer Lamisa Mustafa

Dear Metta Center Friends,

I first learned about the Metta Center last December, when my mentor and I were looking into UC Berkeley’s Peace & Conflict Studies program, which was of course founded by the Metta Center’s Michael Nagler. After I came across a call for volunteers on Facebook this summer, I asked if I could help remotely, as I’m living out my human rights journey at Southern Methodist University, in my hometown of Dallas, Texas.

Since June of this year, I’ve been volunteering as a research assistant for Dr. Nagler and Stephanie Van Hook, the organization’s executive director. I’ve also helped edit/format a book chapter on nonviolence and the economy.

My volunteer work makes a difference in my life, because I get to soak up the wisdom of nonviolent practitioners.

It has also given me opportunities to share my own voice. I’ve published an autobiographical poem through the web version of Nonviolence magazine, and my essay about living as a Muslim in the US will run in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of the magazine.

Changing hearts and minds is the hardest work, but it is so rewarding. My peers, friends, family, and mentors help me realize that in this process of giving to the world, I am giving so much to myself. Social justice starts with each of us—we are our own human selves.

The human rights champions around me—and those who are their true, unapologetic selves—fill me with hope. I feel at peace knowing that there are so many people fighting the good fight. I am hopeful, too, because all our journeys come together to form one human story. I appreciate being able to share some of my story with you here.

Volunteering is one way to support the Metta Center’s work. Donating is also a powerful form of support.

At the Metta Center, our community’s work is grounded in transforming ourselves, our relationships, and our world (no small tasks!). Any amount you can give will help the Metta Center reach more hearts and minds with the nonviolence resources the world desperately needs. Donate today!

Thanks in advance for giving us a hand. I wish you and your loved ones the very best for the rest of 2017.

Kindly,
Lamisa Mustafa

P.S. I’m passionate about the power of narratives in social justice. So I’m putting together a poetry anthology to celebrate human diversity and the human experience. I’m welcoming submissions til December 17.