Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning
by Margaret Swedish
I’m writing this post tonight at the request of a friend. You see, for me, ecology is not a reductionist term for “environmentalism” or only about ecosystems connected to the natural world. Ecology is really about interconnections, how everything is connected to everything else. Ecology is also about society, about politics, about war and peace, about violence and the causes of violence, about the ways in which humans relate to one another.
Everything is connected, and how we relate to one another within societies and cultures is among those connections. What I believe is that we cannot save ourselves from our ecological crisis if we address our assaults on the natural world only – because those assaults are expressions of attitudes we bring into our social and political life as well. I do not believe we can save life as we know it on the planet separate from healing the wounds of injustice, poverty, and a hatred of “others” that remains deeply embedded within our culture.
There is an ecology of racism. There is an ecology of gun violence. There is an ecology of the striving to heal from these deeply rooted social wounds.
And so, what I posted on Facebook today I was asked to make into a blog post so that it can be shared more easily and widely. This is the gist of it:
On Saturday I attended a community gathering in Oak Creek WI, just 8 miles down the road from me, site of the Sikh massacre last August 5 perpetrated by Wade Michael Page, a member of a neo-Nazi hate group. The focus of the gathering was how to address violence and hate in our communities. The panel included relatives of Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the Sikh temple of Oak Creek where the shooting took place. Kaleka died trying to fight off the shooter.
Also speaking were Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi, Police Chief John Edwards, U.S. Attorney James Santelle, Pardeep Kaleka (son of Satwant Singh Kaleka), County Executive Chris Abele, and representatives of various community groups. The event was co-sponsored by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.
I continue to be inspired by the remarkable response of this town just south of me to the horrific violence that occurred that day, when Page entered the Sikh temple on a Sunday morning and opened fire on the community, killing six, wounding two other Sikhs and a police officer, Lt. Brian Murphy, who bravely confronted Page and ended up shot several times. His wounds have left him with permanent disabilities.
I continue to be inspired by the way in which Oak Creek is trying to turn this tragedy into a transformative moment for the larger society – led by the Sikh community.
Said Edwards, “In my 28 years in law enforcement, I have never seen victims respond this way.” It changed his life, and the life of the mayor who had barely taken office when the shooting occurred. Edwards went on: “I can’t express what the Sikhs have done for this community. They have brought us together. We now have a model in Oak Creek for how to do this.”
Also present was former neo-Nazi Arno Michaelis, who wrote the book, “My Life After Hate.” He was a founder of the group that Page belonged to and carries a boatload of remorse. He now works with the organization, Life After Hate, educating others about white supremacy and hate groups, the sources of racial hatred, and of the lessons that his own life has to offer. His arms covered with tattoos reminding him every day of his past, he said that the practice of hate and violence can be overcome with the practice of kindness, something missing in the culture as we tend instead to blame “the other” for our difficulties.
Said Michaelis, “Page had practiced violence for 20 years. At the same time, his life was failing, so he found people to blame, Jews and people with other skin colors.”
“Practice shapes human experience,” he said. “We become familiar with what we’re practicing. If that is hate and violence, we become better at those things. Or we can practice kindness and generosity.”
If we do that, if we teach our kids this practice from the very beginning, we can become better at these things instead.
He recounted how when he came in contact with the people he hated, “Jews, blacks, gay people, were kind to me, leaving less and less room for hate and violence.”
“What changed me were the acts of kindness from the people I hated.”
Said an educator, we need to stop teaching testing to our kids and instead teach social skills and relationships…
Santelle noted that Page was one of those people who dropped out of society, fell off the edge, separated himself more and more from that which holds us together. He said, “We have to get to know one another – Hmongs, Jews, Latinos, Presbyterians, Sikhs… We need to promote knowledge, education, and awareness. We have to get to know one another, and have our kids get to know one another.”
Michaelis recounted how he helped set the stage and create the environment that Page came from. Now he goes out into schools to talk to kids about hate and violence. Even more, he does this often now with the sons of Satwant Singh Kaleka. [For more on how Michaelis and the Sikhs came together, click here.]
There are all sorts of ways we can respond to events like the one in Oak Creek, or Aurora CO, or Newtown CT. What we do with our shock and grief is up to us. It can bring about incredible rage; it can stoke the fires of fear and vengence. Or it can become the stuff of transformation.
In Newtown, many members of that community who lost little children and beloved educators are also transforming their tragedy into a cause to overcome gun violence and all the factors that lead to these shootings. Tomorrow, Monday, Jan. 14, they will launch the Sandy Hook Promise campaign. You can find out more by visiting their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/SandyHookPromise
I am so inspired, and deeply moved by all of these people. If there is hope, it is here, in the places where people refuse hate, refuse cynicism, and turn their loss into a space where a new hope, a new promise, a new way to be together, can emerge among us.
Pardeep Kaleka said we have to become “awake.” “We have gotten used to stories like this. We’re no longer awake. We don’t feel each other’s pain.”
In Oak Creek, they felt it, and that is why this community is taking pride in what it is becoming because of this tragedy. We can do our part by embracing their witness.