A Greater Understanding of the Human Experience

In April, the United Religions Initiative was honored to win the One Billion Acts of Peace member contest with the prize being for one URI member to attend the  Conference on World Affairs. That member was Kari Cameron, Associate Director of the Center for New Americans at Interfaith Works in Syracuse, New York. Below is her reflection on the experience.

Is learning an act of peace?  As I attended the Conference on World Affairs I was able to relax and learn for the sake of learning.  I had no responsibilities and no agenda. This conference is put on by the University of Colorado and is in its 69th year. Through the generosity of Peace Jam (and my good luck that comes through on occasion in the most unexpected and fabulous ways), I was able to take a short break from my job as a social worker in Syracuse, New York, and visit stunning Boulder for this symposium on just about everything.  If a subject involved anything to do with this world and how we live in it, there was a session with a panel of experts.  I learned about the politics of the South China Sea, the realms of influence of ISIS, and watched a fascinating documentary that used rotoscopic animation to recreate history.

But where does Peace Jam fit into all of this?

Learning is understanding and seeing the world through a broader lens, empathizing with the value of an idea and the individuals who represent that idea.  It is the understanding and demonstration of empathy that is an act of peace.

The documentary film, Tower, was not only informative because of its content, it was also inspirational and thought-provoking as a form of art.  The film makers updated a classic form of animation to visually depict the afternoon on the hot August day at the University of Texas where a lone gunman took a position from the clock tower on campus and fired at students as they crossed his range. In rotoscopic animation, the scene is filmed with live actors; afterwards artists come in and color over the actors and transform them into animation.  After the film screening, there was a question and answer period with one of the producers; she described this as a time-consuming and costly form of art.  They carefully edited the work before finally settling on which scenes to animate so that precious little of the rotoscopic work ends on the cutting room floor.

The art form made the story-telling more deliberate. The animation portrayed the victims and witnesses in living color, literally and figuratively.  The colors contrasted with the sounds of rifle-fire, and the ordinary daily tasks of students, local business owners, and police were depicted in the simplest and purest images. The stifling heat of that Southern summer’s day was a character in and of itself. It shaped the memories for everyone present. Victims lay on searing hot concrete, and those who would prove to be heroes were soaked by the humidity not unusual for Austin in August.

Victims of violence are real people with real relationships and are a part of a real storyboard of their own lives. They are not numbers on a list of atrocities.

This film was an excellent choice for the Conference on World Affairs.  Its topic, one of America’s first mass campus shooting, was local and personal, yet one of the takeaways from watching it is universal: victims of violence are real people with real relationships and are a part of a real storyboard of their own lives. They are not numbers on a list of atrocities. Our media favors lists and people are often reduced to a place on a list.  “12 dead” here, “35 dead” there, “worst ever,” “second most deadly since”…. Tower tells a story without a list, it tells a story with images and valued memories of survivors and witnesses. The soundtrack included songs that were popular on that day in 1966 as well as a haunting, classical piece that the shooter had enjoyed playing on the piano.

Taking a local story and pulling global or universal threads from it was a common element at the conference. I attended a session on the current geopolitical problems in the South China Sea. This small shipping lane is at the heart of a territorial power conflict between six nations: China, clearly the most powerful and most inclined to use resources to assert control, and the five smaller countries of Vietnam, the Phillipines, Maylasia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Foreign policy driven by economic interests, rising nationalism, and politicians who like power and want to keep it was the focal points of the panel. It is a regional tension that involves cargo passage for five trillion dollars in trade.  That much money will make any situation global.

Exploring the politics of the South China Sea is not something I can do on a daily basis. The pages of notes that I wrote from this session and others like it are not something that I will immediately apply in my work.  What is its value?  Why did Peace Jam make this opportunity happen for me?

I work in Syracuse at an agency called InterFaith Works, which is also a Cooperation Circle member of the United Religions Initiative.  We are small, but I feel that we do a few things very well.  We facilitate interfaith harmony events and roundtable discussions, host dialogue dinner circles about interfaith and racial harmony, provide social services to low-income elders, and resettle refugees into our community through our Center for New Americans. I serve as a social worker in the refugee program. In welcoming refugees, I have met some of the strongest, most interesting people on the planet.  They come from countries all over the world, and it is their local politics that turned them into refugees at the mercy of what global benevolence can be garnered.

I take back to my job what I have learned at the Conference of World Affairs. I work daily with people tragically affected by the brutal regime of ISIS, who were born as a part of a group that was targeted for ethnic cleansing, or who tried to survive in the chaotic, ungoverned spaces created by collapsed governments. I represent folks who have worked to raise their families (or, in far too many sad instances, raised themselves) in a lawless land.  I will use what I have learned to have a greater understanding of the human experience and a greater understanding of the world in which they and I strive to peacefully exist.

I am so incredibly grateful to Peace Jam for this opportunity.  The conference, at once, pushed me into the world to think critically about it and also gave me a safe space to think creatively.

If you would like to get involved in interfaith work and/or the United Religions Initiative, click here to find the Cooperation Circle nearest you.