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Peacemaking Through Service

Learning an effective way to have faith and heal after hate

Dec. 20, 2016
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In this time of deep polarization, how often do you engage folks with whom you disagree? Truly engage with them and recognize their humanity—not fight with them, cut them out of your life or troll them on the Internet?

Now think about this: When is the last time you served someone, made a sacrifice for someone, with whom you absolutely disagree?

Engaging and serving and finding the humanity in your enemy has to be done if we’re going to build a stronger, more peaceful and inclusive community.

And an unlikely pairing of Milwaukee activists is showing us how it can be done.

‘It’s Up to Us’

Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis are such close friends they can finish each other’s sentences and crack each other up in a heartbeat. But they’ve only known each other for four years, when a mass murder brought them together.

Kaleka, a former Milwaukee police officer turned therapist, is the son of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. On Aug. 5, 2012, the elder Kaleka and five others were murdered by a white supremacist, Wade Page. Another member of the temple was paralyzed; an Oak Creek police officer was gravely injured.

At the time, the killing of the innocent Sikhs was the worst racially motivated mass murder in the U.S. since Ku Klux Klan members killed four African American girls in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. It took less than three years for the terrible Oak Creek milestone to be surpassed, when Dylann Roof murdered nine African American members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. (Roof was convicted last week.)

Right after his father and fellow Sikhs were murdered, Kaleka says the temple members and families held strong as they coped in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

“We were just trying to put a brave face on for people,” Kaleka said. “We knew right away that we can’t let them win, whoever ‘them’ was. But at the same time, you do have to face reality.”

As he tried to cope with the enormity of his loss, Kaleka searched for answers.

“What we wanted to know was what happened, where did it happen, why did it happen?” Kaleka said. “But we weren’t getting a lot of answers because the shooter was dead. Then the FBI was tight lipped about their part, the Oak Creek Police Department was tight lipped about their part. So it was like man, somebody explain to me what the hell happened? I kind of knew but I wanted someone to explain it to me. And I wanted to know what to do about it.”

Lacking information from law enforcement, he turned to his network of allies. Through the global think tank Against Violent Extremism, he was connected with Michaelis, a former white supremacist in Milwaukee whose old life was filled with hatred, violence and chaos. As detailed in a 2010 Shepherd profile, Michaelis left his old life in the mid-’90s after becoming a dad and wanting a better life for his daughter that was far removed from hatred and violence. He also received a number of random acts of kindness, including being told by an African American cashier who saw the swastika tattoo on his finger, “You’re better than that.” Michaelis slowly had a change of heart, wrote his memoirs (My Life After Hate) and devoted his life to practicing peace, forgiveness and tolerance.

On Monday, the cable network A&E announced that beginning Jan. 10, 2017, Michaelis will be featured in its new eight-part series, “Generation KKK,” in which he and two other anti-hate activists encourage Klan members to leave the white power movement.

Kaleka and Michaelis hit it off immediately.

“We sat down and talked and realized that we have way more in common than we have different,” Kaleka said. “I didn’t know at the time how much that first meeting was going to impact us going forward, four years later.”

Michaelis said he’d experienced tremendous guilt over the Sikh murders. He wondered if he’d recruited or known Page—he didn’t—but felt sickened over murders committed by someone in his former white power gang, the Hammerskin Nation. He also felt conflicted by doing interviews on violent extremism when the invitations were the result of the deaths of innocent people.

“I told him I feel bad, I feel like I’m profiting from talking about your dad and talking about these other people,” Michaelis said. “And Par said, ‘I don’t want you to ever stop talking about my dad. It’s up to us to transform this into something that’s going to counter the hate and violence that made this happen. If we don’t talk about it, we’re not going to do that.’”

Kaleka invited Michaelis to speak with him at Cudahy High School in December 2012. The feedback was phenomenal. They continued speaking but wanted to find a way to put their ideas about nonviolence into action. Enter Serve 2 Unite.

‘Serve Water to Our Enemy’

To understand Serve 2 Unite’s work with youth, you have to understand Kaleka and Michaelis’ approach to peacemaking. Both are highly intelligent, passionate and able to talk about esoteric religious and philosophical concepts in depth as thoughtfully as they can discuss the latest dumb memes circulated by Internet trolls. They’re quick to laugh and eager to swat down preconceived notions about peacemaking, politics and whatever else is preventing us from seeing each other as human beings with shared interests that bind us.

For Kaleka, overcoming hatred and trauma is rooted in service, including serving those with whom we disagree, which is an important principle for Sikhs. As Kaleka explained it, even during battle we must “serve water to our enemy.”

Kaleka, who earned a master’s degree in community psychology from Alverno College this past summer and provides trauma-informed counseling at D&S Healing Center on Port Washington Road, said that lesson can be applied to today’s conflicts, whether it’s protesting the incoming Trump administration, dealing with a bully or trying to talk to those with radically different viewpoints.

“We can battle, we can protest, but at the same time serve, too,” Kaleka said. “That’s not saying we’re compromising or we’re going against our beliefs. Your beliefs are your beliefs. They are going to stick with you. But you’re basically planting the seeds. And with that seed even if that person doesn’t agree with you—well, here’s a cup of tea. Are you thirsty? That seed will go with that person wherever they go.”

Michaelis said small doses of kindness can ultimately change hardened hatred into love. It did, for him, back when he was covered in white power tattoos and suffering inside.

“The more random acts of kindness that are out there the better the chances that the horrible person who is suffering is being reached,” said Michaelis, now a practicing Buddhist. “And I wholeheartedly believe that had Wade Page experienced the right act of kindness at the right time that could have prevented [the temple shooting] from happening.”

Serve 2 Unite reflects their paths to peace. The organization—which was founded in the aftermath of the temple shooting by Kaleka and other young professionals from the temple—helps young people become leaders and peacemakers through the arts and being of service to others.

“There’s definitely a need for youth, and for everybody, to be heard and to be recognized and to grow from even their bad experiences and trauma,” Kaleka said.

For Michaelis, Serve 2 Unite provides a positive way to counter the kind of hate he used to revel in.

“What we are doing, bringing all of these kids together with different backgrounds, is like the worst blow you could deal to my old buddies, to the Wade Pages of the world who killed Par’s dad and five other people on August 5,” said Michaelis, who is Serve 2 Unite’s facilitator. “Coming at them with more violence or aggression is what they’re trying to provoke. But if you respond to them by bringing little black, white, yellow, red and brown kids together and getting them to work together and see each other as human beings and love each other and care for each other, that is far and away the most devastating blow you can deal them.”

Serve 2 Unite launched a pilot program in 2013 in two Milwaukee Public Schools—Fernwood Montessori in Bay View and Westside Academy 2 on the near North Side—but as a project of the nonprofit Arts@Large it’s grown to establish chapters in 10 MPS schools with additional chapters in other schools. Now, more than 600 student leaders participate in Serve 2 Unite per year.

Teri Sullivan, founder and CEO of Arts@Large, said Serve 2 Unite isn’t always interested in selecting established student leaders to participate in school chapters.

“We’re looking for emerging leaders,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking for those students who may not be as engaged, but through this program become so involved and so engaged that they become dramatic leaders in their schools, promoting peace not only in their school but globally. We really are looking to build their skills as leaders in their school community as well as in the greater Milwaukee community.”

In addition to creating a peaceful, inclusive school community, Serve 2 Unite also connects its student leaders to global mentors who’ve coped with the impact of violence in their lives. These 18 global mentors include former Islamist extremists, peace activists and the mother of a victim of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. They Skype with the Milwaukee students to discuss tough topics and, on occasion, visit.

Last Thursday, during the frigid polar vortex, Los Angeles-based Serve 2 Unite global mentor Dydine Umunyana launched her memoir, Embracing Survival, about living through the 1994 Rwandan genocide and making sense of its aftermath, with discussions at three MPS schools and a book signing at Arts@Large’s Walkers Point gallery. Embracing Survival’s cover is a reprint of a piece of art created by Serve 2 Unite’s student leaders at Washington High School of Information Technology. The artwork is made of patches of denim, in honor of Denim Day, which promotes awareness of sexual violence. The student artists also made denim portraits of other women of influence: tech activist Vivian Graubard, Queen Rania of Jordan, actor and women’s rights activist Emma Watson and Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai.

At her book signing at Arts@Large’s gallery, Umunyana spoke movingly about how dehumanization of “the other” led to a horrific genocide, in which 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days by Hutu extremists. More personally, the emotional trauma impacted Umunyana and her family for years, until she found healing by forgiving those who committed the atrocities.

“Not every child is going to see themselves in Dydine or her story but maybe you might see some of yourself in someone else by understanding the journey that they took,” Kaleka explained. “The inspiration for getting global mentors into these classrooms is to say no, you’re not all alone. These problems are different but at the same time they do have similarities to what you are going through. There’s some healing, there’s some hurt, there’s some pain.”

‘Bring This Challenge’

Kaleka and Michaelis are uniquely positioned to understand this moment in our culture. Both deeply understand the impact of hatred and violence, bullying and division, peacemaking and personal transformation, on a very intimate level. They say that protesting bad ideas has a role in bringing about change, but it’s more important to find the humanity in someone we oppose, plant seeds of peace and become a positive force in the world.

Kaleka said it’s vital to connect to those we oppose to learn more about them and try to build bridges, but warns that it’s going to get messy before it gets better.

“Part of me looks forward to the next four years,” Kaleka said. “Part of me is like bring this challenge. Because in the ’60s, people changed civil rights laws and they fought tooth and nail to do that. It wasn’t convenient and it wasn’t pretty. But we didn’t change essential mindsets. This is our turn. This is our generation’s turn to say OK, what are we going to do with those mindsets? At the same time, all of those discussions need to happen with people we disagree cold-heartedly with.”

Michaelis said it’s essential to see beyond labels that divide us and not feed into the kind of confrontation that so many people are seeking these days just to get attention. For example, he said, a bully has the potential to be a leader and a positive influence on others if they’re given a chance to do something positive. And building connections is the best way to bust myths that keep us separated, he said. He recalled being on the phone with someone who was spewing hate about Muslims—at the same time he was helping Messmer Catholic High School Serve 2 Unite student leaders and members of local mosques to organize food and clothing drives for homeless vets. He said the act of charity ultimately will have a greater impact than the hateful rhetoric.

“Do something for someone who needs help and get everybody together in on it and let that speak,” Michaelis said. “To me that’s protest. That’s saying what’s happening is wrong.”

Kaleka said that despite the dangers a Trump presidency poses to the most vulnerable in our society, he’s optimistic about the future.

“Trumpism, and everything that comes with it, is a challenge that we’re facing,” Kaleka said. “I feel like people are up to this challenge. You’ve got to realize that the other person is hurting and there’s a lot of stuff behind that and then ask yourself, ‘How do I help them?’”

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