Orland Bishop appears to be on a fool’s errand – the kind of fool’s errand our next American president may feel she (or he) is on when trying to heal the terrible rift exposed by this election.
Bishop’s chosen patch to spread the word is Watts, a district in southern Los Angeles where the war between the main gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, has claimed five times as many lives as did all the years of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The very name of the district has become synonymous with the most extreme face of racial discrimination in America. In the ongoing dialogue between the races in America, Watts is the place where no one is doing much listening.
Nevertheless, it is here, in this No Man’s Land, where Orland Bishop’s work is all about teaching young rival black gang members how to communicate with each other.
I see you
Bishop has traveled extensively through Western and Southern Africa, studying with Zulu tribal elders. When he returned to America, Bishop brought back with him a means of relating embodied in the Zulu greeting, “Sawubona.”
Although usually translated as “I see you” (and made famous by the N’avi in the film Avatar), Sawubona literally means “we see you,” and the correct response is “Yabo sawubona” – “Yes, we see you, too.”
As Bishop puts it, “Seeing is a dialogue,” an act of bearing witness and an obligation to participate. You bear witness to something that includes your own presence and that of the other.
“It’s an invitation for us to participate in each other’s life,” he says. “It also obligates one to support the other – to give to each other what is needed for that moment of life to be enhanced.”
I am you
This sounds something akin to the African concept of ubuntu — which, from its literal meaning “I am because you are,” suggests that, as co-creators of each other — both observer and observed — we have a commitment to provide to the other what is needed at that moment – whether food, water, or the deepest level of support.
“Through ‘Sawubona,’” says Bishop, “we are capable of experiencing the quality of another without judgment or prejudice shaped by our thoughts. Sawubona is an openness to the highest good in a person.”
Bishop invites the young men to engage in indaba, which is loosely translated as “deep talk,” moving past superficiality to the deepest truth of who they are and what they dream for.
Bishop holds five-day residential retreats in northern California, deliberately moving young members of both gangs away from familiar territory and using ceremonies and rituals to shake the young men out of their ordinary patterns of behavior.
He asks the group provocative questions — “When did you begin to feel exiled from any chance to be what you really wanted to be part of?” — to spur the young men to share their personal histories. Most are shocking, and the young people still very raw from them.
“Often a wound drives a young person to the gang experience, “says Bishop. “They think they need an enemy to be themselves.”
When you share this deeply, as he suggests, you find the common ground of the space between you – the place of your common humanity. “Shared meaning,” says Bishop, “allows for different perceptions – or realities – to exist together.”
Bishop coaches the young men in the art of speaking and listening deeply and from the heart — without being critical or judgmental. During this type of deep sharing, the pull of wholeness builds trust and loosens their attachments to entrenched positions.
The very intensity of the experience lends itself to the establishment of new alliances and a larger vision for the future. “They begin to understand that, if they unite in creativity, they expand,” he says.
For the last decade, Bishop has worked on helping the Crips and the Bloods craft a future that they both can share, and his organization, ShadeTree, includes a number of young men who were in rival gangs now working together.
Similarly, in Guayaguil, Nelsa Libertad Curbelo Cora, a peace worker with young gang members in Guayaguil, Ecuador’s version of Watts,
has taught young people in street gangs to transform this need for connection into “the power of service, life and love” to a struggling community.
Gang members have learned to channel their impulses for creativity and need for recognition away from violence and into small businesses: printing businesses, music studios, pizzerias.
The Barrio is now known as Barrio de Paz — Peace Town.
One of the most revolutionary acts you can do for your country today is to approach someone of the opposite political party, ask them to tell you their story of why they came to believe what they believe, and truly listen to what they have to say.
And then watch the walls between you tumble down, as you find that space between – that holds your common humanity.