In his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action.” In this webinar, part one of a two-part series, WBI alumni Uneeda Brewer and Stephen Redmon speak with Caroline Kohles, Senior Director of Health and Wellness at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, about what it means to take action in today’s world, more than half a century later.
Uneeda has more than 25 years of experience coaching individuals to improve their personal effectiveness and ability to work well with diverse colleagues, and consulting with teams and organizations to improve outcomes and employee satisfaction. Stephen is a yoga teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, holds degrees in both environmental and military law, and retired in 2018 from his position as a special assistant to the general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline: Uneeda and Steven are going to facilitate an interactive dialogue on how, in these chaotic times, it’s important to activate hope and choose actions that move us toward a more just society. Together, we will explore the action each of us can take to co-create a beloved community, the just and equitable multiracial democracy for which Dr. King fought and gave his life.
Uneeda: In 1967, as the civil rights movement was going through a different phase, Dr. King said, Where do we go from here? Do we go toward more chaos that we’ve experienced throughout our history? Or do we really keep working for community, because it’s not magic, it requires work. And what we invite you to do is put yourself in this picture—you’re standing here, you have a choice. Do you choose to go toward community? Or do you choose to go toward chaos? Now it might seem obvious, of course, I’m going to choose toward community. But here’s the thing. Acting is the way to be choiceful. Because being silent in these times, is, in a way, being complicit with the chaos. And I’m not looking at anyone. What I’m saying is the reality is that in order to build community, we have to act. And Stephen and I are both committed to doing that ourselves. And we want to encourage you and invite you to get the act bug. This quote, when Dr. King talks about action, what he’s talking about is nonviolent, direct action. That is a specific strategy. And it requires training and discipline. When I was about 16, I went to a training in our town for how do you respond in a nonviolent way to people yelling at you, screaming, attacking? And you know, if you think about the SPIRE model, where the spiritual purpose is, our S, that it is important for us to live from that center of spiritual and morality.
Stephen: The way Dr. King put it both in his book, this nonviolent, direct action is a practice, it’s a day-to-day, moment-to-moment thing. Right now, everyone that’s on this line, we are all participating in nonviolent direct action. Just this collaboration, itself, is nonviolent, direct action. When we act in a nonviolent way, we’re respecting other people, we do no harm, and macro and micro actions count. So it’s not one size fits all. So if you’re thinking about yourself, and you say, what are my strengths, how might I activate my ability to act, that’s exactly where we want you to be.
There was a lot going on in the first phase of the civil rights movement. And Dr. King says the first phase, from 1955 to 1966 or 67, was about dignity, for African Americans to be treated as citizens of the United States, not second class, where there were no public accommodations, there were no ability to aspire and achieve what was the potential inside of any person. … We hope that if you stay with us through this presentation, you will be encouraged, and your ability to envision yourself acting will be encouraged because you are acting right now. Because we know that having all of our feelings, and then experiencing them, and working through them, allows us to heal and regenerate. So thank you for that.
And one thing that I was going to add is that, like in 1967, making a choice to be that light and to do this direct action is actually people are threatening others with violence. Just by standing up, just by being a light, just by collaborating and distinguishing yourself from chaos, is drawing attention, sometimes violent attention, to you. So, like in 1967, it requires courage at this juncture that we’re at. It took a lot of work and discipline, including assassinations—there are so many people who died there, we can’t even list their names. And out of that chaos, and that focus and those collaborations and alliances—because, you know, there were multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational, multi-geographic coalitions of people working together for freedom and equality—[came the] ’64 Civil Rights Act, ’64 Voting Rights Act. And then, no, we didn’t stop and say, oh, my goodness, we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to do, phase one. And when Dr. King wrote the book, the question was being asked, Where do we go from here? After all this? And so his challenge and his wisdom was, we always have a choice.
It may be that some people say, Yes, I’m going to protest. And there may be other people who say, for example, I want to write a letter to my Congressman, that’s my nonviolent direct action. I want my voice heard in concert with others. So we’re not offering any proscription for what needs to be done. We’re saying, we know that in order to build community, we need to work together to take action. What Dr. King suggests and what we also know is that to bring about social change—to go from injustice and lack of equality to equality and social justice—is not just about law, because laws don’t implement themselves. People implement laws. And so what gets in the way of people? Either being willing to say yes to equality and social justice, or to actually help implement it. And, Caroline, we were speaking earlier about the prison of fear.
Caroline: That’s what Tara Brach, who’s a wonderful meditation teacher in the DC area, talks about: When human beings are afraid, they get dangerous. And there was a recent article in the Sociological Association about why people have these beliefs in conspiracy theories, and one of the reasons that they do apparently is because when we get afraid, we instantly want to blame others, or that’s one response. To put the blame on something makes us feel like we have a way to contain it, or control it. So it stems from this lack of certainty, this lack of safety, which is a basic need, and that one of the things that we really need to be careful of is, how do we mitigate our own fear, so that we stay open to possibility right in our brain, and we can see options. Stephen, I wanted you to talk about that from a mindfulness point of view, and from a yoga point of view, how that practice helps us be in choice, right? All of the time to choose the nonviolent way. When we get triggered by fear, I think the temptation to act in an angry way is greater.
Stephen: Fear is actually an acronym for “false evidence appearing real.” And at every given moment, there are far more wonderful, healing, positive, and beautiful things going on in the world. I’ll use an example—growing up in Harlem, in the late ’50s, early ’60s and ’70s, on any given day, there were children all practicing their instruments going to church or community groups, but none of that hit the news. All it would take is maybe one out of 10,000 of black males, say in the community that does something negative and that would be on the news, okay? So all of us have to keep in mind that when media highlights any particular thing, in your community, in your household, in your relationships, there are [also] wonderful things occurring. So we have to keep that in mind—not to ignore the horrendous, horrific, and violent things that are going on, but we have to also take time to appreciate and have gratitude about the beauty, the collaboration, and the wonder and the miracles that are occurring in every given moment.
Uneeda: Thank you for that. And to add on to what you’re saying, Dr. King says this in 1967. He says, just what you said in the ghetto, there are families working hard to get their kids to school, there are churches, there are societies, that we need to expand our conception of what is going on. And again, I invite the question that I have adopted now from Dr. [Dan] Tomasulo: What else might be possible? What other way might I think about this? And if I don’t have another way, how might I learn something that would enlarge my awareness and understanding? What else might be true?
When we talk about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we stop at the place where wow, they won the right to sit on the bus. It took a year but they were persistent. Wasn’t that wonderful? Guess what happened after that? Dr. King, who was living in Montgomery and pastoring a church, had a shotgun fired at his house that same year. In December, Christmas Eve, a black teenager was attacked as she was walking up a newly integrated bus. Two buses were fired on by snipers. In 1957, the beginning of the year, five bombs destroyed five churches and the home of a white man who had publicly supported the boycott. The city passed an ordinance that prohibited [activities] and I think the ordinance probably must be 25 pages because they listed everything that you could possibly do. You can’t play basketball, football, baseball, soccer, tennis, indoor outdoor walking … And Mrs. Parks had to move away from Montgomery, she moved up to Detroit, because she was threatened. I’m not saying this to depress you. I’m saying this to activate your hope. Because what Dr. King says and what we know, is that isn’t the end because accommodations are integrated in Montgomery. But the immediate backlash was fierce. And Dr. King reminds us that it’s not, it isn’t really white backlash. It is that these negative, prejudiced, bigoted feelings are in our culture. Sometimes they’re latent. Sometimes they’re more visible. Nevertheless, they’re there. The tension from seeking equality brings them to the surface. And guess what? That is really good news because now we know what we’re dealing with.
Stephen: I wanted to add something that I think might resonate with the Jewish Community Center as well as African Americans and people of color. And that is the concept of being aware of complicity and collaboration with whatever is going on. I remember going to the Holocaust Museum when it first opened up over 25 years ago. If you haven’t gone there, it’s something that I think that everyone should go to. But it took that museum about 25 years or more, to do an exhibit called “Complicity and Collaboration in the Holocaust.” Why do I bring that up? I bring that up because, like with the things we’re struggling with, with social justice, and justice for all, everyone has to take a look at what we are doing or not doing. Look at our investments, look at what times we’ve been silent, what times we haven’t been introspective enough, or when we’ve decided not to engage in direct action of some sort. And look at ourselves, even as an African American, even as a person of whatever faith, to say, what, if anything, are we doing that could potentially be complicit, or collaborative, in the very things that we say that we want to fight against? And that’s a question that each of us has to ask, where are we in terms of coming to grips and being critical about our own role in these things?
Uneeda: As people who are coming from a place of love and wanting justice, and using the power that we have for good, we do need to ask ourselves what might be possible, that would alleviate this bigotry, because underneath the disenfranchisement, if you’re walking around in the Capitol with a Confederate battle flag, you’re also saying something else, I feel disenfranchised. And I also subscribe to these values. And so what do we do? And I’m not asking because I have an answer. I am asking because we need to answer together the question, what do we do? How do we begin to alleviate this? And I am sad that I don’t have a magic wand that I can answer the question completely. But I hope we’ll keep talking about it so we can find an answer together.
When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, the first African American man, the backlash, the reaction [was] predictable, because it was present and it just came to the surface. And just yesterday, the man who amplified the false birther conspiracy from 2011 was impeached for the second time. And the dance that the two of them have done over this eight-, nine-year period is sad to experience, because our country could be moving forward as opposed to the kind of divisions and anger and disenfranchised feelings that erupt into violence and discord. And what our challenge and what Dr. King is saying is our challenge, is to be aware of the chaos, to see it, to understand it, and then to work through the way that we can strengthen and build community. [A listener is saying, they are tired…]
Stephen: I was in conversations that I have across race and religious lines and things like that, and we were talking about the issue of tea. And in a conversation that I had, today with another African American, we were both lamenting about how, as an African American or a person of color, sometimes we find ourselves saying, you know, if we’re continuing to stay vigilant in the midst of this as an African American, then anyone who’s going through this that isn’t a person of color, or say if you’re someone that is experiencing trauma from these things all the time—draw upon that strength. Because, you know, as the old Negro spiritual would go, “I ain’t no ways tired.” And so we have to keep in mind that no matter where we are on that continuum, just the fact that we’re on this line, there’s always going to be someone in the community that is suffering even more trauma. I just got back from Sierra Leone, in West Africa, and lived in some communities, and there are folks that are living on sometimes less than $1 a day, okay? I gained strength from that. These are some of the villages that I lived in when I was a Peace Corps volunteer 40 years ago, and I went back. And they don’t have an elementary school, in some of the villages that I was in just a few weeks ago. And as much as that tore at my heart, at their communities that don’t have even an elementary school for children, I gained strength from that. And so that’s one of the things that I will share with you that if you’re feeling tired, sometimes one of the things that you could do, in addition to prayer, is to be mindful and keep present. The fact that there are people that are suffering immediately with that breath, and you can take a deep breath yourself and say, Hey, I am no ways tired. I need to keep going through this. Because there are folks that are going through as we speak. And that’s just something I’m offering to you as one of an infinite number of ways to keep going through these difficult times.
Uneeda: This is the question that I’m hearing, and that we’re asking you. What can we do to transform ourselves? And what can we do to contribute to transforming our society? And there are a lot of wonderful comments in chat and we hope you’re going to keep talking about it. And next week, we’re going to spend more time in conversation.
Stephen: There’s no prescription in terms of what you can do. But the key thing is to challenge yourself and challenge your community instead of pointing a finger outward. When you’re pointing a finger outward—and I’ll pick someone here, when we’re looking at Trump—just keep in mind in pointing the finger at him, there are three fingers pointed at ourselves, okay? I’m not ignoring the fact that we’re pointing at someone like Trump. And those folks that stormed the Capitol last week, or the 80 million people that may have voted for Trump. But at any given moment, in every given breath, there are three fingers pointed at me, in terms of what Steve Redmond is doing, and each of us can stay mindful enough to know that we’re going to keep it within and also look at what we have to do.
[Participants move to breakout rooms.]
Uneeda: As someone said in the chat, there are people who are feeling disenfranchised, and living in chaos, and African Americans know what that’s like, we have felt that for almost all of our history in the United States, and there are other groups who felt that way, too. Disenfranchised. We want to strengthen the community so that people feel that they have a place in the circle of the society, the culture. The difficulty that we are always faced with is that underbelly of misogyny and prejudice and bigotry and fear. What do we do to help people? I don’t know what the right verb is. Dr. King said in his book, we can work with people who want to work with us, they don’t have to always be agreeing. But if someone is absolutely opposed to you being a part of the culture, you can’t really work with that person or that group, because the goals are diametrically opposed. So there is work to be done with them, but it may not be by us.
Uneeda Brewer has more than 25 years of experience coaching individuals to improve their personal effectiveness and ability to work well with diverse colleagues, and consulting with teams and organizations to improve outcomes and employee satisfaction. She retired from Johnson and Johnson, where she was responsible for one of the corporation’s global executive education programs. In 2019, her company, Accelerate Coaching and Consulting, LLC, was chosen by New College of Florida to design and deliver a series of workshops on diversity and inclusion for a campus climate initiative. She is a certified practitioner of psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is in the process of completing the requirements to become a trainer and educator in this field. Uneeda is a founding member of the recently organized Action Training for Social Change collective in the Tampa Bay area, which designs and delivers trainings for religious and community groups to help individuals and groups create and support social justice initiatives in their communities. Uneeda is enrolled in the Wholebeing Institute Positive Psychology Coach Certification Program and the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, and was trained as an executive and life coach in the Core Essentials Program provided by Coach U, Inc. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Goucher College and an MSW from Clark-Atlanta University School of Social Work in policy, planning, and administration.
Stephen T. Redmon, Ph.D., J.D., leads yoga retreats around the world through his business, Nomder Yoga. His speciality is helping people—often veterans—cope with trauma. A veteran himself, Stephen worked for the Department of Defense and then as special assistant to the general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs, from which he retired in 2018. Redmon holds many advanced certifications in yoga but originally taught himself yoga while an undergraduate as a way to overcome his own trauma from growing up in Harlem, surrounded by violence and rampant drug use. Redmon teaches yoga at George Washington University and believes there is a need for bringing people together across all types of racial, religious, and gender lines. He enjoys being a part of the healing for individuals and communities.
Stephen earned his B.A. from Colgate University and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He earned his J.D. law degree at North Carolina Central University School of Law, where he researched and developed the first edition of the Rules of Court for the Cherokee Indian Tribal Court. Stephen earned a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in Environmental Law at Pace University School of Law and an LL.M. in Military Law from the J.A.G. Legal Center at University of Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. from Fielding Graduate University in human and organizational systems. Inspired by his commitment for national service and national security after the tragic events of September 11, he completed his M.S. in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and taught graduate-level courses at DIA on the law of intelligence.