A Celebration of US Protest Signs

How do we fight for peace? In my last article, I spent a lot of time discussing the value of the inner aspects of peace activism. Those elements are totally important, yes, but I feel called to celebrate organized peaceful protest as well. This comes on the heels of the the US Women’s March, which saw as many as three times the number of participants as the presidential inauguration. Simply joining together en masse makes an unmistakable statement.

So in honor of the peaceful, outward manifestations of protest, let’s celebrate one of the most visible aspects of modern political activism: the protest sign.

The protest sign is such a powerful icon for marchers fighting to improve human rights and policy issues because it offers a succinct and memorable synopsis of the issue at hand. And oftentimes it serves to humanize and individualize the marcher. Just take a look at these protest signs from the 1960s. It doesn’t hurt that these bite-sized sentiments can be captured with a single flash of a camera.  

Here are some classic signs from the recent US history:

“3 Words that will Save the Economy: Gay Bridal Registry”

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Gay Marriage Rally 2014 via The Huffington Post

“Refugees are More Heavily Vetted than Trump’s Cabinet!”

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Immigration March 2017 via Bet

“Keep your Filthy Laws off my Silky Drawers”

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Women’s March 2017 via Slate

“Not Usually a Sign Guy but Geez.”

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Women’s March 2017 via USA Today

Of course protest signs are more than your typical handheld sandwich signs. As we recently learned through Greenpeace’s post-inauguration “Resist demonstration, sometimes you need a big sign in order to make a big statement. Large-scale signs can make a bold statement from cranes, storefronts, and freeway overpasses. They serve as semi-permanent reminders of one’s resistance, a well-made sign can be like street art, and embodies support for a cause beyond just an individual. That is to say, by hanging a protest banner in your storefront, you’re saying that everyone involved in the business supports the cause. That sort of statement is rarely seen these days — perhaps PC Principal is to blame, eh hem? — but making a statement as a collective, when the sentiments expressed are true for everyone involved, has a hugely powerful impact.

Now, just a quick PSA for anyone thinking about using a large sign as a protest element.To hang a big sign, a person usually has to climb somewhere very high.  Every year, 500,000 people go to the doctor for ladder-related injuries. The causes behind these accidents are all totally preventable — picking the right kind of ladder, setting it up at a decent angle (76 degrees), avoiding old rickety ladders, and for goodness sake don’t stand on the top rung. It might sound trite, but it’s a real concern. We all want you to live another day to hold another protest sign.

Since we’re being practical here, it’s worth noting that some states actually have regulations on protest signs. They can’t regulate what the signs say, obviously –thank you first amendment — but they can regulate what the signs are made of. It’s purely for safety insofar as I can tell. Generally speaking, protest signs really don’t need wood, metal, or PVC pipe handles. And if the lack of those materials eases tensions over the concern that they might be used as weapons, all the better. The aim is peaceful protest, no matter what.

Whether you’re marching in an organized event or hanging a statement of protest from the window of a local business, be proud. You are making a change. And who knows, if your sign hits a nerve and speaks to the people, maybe history will remember your individual voice and fight.  

Peace Activism and the Local Movement

As the global society grows more and more entangled in unsavory political, economic, and war-based national policies, the citizens of the world are finding it imperative to make our voices heard. We will not stand for the atrocities being committed by governments that supposedly exist to organize, protect, and serve their peoples. The war culture of militarized nations has bled out into the oceans, mountains, cities, towns, and forests of the world, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and destroying the environment one factory and one bomb at a time.

In our efforts to fight against falling deeper into a reality where war and aggression are accepted truths, there are two clear courses of action: the masculine and the feminine. They’re both equally important and equally as useful in bettering the world. Whether you’re a man or woman, you have both of these aspects at play within you, and the task of a balanced peace activist is to use both in conjunction.

The masculine path is that of direct political action. It means taking part in invaluable events like protest rallies and civil rights marches. It means putting yourself out there and speaking out against specific injustices you see in the world.

The feminine path is more inward. It’s about nurturing compassion within ourselves and using that as a tool for change in our local communities and environments. It draws upon the wisdom of civilizations who have come before, the ones who lived peacefully in communion with the natural world and with their neighbors.

I don’t mean to romanticize these cultures as relics of history either. Many peaceful societies still exist in today’s modern world. The State of Pennsylvania, for example, has a substantial Amish community — a culture lauded for being community-oriented and eschewing most modern technologies. One Amish family leaped into the modern commercial era by utilizing traditional Amish craftsmanship to build and sell structures to non-Amish homeowners. They were surprised at the demand for their work, and now they have a thriving business.

Appreciating and subsequently sharing the story of local ingenuity is a first step toward broadening one’s definition of nationalism. We can feel pride not only for our friends successes, but for the successes of people we hardly know. The feeling of pride is simply the recognition that they are doing something good for the planet; we’re all equally invested in that. If all our local communities, and subsequently nations, could come together and support one another, the work of peace activists would be all but complete.

Focusing on our local communities presents us with fertile ground to practice compassion for all things, and to spread peace in a subtle yet powerful grassroots way.  If small business owners, those most immediately dependent upon the local movement, took the simplest of steps to conserve energy, the entire community would reap the rewards. It bolsters a community’s sense of self-worth when their downtown is clean, green, and shows care for the planet. Whether a retailer or a consumer, involvement in local business is a way to make sure we’re walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Moving away from commerce for a moment. Sometimes peace activism works on a level even more subtle than how a person interacts with their community. Sometimes change is entirely reliant upon self-reflection. One of my favorite examples of local activism that gave people the opportunity to first reflect upon their own intrinsic biases took place during the disability rights movement. The movement was broken down into addressing these three barriers:

  1. Attitudinal Barriers — low social expectations, bullying, and even cultural shunning
  2. Environmental Barriers — natural or constructed barriers, stairs for example, that separate a person with a disability from participating in everyday activities
  3. Institutional Barriers — laws and policies that discriminate against people with disabilities

Before any fully-abled activists could fight for the equal rights of their disabled brethren, they had to reflect upon who exactly they were fighting against. Who was it that was oppressing people with disabilities? After a period of mindful contemplation, more often than not the answer to that question was, “I am. I am oppressing the disabled a) simply by thinking of them as disabled and b) because I just didn’t see their struggle until now.” It’s similar to the revelation of privilege by many white North Americans during the Black Lives Matter campaign of 2016.

Thanks to the hard work of disability rights activists, the Americans with Disabilities Act now prohibits discrimination in the areas of “employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities” because of a person’s disability. It also established regulations — like building ramps and placing a handrail 34 to 38 inches above a staircase — so that a person was no longer intrinsically excluded from day-to-day activities because of a physical limitation.

You never can tell how change will best be enacted. Sometimes it’s through widespread peaceful demonstration and sometimes vociferous protest. Protest is an integral part of peace activism. But if we only know how to make change through external organized force, and never practice peaceful compassion inwardly, then there will be no such thing as peace in our time. We simply wouldn’t know what to do with the peace once we had it.

So instead of separating our tactics into “sometimes” this and “sometimes” that, we’d be best served to bring them together. There’s no better place to start than in your local community.

Kick Consumerism, Give Peace

The way North Americans celebrate the holidays has inspired scrutiny for decades now, ever since big retailers realized they could capitalize on the tradition of holiday gift giving.

Ho-ho-ho, give us your money.

On a personal level, the holidays are a celebration of joy, abundance, and community. But the outer manifestation of all that? Shopping in busy stores where people shove, snark, and spend money like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve worked holiday retail for over a decade, and trust me, the whole thing is icky. There’s something incongruous between the reason we give gifts and the way we give gifts.

There are groups of consumerist rebels in North America who are taking the notion of holiday gift-giving into their own hands. We’ll call them the Do-it-Yourself Movement. In some cases they handmake their gifts, but to be a part of this movement one doesn’t need to be terribly crafty. Their goal is simple, instead of being enchanted by the festive promotional hype of big box stores, these people simply use creative means to get to the heart of the matter: What is the purpose of a gift?

When we push aside the glitzy, twinkling lights of holiday shopping, gift-giving at its core is an offering of peace and joy to someone we love. The problem comes when we get stuck in our heads. We panic. Maybe they won’t like just any gift, maybe they’ll only like the gadgets they have on their amazon wishlists or they’ve seen on TV.

A good gift is something that adds peace to life of the receiver. Here are a few creative ways to go about spreading peace this holiday season through the gifts you give.

 

Upcycle

 

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Sometimes the best gifts are the most unexpected. The kind that someone has thought about for months, carefully collecting all the materials and creating a gift with one person in mind.

To avoid the mayhem of giant craft stores, plan your DIY presents ahead of time and use materials from around the house. Even something as mundane as a glass jar or bottle can become a terrarium, lamp, or hummingbird feeder. Upcycling is not only fun, but it infuses everyday materials with a personalized creative edge.

Also, it’s simply good for the world. Who doesn’t like receiving a gift that was made just for them, and didn’t have to be mass produced by children in a sweatshop?

 

The Gift of Meditation

 

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Give someone you care about a gift certificate to a meditation class led by a local teacher. The gift of a meditation class is a way to quite literally gift peace.The benefits are far-reaching — both in terms of inner peace and in terms of being of benefit to the world.

Not only does a regular meditation practice help a student learn to let go of all the background noise one encounters in day-to-day life, but the community fostered in a meditation class is a gift in and of itself.

Remember. Sitting meditation isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. If the person you’re thinking of for this gift has trouble sitting for long periods of time, don’t forget that meditation takes many forms. Walking meditation, tai chi, yoga, and mindful breathing all have the same benefits.

 

The Gift of a Good Story

 

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In this technological age, people are becoming more and more adept at multitasking and skimming through huge amounts of data to glean important takeaways. Sounds like work, doesn’t it?

This holiday season, give your loved ones the gift of stories. Give them books.

Paper bound books, those low-tech Kindles of olde, give modern readers the rare opportunity to practice what’s called “deep reading.” If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s because there didn’t use to be a term for it; it was simply called “reading.” But our collective neural pathways seem to be changing to meet the needs of the technological age. There’s a real difference between how we read on paper and how we read on a screen. On a screen we flit from paragraph to paragraph in order to consume as much of the information as quickly as we can, but on paper we move down the page in a steady, linear way.

Books offer us relief from flitting. This focus lets a reader feel fully immersed in a world, in characters, and in new points of view. That’s the definition of compassion if I’ve ever heard it. Not bad for one measly Christmas gift.   

The anti-consumerist movement is not only great for the people who are receiving gifts this holiday season, but it’s got the fringe benefit of being awesome for gift-givers as well. By kicking the idea of the traditionally-hyped shopping season to the curb, buyers give themselves the gift of avoiding the madness of the retail holiday.

There’s nothing wrong with spending money on those you love, the focus is simply that it be spent mindfully in ways that support personal peace, local peace, and global peace. Happy holidays!

3 Simple Ways to be a Mindful Neighbor This Winter

It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

You wake up in the morning to a cold house. You hold your breath as your toes hit the frigid floor. You shuffle to your meditation cushion and wrap yourself in the warmest blanket in the house. Light a stick of incense. Shiver.

It’s meditation time.

A half-hour passes and you ring a singing bowl to close your morning sit. You crank up the heat or light a fire in the woodstove. You hear the rumble of the train passing by and the rhythmic scrape of the neighbor shoveling his sidewalk. The phone rings, the cat meows for food; it’s time to get on with the day.

Once we step away from the cushion in the morning, the world comes rushing in. It’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

We all strive to integrate mindfulness and meditation practice into our daily lives. Our families, friends, and neighbors are the most influenced by our ability to bridge the gap between our highest selves and our nitty-gritty, day to day selves. These two aspects are of course a part of the same being, but it often takes a bit of extra mindfulness to bring them into harmony.

This winter, I challenge you to bring that extra mindfulness to your neighbors. Whether you live in a suburban mansion, city apartment, or rural hut, we all have neighbors and we all have to learn to navigate the sometimes difficult relationships and boundaries inherent in sharing space.

Cold weather and holiday festivities only amplify the need.

Here are just a few things you can do this winter to be a more mindful neighbor and put the peace you achieve during your meditation practice to work in the real world.

Lend a hand

Winter is a time when the natural world gives us plenty of trials and tribulations to overcome. From Seattle’s 2008 Snowpocalypse to DC’s Snowmageddon, global warming has made winter weather events more of a handful than ever.

In big snow cities like Boston, neighbors are more than familiar with how to help one another out when weather gets tough. They help each other shovel, they lend a hand with repairs, and they check up on one another after a big storm. In my mind this makes up for the seemingly harsh, but oh so necessary, practice of saving one’s freshly shoveled-out streetside parking spot with a lawn chair.

Winter isn’t just snow either. Hail storms can be extremely damaging to property, and often neighbors walking by are the first ones to notice damage. Hail can range anywhere from pea-sized to as large as 4.5 inches, resulting in damaged roofs, vehicles, and land. If you see a neighbor who has taken on major hail damage, offer to help them get it appraised and restored.   

If there’s a big winter storm, push your shovel the extra few feet down the sidewalk and save your neighbor the effort. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it. And who knows, maybe someday they’ll return the favor.

Check-up on the elderly

If you have elderly neighbors, get to know them and stop by every once in awhile for a visit. It’s always good for them to know that someone has their back.

At a societal level, the top concerns of an elder care social worker is to be a senior’s advocate, community resource, and to be conscious of their health and safety needs. A caring neighbor can do all of that and more.

Just knowing that someone is keeping an eye out for a senior can save them all sorts of worry.

Let them know to call you if the heater stops working, if their driveway needs de-icing, or if they need help bringing their recycling bins to the curb. Make yourself available.

Relationships with senior neighbors can be of benefit even if they move out of your neighborhood. Many seniors who go to nursing homes in later life find themselves in a position with no one to advocate for them. Nursing home neglect is on the rise. Continue visiting your senior neighbors even after they move away. If you’re there specifically to see them, you’re likely paying closer attention than they’re getting from facility staff. A caring neighbor could mean the difference between neglect and a home in which they thrive.

Invite them over

This is the cardinal rule for neighbors the world over. And it’s amplified during the cold winter months.

If you’re having a celebration, invite the neighbors. Not only does it make them less likely to complain about the extra bit of noise that tends to happen during a party, but it’s also a nice show of cooperation and camaraderie.

Take a cue from the Swedes – famous for their wintertime hospitality – and offer a hot drink to everyone who walks through the door.

There’s nothing like sharing hot food, warm drinks, and good conversation to bring people together. Peaceful relationships start at home.

Having a regular, daily  meditation practice is important. All too often though, remembering to manifest the mindfulness that one learns in meditation is pushed to the back burner. There’s no need to put it off. Winter gives us every excuse to reach out to the people around us. Extending an olive branch to one’s neighbors is a simple and rewarding way to bring mindfulness practice into the world.

How do you practice mindfulness in your daily life?

Finding Peace After Prison: How You Can Help

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Here’s a million dollar word for you: Recidivism. Recidivism is the habitual or repeated lapse into criminal behavior. The most blatant example of recidivism is when a recently-released prisoner commits a second crime with the express intent of landing back in jail. A more subtle case is when a prisoner is released, does not  have the skill set to land a job, and ends up back in jail because criminal behavior was the only way to make ends meet.

Over 65% of convicts return to the criminal justice system over time.  

In the international effort to spread peace, reducing recidivism is a top priority. Peace is not just about governments, it’s about individuals coming together to build a peaceful society, inside and out.

When one encounters a social justice issue like recidivism, sometimes it can feel so gigantic it’s hard to imagine making a difference. But just as with all gargantuan social issues, it really just comes down to individuals.

There are of course hundreds of social, economic, and psychological reasons for recidivism. Sometimes criminal behavior is enacted out of necessity, making it nearly impossible to correct. Sometimes prisoners don’t have the social skills or job training they need to break out of the criminal cycle. It’s not an easily-solved issue. Meanwhile, US prisons grow more and more overcrowded and the prison-industrial complex develops a life-cycle of its own.

How can the average person make an impact on this hugely convoluted system?

Simple, we can volunteer our time to bring peaceful education systems to prisoners across the country.

Offer a Meditation Class

While meditation isn’t the first thing most people think about when they hear the words “prison rehabilitation,” it is proving to be a successful means of helping prisoners cope with their sentence and life after incarceration.

Meditation can help combat depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and other common states faced by inmates. It gives them a means of release and acceptance.

For help planning out a session, check out this great collection of instructional kits for volunteers leading meditation sessions in prison.

Teach a Music Lesson

Music therapy is useful for prisoners of all ages. Music just moves people on a level deeper than so many other mediums are capable.

It’s difficult to quantify the benefits of arts programs in correctional facilities. Though difficult does not mean impossible. In 2014 the Prison Arts Resource Project compiled a list of studies that provide evidence to the benefits of such programs.

Music itself falls on the “difficult to quantify” spectrum, so it stands to reason that it would thrive in an environment as raw as rehabilitative therapy.

Music rehabilitation programs run the gamut from chamber music to African drumming to chorus singing. Music enhances a prisoner’s inner world, confidence, and social participation. How can that growth not help a person’s reentry into society?

Lead Educational Programs

Finally, one of the most tangible ways to help prisoners rejoin society is by offering educational enrichment and career training.

A little insight from professionals in a variety of fields can be helpful to soon-to-be job hunters. Whether you’re a teacher, business manager, or a marketing professional, chances are you can offer advice about education and how to break into the job market and get hired.

Given enough access to tutoring and educational programs behind bars, inmates can be instrumental in helping to close the skills gap. The skills gap is the disparity between employer expectation and employees’ actual skill levels. The state of Texas, for example, faced a dilemma in 2014 when they realized there was a surplus of jobs in the market that required skilled workers and yet not enough people trained with the skills to fill those jobs.

This sort of situation is ripe for a motivated inmate who has access to educational programs and the deep desire to make it on the outside. Just because an inmate didn’t get a great high school education doesn’t mean they’re not entirely capable of studying up and blowing the competition out of the water. Prison leaves one with plenty of time to hit the books.

Unsurprisingly, inmates who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to be re-incarcerated. Those who study for their GED, take basic adult ed classes, or participate in vocational training are 13% less likely to return to prison. Inmates who take college programs are 16% less likely. In an interview with NPR, senior policy researcher Lois Rand called this “a substantial reduction.”

The opportunities for volunteering in prison education programs are endless. Here are just a few programs that accept volunteers:

Every field has its critics. And yes, there are those who believe that rehabilitation programs don’t actually help recidivism.

Critics of progressive prison rehabilitation programs say that if imprisonment means cushy enrichment programs, it only makes sense that convicts would want to return.

But that is all a matter of perspective. While one person might say that a clean, comfortable prison stay might invite freeloaders, another can argue that a non-traumatic punishment makes for better rehabilitation.

Norway, for example, has one of the most successful prison programs with a recidivism rate of only 20%. Norwegian prison director Are Hoidel explains the rationale behind progressive rehabilitation programs this way: “Every inmates in Norwegian prison are going back to the society. Do you want people who are angry – or people who are rehabilitated?”

In the march toward peace, we definitely want rehabilitated people.

What do you think? Is prison rehabilitation a good use of energy as we work toward peace?