Savannah, Georgia, USA
Interview: May 10, 2019
Excellence Reporter: Aberjhani, what makes a compassionate city, or community?
Aberjhani: Leaders and followers who recognize they are all participants in a partnership designed to ensure to the best of their ability the well-being of individuals, families, and humanity as a whole make a compassionate community. Their proposed goals reflect the intent to benefit as many as possible rather than exclude or exploit as many as possible.
ER: How do you personally measure compassion?
Aberjhani: By the degree of empathy which an individual or organization mindfully cultivates to address a life or a community in distress. I was six years old when my first-grade elementary school teacher sat me in a chair at the front of the classroom and told me to tell everybody how my brother Robert Lee had been shot in his back and killed by police. The most I managed to say before heading back to my seat was that he had been my brother. This incident stayed with me throughout my adolescence and stamped on my psyche resentment against police and authoritarian figures in general.
Years later I joined the U.S. Air Force as a military journalist and one week wrote a story on my base’s military police unit. I interviewed MPs who described the uncertainty police grappled with when responding to calls and entering homes or buildings without knowing what danger might await them inside. At the same time, they were obligated to resolve whatever the issue might be with as little deadly force as possible. Others shared different stories from their childhood and I wrote my article as objectively as I could. In the process, I experienced an intense unexpected sense of empathy for my subjects.
The experience as a child and later as a journalist taught me the importance of allowing empathy to motivate actions based on compassion rather than letting disregard prompt behavior based on prejudice, fear, or hate. Where there is empathy there is a capacity for compassion. And where there is compassion there is power to end the cycles of wars, epidemics of drug addiction, domestic violence, xenophobia, economic exploitation, starvation, and political oppression destroying too many communities.
ER: What do you do to contribute to creating a more compassionate community and world?
Aberjhani: My literary art, visual art, and social activism are my contributions to creating a more compassionate community and world. Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, my most recent book, includes writing and artwork reflecting what I call humanity’s need for reciprocal compassion. In fact, the tagline for the book describes it as “A memoir of what happens when the heart and soul of a historic city meet the art and purpose of a 21st-century advocate for compassion and social justice.” This theme is most evident in stories about interactions with immigrants thrust by history into the roles of heroic figures, a self-doubting caregiver struggling to meet a challenge for which he was not prepared, and a journey into a city’s slave-haunted past and present.
ER: Where is compassion needed in your city? Where does it exist?
Aberjhani: A greater practice of compassion is needed in Savannah at every level and in probably every segment: from gang members who rely on guns, drugs, and human trafficking for a sense of empowerment and identity, to city administrators who too often appear oblivious to the bias and policies that drive divisiveness, ultimately contributing to the violence and discord.
On the flip side of the coin: compassion and a wise respect for the Earth exists in university, college, and private sector programs committed to the preservation of regional wetlands and to preventing attempts at offshore drilling. These aggressive investments in environmental sustainability also demonstrate compassion for present and future generations. Moreover, compassion can be found in classrooms taught by teachers who nearly every day go far and beyond the call of duty to educate, feed, protect, nurture, and empower students.
ER: If your city was one of compassion, what would that look like? What is your idea of a compassionate city?
Aberjhani: On the surface, my hometown is often recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And it is. But many important changes would have to take place for it to be considered a city of compassion. Fortunately, the changes are possible and some have even gotten underway. For now, however, this is what I believe to be true:
If my city was one of compassion, the various statues, monuments, and historical markers erected to document its history in public spaces would reflect a balanced account that included more diverse figures, and within areas other than its downtown historic district. Families would not wake up every other day to headlines describing fatal shootings, or prisoners in the county jail found brutally beaten or dead from abuse and neglect. Nor would long-time home-owners who have fallen on hard economic times fear the practice of predatory gentrification. They would not watch nervously as people they don’t know drive slowly in front of their houses while calculating how soon they might be able to acquire the property at a cheap price, make repairs, and then sell it for ten or twenty times the amount paid.
My idea of a compassionate city is one where policy-makers and an engaged citizenry contribute to the establishment of goals and practices geared toward maintaining a culture of mutual respect and reciprocal care regardless of demographic differences. It would have in place a flexible education system designed to equip students not only with skills to compete economically with other countries but to cooperate with each other across borders for the sake of humanity’s greater good. It would promote more mindful considerations of humanity’s role as stewards of the Earth and recognize that compassion is a resource none of us can afford to ignore if we want to discover and achieve our greatest collective potential.
~Aberjhani is a cultural arts entrepreneur and owner of Bright Skylark Literary Productions. His acclaimed literary works include the Choice Academic Title Award-winning Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the modern-poetry classic The River of Winged Dreams, and the 2019 memoir, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. His works as a visual artist and photographer have won recognition for their demonstrations of creative social and political advocacy combined with aesthetic and spiritual appeal.
Copyright © 2019 Excellence Reporter