Vicki Garlock - TIO Correspondent
Taking Love into the World
“We defy hate and violence with peace and love. We bring people together. We celebrate the positive global human qualities that everyone shares, and no one can stop us.” – Arno Michaelis, Co-founder, Serve2Unite
When faced with dreadful acts of hate-driven violence, it can be difficult to muster an appropriate response. We stare into our screens, shaking our heads in disbelief and cringing at the horror. We hold our kids a little closer and hug our loved ones a little tighter. We read op-eds on the topic and tweet our disapproval. It’s all very safe, and when it comes right down it, requires very little movement.
(Photo: High-schoolers work with a local artist to paint a mural encouraging community members to take pride in their community and "Love Where You Live")
Then there are the rare few, like the team at Serve2Unite, who leap into action. Operating way outside the imaginary lines of security and helplessness that trap the rest of us, they actively combat violent extremism. Their efforts have impacted the lives of over 600 school-aged kids, ranging in age from second grade through high school, using creative expression to forge bonds and replace enmity. Serve2Unite is poised to make a real difference not just in the U.S. but around the world.
Their story starts with an act of extreme violence. On August 5, 2012, ten members of the Sikh gurdwara (sanctuary) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin were shot by a white supremacist. Six died, and one of the injured priests remains in a coma to this day. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the incident a hate crime. Condolences arrived from diplomats and government officials around the world, and federal buildings flew their flags at half-staff until August 10. President Obama urged citizens to engage in the soul-searching necessary to reduce violence in America. A relatively small number of people, many of them Sikh, decided to stop thinking and start doing.
Starting in a Wisconsin Sikh Gurdwara
(Photo: Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis – Tolerance.org)
Pardeep Kaleka, the oldest son of one of the murder victims, offered his statement of grief and forgiveness. His statement was representative of the more general response from the American Sikh community: although shocked and saddened by the tragic events, they remained almost wholly forgiving.
“In this hour of grief, we thank the thousands of people around the globe who have offered their support and their prayers, and we encourage them to support those victims and families who are most in need. Together, we must work to repair our community and finally address the epidemic of violence in America.”
A few months later, as the rest of the world moved on to the next tragedy, Pardeep contacted Arno Michaelis. Arno was a member of the organization, Against Violent Extremism and had published his personal story, My Life After Hate. It’s not what anyone would have predicted for Arno 20 years earlier. In his younger days, Arno was the lead singer for a successful hate-metal band. With over 20,000 CDs sold and a rapidly-growing skinhead organization to his credit, Arno was fast becoming a world-wide leader in the hate movement. But Arno is proof that life never fails to amaze.
(Photo: Fourth-graders create works of art, sharing messages of welcome and peace, for a grocery store after an anti-Muslim sign was posted in the common area. – Serve2Unite)
In a real-life turnaround rivaling anything you might see in one of those tearful holiday classics, Arno became a new person. He confronted his hateful self and rediscovered his compassionate core. Although he freely admits that he’s still a work in progress, Arno is simply not the man he used to be. Together, he and Pardeep found themselves speaking in public schools, organizing service learning projects, and building their arsenal of youth-oriented programs.
On that foundation, Serve2Unite was built. Since then, they have partnered with programs like Ceasefire Chicago, Hours Against Hate, The Forgiveness Project, and the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program to share their message of fearless compassion. Dialogue, music, and art serve as the foundation for their efforts as they work tirelessly to amplify the voices of the world’s young ambassadors of peace.
Recently, Serve2Unite has gone international with its Global Mentors program. Using technology and social media, Serve2Unite connects tweens and teens with world-renowned peace activists. Some of them, like Dydine Umunyana of Rwanda and Bjørn Ihler of Norway, are victims of hate crimes. Others, like Mubin Shaikh of Canada and Søren Lerche of Denmark, were once hate-filled extremists themselves. All of them share the same message: fighting violence with violence only produces more of the same. It is peace that wins in the end.
(Photo: School-aged kids in Milwaukee, along with parents, community leaders, and the police department, come together to bridge divides and forge friendships. – Serve2Unite)
Unfortunately, combating hate-based violence is a never-ending pursuit; there is always more to accomplish. Serve2Unite is currently partnering with the Milwaukee Muslim Women Coalition to combat Islamophobia while serving homeless vets. They are raising teen awareness about human trafficking by arranging for survivors to speak in schools. And, they are developing an “extremist hotline” where young people attracted to a militant lifestyle will be offered a sympathetic ear, a different perspective, and non-violent options.
Although Serve2Unite’s story began with an atrocity, the plot has changed dramatically. They continue to find new and exciting ways for the arts to write a new, more loving script for the future. This might take the form of sharing their own raptivist theme song or coordinating an art exhibit that is both by students and for students. Along the way, kids discover viable alternatives to hate and violence and recognize that their voices, when working in unison, can make a real difference.