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“Leading from the Heart” | Reflections by Ed France

When the problems we face seem intractable, there is no better inspiration than the transformative stories and examples of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.  Reflecting upon his namesake holiday this past month, what is so moving is the combination of his clarity of vision not just in the ends that the Civil Rights movement pursued, but also in the means. Inspired in part by the non-violent struggles of Mahatma Gandhi in India, King embodied effective non-violent struggle in forwarding the values of racial equality.

In my own training in nonviolence movements, I was fortunate to gain mentorship from Satish Kumar who walked 8,000 miles as a peace activist protesting the threat of nuclear war. He met with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. King said to him, “racial discrimination is violence, a kind of war on the blacks. The response to this violence has to be non-violent and my non-violence cannot be merely superficial and purely a technique of protest. My non-violence has to come from deep within the heart.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. both won the Nobel Peace Prize and also paid the ultimate price- losing his life through assination.  In 1966 he met with Thich Nhat Hanh who called him a “Bodhisattva,” or enlightened being, for his efforts to promote social justice. 

Through the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, millions of people around the world were exposed to his form of ‘engaged Buddhism’ and mindfulness. In 1967, King nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work attempting reconciliation between North and South Vietnam, for which both sides exiled him.  I feel that his inclusion of service to the world as part of his spiritual beliefs is powerful and well voiced in the following quote. “The peace we seek cannot be our personal possession. We need to find an inner peace which makes it possible for us to become one with those who suffer, and to do something to help our brothers and sisters, which is to say, ourselves,” Nhat Hanh wrote in one of his dozens of books, “The Sun My Heart.” Hanh passed away this week in his native Vietnam, having lived in exile for 32 years.

In South Africa, King’s legacy of effective non-violence was expressed by another Nobel Peace Prize nominee and winner, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Active in the anti-aparthied movement, Tutu differed from King in non-violence less as an important strategy for the anti-aparthied movement, but more as a personal conviction. Yet he doubtlessly influenced the transformative approach of the Anti-aparthied movement and later of the Mandela government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commision which he chaired. The Commision pioneered restorative justice and offered a transformative, though heart wrenching, healing transition to the newly universally democratic post-aparthied South African Republic. We lost a historic figure in his passing this past December, though the world is so fortunate to have had more time with him to know his story.

As we transition into Black History Month this February I reflect on the transformative potential for change in policy and consciousness in racial equity and human rights more generally. I continue to find deep inspiration in these three figures from three different continents and the movements to which they contributed. Curiously celebrating great social movements and their underpinning philosophy is an essential ingredient to today’s movements for positive change.

How may we work from the heart and come together to build a truly equitable society? How may we learn from great leaders like these and the Civil Rights, Peace, and Anti-Apartheied movements themselves to make meaningful change in racial equity, climate, and empowerment for our communities?

Ed France
LFW Executive Director
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