• Background Image

    News & Updates

February 26, 2013

Telling Stories that Matter – The Art of the Folklorist


Folklore is the foundation of a culture.  It is the sum total of the stories, experiences, art and beliefs of the people living in that culture.  But much of it is hidden, and it is the task of the folklorist to discover a people’s heritage and communicate it to others.  In  a world frequently torn by ethnic and sectarian conflict, the role of the folklorist has expanded to that of peacemaker.  The artistic, human and material expressions of culture unearthed by the folklorist offer a way forward for validating all the cultural traditions that comprise our modern societies.

Kiran Sinkiran singh sirahgh Sirah is a modern day folklorist.  He began his career as an artist and teacher. This led him to establish a number of award winning peace and conflict resolution programs in museums and cultural centers in the UK, focused on sectarian, ethnic and religious conflict, poverty, and gang violence.

He went on to develop arts-led projects exploring modern slavery violations, war, and issues facing socially marginalized peoples. He is now a Rotary Peace Fellow and a folklorist interested in the power of human creativity, arts and social justice to build a truly multicultural society, based on understanding and peace.

Kiran’s new toolkit, Telling Stories That Matter, is a “How To” for prospective folklorists.  He created this easy to use guide with support for its production by the Partners for Democratic Change, Laina Reynolds Levy, Editor.


Download the free toolkit here and find specific guidance from storytelling to theater production to slam poetry.

Additional folklorist resources:

Photo credits for this post and the video include:


February 18, 2013

Frederick Douglass – Father of America’s Civil Rights Movement

Frederick Douglass was a man who continually reinvented himself and would, in time, create the modern American civil rights movement and reshape American politics.

young-Frederick_DouglassThe son of a slave woman and an unknown white man, “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” was born in February of 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven. While growing up, he was witnessed the degradations of slavery, seeing firsthand brutal whippings and spending much time cold and hungry. At the age of eight he was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. It was there he learned to read and first heard the words abolition and abolitionists. “Going to live at Baltimore,” Douglass would later recall, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

Douglass enjoyed seven relatively comfortable years in Baltimore before being sent back to the country, where he was hired out to a farm run by a notoriously brutal “slavebreaker” named Edward Covey. And the treatment he received was indeed brutal. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.”  These events were to propel him to become an activist against slavery.

Frederick Douglass – Mini Bio

On January 1, 1836, he resolved that he would be free by the end of the year. He planned an escape. But early in April he was jailed after his plan was discovered. Two years later, while living in Baltimore and working at a shipyard, Douglass would finally realize his dream: he fled the city on September 3, 1838. Traveling by train, then steamboat, then train, he arrived in New York City the following day. Several weeks later he had settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name, Frederick Douglass.

William-Lloyd-GarrisonDouglass continued to educate himself and was an avid reader. In New Bedford, he attended Abolitionists’ meetings and subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal, the Liberator. After meeting Garrison in 1841, Douglass was mentioned in the Liberator and a few days later gave a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. It was reported that, “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence.” Douglass became a lecturer for the Society for three years and his career as a speaker was launched.

Douglass was also an author and publisher.  In 1945, despite fears that the information might endanger his freedom, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself.  Three years later, after a speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a four-page weekly, out of Rochester, New York.


Frederick Douglass' House

During the Civil War, he conferred with Abraham Lincoln and helped the Union Army recruit northern blacks to fight in the conflict.  Later he would go on to serve as U.S. minister to Haiti.

During his long life, he fought for the right not only of African Americans, but women and other oppressed minorities.  Through his writing, speaking and political activities, he helped establish the modern American civil rights movement. He had an enduring vision of America achieving justice and equal rights for all its citizens.  But first and foremost, he had a continually evolving vision of himself as someone who, despite his early years as a slave, deserved the freedom, dignity and respect he fought so diligently to obtain for others.

February 14, 2013

Valentine’s Day is for Peacemakers!

It’s too bad we’ve trivialized “Valentine” to baby-faced-winged-cherubs of myth – when a factual human of history is at the heart of today’s historical core.

The real historic person, the Saint – of St. Valentine’s day –  lived as a peacemaker, embodying love for others demonstrated in allegiance with his Christian piety & care.  The Saint lived to embody relational, reciprocal love between humans that stood in opposition to warfare, violence, enemies, empires or allegiance to nationalistic overlords.

St Valentine“Not much is known about St. Valentine. He lived in the third century, was a priest in Rome, and was martyred in the final years of the Emperor Claudius II’s reign. Stories about Valentine have him ministering in various ways to persecuted Christians. But the story that best expresses what the saint stands for has it that he secretly married dozens of young Christian couples during a time when Claudius had forbidden male youths from marrying because he wanted them as unencumbered soldiers for his legions. Valentine was discovered officiating at one such wedding and was hauled in chains before Claudius. Once there, he tried to convert the emperor. Enraged at the priest’s presumption, Claudius had him beaten nearly to death and then beheaded.”

From:  a wonderful new book by Kerry Walters and Robin Jarrell—Blessed Peacemakers: 365 Extraordinary People Who Changed the World.

Today – let’s celebrate a Peacemaker who valued love for others.  St. Valentine was willing to die for his commitment to love as testimony to how he understood God’s love for the world.

 “St. Valentine’s feast day has fallen on hard times. It’s become an annual occasion marked by mawkish verse, images of fat cupids shooting arrows into hearts, and binge spending (in 2011, U.S. consumers blew nearly $16 billion on Valentine cards, candy, flowers, and jewels). Even the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the day’s decline by taking if off the General Roman Calendar in 1969. But despite all the marketing hoopla that’s almost swallowed up the day, peacemakers ought to remember it, because at its best it’s a commemoration of the nonviolent power of love.”  (Same source as above.)

Saint Valentine valued human-reciprocal love more than earthly allegiance to warfare and violence, the militarism of his day.

February 10, 2013

Ending Violence Against Women – Are We Finally at a Tipping Point?

Recently, in a crime that shocked South Africa, 17-year-old Anene Booysen was brutally gang raped. Her throat was slit; her fingers and legs shattered. The attackers had stuck a broken glass bottle inside her body and left her for dead on a construction site in the small town of Bredasdorp, about 120 miles from Cape Town. She was discovered by a security guard and identified at least one of the alleged rapists, before dying soon after.

Brutal Gang rape and murder shocks South Africans

The attack on Anene Booysen is one of several similar incidents in India and Pakistan that have attracted worldwide attention and brought widespread public condemnation.  It has also brought into much sharper focus, the problem of violence against women around the world.   In South Africa, the problem is especially acute. As reported in The Daily Beast, “the Medical Research Council estimates that up to 3,600 rapes happen daily in this nation of close to 52 million people. This places South Africa among the countries with the highest incidences of rape worldwide–and, outside of war zones, makes it one of the most violent societies, especially towards women.”

Anene Booysen funeralThe attack has stirred public outrage in the African nation.  Marches have been held in protest and hundreds attended Booysen’s funeral.  Activist Zubeida Shaik is one of the organizers of a planned mass march demanding an end to violence against women to take place on Valentine’s Day, Feb 14, 2013, in Cape Town and Johannesburg.  She declared:


“We’re placing demands now. It’s no longer about being polite about rape. It’s not about saying, you know, ‘we’re going to advocate, and we’re going to lobby, and we’re going to do all of this with government structures and institutions etc.’ That’s gone now. We’ve done that. It hasn’t worked, we’ve got to move on, we’ve got to make it a community problem or find solutions within the community because that’s where the problems are.”

Many groups in South Africa, like Shaik, have been working outside official channels to bring attention to the problem and spur action by authorities.  One such organization is the One Man Can Campaign which supports men and boys to take action to end domestic and sexual violence and to promote healthy, equitable relationships that men and women can enjoy.

This strong public reaction surprised many observers who say it may represent a fundamental  shift in attitudes about violence toward women.

indian-gang-rape-victim1Female activists in India have also gone on the offensive following the brutal gang rape and death of a 23-year-old medical student.  They have pushed for changes to Indian laws about rape, but are denouncing an ordinance put forth by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on Sunday to amend criminal laws on sexual crimes against women.  The activists say the law was “crafted behind closed doors” and if passed by the Indian Parliament, would do little if anything to confront the widespread culture of violence against women there.  As in South Africa, organizers and community activists are not waiting on their governments to take action.  New alliances are forming across a wide swath of Indian society.  As women’s rights activist Kamla Bhasin of Sangat, a South Asia feminist network noted:

“The spontaneous churning that has taken place is absolutely incredible. This agency by young people, students, lawyers, doctors, housewives and groups across the spectrum is a defining moment for us. It means violence against women is no longer just a woman’s issue.”

The lethargy of governments in taking action on the issue of violence against women is not unique to the developing world.  In the United States, Congress has been slow to renew the Violence Against Women Act in the U.S. which was originally passed in 1994 and then allowed to expire in 2011.  Congressional wrangling has blocked efforts to renew the law.  Now it appears that the Senate may finally be close to renewing the Act, though its passage is far from certain.

The recent rapes in India and South Africa were horrifying in their savagery.  Justice will be sorted out in the courts and law making bodies; history will determine whether the measures taken were appropriate.  But the real tipping point will come when we, as a world community, realize that such attacks against women do violence to all of us, and degrades our humanity.

February 5, 2013

Reconciler-in-Chief – A New Role for Religious Institutions

Most people today understand the distinction between spirituality and religion, and many make it frequently when attempting to identify their own position.  An increasing number of people want to be associated with the positive attributes of spirituality but not with the negative connotations of the major institutions of religion.  One reason why is that major religions are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities in history and continue to be cultural wedges between people around the world.  Spirituality, on the other hand, improves one’s personal well-being, enhances a feeling of connectedness to others and to the divine, and helps us understand ourselves better.  Spirituality emphasizes the similarities and connectedness between all people, while religion emphasizes the differences.  Spirituality pursues harmony while religion pursues conflict.  At least that is what many people feel about the major religious institutions.

Dead Sea ScrollAll of the world’s major religions are based on ancient texts which are, for the most part, static.  Many of these ancient texts included highly divisive beliefs and prejudices against certain groups and initially demanded extreme punishments for what today is considered acceptable behavior in many places.  This poses a dilemma for religion because it prevents these text-based religions from adapting to the cultural environment and evolving with society.  Instead, they remain static while society evolves.  This creates a tension between the doctrine of the texts and the laws of society, thereby requiring believers in the doctrine to choose between expressing the tenets of their religion and conforming to the laws of civil society.  As society continues to evolve toward greater equality and social justice for all, believers in ancient doctrines are further alienated.  If they adhere to the laws of civil society they are further alienated from their religion, and if they adhere to the beliefs of their religion they are alienated from civil society.

The institutions of the major religions are in a position to either exacerbate this conflict or ameliorate it.  If they exacerbate it, we will see increased division in society likely leading to civil unrest and tragedy.  If they choose to ameliorate it we will see increased harmony.  I predict that the survival of religious institutions rests on their choice of the latter.

I believe the survival of the major religions requires that they move away from a literal and dogmatic reading of their ancient texts to an interpretative approach where the institutions of religion can teach their beliefs in a way which embraces modern cultural norms.  This new approach would have at its core a much higher element of tolerance for those who do not follow the same beliefs.  Stoning homosexuals and burning witches are no longer acceptable ideas to preach in any religion. Any religion which still embraces such ideas is doomed to be crushed by the revolution of equality that is occurring before our eyes.

Without enlightened leadership in today’s religious institutions, people will read the words off the page and are likely to accept a literal meaning of the ancient texts.  Only enlightened leadership can bridge the gap between the ancient texts and modern society.  If that leadership does not emerge, this gap will widen increasing stress on individuals and society and forcing choices. These decision points can be dangerous and violent.  Individuals and groups who commit atrocities in the name of religion are examples of the danger in ignoring the “disconnect” between outdated religious dogma and the realities of modern society.

The new purpose of religious institutions needs to be as Mediator or Reconciler-in-Chief, interpreting religious doctrine in a way which fosters acceptance, tolerance and respect for others who may differ with a particular religion’s basic tenets.  This can only happen if institutions of religion bring their interpretations up-to-date for life as it exists for people in the 21st Century and beyond.

cathedralInstitutions of religion are facing a crisis of faith among believers largely due to scandals that for centuries went unexposed. The recent scandals and cover-ups have weakened the religious institutions to the point of irrelevance.  As some people leave the institutions of religion, those who stay behind are at greater risk, without enlightened leadership, of interpreting dangerously outdated ancient texts literally.  It is not in the best interest of anyone to see the complete demise of institutions of religion.  Instead, what we must support is a move toward adapting core beliefs to the present day with a commitment to tolerance.

If the institutions of religion can produce leaders who are enlightened and committed to adapting the ancient and sacred texts to today’s world, infusing those texts with spirituality and building community around beliefs, we will take a huge step toward world peace and harmony.  Now is the time for them to make this change.  To make religious institutions relevant again, they must offer believers hope and faith not only in spiritual beliefs, but in the value and purpose of civil society.  The value of every single person’s life must be exalted, even those of other faiths or of no faith at all.  When we as human beings manage to achieve that within our institutions of religion and as individuals with no particular affiliation other than to the human family, global peace is well within our grasp.