from the desk of Annette Walker

from the desk of Annette Walker

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Leymah Gbowee- Liberian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Keynotes Denver Peace Jam Luncheon -- by Annette Walker

     Leymah Gbowee's theme, ‘Moving Forward in Tough Times’, at the Peace Jam Awards Luncheon could have been drawn directly from the trajectory of her life. 
     She was just 17 years old in 1989 when civil war erupted in Liberia, unleashing the destructive forces inherent in such conflicts and enduring fourteen years.  Although she enrolled in the University of Liberia, her academic aspirations as well as family life were disrupted and she was forced to embark upon an uncharted path.  Gbowee was able to convert feelings of outrage and opposition to constructive efforts to end conflict and build peace.  In the process she has become not only a counselor, trauma healer and social worker, but an inspirational leader.  At age 39 she received the Nobel Peace Prize, published a memoir about her remarkable life and figured prominently in the documentary film ‘Pray the Devil Back To Hell’.
     Over 500 people attended the event at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.   Gbowee noted that her busy itinerary takes her from one end of the globe to the other.
     "Everywhere I go I become aware of people dealing with many problems, such as poverty, rape and other crimes and political oppression just to name a few," she said.  "And sometimes I feel overwhelmed and ask myself if anywhere in the world is free of serious problems.  But I am encouraged when I learn that everywhere people organize themselves to resolve these issues," she continued.
     "I am deeply impressed with the role of many young people in struggles for peace and justice.  And all this has resulted in the reaffirmation of my commitment to peace and justice," she declared.
     Gbowee presented Peace Jam Hero awards to youth as well as adults engaged in positive change activities locally, nationally and globally.
     In her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, she related that in 1996 when the war temporarily subsided, she had two children and was accepted into a UNICEF-supported program to counsel people traumatized by the war.  A couple of years later she enrolled in the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP) operated by a Lutheran church where her family had membership.  That event marked her entry into a career centered on emotional healing and conflict resolution.  Within a short time she transitioned from assisting individuals to assisting a nation.
     When she entered the THRP program in 1998, the West African Network for Peace Building (WANEP) the first of its kind in that region, was established in neighboring Ghana.  She met some of the staff when they were in Liberia and relates how she began reading about peace building in the works of Mennonite theologians as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and some African thinkers.
     In 1999 Gbowee met some of the women involved in WANEP and in 2000 she was able to attend a women’s conference in Ghana   In her memoir she describes her excitement and how she was able for the first time in her life to talk about the painful parts of her life story including sleeping on the floor of a hospital corridor with a newborn baby for a week because she had no money to pay the bill and no one to help her.
     “No one else in Africa was doing this focusing only on women and only on building peace,” she wrote in her memoir.
     Within a year the women of WANEP launched the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET).  Although established in Ghana, an affiliate was opened in Liberia with Gbowee as coordinator of the Liberian Women’s Initiative.   
     At the Peace Jam luncheon she talked about the importance of allowing women to talk about themselves.  “Women were never encouraged to talk to each other,” she said.
     Meantime the civil war had reignited and 20 Liberian women convened.  “We talked not only about what we could do, but how just as war was considered a male thing, so too was peace building considered a male endeavor,” she said.  “Women were never encouraged to be involved in public matters,
     Gbowee frequently refers to the night in the spring of 2002 when she fell asleep in the WIPNET office and had a dream.  She says that God told her, “Gather the women and pray for peace!”  Subsequently, she told her Lutheran co-workers about her dream and they suggested that God was telling Gbowee herself that she should initiate that action.
     She followed their advice.  A few months later with the help of Christian and Muslim women of all the ethnic groups in the country, she helped establish the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.  Thousands of women gathered in Monrovia, the capital city, for months and prayed for peace, held nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from President Charles Taylor under whose leadership the civil occurred.
     In April 2003 Taylor relented and granted a meeting with the women.  Two thousand women amassed outside his executive mansion and they designated Gbowee their spokesperson.  Her comments to him are well-known:
          “We are tired of war.  We are tired of running. We are tired of begging
            For bulgur wheat.  We are tired of our children being raped.  We are
            now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children.  Because
            We believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask
            us, ‘Mama what was your role during the crisis?’
     Taylor promised the women that he would attend peace talks in Ghana to negotiate with the rebel groups.  In June 2003 Gbowee led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process.  As portrayed in the film ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’, in an attempt to be taken seriously, the women’s behavior was sometimes dramatic.
     The Liberian war ended officially weeks later, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement Act on August 18, 2003.
     “What we (women) did marked the beginning of the end,” remarked Gbowee.
      The women’s movement was a crucial factor in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf not only as Liberia’s first woman president, but Africa’s first democratically-elected woman president.  Charles Taylor went into exile and earlier this year was convicted and incarcerated in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
     Both Sirleaf and Gbowee (along with Tawakkul Karman of Yemen) received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. 
     From 2003-2007 Gbowee studied and received an M.A. in Conflict Transformation from the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia in the United States.  She has won a dozen international awards and continues to ‘multitask’.  Now 40 years old and the mother of six children, she is Executive Director of the Women, Peace and Security Network- Africa as well as Founder and President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation -Africa, based in Monrovia.

The Peace Jam Foundation is headquartered in Arvada, Colorado.  Its motto is ‘Change Starts Here’.  Its mission is to create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities, and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody.
     (This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of the Urban Spectrum, Denver, Colorado.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cornel West Links Art, Social Justice and the Meaning of Humanity

            Cornel West Links Art. Social Justice and the Meaning of Humanity
                                                                    by Annette Walker

     Cornel West is a philosopher endowed with poetic discourse and a commitment to social transformation grounded in courage, compassion and love.  The Princeton University professor was the keynote speaker at the recent Art of Social Justice conference at the Auraria campus.  The evening event attracted a crowd of 1,000 people.
     Organized by the Collective for Social Justice, a student group, the three-day conference explored a broad range of topics, such as labor, corporate responsibility, the prison complex, food production, indigenous rights, education, women's issues, ethnicity within the current political atmosphere, and the Occupy movement.
     "The main goal of the conference was to speak to the interconnectedness of a broad range of issues and to provide tangible definitions to the term "social justice" by showcasing the people doing the real work," said Candace Johnson, a member of the Collective.  "Another goal was to bring together activists from a wide range of fields and have them connect with each other to see the overlap and fill in the gaps," she continued.
     The conference, however, involved more than these traditional social issues.  There were also workshops on self-empowerment and uses of new media.  West's talk was preceded by a powerful presentation by local poet Dominique Ashaheed whose themes ranged from the present controversy regarding Trayvon Martin to the murder of Emmet Till in Mississippi in 1955. 
     West was an appropriate person to address art and social justice because he seamlessly blends both into his scholarship and activism.  During his Auraria presentation he described life in 2012 in the United States as ". . . .a disappearing middle class on the vanilla side, gangster activity on Wall Street, a shadow banking system, the prevalence of greed, and the Horatio Alger mystique still remains in America."
     He then applauded writers that he called "truth tellers" for their portrayals of various aspects of American society.  "Thank God for Eugene O'Neill for The Iceman Cometh and Steven Sondheim for Pacific Overtures; and thank God for Toni Morrison for Beloved as well as James Baldwin who didn't need to go to college to make his contributions," West exclaimed.
     Jazz great John Coltrane and other musicians, such as Charles Mingus and Bruce Springsteen frequently become metaphors in West's oratory.
     West acknowledges the tremendous influence that some artists, writers and musicians have had on his thinking.  Most notable is the impact of the groundbreaking work of Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian playwright and short story writer.  West even defines himself as a Chekhovian.
     His fascination with Chekhov involves the main fundamental question that motivates his writing.  What does it mean to be human?  As a philosopher, West says that "the existential quest for meaning is at the center of my thought."
     "I find the incomparable works of Anton Chekhov--the best singular body by a modern artist--to be the wisest and deepest interpretations of what human beings confront in their daily struggles," West writes in his introduction to The Cornel West Reader.  "His salutary yet sad portraits of the nearly eight thousand characters in his stories and plays--comparable only to Shakespeare's variety of personages--provide the necessary ground, the background noise, of any acceptable view of what it means to be human," he continues.
     West admires Chekhov's avoidance of facile solutions to social problems.  "I find inspiration in his refusal to escape from the pain and misery of life by indulging in dogmas, doctrines or dreams as well as abstract systems, philosophic theodicies, or political utopias.
     Although Cheknov was a religious agnostic, West affirms his own Christianity and also refers to himself as a 'Chekhovian Christian'.  "By this I mean that I am obsessed with confronting the pervasive evil of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery in our world," he writes in the Introduction in the Reader.  "And I am determined to explore the intellectual sources and existential resources that feed our courage to be, courage to love and courage to fight for democracy."
     Although West's Ph.D dissertation was entitled The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, he considers himself a non-Marxist socialist.  He considers Marxist thought a legitimate part of the Western stream of the larger modern articulation of historical consciousness, and he accepts some of its doctrines, but questions others.  However, he emphatically rejects the trashing of Marxism by the U.S. liberal academy.
     West serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America which he describes as ". . .the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join."
     Regarding the recent phenomenon known as the Occupy Wall Street movement, West actively supports it.  In October 2011 he participated in the Occupy protest on the steps of the Supreme Court and was arrested for violating a law against protest signs at that location.  He later participated in an Occupy protest in Norfolk, Virginia.
     At the Auraria conference he described the Occupy movement as "the deep democratic awakening in America."  Last Fall during an interview with Amy Goodman on her Democracy Now television and radio program, he responded to those critics who contend that the movement lacks a clear and unified message.  "It's impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands.  We're talking about a democratic awakening. . .you're talking about raising political consciousness so it spills over all parts of the country, so people can begin to see what's going on through a set of different lens, and then you begin to highlight what the more detailed demands would be.  Because in the end we're really talking about what Martin Luther King would call a revolution.  A transfer of power from oligarchs to everyday people of all colors.  And that is a step-by-step process."
     West cautions against the temptations of our market-driven, materialistic society in which people yield to the frivolous and superficial rather than to serious matters.  "It is easy to become indifferent to evil and to other people's suffering," he said during the Auraria lecture.  “Indifference is more evil than evil itself.”
     He also warned against confusing philanthropy with justice.  "We want to create a society in which charity is not needed," he said.    
     There has been some controversy about West's comments about President Barack Obama.  In 2008 he publicly supported Obama and addressed a crowd of 1000 people at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.  However, he has been critical especially of the President's war policy.  In his talk at Auraria he pointed out that under President George Bush there were 44 drone attacks and under President Obama there have been 239.  He is also critical of increasing military spending while cutting the budget for housing, health and education.
     "I support principles, not individuals nor some of Obama's policies," West said.  He also called the Democratic Party "spineless" on many issues and characterized Obama as a liberal.
     Cornel West remains in the struggle.  He and Tavis Smiley have co-authored a new book entitled The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

                                        Don Rojas, Executive Director of Free Speech TV. . . .
                                                   Where Television Is a Movement                       

                                                                                         By Annette Walker

     During his two year tenure as Executive Director of Free Speech TV (FSTV), Don Rojas has achieved some of his goals to increase viewership and to augment and diversify its progressive programming.
     Established in 1995 and first located in Boulder, FSTV is now headquartered in Denver at the Five Points Media Center.  It is the first national television network whose mission is to expand the reach of social justice issues and ultimately to serve as a catalyst for social change.  The founders wanted to provide an alternative to corporate-funded news and programming and counter the misinformation in mainstream media.
     Now a multi-platform digital media pioneer, FSTV is best-known for its daily news and analysis programs.  Among these are the Washington, D.C.-based Thom Hartmann Program and New York-based Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez.  There is also a daily program produced by Al Jazeera’s English-language channel.  FSTV also has broadened its scope and also features weekly public affairs series, investigative documentaries, personal stories, and keynote talks by leading thinkers.  The network reaches 30 million U,S. homes, airing fulltime on DISH Network (channel 9415) and DIRECT TV (channel 348) and part-time on over 200 cable affiliates.  There is also live streaming on the Web at
     FSTV is funded by viewer donations and foundation grants.  There are no commercials and the network does not accept money from corporations.
     According to Rojas over the past two years TV viewership has increased by 40%.  He is especially proud of program innovations.  "We are honored to welcome Senator Bernie Sanders (Dem. - Vermont) to our community," he said.  "Brunch with Bernie" is produced in conjunction with Thom Hartmann and is a live call-in program where you can interact with the longest-serving independent member of the U.S. Congress."
     FSTV held a special 6-hour broadcast during the 2010 midterm elections, featuring Denver's Gloria Neal as anchor for local guests along with Amy Goodman from New York and Thom Hartmann from Washington, D.C.
     During his tenure Rojas has increased live coverage of progressive events, such as the NAACP's annual convention in Los Angeles last summer; the Netroots National Conference in Minneapolis; the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, D.C. featuring Van Jones, labor union leaders and grassroots organizers and activists; the U.S. Social forum in Detroit that attracted over 20,000 people.
     One of Rojas' goals has been to increase FSTV's visibility in Denver's progressive, African-American and Latino communities.  "We videotaped and later broadcast the keynote speech delivered by Ben Chavis at the annual banquet of the Colorado Association of Black Journalists," he said.  "In addition we have partnered with Dr. Vincent Harding and the Veterans of Hope organization to present a special presentation by poet and activist Sonia Sanchez,"   The event was held at FSTV's studios with a live audience.
     FSTV videotaped the lecture delivered by Dr. Elsie Scott, President (CEO) of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C.  Her visit to Denver was coordinated by Rev. Ronald Wooding of Scott's Methodist Church, and she participated in the Crime Prevention Conference co-sponsored by the NAACP Youth Council.
     Both the Sonia Sanchez and Elsie Scott presentations will be broadcast during February's Black History Month's programming.
     There will be new programming for 2012.  "We will launch a weekly "Occupy the Media" program in February because we view the 99% Movement as the most significant social and economic justice movement in the USA since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s," said Rojas.  "In fact, Dr. King's dream of an America with greater economic and racial equality is alive and well in the Occupy Movement."
     This year FSTV staff marched, videotaped and interviewed people in Denver's Martin Luther King annual Marade.
     Rojas said that the 2012 election campaign coverage will commence in February.  "FSTV is especially interested in the battleground states as well as the Republican and Democratic Conventions."
     Other programming initiatives for this year are a redesigned and enhanced Website and an Internet radio project.
     Rojas brings to Denver's media landscape an exceptional journalistic and communications background that encompasses an international perspective.  A native of the Caribbean, he has held positions in African-American, Caribbean and alternative media.  In the early 1990s he was Managing Editor of the New York Amsterdam News, the oldest surviving African-American weekly newspaper.  He also founded the first African-American Internet initiative, the Black World Today and the Black world Radio Network.
     He was Communications Director of the NAACP, Media Manager of Oxfam America and general manager of Pacifica's WBAI-FM radio station in New York City.  Prior to that he was the press secretary to the late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop of Grenada.  Rojas has worked as a journalist in Canada, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Latin America.

                                                 Colorado Black Caucus
                      Elected Officials Organize - Strength in Numbers
                                                                              by Annette Walker

     In 2010 Angela Williams and others in the community were concerned about the dwindling number of African-American elected officials.  "Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll not only was the only African-American in the state legislature, but was term-limited," she said.
     The previous year there had been another loss in the legislature.  Peter Groff, who had become the President of the Senate, resigned to take a position with the Obama administration.
     "When Michael Hancock decided to run for Mayor, I was concerned that there would be no African-Americans on the City Council," Williams continued.
     Now Williams is elated.  "We have moved from the idea that there might be no one in the Legislature of City Council to the reality of having two in each body.  Furthermore, there are 14 African-American elected officials in the state of Colorado."
     "What a difference two years can make," she said amusedly.
      Believing that the African-American community should maintain the momentum, Williams convened other elected officials to establish the Colorado Black Caucus (COBC).  She is the chairwoman.  In addition to state legislators and Denver City Council members, the Caucus includes school board members, Regional Transportation District (RTD) board members, a county commissioner, a University of Colorado Regent and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
     Although no a member of the COBC, former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier continues involvement in the metropolitan area.  He placed second in Aurora's mayoral race and last year challenged Congressman Ed Perlmutter for his seat.  Frazier is a Republican and Williams points out that the COBC is nonpartisan.  African-American Republicans have been elected to office in Colorado.
     The objectives of COBC are: 
          o To stimulate an interest in public affairs among African-American leaders.
          o To increase political involvement and influence of African-American leaders.
          o To unite African-American elected officials in Colorado and communities of color.
          o To call for action to ensure government on national, state, county, and local levels reflect the interest of African-American perspectives.
     Among the immediate concerns of COBC are:  a) Efforts to suppress the minority vote.
     "Although the state Supreme Court rejected the motion to prevent the mailing of ballots to inactive voters failed, I am certain there will be more attempts made," Williams said.
     b) The Mortgage Foreclosure Crisis.  There is legislation and proposals to alleviate the burden upon those at risk of foreclosure.
     c)  The legislature must balance the state budget and the COBC will monitor how any budget cuts affect people of color and other underserved communities.
     The formation of the Colorado Black Caucus is actually a rebirth.  "The first Black Caucus was established in the 1970s and lasted until the late 1990s," said Gloria Tanner who served in both the state House and Senate.   George Brown, then a State Senator, along with City Councilman Elvin Caldwell, Representative Arie Taylor, school board member Rachel Noel, Representative Wellington Webb along with Tanner established the first Caucus which had the same objectives as the newly formed COBC.
     With an African-American population of only four percent and the Denver metropolitan area with about 10%, the state of Colorado has fared well with elected officials.  Over the past 60 years there have been two lieutenant-governors, a secretary of state, several City Council members, the leaders of both chambers of the State legislature, and two of the most recent mayors of Denver.
     Members of the newly-formed Colorado Black Caucus are: 
          o Michael Hancock, Mayor of Denver
          o Angela Williams, State Representative, D-Denver, District 7
          o Rhonda Fields, State Representative, D-Aurora, District 42
          o Albus Brooks, Denver City Council, District 8
          o Christopher Herndon, Denver City Council, District 11
          o Rene Bullock, Commerce City Council, at-large
          o Steven J. Jordan, Commerce City Council, at-large
          o Joe Neguse, CU Board of Regents, 2nd Congressional District
          o Vorry Moon, Centennial City Council, District 1
          o Allegra 'Happy' Haynes, Denver Public School Board, at-large
          o Nate Easley, Jr., Denver Public School Board, District 4
          o Barbara Deadwyler, RTD Board of Directors, District 8
          o Jeff Walker, RTD Board of Directors, District D
          o Darryl Green, El Paso County Commissioner, District 1