At the end of 2017, we announced the thrilling news that we officially hired a new staff person at East Point Peace Academy!!! Chris Moore-Backman is a long-time friend of East Point, a lifelong dedicated nonviolence activist, and someone rooted in the tradition of Gandhian Nonviolence.
We are thrilled to have him on board as we look to expand our work heading into 2018. We wanted to give you all a chance to get to know him a little better, so check out our interview with him below.
Also, please make sure to check out two upcoming workshops that he will be giving, entitled “The Gandhian Iceberg: Embodying Integral Nonviolence on Our Path to a Livable Future.” The workshop will take place in Oakland, on March 24/25, and August 11/12. Both workshops are based off of his incredible book by the same name.
We look forward to having you all meet and learn from Chris!!!
How did you get involved in nonviolence?
Whatever seeds were there were there from the beginning. In particular, I think about the influence of my mom, who I saw doing social justice work consistently and in a quiet, determined way as far back as I can remember. There were a few other adults in my family’s faith community that I remember witnessing as well, who were living out the core principles of their faith in a way that left a mark on me.
Those early influences came to make sense to me in a new way when I took a course on Gandhi at UC Berkeley with Michael Nagler. This was back in 1992, when I was in college. Through that course, I finally began to have language to put to what had to that point only been an internal, intuitive sense about the meaning of nonviolence and its practice in the world.
Gandhi provided a context for those earlier examples of faithful, committed nonviolent responses to social injustice. I was hooked from the first few readings in that class. I knew I had found something that was intimately connected to my own journey.
Where did you go from there?
After that course, I studied informally on my own. I read everything I could get my hands on by and about Gandhi. I did so for about 8 or 9 years. I was working in public school settings during much of that time, doing violence prevention work with young students in San Francisco.
In my late 20s, I met David Hartsough and started working with him at Peaceworkers, which was developing what came to be the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). During that time, I traveled to Colombia and saw people doing active peacekeeping work, implementing nonviolence in the world in such a direct, tangible way. That was another hook that motivated me to go deeper.
What did you witness in Colombia during your time there?
NP sent me to Colombia as part of a delegation with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). We were doing a case study of international peace team projects there, to help determine whether Colombia should be considered for the NP’s pilot project.
During the delegation, the community of San José de Apartadó made a formal invitation to FOR to establish an ongoing international presence in La Unión, one of the community’s outlying settlements. The peace communities in northern Colombia had made an open declaration of impartiality in the midst of the civil war. Basically they were saying to all the armed groups that they didn’t want to participate in the war. These were farmers, and they were saying, in effect: “We want to farm our land, raise our children, and live our lives. We want no part in your war.”
But because of how intensely the armed groups were vying for control of the land and the allegiance of the people, San José de Apartadó sought international accompaniment as a protective presence, and to bring focused international attention on the plight of the peace communities. As accompaniers, we were something like unarmed bodyguards for members of the peace community, and our “weapon” was our connection to an international community that we hoped cared enough to hold the armed groups in Colombia accountable.
I served in La Unión for 10 months in 2002. It was an incredibly formative experience for me.
It was humbling to experience the power of the completely intuitive nonviolence of the people in La Unión. The families there knew next to nothing of people like Dr. King or Gandhi, but they were able to carry out powerful daily resistance to a decades-long, deeply entrenched conflict. I had the joy and privilege of sharing everyday life with them, often working in the fields where they farmed, playing with their kids, playing on the village’s soccer team. It’s the only job I’ve ever had where the core duty was simply to be present.
It’s a hard thing to assess the effectiveness of accompaniment , because you can’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been there. But one of the most powerful affirmations I heard was from a mother who said, “When you and Lily (my colleague) are here, our family feels safe enough to have the children playing outside after sundown. And when you’re not in the community, we don’t feel that way.” That was enough for me.
How did you get involved with Michelle Alexander and your work with The New Jim Crow?
In 2008 or 2009, I read Vincent Harding’s book on Martin Luther King. That book inspired me to do with Dr. King what I had done with Gandhi—to immerse myself in the story of his life and work, and the story of the struggle that raised him up as a leader.
When I started to dive into my research, a friend said to me, “You know, you could get a masters degree with what you’re about to do.” I said, “What? A masters on Dr. King? I don’t think so…” But she said there were universities where you could design your own program and give it some serious academic rigor.
So I looked into it, and I found a great distance learning program at Leslie University, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The M.A. I ended up designing was focused on the African American Freedom Movement through the lens of Gandhian nonviolence.
I reached out to Dr. Harding with an out of the blue letter, asking if he would be a member of my advisory committee. I let him know that his book was the catalyst for my new program. To my delight, he agreed.
It so happens that the beginning of my program coincided with the release of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Dr. Harding and I read the book at the same time. I was amazed at how clearly it described the contemporary manifestation of the same struggle I was studying.
Dr. Harding invited Michelle to do a series of events in Denver, and he invited me to come as well, to meet Michelle and explore ways of responding to her call to end the system of mass incarceration.
In time, my chosen strategy was to do a radio documentary series about mass incarceration, called “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow”. The series centered on Michelle’s book, but it looked at the issue from angles that she wasn’t able to cover in her book. She was a frequent interviewee during the series and Dr. Harding was an advisor for it. So I ended up, to my amazement, working closely with two of my greatest heroes.
[The seven installments of “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow” can be heard HERE.]
Tell us a little bit about the Gandhian Iceberg. How did you come up with the concept?
I’m always on the lookout for creative ways of showing the different dimensions of nonviolence, in hopes of correcting our culture’s deep misunderstanding about it. The going definition of nonviolence in our society is something like this: the tactical choice to not use physical force in situations of conflict. The iceberg metaphor, which provides a framework for my book, is meant to help explode the myth that that definition is even close to adequate.
The iceberg model shows three different interrelated and mutually supportive areas of nonviolent action and experimentation, which illustrate that nonviolence is a comprehensive, holistic way of life for courageous people, and not just a tactic that we can choose or choose against in specific circumstances. An increasing number of changemakers are beginning to refer to this comprehensive understanding of nonviolence as “integral nonviolence,” to clarify what we’re actually talking about.
If someone comes to a Gandhian Iceberg workshop, what should they expect?
They should expect to explore those three different areas of action and experimentation, which are: self-transformation, constructive program—which is the community based work of social uplift and renewal—and satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance.
During the workshop we reflect both personally and collectively on the relevance of that three-fold approach to integral nonviolence for us in our own lives and work. The hope with the workshop is to discover the relevance of Gandhi’s teaching as it relates to the living of our own lives and the building up of powerful movements right here and now.
You’re headed to Virginia in a few days to spend time with a community deeply committed to integral nonviolence. What is going to be happening there?
We live in a time of great crisis and opportunity. One of my deepest interests and hopes is to help bring together committed integral nonviolence practitioners so that we can begin to carve out a space within the wider movement ecosystem where we can be our full selves and bring the fullest expression of our gifts. We want to create a space in the movement landscape for bold, love based nonviolent action that we haven’t seen or experienced, perhaps since Dr. King and his co-workers did their work in the 50s and 60s.
Most disciplined nonviolence practitioners that I’m connected to experience an acute sense of loneliness within the movement—a feeling that there’s not a truly inspiring home for them there, in action settings especially. It’s as if the options are to either hold a sign on the street corner, or to grab a black bandanna and join Antifa. Options—both of them—that require the denial of our moral and spiritual commitment to militant, love-based nonviolence.
I and many others are hungry for a third option. Some of us use the metaphor of “the 78” to talk about this third option. The number 78 refers to the 78 members of Gandhi’s ashram who launched the Salt March, probably the most pivotal campaign of the Indian Independence Movement. Those 78 were exceptionally prepared for nonviolent direct action because of their rootedness to the holistic kind of nonviolence that Gandhi taught and modeled. A small number of us are beginning to build the DNA for a decentralized, self-organizing, integral nonviolence movement structure here in the US, where folks who are prepared and ready can find one another and step into the struggle side by side. For three weeks in late January to early February, twenty or so of us will be gathering in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to do some of this foundational work together.
It’s important to note that we’re not building this in order to show the rest of the movement the right way to engage in the struggle. We’re building this because we want to have a place in the struggle, because we want to bring our unique gift to the party.
What excites you about working with East Point?
I’m excited to work with East Point because it’s an organization deeply grounded in the understanding that nonviolence is an all-encompassing approach. And it doesn’t just theorize and talk about that understanding, it lives it—in prison settings, in the community at large, in the movement. I’m deeply inspired by East Point’s creativity and openmindedness as an organization, and by the way it balances direct person-person service with an expansive, long haul vision for deep-rooted transformation.