Profile of a Warrior: Gus Newport

“The pursuit of peace means the gentle treatment of all people.” – Gus Newport

As a volunteer for the East Point Peace Academy, I recently had the privilege to meet up with civil rights leader, former mayor of Berkeley and peace advocate Gus Newport. Through several hours of conversation, we explored the intimate relationship between racism, social justice, and the our cultural relationship to education in the United States.

gusA descendant of African American slaves, Mr. Newport was born and raised in Rochester, New York. As a child, Mr. Newport was spoon fed activism from his mother and grandmother, and quickly developed a taste for peace. As a teenager, he was recognized as one of the brightest minds in his community, and was supported in cultivating his power and precision with words as a member of a traveling debate team. But in 1961 after the police invaded a Black Muslim mosque in Rochester, Gus met Malcolm X, and his life changed when he decided to put his voice into action.

During the 1960’s and 70’s America witnessed an unprecedented movement for equality led by black Americans, and fueled by 300 years of frustration, anger and oppression. Yet, as stated by Mr. Newport,  “Why is it that we, who were the most victimized were the ones who had to make the adjustments in order to create the conditions for the greater society? Why were we responsible for being the educators and the trainers?” To fully understand the roots of this distorted responsibility, we must dive deeply into the foundations of education, oppression, and privilege in the United States.

As a student of peace educator Colman McCarthy so beautifully stated, “Why are we violent but not illiterate? Because we are taught to read.” This powerful observation is the perfect place to begin this exploration. In order for America to successfully heal and grow forward, it is important to understand the history of colonialism, the personal and collective struggles of civil rights leaders, their accomplishments and the failures that they faced. To be wholly educated about the Civil Rights Movement, it is crucial to explore and examine the perspectives of leaders, participants, students, and elders through open, intergenerational dialogue.

A point that Mr. Newport made clear is, “History is not recorded in the United States, it is propaganda.” During the civil rights movement, leaders and participants did not take the time to stop, reflect and record their experiences—so the majority of literature available now was written in retrospect, allowing it to paint a very biased picture.  This being said, it is imperative to the health and knowledge of future generations that we all engage in dialogue with people who were directly involved with the civil rights movement before it is too late. . “In order to accomplish peace going forward, we have to document, absolutely, what happened going from slavery to the civil rights movement, where were adjustments made, but really be able to show younger generations what was accomplished and what never changed.” The current generation needs to recognize what a privilege it is that many of these wise elders are still here, and have stories that we need to be lifted on the shoulders of their struggles, not retrace the footsteps of their failures.

Establishing proper records and opening the conversation is a starting point—but it is equally as important to teach young people how to think critically about the source and content of what they are learning. To be truly educated is to have the ability to think critically, to be emotionally aware, and connected to the larger picture. To explore all perspectives and live with empathy. Education as we know it will be worse than useless for the health and wellbeing of future generations if there is no regard given to cumulative wisdom in the history of humanity, and the how to apply this knowledge in the real world.  True education values the power of community and integrates the wisdom of the oppressed with the perspectives of the privileged in an effort to move towards mutual respect, accountability and eventually peace.

“The American people—especially the working class and the poor—have less of analysis of their conditions that the people in the 3rd world who are illiterate. I found that out in traveling—now explain to me how that happens. People who are illiterate and living in poverty in the 3rd world—Central America, Africa… If you get into a deep talk, they can tell you the conditions that perpetuate their circumstances. American poor—including blacks—don’t understand because they have been led to think—because of the media, that we are better off than people in other countries… But who has more crime and violence? We do.”

Gus Newport, far right at the 2014 Peace from Within Graduation inside San Bruno Jail

Gus Newport, far right at the 2014 Peace from Within Graduation inside San Bruno Jail

Profound social change and overarching peace will be the byproducts of a holistic education system, yet our culture has formed reliance upon mass media as a primary source of education. Improperly used media has the ability to isolate actions of cultural uprising, instill paralyzing fear in its viewers and systematically remove opportunities for viewers to engage in critical thought.

A prime example of the media isolating and systematically discrediting the power of a grassroots social uprising can be seen today regarding Black Lives Matter. Mainstream media shows selective and carefully crafted perspectives on isolated current events without any mention of the ongoing and underlying circumstances that have made the actions of Black Lives Matter necessary. Instead, the image being portrayed by certain media outlets is leading people to believe that it is a movement of needless debauchery, unwarranted anger and unprovoked violence.

However, in reality, Black Lives Matter is a mycelial network connecting diverse populations to shed light upon, and transform the unfair and inhumane treatment that black people in America are facing. It is a call to end police brutality, to end systemic oppression and bring together people from all walks of life as allies, spokespeople and educators. Black Lives Matters is propelling the movement forward without putting the responsibility of transformation on the shoulders of the oppressed. Unlike during the Civil Rights Movement, today we have the technology that allows us to share the first hand accounts of people who are in the struggle every day. Hopefully, this will empower Black Lives Matter to harness the work being done now as an educational tool for lasting change. But it is our responsibility to seek out the first hand experiences and critically engage with the mainstream portrayal of the media in order to examine our own roles and unconscious beliefs– for structural inequity relies upon the stifling of curiosity.

Education is the crucial groundwork for social transformation, but as shown by leaders such as Malcolm X, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, spiritual and introspective practices are what empower us to do the work, and hold it all together. Spirituality offers curiosity and freedom of the self. It breaks the shackles of oppression and allows us to see and engage with the world more clearly.  As Mr. Newport pontificated, “Introspection is necessary in order to maintain the commitment and the thrust to keep wanting to do this work, you have to have some spirituality. There are bad days where without it you will turn somewhere else completely. Spirituality allows you to be objective—to see the whole picture.” Sustained peace for future generation will require our culture to collectively shift towards inner peace, compassion and personal resilience. Tying together education and spirituality is the network that Martin Luther King referred to as the beloved community—a crucial network of love and compassion between all living beings, that without, no one will succeed. Together as beloved community we have the ability to uproot the systemic oppression and isolation to reclaim our own personal power and follow the great arc of justice. Together we can challenge ourselves to explore diverse perspectives and respect all life with love, dignity and respect. For after all, the pursuit of peace means the gentle treatment of all people.

Here I leave you with a beautiful piece of advice from the courageous and wise Mr. Newport,  “Feel happy, think positive, embrace others, and try to learn from people who seemingly have a lot of knowledge. But don’t ever be shy or afraid to ask a question if you have something that concerns you, or you don’t fully understand. Because it is those steps we take when we are receiving information that if we don’t fully grasp an analysis of what it is, we begin crippling ourselves as we go forward to the next step, because we are translating without fully understanding the previous one.” Through this conversation I learned that it is our responsibility to educate each other and ourselves. Not with books and schools, but with deep human connection and conversation. We must learn to be critical, compassionate and open to change. We must be grounded in reality, and inspired by the intangible. We must question the way things are, and trust that a peaceful future is possible.

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