Is the conflict in the Congo too complex for Americans to care about—even though we’re connected to it?

Image from Eeric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images: source:http://www.ibtimes.com/congos-conflict-minerals-us-companies-struggle-trace-tantalum-tungsten-tin-gold-their-2102323

Image from Eeric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images: source:http://www.ibtimes.com/congos-conflict-minerals-us-companies-struggle-trace-tantalum-tungsten-tin-gold-their-2102323

Recently, I gave a presentation at a church in Dover, New Hampshire entitled, “Uncommon Insight, Empathy to Inclusion.” While I believed the congregation would have found the story of my family’s escape from the civil war in the Congo compelling, I wanted to focus instead on our adjustment and integration into American life, largely through the development of relationships with people willing to help us. To journey back to what felt like a distant past was exhausting and, frankly, seemed wasteful, since I am a very different person today than I was then.

Why else did I not want to retell my Congo experience? Mainly because my intent could be misinterpreted. When I do retell this story, it’s not to seek sympathy for me personally. Nor is it to boast about my own triumph of survival. In short, I don’t retell this story for me. I retell it for the millions of Congolese people who are voiceless and seeking an advocate to guide them to a better life. Additionally, the more my life in America continued to prosper, the less often the atrocities I experienced and my lucky escape were top of mind. The reality of my present fogs the reality of the past, which is still a daily reality for millions of people all over the world. Nevertheless, I am reminded of this terrible reality every time I read or watch the news. And this energizes me. It increases my desire to retell my story and advocate for those in need anyway I can. And so I came to the conclusion that I could not deliver an effective presentation about empathy and inclusion without first telling my audience, literally and figuratively, where I was coming from.

Deo and his brothers the first few days in New Hampshire after resettlement from a Refugee camp in Benin.

Deo and his brothers the first few days in New Hampshire after resettlement from a Refugee camp in Benin.

I started telling my story right after I moved to the states as a healing process and therapy. Eighteen years later I am still telling the same story. My hope of course was that while I was telling my story, things would get better in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And that the tragic war-torn story of Congolese people, like my own Congo story, would become past tense. My hope was not realized. The atrocities in the Congo continued. Which made the urgency of shining a light on it all the more crucial.

Deo sharing his story at a school in Pittsburgh, PA

Deo sharing his story at a school in Pittsburgh, PA

In the last few weeks some mainstream media have covered some of the atrocities, protests and censorship that are happening today in the Congo. The term of the current president, Joseph Kabila, ended in December 2016, but he refuses to give up his power. He is assassinating and arresting his opponents; basically anyone who speaks against him. Kabila assumed power in 2001, after the former president, his father, was assassinated by his bodyguard.

Executed protesters in the capital of Congo Kinshasa. https://www.nytimes.com/topic/destination/congo

Executed protesters in the capital of Congo Kinshasa. https://www.nytimes.com/topic/destination/congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long history of atrocity and genocide. According to the UN, 6 million people have died there from war-related causes since 1996. The country is blessed and cursed with an abundance of natural resources, including coltan, uranium, diamond, cobalt, copper, gold and zinc. More than 60 percent of the world’s coltan comes from the Congo. This is where the American connection comes in. Coltan is the raw material that goes into making the computer chips and LCD screens in our televisions, iPhones, PlayStations and satellites. And the raw uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima—credible sources say it came from a mine in what was then the Belgian Congo. In fact, many western governments and corporations have played a role in the outcome of Congolese conflicts in order to secure their interests and exploit its natural resources.

Image from Spencer Platt/Getty Image: Taken from http://www.ibtimes.com/congos-conflict-minerals-us-companies-struggle-trace-tantalum-tungsten-tin-gold-their-2102323

Image from Spencer Platt/Getty Image: Taken from http://www.ibtimes.com/congos-conflict-minerals-us-companies-struggle-trace-tantalum-tungsten-tin-gold-their-2102323

(Read more about Congo’s Minerals and the conflict:https://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-conflict-minerals-funded-a-war-that-killed-millions/)

In the early 1870s, Belgium’s King Leopold II claimed the Congo as his prize possession. And he carried out massive atrocities to plunder the natural resources to which he thought he was entitled. Belgium’s control of the region lasted until the late 1950s. In 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo won its independence. America gave its support in order to secure its mining interests. But the country’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was viewed as a threat to western countries. That led to his assassination with the help of the CIA. Mobutu, commander of the armed forces, became a great ally of America. He became president in 1965 after Lumumba was ousted.

President Mobutu and President Richard Nixon. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons

President Mobutu and President Richard Nixon. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the Congo never benefited from the wealth of its own natural resources. But while profiting tremendously themselves, western corporations made Mobutu a billionaire. Mobutu was compared to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. He had several wives and real estate all over the world. He appointed his sons to high government positions. And he was a great ally of the United States—until the early 1990s when he turned his back on the American government and American mining companies.

During this time, my father worked for Mobutu’s administration. Mobutu was paranoid and did not trust anyone. He knew the influence western government had on his government officials. He did not want what he did to Lumumba to happen to him. He appointed Mahele Bokungu Lieko, a popular general whom many people respected, as chief of staff. My father was the senior advisor to the chief of staff. My father was a behind-the-scenes guy with no public presence. The Congolese people were sick and tired of Mobutu and were ready for a new leader. Western governments found a new puppet to manipulate. Laurent Kabila (father of current President Joseph Kabila) was a businessman in Eastern Congo with whom many foreign businesses made deals. He was never interested in politics until a perfect opportunity came his way. The American strategists who studied the area knew how to remove Mobutu from power and planned a coup, which involved neighboring countries, including Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. All involved had something to gain if the coup succeeded. Significantly, U.S. mining companies had the money to finance the coup. Laurent Kabila signed over certain mining deals to US companies and lowered taxes. Some of the companies were so sure of their plan to overthrow Mobutu that they paid portions of the mining contracts upfront through secure overseas accounts. Bill Clinton’s administration played a huge role in this through lobbying groups of the mining companies.

Deo's father in the Congo in 1995.

Deo's father in the Congo in 1995.

(Read more on Rwanda’s involvement in overthrowing Mobutu: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/congo/stories/070997.htm)

Mobutu was overthrown in 1997. Millions died in the war. Some of the bids made by mining companies for contracts were successful. Neighboring countries that helped Laurent Kabila take power were unsure of his ability to honor their portion of the deal. Since they already had rebel troops in the Congo, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Kabila also started to explore options with other companies who were offering better deals. A South African mining company came into the picture. American companies were not too happy about Kabila’s approach. They lost trust in him and strategized ways to decentralize power, so they could deal directly with local government/rebel groups in territories where the mining companies were located. They also collaborated with rebel leaders who were backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Suddenly countries like Rwanda and Uganda started exporting large quantities of minerals which could not be found within their borders.

Laurent Kabila and his rebel soldiers in 1996. Image Corninne Dufka/Reuters:http://www.newsweek.com/history-written-blood-63179

Laurent Kabila and his rebel soldiers in 1996. Image Corninne Dufka/Reuters:http://www.newsweek.com/history-written-blood-63179

(Read the influence of western government and corporations in the Congo: https://newint.org/features/2004/05/01/congo)

Kabila went back to ex-Mobutu employees to try to gain approval and rebuild the country. He was afraid of losing power and started executing anyone he felt was a threat. My father thought it was a great opportunity to help rebuild Congo when Kabila’s administration reached out to him. But it ended up being a trap that led to my father’s assassination in 1997. Kabila lost control of the country. People took the law into their own hands. Kabila did nothing to stop the Congolese people from massacring thousands of Rwandans and Burundians who were living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after fleeing their own genocides. Public executions of former Mobutu workers, Rwandans and Burundians became commonplace. I witnessed many of these myself. The Congolese people felt this was the only way they could even the score for all the problems Mobutu caused and for all the killings done by Rwandan, Burundian and Ugandan rebels in the eastern side of Congo.

Vengeance eventually overtook people Kabila trusted. His own bodyguard turned against him and executed him in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, was appointed the next Congolese president. Joseph played it safe, making amends for all the wrongs his father committed against his former allies. Mining companies, predominantly American and Israeli, won bids to extract tons of raw minerals. The raw minerals—used in popular consumer products like iPads, iPhones, video game systems, flat TVs and so on—are in high demand. But many western corporations are exploiting the Congolese people by providing substantial financial gain to government officials. Neighboring countries like Rwanda are also benefiting by smuggling the raw minerals into their countries and exporting them out.

Laurent Kabila's funeral ceremony in 2001. Source of the image:http://www.economist.com/node/486713

Laurent Kabila's funeral ceremony in 2001. Source of the image:http://www.economist.com/node/486713

(Additional Reading on Kabila’s family: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-01-26/inside-amazon-s-giant-spheres-where-workers-chill-in-a-mini-rainforest)

Every administration since 1960 has been lobbied by favorite western mining companies seeking to gain a stronger foothold in the Congo. In May of 2016, when the Panama Papers came out, it was revealed that the Clinton Foundation had a direct connection to Congolese government officials. Specifically, to President Kabila’s private company, which had donated substantially to the foundation. Another article that year claimed that the State Department had lobbied the Congolese government to give a contract to one mining company over another. That same western company donated a substantial amount of money to the Clinton Foundation.

(Read more about Clinton’s involvement in Congo : https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardminiter/2016/04/17/why-did-congo-offer-clinton-650000-for-two-pics-and-a-speech/2/#34f2f0007b6a)

I did not want this article to be a history paper. I wanted to highlight the influences behind the Congo political upheaval that has led to 6 million deaths since 1996. Congolese refugees are amongst the largest groups of displaced people in the world. The U.S. government made a commitment back in 2014 to resettle 50,000 Congolese. The few that have had a chance to resettle in America are working hard earning a living to provide a better future for their family here in America and back home.

Deo at Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda with Congolese refugees in 2015

Deo at Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda with Congolese refugees in 2015

Many factors have contributed to the atrocities and instabilities of Congo. Not one organization or individual is to blame for all of it. Western countries and corporations have played an important role in keeping the exploitation going and benefit from the low wages paid to those who mine the massive amount of minerals exported from Congo everyday. Congolese immigrants are our neighbors, friends, classmates and fellow citizens. We cannot allow them to fight this battle alone as thousands of people continue to die as a result of the conflict. We need to create more awareness of this tragic situation. We need to stand by the Congolese, listen to their stories and advocate for legislation that provides hope for those who can sponsor their family members to come to the states. We need to support NGOs that are doing great work in the Congo to help the helpless. We need to educate our communities about the conflict and how we are intimately connected to it through the technologies we use. We need people to advocate for clean minerals and demand transparency from our government which supports neighboring countries who are adding to the conflict. If “We Are All Human” and we care about human life, we should care about the Congoleses men and women who are voiceless.

The solution is not resettlement. It is not possible to resettle all the Congolese who are suffering and running for their lives. But we cannot be silent and ignore the worst genocide of our generation when we are closely so connected economically to the conflict and to the raw minerals that go into the technology we use everyday.

Illustration taken from:https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/

Illustration taken from:https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/

We must bring awareness to the U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen who are sometimes manipulated by lobbying organizations advocating for their clients. Companies you buy your electronics from depend on the raw materials extracted from the mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is time to rise up and advocate for the lives of those who are caught in this destructive cycle which has been going on for the last 25 years. We need to pressure our government to be on the side of humanity in order to end the worst genocide and holocaust of our time.

Build relationships with the Congolese people, learn their stories, discover how to make a difference by creating more awareness of their tragic situation. In short, become a better neighbor. That’s what we need to do. Not as an act of charity. But as fulfillment of our obligation.

 

 

Men are Dogs - Let’s change the Reality

Image might be subject to copyright. Taken from Pinterest

Image might be subject to copyright. Taken from Pinterest

Everyday now we hear more accusations of sexual harassment, assault and rape against powerful and influential men. It’s a sad thing. But what’s worse is that these types of behavior have not only been tolerated in every area of our world, but in many cases they have been encouraged. Most of the men around me have not been surprised to learn the extent of these behaviors and understand the conditions that have allowed them to happen. But they also believe that many more revelations of such deplorable behavior will continue to come out.

As the son of a single mother, husband to an amazing wife and father of a wonderful daughter, I am grateful for, and appreciative of, the women in my life. And, naturally, I feel very protective of them. I want them to be safe from abusive men and enjoy all the benefits and equal rights to which they are entitled. Of course, I do not expect unacceptable male behavior to vanish simply by shining a light on the problem. So I will do whatever I can to advocate for real change. At the same time, I will do whatever I can to be the best man I can be. To this end, I’d like to share some of my observations.

I celebrate the power and courage of women everywhere who are willing to step out, share and relive what has happened to them. In doing so, they have created an opportunity to disrupt how our society views women. Negative attitudes and behaviors toward women have been tolerated for centuries. And they have changed over time only when women have fought for their equality and autonomy. But clearly they have not changed nearly enough.

In modern society, the media and entertainment industries have been a major problem for women. These outlets have driven the narrative of how women should be viewed and treated. And that narrative has not changed much over the years, even as women have gained more power and control. From the 50’s until today, women have been objectified for entertainment and the fulfillment of male sexual urges and fantasies. Images have been embedded in us through sexual content and have influenced our views of women regardless of what we believe to be the right thing.

Religion, education and the government have not done a great job of helping to define womanhood or how women should be treated. So even when the ideologies started to change, male behaviors within our institutions rarely changed along with them. In the absence of institutional leadership, the entertainment and media industries defined and visualized what a woman should be. In fact they took control in a massive way. Film, music and eventually adult entertainment and media, including the likes of Playboy and Hustler, took things to the next level, visualizing male fantasy by casting women to perform certain things that triggered the male brain to want more than fantasy. Dominant males, who had money and resources, sought to turn fantasy into reality and used whatever means available to them to get what they wanted.

Image might be subject to copyright. Taken from Google

Image might be subject to copyright. Taken from Google

Is it any surprise then that, even as ideologies about womanhood started to change, male behaviors rarely changed along with them?

This brings me to my next point: Power. Men who have power often wrestle with how they can utilize this power to fulfill their sexual desires and fantasies. For some men, power and access mean power over women to get whatever they want. They feel like they can buy anybody and buy themselves out of the troubles they cause. When males have power and influence, some feel that a true measure of their success is how many women they can catch and take advantage of. And where does this influence come from? Back to the media and entertainment. Visual entertainment relies heavily on sexuality in order to sell. And even men, who know better, find it hard to separate reality, entertainment and fantasy. Most sexual fantasy for men comes from movies and pornography. A lot about what we have been taught about sexuality also comes from these mediums. The problem is, these mediums are fictional and do not truly reflect human emotions. But we have allowed them to influence what we yearn for in our sexual relationships. In other words, fantasy drives male expectations. We are programed by the media.

The Image taken online from The New Yorker. Image might be subject to copyright

The Image taken online from The New Yorker. Image might be subject to copyright

Men today have an opportunity to admit where they have gone wrong with their definition and expectations of women. And they can only do this by listening to how women define themselves. Men need to learn what women’s autonomy is and how not to infringe upon it. We need to view this autonomy without being influenced by male preferences or preconceptions. This is a great starting point for men. Beginning now, we can encourage empowerment of the women in our lives, so they can be free to redefine what it means to be women and how they should be treated.

It will take time for men to reprogram centuries of perspectives and mindsets that have been instill in us. But we need to start somewhere if we are ever going to ensure that women can feel equal and have the freedom to be themselves without being bound to male preferences. It will take some learning and listening to become better boyfriends, husbands, brothers, sons and fathers to the women in our lives. We also need to identify our weakness when it comes to sexual urges and desires. Many of the men we are seeing on the news today felt invisible and untouchable. They believed they could demand and act upon whomever, whenever, and wherever they wanted to. They could not control their sexual urges and needed to assert their male dominance constantly. No amount of rationalizing, minimizing or ignoring can justify such behaviors. The suffering and pain men have caused woman is immeasurable. It needs to stop.

We need to do better. We must do better. We have to recognize inappropriate sexual urges and desires in order to transform and redirect our thoughts to those we love and share companionship with. We need to make sure we do not sexually harass someone with suggestive remarks or behaviors. We also need to confront our sexual thoughts and fantasies regarding women who are around us who are not our wives. If we do not identify, we do not have the strength to resist. We have to eliminate the possibility of acting on our fantasies by either changing our environment or removing ourselves from it. We need to remain humble, regardless of our influence, power and wealth. The people we see on the news today, who acted on their desires and urges, convinced themselves that there was nothing wrong with their behavior. Obviously they were wrong.

For men out there who have been victorious over their sexual urges and desires, please speak up to your fellow brothers and help equip them to be better to the women around them. Have the courage to confront inappropriate behavior when you see it. To the fathers out there, teach your sons to respect women and treat them with dignity. Find opportunities to introduce strong women into their lives, who can teach them how to treat women with respect.

To Women Everywhere

I am sorry. You do not deserve this. It is not acceptable. Please continue to speak up and demonstrate to us the proper definition of womanhood. Do not accept male dominance or it will continue. As our mothers, wives and sisters, confront us and teach us how to treat you better and not to minimize you in any way. Come at us with full force but also with patience. We have a lot to learn. Never justify or excuse our inappropriate behaviors. Whenever they happen, confront and condemn us.

To women in the entertainment industry, please redefine what sexuality is. You need to create different visualizations and narratives if we are going to see real change in how men see women. And be aggressive. You’ll need to be as forceful and consistent as the media and entertainment industries have been in creating negative visualizations and narratives

Male desire sexual can make it difficult to separate sexual reality from sexual fantasy. Those who allow intense urges to take over are the ones committing these negative acts frequently. Let’s stop this cycle and create a better future for women where they feel respected, equal and celebrated. We can do better guys!!!

 

 

Forgiveness: When anger from pain and bitterness feels too strong to consider it

Prior to resettling in New Hampshire, my day-to-day survival had taken precedence over reflecting on how past experiences impacted me. As a result, I suppressed a lot of pain and anger. But here, in New Hampshire, I was becoming more grounded and more in touch with my emotions.

From 1997 to 2002, I transitioned to a different state of mind. I started acknowledging that I was in a safer environment and that the Congolese government could no longer harm my family. I now had a great church community alongside me. My faith had always played an important part in my life. So it was natural for me to be plugged into a local church. Among other activities, I participated in a summer program called Joshua Generation (JG), which was part of Youth With A Mission Pittsburg (YWAM). The program was a community outreach for middle schoolers and high schoolers from all over the country. It was based in Pittsburgh, PA.

The timing was perfect. I was at my peak. My emotions were taking over. But I was still frustrated. Two years in New Hampshire and I still could not take full advantage of the freedom moving to the US afforded me. I was depressed, angry, paranoid, even suicidal. Fortunately, I had a great mentor from church—Joanne Trombley. I called her crying. I told here about all the emotions I was feeling. She was very consoling. She encouraged me.

When the Joshua Generation program came along, Joanne thought it would be good for me. So she urged my mother to let me go. There was only one problem—but it was kind of a big one. I was not old enough to participate. But again, good luck smiled at me. Because I was big for my age, I looked a lot older. And since Joanne had such a good relationship with the program directors, they said I could go. My mother eventually did too. I was excited to be away for a few weeks in the summer.

Deo at JG 2002

Deo at JG 2002

First year at JG

I was excited to leave New Hampshire and participate in JG. I was one of the youngest participants. There were teens from all over the country. The program had drama, dance and worship teams. I did all three. I learned my first choreography there. I thought it was very cool to learn dance and perform in dramas. I had played the conga and bongo drums at my church. So it was natural for me to play for JG. I enjoyed playing the drums and being part of the workshop team. My experience at JG was a welcome distraction from all the things that were going on with me emotionally. There were intimate reflection/prayer times during the first week, which triggered some of my internal emotions, but I was able to suppress the deeper ones.

We got to travel. My team went the East Coast of New England—from Pittsburgh all the way up to Laconia, NH. We stopped along the way in some very impoverished neighborhoods to do community evangelism through performing arts and community services. This was my introduction to inner city America outside of New Hampshire. Prior to this, my American experience had been limited to New Hampshire. I was grateful to live in New Hampshire but it did not have much diversity. In 2002, New Hampshire was probably 97% white. What little diversity there was in the state was concentrated in the towns where I lived—Manchester, Concord, and Nashua. Of the non-whites, fewer were blacks and African immigrants. Through JG, I was able to see other communities in America with rich cultural ethnicity.

My JG leaders thought it would be good for me to share my story of how my family made it out of the Congo and how my family’s faith protected us and kept us together. I was up for it. I was a fearless, albeit amateur, presenter. And my story proved impactful. As for my fearlessness, that came from my life experiences. I was not scared to be in any neighborhood in America. I thought America was paradise. It even had water fountains in local parks. So even when people told us that the neighborhoods we visited were the worst and most dangerous in their communities, I had no fear because the situation I came from in the Congo was worse. It was very hard for me to understand why people in those communities felt hopeless and why they were not grateful for what they had. When I was given an opportunity to present my story, I included a comparison between my Congo environment and the communities I was visiting. That seemed to resonate with people. Some people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for sharing my perspective about my struggles, fears, dangers, and survival.

Disconnect between relationship building and mission

It was cool to see people impacted by my comparison. But I was naïve. All I saw were the opportunities and privileges these poor communities had in comparison to my experiences as a refugee of war. I lacked the ability to see how the institutionalized disadvantages of these communities prevented them from moving forward—educationally and economically. I could blame that on JG organizers because they focused so much on the mission. They forgot to build relationships with the communities we were serving and ministering to. So how could we fully understand the needs and disparities these areas faced?

I was the only black guy in most the teams I was a member of. Cultural competencies were clearly lacking with JG organizers during earlier trips. This lack of knowledge influenced how I viewed the impoverished communities I visited and served, especially the black communities. Still, I do not blame JG organizers for skewing my point of view regarding impoverished black communities. Often the kids in neighborhoods I visited said I talked funny. Some said I talked white. But it never bothered me. It was paradoxical to black folks in these communities that many blacks outside their area spoke differently from them. Mostly I heard these comments from teenagers and younger kids.

JG kept me busy. It gave added meaning to my faith and I found a new gift in presenting and speaking to diverse audiences. I became good friends with some of the JG leaders. When I returned home after my first JG trip, I felt confident. All the cool stuff I did at JG suppressed my anger and pain. I was very sad the day my trip ended. I did not want to go home. But JG was only in the summer. So I had no choice. The moment I returned I felt the burden of my pain. The relationship with my mother was rotten. She was in a different relationship and had just given birth to my younger brother in May. She felt as if I were against her relationship because I did not want her to be with someone other than my father. But that was not the case.

Relationship shift with my mother

Deo and his mother Bernadette

Deo and his mother Bernadette

I had always been close to my mother. We went through a lot together. She kept our family together. Because of everything we experienced, and the trust and openness we had, I felt disconnected when she kept her new relationship separate from me. True, she had no responsibility to tell me anything. She was my mother and I was her son. But because I was the man of the house, I sometimes felt as if I were her equal. So I was very hurt about the way I found out she was pregnant. I think she might not have known how to tell me. We spent a lot of time going to Boston to visit her boyfriend. One night we went to a party with her boyfriend’s friends and someone asked to me if I was excited to have a younger brother. That was how I found out she was pregnant. I was devastated. Ever since then, I have not been able to trust what my mother told me and my siblings about her relationship with my baby brother’s dad. I did not know how I was going to move forward.

When I lived in the Congo, I experienced many painful hardships that filled me with anger. When I came to the US, I thought I would leave hardship and anger behind. I was wrong. My mother’s new relationship and the birth of my brother whose father was not my father tested me. The pain ate me up inside. I would stay up all night, thinking about my father and the little time I shared with him. I was angry!!!!!! And my anger ran deep. The pain felt like thorns piercing my heart, making it bleed. The bleeding itself did not hurt, but the thorns did. Their poking struck nerves. I felt very agitated. At times the thorns felt more like red-hot needles. They came so frequently I could not heal. I felt hopeless. And that was the worst. I could not shed the pain of my emotions. I was overcome. I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled. I gasped for air. But then I submerged again. This repeated over and over. I thought about suicide, giving up and how it would be so much better if I were no longer here. I thought my mother would realize the mistake she made by lying to me and moving forward with a guy I thought was not honest and was going to destroy what we were building. Somehow I found some strength to keep going. My church community was always there for me and now the JG organizers had become my friends, too.

Distraction from pain

Summer of 2002 finally ended. For seventh grade, I transferred to Saint Joseph Middle School in Manchester, NH. Sister Irene, a local nun who helped my family a lot, was able to get me in. I made new friends at Saint Joseph and it was one of the best opportunities I had at the time to be welcomed into a very supportive community. I was involved with soccer, dance, and the band. I was able to utilize some of the skills I developed through my JG experience. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait for the school year to end so I could return to JG the following summer.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

2002 was a challenging year. My relationship with my mother was on again, off again. She worked very hard to provide for us. She bought a bigger van after my younger brother was born to transport us around. She financed the Van, a 2002 Ford Windstar. My mother always paid everything on time. Her boyfriend decided to take on paying for the car insurance and I was happy he was stepping up and helping. Not everything about him was bad. There was some stuff about him that I admired. He was very smart and well educated. I loved talking politics and diplomacy with him. He was a huge soccer fan, a sport I enjoyed very much growing up. I respected him to a certain extent. After all, I still needed a father figure in my life. He had some attributes similar to my father, especially regarding education. I wanted things to work out between him and my mother, even though he had certain qualities I was not crazy about. I wanted my mother to be happy and have someone besides me to take care of her.

But just when things were getting better they got worse. My mother’s boyfriend was supposed to pay for the car insurance monthly. We found out the hard way that he was not paying it. My mother got into a car accident in a winter storm. Her car needed to be towed and we called the insurance company. They informed us she was not covered because she did not pay her insurance for the last three months. I was devastated and angry. My mother’s boyfriend was supposed to pay for the insurance monthly because he took on that responsibility. Now my mother’s van had $2500 worth of damage, which she needed to pay for out for her pocket. My mother’s boyfriend had excuses of why the payments did not go through. But his excuses did not help the situation. My mother needed to save money to pay for the repair. And the car could not be driven in the meantime. For a month and a half we were without a vehicle. I felt like we went back to zero. We worked hard to have a vehicle and we were progressing. My mother’s boyfriend’s negligence set us back. My mother had to pay for a taxi to pick up my brothers and drop them at daycare. We lost our vehicle from mid-February to the end of April. We went back to pushing shopping carts home after grocery shopping. I was furious! And not simply at my mother’s boyfriend. My anger towards my father’s side of the family intensified, too. I thought about the time after my father’s assassination when his family gave my mother an ultimatum. They suggested she leave the kids with them and restart her life alone, to go find someone else to take care of her. When my mother said no, my father’s family washed their hands of her and gave us to my mother as a gift.

I kept wondering, how could they do that and give my mother such alternative? Why couldn’t they just accept all of us? Why did we kids have to be separated from my mother or separated from our uncles and aunts? To be fair, they thought they were doing the best thing for us. When my father was assassinated, it was done secretly and other government officials were assassinated and suddenly disappearing at the same time. And their families disappeared too. Our friends and families were afraid to associate with us. They didn’t know what was going to happen to us and what it would mean for them if they were caught trying to help us. My father’s family thought it would decrease the risk of the government coming back for us if we were separated. They also knew that asking questions about what happened to my father was risky. My brothers and I were young. I was only six and a half when my father was assassinated and the rest of my brothers were a lot younger. We would keep our mouths shut. But my mom went around asking people what happened to my father. The government was hush-hush. They would not say much about what happened. My mother was looking for answers. My father’s family thought her behavior was putting my brothers and me in danger.

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But despite these realizations, it still hurt that they wanted to break up our family. I felt bitterness and anger towards them. And as my mother struggled to make money to have our car fixed, I resented my father’s family for abandoning us. I was hurting badly. Even the Bissonette family, who spent the first two years helping us, had distanced themselves from us when my mother’s boyfriend came into the picture. I felt lonely. No family members would come to our rescue. It was just us.

Cutting my knee ruined everything

I continued to press through. I was looking forward to attending JG in the summer of 2003.  I started fundraising by working different jobs for people at my church. One was an electrician who ran his own company. I worked for him often. I enjoyed the work, but one there was a mishap. While opening a box of lights with a brand new knife, I accidentally missed the box and cut the left side of my knee. It was a nice cut, which required a couple butterfly bandages to close. When I went home, I did not tell my mother what happened. But after a few days, she noticed I was limping. She asked me what was wrong with my knee.

Eventually I caved and confessed. My mother was very upset. She brought me to the hospital and they stitched me. She told me that because of this I was not going to JG. I was devastated. She took away the only thing I was looking forward to and had been working so hard to afford. But her decision was final. I did not go to JG that summer. Instead I played a lot of soccer and prepared for my eighth-grade season. Playing sports was good therapy for me.

I went back to school in the fall and worked very hard my eighth year. I had a great community around me at Saint Joseph. I made an agreement with my mother that to celebrate my eighth-grade graduation I was going to go to JG the summer of 2004. I also planned to find a way to move in with some of the JG leaders at their base after JG ended. Some of the staff lived at the base full time. They facilitated other programs throughout the year. Towards the end of eighth grade, I told most of my close friends I was going to move to Pennsylvania to live with the JG leaders. I was convinced I was going to find a way to live with them.

Internal confrontation

I raised enough money to return to JG in the summer of 2004. I went to Pittsburgh for a one-week training camp to learn the dances and dramas before doing outreach. That year, my team was going to East Chicago to work with a local community center called Agape. I was excited to be going to Chicago. This time around I was little more mature and I knew what to anticipate at JG. I was also a better dancer. I was able to suppress most of my negative feelings because I was away from home and enjoying myself.

Deo and his friend Ben at JG 

Deo and his friend Ben at JG 

One night, we had an evening service where a speaker talked about forgiveness. I was ignoring most of the stuff the speaker was saying because I felt like I was all set and I did not need to forgive anyone. I tried to remember whom I had anger and hatred towards, but I could not identify anyone. But the more the speaker spoke, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. It was like standing in front of the audience and suddenly thinking my zipper might be open. I attempted to ignore the feelings. Then suddenly I felt like someone grabbed me by the back and lifted me out of my seat. I attempted to fight back, but I wasn’t strong enough. I found myself standing. I kept saying to myself, “I am fine, I do not need to forgive anyone.” I felt sadness in my heart and anger arose from my inner soul. I said to myself, “This is not happening to me right now. I’m imagining it.”

Before I could send my emotions back from where they came from, I felt like someone opened the wound in my heart by pulling the stitches apart. I started bleeding and I did not know how to stop the blood from flowing. When I realized I could not stitch the wound back together, I started to scream. “God, I need you to come into my heart and take away the pain, anger, and bitterness!” I felt heavy. Like my prayers were bouncing back to me, buffeted back by mesh walls that prevented my sound from escaping. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Images of different events that occurred in my life started playing back in my head like a movie.

I saw scenes of people being burned alive. I was brought to my father’s secret funeral. I was taken back to the night when my mother was arguing with my father’s family. I saw the hopelessness on my mother’s face. I saw my brother Destin, sick as a dog, at the hospital and a doctor telling my mother that she needed to sacrifice buying us food to buy my brother meat, which he needed to get healthy. I saw another scene of my family in the refugee camp when we ran out of food and my mother was using corn powder to make oatmeal for us. We ate oatmeal for a few days until the UN gave us our monthly food. I saw my mother come home crying, saying she was being treated horribly at work because she did not speak English. It was her first job in America and she had only started two weeks prior. I was taken to a scene of my mother handing me the phone, a few months after we resettled in New Hampshire, to talk to my father’s brothers. I did not say a word because I hated them. I was taken to a scene when my brother and I found out my mother was pregnant. Then I saw myself translating for my mother, telling her that the insurance company had cancelled the coverage on our car because her boyfriend never paid the monthly bills.

The “Aha” Moment!

I realized at that moment that I had been carrying all of this pain and anger. I heard a voice saying to me that I needed to let go. I argued with myself and said, “But I’m not supposed to let go. My experiences justify my feelings.” The voice was insistent. “Let go!” it shouted. I started screaming from the top of my lungs—in French, Lingala, Swahili and English, “Okay, okay. I forgive! I forgive! I forgive!” The more I screamed, the more the walls that held back my voice crumbled. The power of my voice pushed through. The sound punctured my skin and burst through. Liquid, pus, and blood flowed out the puncture. I continued to scream. I started to feel lighter and empty inside. And my scream of pain and anger turned to hope.

It was then that I realized my scream had been a declaration of freedom and that I was being spiritually transformed from the inside out. I was sweating and had lost my voice from screaming. But I wasn’t done. I had declared my freedom from the bondage of pain, depression, and bitterness. I asked God to take it away—not just the spiritual reality of it, but the physical reality as well. I needed to move forward. Trusting in my faith and confronting my emotional captivity allowed me to accept letting go of my pain and anger. I had been holding on to the past and the past was eating me from the inside out. By taking the action to forgive, I was able to trust in being free and vulnerable—enough to let go. Spiritually, my faith in God has never forsaken me. It provided me with a different perspective to tackle my physical reality. My spiritual walk has always brought me to a place of humility. For the longest time, I never allowed that humanity in my heart. When I surrendered and trusted in the process of letting go and healing, I was able to shift the chemical imbalance that had made me afraid and, at the same time, had tricked me into feeling that holding onto my anger and bitterness gave me control when, in fact, the opposite was true.

When I opened my eyes, only a few people were left in the room where the presentation took place. I walked up to one of the staff and I asked if I could use their phone. I ran outside to call my mother in New Hampshire. As I talked, I started crying. I told her I was sorry and I just wanted her to be happy. I thanked her for everything she had done for me. I thanked her over and over and over and over I said I was sorry. My mother said, “It’s okay, Deo. It’s okay. I know, I know, I know.” I told her I was a new person and I felt light and I forgave everyone. My mother told me she was happy and I did not need to carry the burden anymore. “Be free, my son.” And I felt free. I was a new person. I had peace in my heart. I had no longer felt hatred or bitterness toward my mother, my mother’s boyfriend, my father’s family, or even the Congolese government who assassinated my father. But, most importantly, I needed to forgive myself, and to no longer allow all the images and memories I carried from Congo’s civil war and living in the refugee camp to control my life. I spent a lot of time sharing my story of restoration and freedom from anger and bitterness to people I connected with through JG in Chicago. After JG was over, I decided to return home. And I did so as a new person. Forgiving changed my trajectory for the better. If I never took ownership to forgive, I would not have been able to move forward with my life.

Deo and his brothers in the spring of 2004

Deo and his brothers in the spring of 2004

What does it mean for you

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful human tools. Our emotions play an important part in who we are. The anger or pain we carry keeps us from moving forward. If we are not careful, it becomes part of us. It influences our behaviors in how we love ourselves and others. Forgiving is an act that happens within us. It is the freeing of ourselves from pain, anger and bondage. The anger, bitterness and pain caused by not forgiving is very deceiving. It tricks us into protecting those feelings because it is the only way we feel like we have control of our reactions to the painful experiences we go through every day.

You have the power and free will to confront your emotions. It is important to acknowledge the impact that withholding forgiveness has on you. It is also critical to acknowledge the emotions behind this refusal to forgive. Most people are in denial about such emotions and suppress them like I did. The chemicals you release internally, due to these negative emotions, often result in toxic behavior externally and no one likes that version of you. My freedom came from my faith in God and trust in the process of surrendering. I acknowledged that I had anger and bitterness. I realized I needed to let go. I trusted in myself that things were going to be okay when I did let go. I trusted in God that He was going to transform me. I trusted that better and positive emotions would replace the toxic ones once I decided to let go.

If you are not a person of faith, you will need to find something else you can hold onto to help you find the courage and strength to substitute positive feelings for toxic ones. Get involved with something that uplifts your spirit as you enter the forgiveness phase. Find people you trust who can walk alongside your process of reconciliation.

Remember, forgiveness is all on you. Nothing others do will change how you feel. You need to name your negative emotions. Take ownership of them. Confront them internally. Control them. Replace them with positive emotions. Forgive.

 

My passion of learning indicated I was an A student but my report card said I was a C,D,F student. A second chance to redeem myself changed my education path.

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When I was growing up, education was always important to me. On paper, I was not the best student in Middle school and High school but I always loved learning. I developed great relationships with my teachers even when I did not have the best test scores.

I was an analytic and process learner. I had to place the context of the subject in real life in order to retain the material. Building alliances with my teachers was always the starting point. I wanted them to know that I cared about learning and not to count me out.

Middle School Learning Experience

In middle school, I attended a private Catholic school in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had Mrs. Martineau as my 8th-grade social studies teacher. She challenged me and other students. She did not mess around. Most students either loved or hated her. I had her for homeroom and class. I knew Mrs. Martineau in 7th grade because I was part of the talent show team. Mrs. Martineau was in charge of coordinating the show. When I found out I had her for homeroom and for social studies, I was scared. The first day of class, I wanted her to know that I was a hard worker and that I respected her. I struggled at times in class but always put my best effort forward. I always participated to show her I knew the materials. Her quizzes and tests required a lot of memorization. For American history, dates and timelines were important. But memorization without contextualization was very difficult for me. When she assigned projects and essays, I made sure I submitted the work on time and covered all the requirements.

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

Deo at Saint Joseph Middle School

One time I was assigned a project on the Civil War and had to come to school wearing a costume of a doctor. So I used my mother’s sewing machine and fabrics and created a suit jacket made of corduroy materials. Then I learned everything I could about the character. I spent a lot of time researching the role of a doctor during the Civil War. This learning method worked effectively to demonstrate my knowledge. Mrs. Martineau was a confidence builder. I ended up getting a C for her class but I developed a great relationship with her. The experience taught me that, even if a teacher is hard and the class is rigorous, it’s important to build strong alliance with them to show you’re a harder worker and want to succeed in their class. I also learned the importance of showing respect. Respect was earned both ways. As a result of my efforts, Mrs. Martineau included me in many extracurricular activities.

Freshman year High School

In high school, social studies and history were my strong suits. I knew by my freshman year I was going to study political science in college. One of my best experiences in high school was being in Mrs. Monahan's social studies class my freshman year. I was initially placed in a level 2 social studies class. Within the first three weeks, she took me aside and asked me if I wanted to switch to move up to her level 3 class. I accepted the challenge and was very grateful for her encouragement. I excelled in the class and ended up averaging a B. I never had Mrs. Monahan for any other classes—she soon transferred to another school—but I maintained a great relationship with her during her time at my high school. Mrs. Monahan was a great motivator. Every time she saw me in the hallway she would call my name and sing the “Day-o! Day-o!” song.She always checked on me to see how things were going. Her challenging and encouraging me made me feel like I belonged. She, and other teachers whose teaching methods were similar, became my allies for success in high school. A sense of belonging is very important for students to feel welcomed and to be motivated to engage. I’m grateful for what Mrs. Monahan and some of my other teachers did for me during my freshman year.

When I got to high school, I wanted to prove I was a good dancer and was up to challenge anybody, anytime. With hard work and perseverance, I became one of the top dancers at school. At the time my school had about 2200 students. I befriended a teacher named Mrs. Thomas. I asked her if she was interested in being the sponsoring faculty advisor for the dance team. She said yes and invited another teacher to join who was a student teacher at the time. My friend Laura Pula, who was an upperclassman, and I put together promotions for the tryout. More than one hundred students showed up. Mrs. Thomas helped out with logistics. I had great respect from everyone who tried out because Mrs. Thomas was there to encourage me and make sure everything ran smoothly. We ran the dance team for a year and performed at school dances and assemblies. Mrs. Thomas was always there for practice and moral support. It felt good to have a teacher invested in my extracurricular passions. I ended up having her as a teacher for biology sophomore year. I got a B.

The Struggle in Chemistry

Not everything in high school was smooth sailing. I struggled with some science and math classes. My junior year was especially tough. My grades dropped tremendously. I had a chemistry and geometry teachers who were horrible and did not fit my learning styles. I failed half a semester in geometry and failed the entire year for chemistry by two points every semester. Chemistry was not my strong suit. I did not spend the proper amount of time to memorize all the rules and terms in order to pass quizzes and tests. Most of the quizzes and tests were memorization. I should have changed my approach in order to do better. I was too stubborn and continued to use the same methodologies of studying I had success with in the past, but here they did not work for me. I even tried recording some of the terms and playing them back over and over in an attempt to remember them for the tests. It did not work! I was very frustrated and spoke to the chemistry teacher numerous times, saying that I was studying but my quizzes and tests were not showing it. I remember one time I asked to look into why I kept failing her class within two points every quarter. She told me to study harder and that it was my tests and quizzes that were keeping me down. She did not give me anything tangible I could try differently in order to do better. She probably did not believe I was putting the time to study for class.

College Dream Was Crushed

There was a time in class when we were talking about college. I remember saying to my classmates, I was planning to attend  Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU, a local 4-year college at the time) for two years and transfer later to a school in Boston or in Washington DC to study political science and diplomacy. She interrupted the conversation and said, “Well Deo, you might have to think about a community college, considering the grades you’re getting in my class. SNHU is very tough to get into.”  I was crushed. I knew my grades in her class were bad and had dropped junior year. But to rule out a 4-year college right after high school was very disappointing in myself. Still, she was probably right making that guess, given my performance in her class. What bothered me though was that she was able to dismiss my dream based purely on the reality of my grades in her class, rather than supporting me when I told her I was studying and putting in the effort. I was definitely in the wrong class with the wrong teacher. And, unfortunately, she made me fearful of science.

 

I was a very atypical student. Also during my junior year, I took an AP history class, with mostly seniors, with a teacher named Mr. Paige. I loved the class. It was a self-driven course. He did not babysit us. He treated us like humans. I felt empowered knowing I could keep up with AP level material and knowing the course had mostly seniors and I was only a junior. I tried transitioning the skills that were making me successful in history to chemistry and math but it did not translate. In history and politics courses, I retained a lot of my information through discussions and listening. In chemistry, I had to find a way to visualize the lesson and relate memorization of the content to certain touch points. But that did not happen. By second semester I already had learning gremlins were destroying my confidence. The gremlins kept telling me I couldn’t do it, to drop a level, or try the same methods and expect a different result. Needless to say, at the end of my junior my overall GPA dropped substantially. My passion for education did not align with my report card. I knew I did not want to stop putting in the effort. I had no choice. School was the only pathway I had for a better future.

Going from a class of 500 to a class of 16

The summer after my junior year I received an amazing opportunity to transfer to Mount Zion Christian School. The school only had 70 high school students at the time, 17 of whom were seniors. Every student had a laptop. I thought that here I could redeem myself. My classmates, on the other hand, took the school for granted. Most of them felt like the teachers were not teaching them anything. A good portion of them went through Christian schools for their education, so Mount Zion was a familiar environment. Their learning experience provided them with the proper foundation to be good students even if they thought they were not learning much. At first, I found Mount Zion School very difficult to adjust to. Students had a lot of accountability. The syllabuses for the classes required more work as a learning deliverable than what I was used to. I stayed focused and worked very hard.

Senior Class at Mount Zion School

Senior Class at Mount Zion School

Mrs. Scoggan, my English teacher senior year, was similar to my 8th-grade teacher Mrs. Martineau. Mrs. Scoggan did not play around. Some students hated her and some students loved her. I happened to like her. But since I had just transferred to Mount Zion, I didn’t have a history with her. Regardless, I needed to do well in her class to get into college. Mrs. Scoggan liked to bundle assignments. So we were always reading three books at the time. I learned a lot about dissecting text and analyzing the content from her. We always had rich conversations about the content in class, even when some of my classmates were just BS-ing because they had read the summary from SparkNotes the period before class. I made sure I read everything and was ready to discuss the material in class. I averaged a B/C+ for her class my senior year.

I also had the opportunity to connect further with Mrs. Scoggan through Mount Zion mission trips. I was privileged to be team leader for these trips. We did several outreaches locally and one to Philadelphia where I already had some connections. I had a true alliance with Mrs. Scoggan. I made sure she knew I was a hard worker and wanted to succeed in her class.

Spirit Week at Mount Zion School

Spirit Week at Mount Zion School

Redemption, A Dream Came True

My grades increased substantially at Mount Zion, although I still struggled with some classes. Most of my classmates were college bound. Mrs. Scoggan helped me put together my college letter. I applied to several colleges. My first acceptance was from a school in Wisconsin. I was very excited and proud! My second acceptance was from SNHU, the same school my junior year chemistry teacher at Memorial told me was impossible for me to get into. I was super happy when I saw I was accepted there. I felt encouraged and energized.

Graduation at Mount Zion School

Graduation at Mount Zion School

I had come a long way. By taking full ownership of my academics, I made my actions reflect my intentions. I knew if I wanted to get accepted to college, I had to work hard for fair consideration. And I did that by focusing first on what I needed to do to improve my grades. Transferring to Mount Zion Christian School was one of the best decisions of my life. I am sure if I stayed at Memorial, my learning gremlins would have taken over since I did not have support and encouragement from the teachers whose courses I was failing.

A Different Student In College

In College, I was a different student. I went from getting Cs and Bs—and sometimes Ds and Fs in Middle School and High School to becoming an Honor and higher Honors student in College. The passion I had for learning was ignited in college. The work ethic I developed my senior year at Mount Zion proved to me I could do what was required and then some. Time management was very important for my learning success. I spent a lot of time reading and dissecting the materials outside of class. I was always participating in class. I ended up going to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire—the only school in New Hampshire that offered International Relations as a major.

I had great professors with whom I developed great relationships. My freshman year, I had a very difficult English writing teacher named Andrew Morgan. All the freshman had to take two semesters of English writing courses. Professor Morgan did not play around. He was a little harsh for a college professor. His attendance and tardy policy was no joke. I worked very hard in his class. He did not care about memorization and summarizing texts. He cared about analyzing and the writer's voice. It was similar to the analyses my senior year English teacher introduced me to, only deeper. We needed to submit a portfolio by the end of the semester. It was worth half of your grade. I worked very hard on mine and thought I was going to get an A. I ended getting a B- for the portfolio and the class. I was very disappointed. I saw other students who barely put in the effort but got better grades than I did. Over the duration of the class, I developed a relationship with Professor Morgan. It seemed like, at first, he was sizing me up, figuring out what I was all about. I participated in class and showed him respect. I asked questions every time he handed me back my graded work to learn how I could do better.

Deo's Study Spot at New England College's Library Freshman Year

Deo's Study Spot at New England College's Library Freshman Year

During spring class selection, I decided I wanted him as my English teacher again. I liked how he challenged me and what I learned from him. In part two of the required English class, I worked super hard. It was good to know we already had an established relationship. I would talk to him after class about the approach I was taking with my writing and he provided me with great feedback. I ended up completing his course with an A-.

During my senior thesis, I selected three faculty members to be part of my advisory board. Strategically, I selected a history teacher, political science teacher and professor Morgan as my English teacher. He was delighted I selected him. He helped me a great deal to contextualize my argument. My thesis counted toward both my International Relations major and my Modern European History major. Collaborating with professor Morgan for my senior thesis brought my college experience full circle. If someone told me on the first day of English class my freshman year that I was going to select him for my second English class, and that one day I would ask him to be part of thesis advisory group, I would have told them they were crazy!!

Deo at New England College Graduation 

Deo at New England College Graduation 

Take Aways And Reflection

Learning is an art form driven by many movements. The power is in ownership of the process. I came a long way from middle school to high school and to college. Even now I still have certain things I continue to work on every day to improve as a learner. In the beginning, the education system almost took my passion away because the results did not reflect my commitment and work ethic. I was fortunate to change my path during my senior year in high school. This provided me with a chance to redeem and prove myself.

Learning is about taking ownership and developing/having foundation skills. Ownership is one of many non-cognitive skills. Some like to call them soft skills, self-efficacies. Foundation skills are critical thinking, reading, writing and understanding basic math. Some students have developed foundations skills through reinforcement by their family, community, and the schools they attended during their early learning stage. Those foundation skills are instilled through repetitions. I had a dream and goal of one day going to college and had some learning strengths and weaknesses. Some of my foundation and ownership skills were weak. During the second half of my sophomore year, I allowed distractions and my environment pull me away from developing the proper skills I needed to make my dream of attending college a reality. I did not have the kind of reinforcement I needed from some of the teachers of my difficult classes. I did not have the proper structure for seeking help at home. My mother worked two jobs at times and was still struggling with her English. She was there for moral support and enforcing discipline but could not help me with the content of my studies. I also had to spend a lot of my time after school working several jobs to provide for myself. I am thankful that, at the end of my junior year, I recognized the need to take ownership and change my environment in order to have a chance at academic success. I am grateful to Mount Zion School, board chair Nick Dager and headmaster Bob Carter for giving me the second chance I needed to prove to myself that I could get the job done. I am also very grateful for the opportunity to attend New England College and for the relationships I developed there.

Today, we need teachers to motivate and ignite learning, teachers who will guide students through difficulties and never give up on them. We need teachers to help students find different outlets, which allow them to engage and demonstrate their learning in modalities that support their learning style—without compromising foundational skills. When teachers do this, academic redemption is not only possible; it’s probable. And I’m living proof of that.

 

 

What is the right way to protest?

Photo by Vinny Mwano

Photo by Vinny Mwano

The arguments about how to protest cannot be understood without first examining the different factors that contribute to them. To begin with, moral judgment influences the arguments. It is important to dissect how personal morals and values shape everyday life. Look beyond the emotional impact of the situation.  Other factors, not usually in the forefront, come into play when people discuss effective protesting methods. I personally don't take a side in this argument. I do not support violent or disruptive protesting that causes harm. But I also do not feel it is my responsibility to decide the right or wrong way for someone else to protest. Especially, if it is personal and meaningful to them.

Photo by Vinny Mwano

Photo by Vinny Mwano

I host a community discussion on Race and Inclusivity focused on a “We Are All Human" theme. The goal of the community is to help people learn and interact with others. We have to find common ground that decreases our conflicts and strengthens our unity.

Photo by Vinny Mwano at We Are All Human event at SNHU Sandbox

Photo by Vinny Mwano at We Are All Human event at SNHU Sandbox

Protesting is always a hot topic. In the last community forum, we had a passionate disagreement regarding the right way to protest. I argued that only the person who is protesting can legitimately weigh in on the issue. The protester is deeply invested in the outcome of the conflict because he or she has both the most to lose and the most to gain. Protest itself is an acknowledgment of having less power than the people, company or institution the person is protesting against. And it’s often the people with the most to lose or gain who will go to any extreme to attract attention and amplify their advocacy.

Photo by Vinny Mwano at a protest in Boston

Photo by Vinny Mwano at a protest in Boston

On the receiving end, people distinguish the different types of protesting methods they tolerate. What I often hear from the receiving side reflects personal morals and values. But that doesn’t entitle them to tell protesters the right or wrong way to protest. Even in the context of effective protesting, that determination lies with the protester. Protesters set their goals. The outcome and impact measure the effectiveness. The methods the protester uses depends on how far they are willing to go. The actions taken by the protester takes to advocate and amplify their cause is a risk. The methods used are where the conflict lies most of the time. Outsiders, who disagree with the cause or the method of protesting, tend to assess the conflict according to their own personal morals and values.

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at a protest rally in Boston.

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at a protest rally in Boston.

Webster defines the word protest as a complaint or objection against an idea, an act, or way of doing things. An event in which people gather to show disapproval of something.

I often hear people invoke Morals and Values as a way to compare Right and Wrong. This would be valid if we all shared and lived by the same morals and values. And if they were translated into our everyday actions. The reality is we do not. Everyone has his or her own morals and values that they strive to live by. This makes it hard to establish a universal truth to right and wrong in the context of how we behave and act within our moral/values. I am not saying everything is relative. Each case is different. Those who believe in some sort of absolute truth still fall short in using such truth as a guide for their everyday actions.

Google’s definition of Moral is “holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.”

Google’s definition of Value is “a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.”

Right and Wrong is very subjective in how it plays out through actions. I am arguing we should consider Right and Wrong in terms of our everyday actions, not our intentions. If you separate yourselves from your actions and identify more with your mindsets and intentions, then you are truly not living your core values. Is the best version of yourself influenced by how you act out your core values?

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We all struggle to be the best version of ourselves. The best version of yourself is influenced by many things: religion, social system, family, environment, and education. The best version of yourself changes constantly. While we aspire to be the best version of ourselves, we face challenges every day to be that person. Most of us are generous to ourselves regarding the failure of our actions to consistently align with our Core Values and Morals.

The disconnect between how you view yourself based on values changes when reflected on others. Some place themselves on a pedestal when comparing personal values to others. But it is our actions alone that reflect your values—not how you measure them in a vacuum or in comparison to others. If you agree that values influence what you consider Right and Wrong, then it is important to evaluate how this plays out in your actions. If you also agree that Right and Wrong is subjective, then that understanding should be a major factor in your expectations and how you treat others. Especially regarding issues about which you don't agree. Empathy and tolerance should not be limited to your own positions or to those you align with. It should extend to those you disagree with and have a moral conflict with.

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at We Are All Human event

Photo by Vinny Mwano taken at We Are All Human event

We naturally judge and become defensive when someone challenges our values. It is normal, but we forget we compromise our morals and values frequently. We let our morals and values down every day, by the hour and minute. We are very quick to persecute those who challenge us. We become condescending and defensive. We overlook the reason for the conflict and take offense at others’ beliefs.

Differences in morals and values create conflict. Is it possible we can find a solution by connecting our own personal battles and compromises with how we handle others?

We spend most of our time protecting our feelings and never create the space to better understand the protesters’ intentions. It becomes a them vs. us battle. We use anything we can to sabotage those protesting. We put up walls and never let the other side in, even when we know deep inside we acknowledge certain ideas. We dismiss the reasons for the protest and spend all of our time condemning their methods. We are disappointed the protesters did not consult with us. And their actions offend us.

Instead of disagreeing with the protesters’ methods or what they are advocating, invest time to fully understand the reasons why and how it connects back to their intentions. I leave you with some questions to consider:

Is it possible for you to look beyond your feelings of being offended and try to find tolerance and respect for those you oppose?

Put yourself in their shoes. If you were advocating for something that was important to you, and your last course of action was to expose yourself and protest, how would you want others to receive your cry and treat you?

How do you reach collaboration and negotiation as a common goal to overcome your differences and find tolerance?