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Lessons from BLM, Kashmir: Empowering youth in conflict zone, grassroots democracy

By Dr Nyla Ali Khan* 

Considering electoral processes in my state of adoption, Oklahoma, are healthier than they are in my state of origin, Jammu and Kashmir, I remind millennials to identify important issues to them as voters, so they are inspired to make a significant difference by participating. I will not deny the feeling of hopelessness that sets in when one sees the implementation of an inequitable law or a policy that legitimizes the deployment of state violence. 
How can structural violence be addressed? How can progressive social and political change be facilitated? Can we recognize the structural aspect of oppression and further emancipatory goals instead of sentimentalizing pain?
On June 1, 2020, I chose to witness grassroots democracy, so I decided to attend the "Demand Justice Protest Rally: Black Lives Matter (BLM)" in OKC. Several of my friends, leaders of faith communities, and current and former elected representatives were there as well. I was keen on showing solidarity with African-American friends who believe that the community can organize and mobilize for social change.
The elected representatives at the rally talked about the importance of diligently working to engage African-Americans in Oklahoma in the processes of democracy. I would argue that in doing so, they furthered a democratic political project in which minority groups were not required to legitimize their identities as victims. On the contrary, they espoused an effective oppositional politics that critiqued exploitative politics, structural inequities, and did not dwindle into sentimental politics. I did not perceive a fetishization of others’ pain or a pathological obsession with violence at that event.
The speakers also underscored the importance of standing up as well as the value of the vote, as opposed to indulging in “the public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” (Seltzer 3) It was a rich experience for me to see elected representatives identifying issues that are important to voters, so they are inspired to make a significant difference by participating. No one belittled the importance of community and institution building. And now “public opinion polling,” as Sociologist Alexander points out in his interview with Gudavarthy, “has stunningly demonstrated... white American opinion has come to support BLM and racial justice by a far higher percentage than in the first wave of BLM protests in 2013.”
My understanding of the complex historical labyrinth that Oklahomans are still navigating was enhanced by Suzette Chang, founder and CEO of “Thick Descriptions.” “Thick Descriptions” comprises a team of individuals whose mission is to provide OKEE, Oklahoma Educators Evolve, “a tailored and instructional platform for teachers that lack effective methodologies and/or pedagogies for historically overlooked youth.”
OKEE is in response to a rich community of European-American female teachers who offer investment and great intentions; it is this framework that overlooks the experiences of historically marginalized Oklahoma youth (e-mail to author, August 6, 2020). In an additional program, Elephant in the Room Unboxed (EITRU), a monthly conversation that addresses uncomfortable and present topics, I learned about EITRU when Chang invited me to speak at their "teach-out" on “women and Incarceration in Oklahoma.” The program encompassed a critically engaged panel discussion comprising scholars, women that had been incarcerated, “Thick Descriptions” staff, and local officials.
Our shared values and interests regarding social justice, political enfranchisement, calling out systemic discrimination, and working in the community to advocate for peace and justice led me to pose the following questions to Chang: How does family resilience enable them to rebuild their lives? Can education have an impact outside the classroom?
Chang contextualized the multi-layeredness of the history of African-Americans in Oklahoma, the impact of formal and informal education, and self-reliance or lack thereof, and recounted her interactions with the residents of a historic rural Black town in Oklahoma, Boley, “which was once a thriving mecca for African-Americans” (ibid). She observed that because of economic challenges, racial discrimination, and segregation that removed African-Americans from predominately white spaces, the residents of Boley were autodidacts who learned through “observation, conversations and hands-on learning.” “Traditional learning,” she adds, supplemented the knowledge gained at home.
Younger generations emulated the values of the generations that preceded theirs, which girded “their education.” The skills that young people cultivated by imbibing the fortitude and stoicism of their predecessors grounded “them to withstand adversity during the 21st century” (ibid). Chang reminds me that in the late 1800s the nation-wide “Black town development was marked by a sense of self-respect and completion.” African Americans aspired “to outdo white towns” by laying a strong foundation and building an impregnable fortress on it.
After Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, a Black town like Boyle “served as an opportunity for African Americans to gain autonomy and be self-sufficient,” but it couldn’t escape the insidious influence of racism, which stretched its tentacles into every institution. It wasn’t long before the dawning of the realization on Boley’s residents that they would have to take the bull by the horns and “manage and control what they were responsible for, meaning land, economy, education, politics, and Boley pride.”
A strong collective identity and a well-fortified sense of self ensured that Boley had a progressive educational system, participatory politics, cohesive social system, and political autonomy, placing it ahead of several white Oklahoma towns in the early 1900s (Johnson 2002). Strategies deployed to suppress the black voters of Boley, which is still a common practice vis-à-vis the African-American community in the United States, did not discourage the commitment of “Boley residents to be self-sufficient, vote and run their affairs in their town” (Chang, e-mail to author, August 6, 2020).
Through her conversations with members of the local community, she discerned that “what resonated within each interviewee is an informal learning methodology, a practice among Boley residents that pushes against traditional learning styles and stems from historical understandings, observations and cultural intelligence” (ibid).
Their practice does not suggest that love for literature is absent in their daily lives. In fact, it is their strategy of formal and informal learning that strengthens their collective and individual woven identities. Their cultural intelligence is a collaboration of innate and factual awareness of who they are as young African Americans that live in a historic black town, and are geographically surrounded by communities that do not value their humanity. 
Nyla Ali Khan
She underlines the agential capacities of this marginalized community, who are the “authors and creators of their identities, strategically grounding their understanding of resilience and knowledge.” Their resilience is a combination of reflective memories and identical experiences of their ancestors, which for many is inhumane; however, for this community, each memory is a sustaining factor (ibid).
All of us crave a world in which social justice, political enfranchisement, cultural pride, and self-actualization are the order of the day. The rhetoric of hatred that is palpable the world over undermines rule of law and political accommodation in democratic nations. All well-meaning people are doing their bit to repair divides created by such rhetoric. It was good to see broad-based grassroots politics in action at the rally. I thought it would take me hours to make my way out, but everyone was courteous and people made way for one another.
Should those of us who write on youth movements, people’s movements, and conflict zones accord the authorities more leniency because, legally, the state can claim to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force? Or should we hold the state and its appendages to a higher standard than militant and vigilante groups? These questions cannot be answered by those invested in the erasure of indigenous histories and asphyxiation of critical thinking.
It is important to explore these questions through personal reflection, because as Nussbaum points out, “the real ‘clash of civilizations’ is not ‘out there,’ between admirable Westerners and Muslim zealots. It is here within each person, as we oscillate uneasily between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others.”
At the end of my book, “Educational Strategies for Youth Empowerment in Conflict Zones” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), I’ve come full circle and return to where I started: Jammu and Kashmir. Furthering its project of erasing the indigenous history of Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Modi’s BJP government has dropped July 13 (Martyr’s Day) and December 5 (the birth anniversary of the first Muslim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah) from the calendar of public holidays of the now-Union Territory.
The project of the BJP and its appendages to ride roughshod over the history of Kashmiri nationalism and the evolution of political consciousness in Kashmir, which began much before 1989, continues unabated. Such erasures must not be allowed to excise the historical memory that includes humanitarian and pluralistic endeavours of South Asian leaders after the independence and partition of India (Khan, “Erasing Indigenous History of Kashmir”).
I reiterate that this book, in taking multidisciplinary approaches to human rights issues, is a dynamic interplay between activists, academics, and clinicians. It reminds me that faith is much greater than mere dogma or tradition. As Anderson observes, “education should expand critical thinking, empathy, and the sense of personal responsibility. If it does these things, silence and injustice exist as anathema to the basic concept of the Common Good” (e-mail to author, September 4, 2020).
To that end, I have contributed to the statewide and discussion program "Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma", organized by Oklahoma Humanities. Kelly Burns, Program Officer of Oklahoma Humanities, points out, with guidance from humanities scholars, librarians, museums, universities, and prisons utilize this program in an effort to explore the human experience through literature. This program opens minds to new perspectives, engages critical thinking, encourages self-reflection and empathy, and a model for civil discourse. (e-mail to author, June 14, 2019)
According to the LM Davis et al’s report for RAND Institute, inmates who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars are up to 43 percent less likely to return to prison. Every dollar invested in correctional education, RAND concluded, saves nearly five in reincarceration costs over three years.
As an Oklahoma Humanities Scholar, I have given lectures at Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility, which is an Oklahoma Department of Corrections prison for women (“Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, August 24, 2018; Jonathan Tropper’s “This is Where I Leave You,” April 6, 2018; Robert M Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” May 17, 2019). My emphasis in those lectures was that faith is the courage to bridge divides and to pave the way for the education of the younger generation, which focuses on pedagogical reform.
Faith is the ability to organize and mobilize for social change, which requires the creation of awareness not just at the individual level but at the collective level as well. Burns notes that through evaluation forms, participants from Mabel Bassett Correction Facility from McCloud, Oklahoma, revealed that they felt “empowered” by my talks and that “they learned how to better recognize their value as women.” They also observed, Burns points out, that I “genuinely listened to them and cared about what they had to say.”
Comments indicated that my sessions made them feel that “although they came from different backgrounds, they have a lot to learn about and from each other; they don’t have to bear their struggles alone, and that people who are different can still come together as a family” (email to author, June 14, 2019). I was gratified that, as they revealed in the evaluation forms, they felt I gave them “a safe environment for self-expression” (ibid).
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*Author of several published articles, book reviews and editorials, Dr Nyla Ali Khan has edited Parchment of Kashmir, a collection of essays on Jammu and Kashmir, and has written  several books

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