Peacemaker, author, artist, facilitator of the nonviolence training program Creating a Culture of Peace and personal growth facilitator are some of her passions in life. She is an active promoter of peace and nonviolence.
1. Ymani, can you tell us something about yourself, your place of birth, education and early life?
I grew up in the southeastern part of the United States at a time of extreme racial segregation.There were no African-Americans in my school, church, restaurants, social gatherings, etc. They were completely removed from my daily experience other than working in our homes and businesses. Racism was evident in every part of society. As a child, I remember not understanding why people of color were required to be separate and apart. The answers to my inquiries were never acceptable in my mind and certainly not in my heart.I left the South as a young adult and believed I was leaving racism behind, only to find that it existed in other parts of the US as well. It was a harsh lesson in discovering the reality of my society. One I have never forgotten and I continue to work for understanding and change still today.
I have lived in several different parts of the US, have enjoyed those places yet have a deep love and appreciation for where I live now. The mountains of western North Carolina have been home for almost 25 years. I was introduced to them as a child on family trips that wandered through these hills and valleys and I remember telling my mother, “I want to live here one day.”. There is a certain feeling that one gets from these mountains, a loving, nurturing undercurrent that supports and strengthens one’s connection with the earth and all of its beings.I completed only two years of college and left because I was impatient to step into the ‘bigger’ world. I have mixed feelings about that decision, even now.
I probably would have had more career doors open if I had obtained a college degree. But I was a “seeker” and the immersion into life’s river made me strong, confident and more aware than I believe continued schooling would have done. That’s not to say that I feel an education is not important. Quite the contrary, I see it as a solution for many of our world problems, especially for girls and women. It simply was not the best choice for me at that time in my life. I have always been one to question – everything. That has served me well, except in situations where someone in a position of authority might not want to be questioned. I have always seen the importance and responsibility in speaking out against violence, inequality, or injustice and it continues to be my choice.
During the Viet Nam era, many of us took to the streets with other youth protesting against that war. I remember being overcome by a deep feeling of sadness when I was once again back in the streets speaking out against the war in Iraq. We don’t appear to have gone very far in our journey towards peace.
2. You are an advocate for peace, nonviolence, human rights and social justice, an author,filmmaker, facilitator for nonviolence workshops, mentor, spiritual counselor and facilitator of women’s ceremony, circles and ritual. For such great things a person needs to have a big spirit. How did it all began, your interest in higher life goals, as we consider the fact that in this modern world most people are chasing mostly material things?
As a youth, much of my time was spent enjoying my surroundings outdoors. I have always felt comfortable being close to the earth and learned early on that there was much to be learned, if we would only be still and listen. I expressed myself through the writing of poetry and daydreaming to the musical accompaniment of Mozart, Liszt, Beethoven and others. I was an avid reader and spent many an hour curled up in a corner with my nose in a book. I had plenty of friends, but was also content spending time alone, communing with nature. I had a strong sense of the connection of all life and the interwoven web that unites us. I began seeking answers to life’s mysteries at an early age. I felt out of place at times because materialistic things didn’t hold the same importance for me as they seemed to for others. I lacked the desire to climb any corporate ladder for ‘success’. Instead,
I remember telling my mother, “this is not the way it’s supposed to be here”. I suppose my intuitive strengths were working for me even then as I questioned the motives of many corporations, and now we are certainly witnessing their manipulative influence on the governments of many nations.
With life, comes many changes and mine is no exception. In the midst of personal turmoil and chaos, I found myself at a crossroads and chose to release the old habits and patterns of behavior that no longer served me. Instead of continuing to place blame outside of myself for the inadequacies in my life, I forgave myself and others for any conflict that had occurred in the past and set out to create a new experience, a new me.
I continued to follow my heart and realized the importance of life’s lessons and became very aware that life is not about staying the same. It’s about change, in fact change is the only thing one can count on remaining the same.
It’s how you implement that change that forms who you are. I began to focus on releasing that which no longer served me and created new habits to support my goal of becoming a better human being. I still aspire to that to this day. I find it to be an ongoing process.
3. In 2007 you traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran as a civilian diplomat with the Fellowship of Reconciliation to meet the people and help build a bridge for peace. Iranians are often portrayed as violent people who are abusing their wifes, as savages, uncivilized people. What is your impression of them? Is there any truth in those stereotypes?
Yes, I am grateful that I was chosen as a civilian diplomat with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s third delegation to Iran. At the time, I was seeking a peace organization to become involved with and I found the passion for peace, justice and reconciliation that I sought in FOR. They stand for everything I align myself with and ‘walk their talk’ in the actions they take and the programs they sponsor, like the trips to Iran.
Bush and Cheney were pushing for military action against the Islamic Republic at that time and I wasn’t certain what to expect from the Iranian people. I would have understood any feelings of resentment or animosity towards us as Americans, but my experience was quite different from those anticipations and actually changed my life.
We traveled within Iran for two weeks and were met with incredible warmth, hospitality, friendship and loving kindness. Comments such as, “Thank you for coming to my country.”, “We love the American people.”, “The American people are our brothers and sisters.” greeted us at every turn. I found that quite remarkable. Everyone encountered at random meetings offered the same responses, the same warmth, the same understanding that we are all just people; alike in many ways, different in a few, but our basic core is the same. It’s the entities we have created (corporations, militaries, governments, royalty) and given power to that create the division, separation and isolation that promotes and perpetuates violence, poverty and racism.
This is a global problem and violence and abuse will be found everywhere, but the Iran I experienced was filled with loving citizens who extended their hand in friendship and respect.They taught me the true meaning of humanity.
4. Once you wrote ” The pain of one is the pain of all and the honor of one is the honor of all because We Are All Related.” Very powerful words. Every day we can see the attempt of many politicians, public figures, medias to increase the hatred and misunderstandings not only between West and East but also between many different groups of people. Divide and concure?
I love that saying because it does exemplify my beliefs. We are members of the same humanfamily. We are a global community that shares the same planet, air, water and earth. There is no separation except in our own minds and that thought has been put there and fed by the few who believe themselves to be in control. My beliefs see us as part of an interwoven web of life, therefore, what affects one, affects all. Even if we aren’t able to actually see that connection.Division has been used as a tactic for conquering people for thousands of years, because it is very effective. If you can get a group of like-minded people to begin fighting among themselves you stand a very good chance of being able to manipulate and direct their actions, their perceptions and then their very existence. Again, the few who hold the wealth are able to exploit the many by keeping them in a place of poverty, need, stress and fear. Based on my life experience and observations there appears to be a small group of people who control the wealth and therefore, control the masses. The paradox here is that we feel powerless,yet nothing could be farther from the truth. The people have, and will always, hold the power through their numbers alone. The few elite only maintain their role of overseer because they are supported by the masses.
Once the financial support is removed and people no longer participate in their system, the control and power cease to be. I realize it sounds very simplistic in theory and I believe in a way it could be. It requires individuals to release their old habits and feelings of desperation and powerlessness and embrace a new way of showing up in the world. Showing up with an assertive voice, not an aggressive one. It requires listening to one another and showing up in solidarity, together. It requires finding common ground. No more victims, only active participants who are willing to begin the change within their own hearts and change the world. As Gandhi said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
5. How can we build peace and connect people that have different culture, religion, language? How can we solve the problem ” the fear of unknown” and instead inspire people to explore, to get curious and not judgmental about the “unknown”?
This is something I have actually begun to address. When the drums of war against Iran began to beat again a few months ago, I felt like I had to do something. I compiled an album of photos from my trip to Iran and posted them on Facebook. I was amazed at the response. So many comments, questions and statements of gratitude for shedding a new light on the people of Iran, their culture and history. That response sparked an ember within me to spread more awareness and help put a face to the potential statistics should war be pursued. I created a short film of my photos, with the gift of narration by the American actor, Peter Coyote, and set it to beautiful Persian music.
A Doorway to Persia was released on YouTube in June and as of this week has received over 36,000 views, with no advertising and little promotion except from my own Facebook network. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_Z_gLGQEiw
The desire to continue to help educate others about Iran and the Iranian people has lead to one of my latest projects. I co-founded a business this year, Infocus Global Media. We are a documentary film company with over 35 years of photographic/cinematography experience. We’re dedicated to sharing those stories not being told and voices not being heard. Our website, www.infocusglobalmedia.com is being fine-tuned so that we’re able to update others on our travels with photos, blogging and video.
People in the US are making important choices and forming opinions based on information they are fed by our corporate sponsored, mainstream media. We believe everyone has a right to know the truth and sometimes that can best be obtained from independent media. We believe our films will open hearts and change minds by removing the cloak of the unfamiliar and allowing strangers to become friends. We hope to introduce everyone to a world that reveals similarities between people, instead of highlighting their small differences.
Our first project is currently titled Building a Bridge to Iran, a documentary that will give a more in-depth view of the loving Iranian people who captured a piece of my heart. We are scheduled to travel this Spring and will visit several Iranian cities, focusing on a few families, the culture, history and geography of different regions. We’ll be setting up a campaign soon on Indiegogo, a crowd-funding site, in order to help raise the necessary funds for travel expenses and production costs. In addition to helping us with the cost it will also give contributors the opportunity to become more involved and be a part of our journey.
We have a very powerful tool in the internet. If we use this tool effectively we can break down the walls that feed the fears that separate us. Seeing the faces of the people, realizing the similarities and becoming educated about beliefs and lifestyles can make it more difficult to hold onto fear, hatred and racism. Knowledge is power and, we must begin to teach this to our children. They are the future and without these tools will only continue to perpetuate war, hatred and violence on our beautiful planet. It’s time to tell the truth.
6. Is diversitiy something we should be proud of? I cant imagine a monotonous world.
I feel that our strength as one people is in our diversity. I see humanity as a beautiful tapestry with each culture and people weaving their own unique and beautiful thread into it. We have so much potential as a species, if we would just look beyond the illusion of separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and see our own beauty. What a wondrous era of peace we can usher in.
7. You are author of the book “Are You Listening?”. Can you tell us something about it?
When I reached a point in my own inner healing to see the vast difference between who I was and who I had become, I was empowered by my action. I was able to release anger that I had carried since childhood and realized I was in a new place of peaceful existence and co-existence with those around me. I felt that perhaps my own path and the lessons, or teachings, I learned could be helpful or beneficial to others who were ready to move forward in their life process.
These teachings are very simple guidelines to follow, yet sometimes can feel quite difficult to implement because the ego doesn’t always feel comfortable with change. The heart usually embraces change readily so it’s a case of retraining ourselves, retraining our minds. That is what the book is about and I hope it has been helpful to those who read it.
8. We can often hear that this is a man’s world. How the female population affects the changes in the world?
It is only a man’s world because of the patriarchal domination system that continues to hold women back and urges them to believe that we are inferior, incapable and unworthy. Many cultures are dependent upon the women to grow the food, raise the children, gather the firewood, haul the water and keep the community unified. War and violence have succeeded in breaking the spirit of many women around the world but we still share beauty, compassion, nurturing, patience and creative abilities that are ours alone and can’t be replaced.
Educating girls and women worldwide is essential to giving them a roadmap to create a better life for themselves, their children and their communities. The aggressive, dominating way of mankind has brought us to this place of enormous imbalance where we find ourselves today. It’s time for the feminine aspect of humanity to lead the way and guide us to that beloved community that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about.
9. You support women throughout the world, you probably met women who are from a totally different world, different mentality. Have you ever experienced a ” cultural shock”?
I can’t really say that I have because I always see that common thread that runs among women. We are connected to the earth, to the moon, to the water, to all of life and because of that there is a knowing between women that needs no words.
There is a movement happening on the planet right now. The women are awakening and remembering our natural connection to each other. We have gathered together for different rituals and reasons over the centuries. When we gather, we feel the sisterhood that may have been covered by patriarchal conditioning. We teach, learn, cry, laugh, feed, dance, sing, inspire, share, plan and nurture one another. We realize that we are not alone. We realize that our story is very similar to the stories of others.
I am very grateful to see the women of the world uniting, rising up and reclaiming our rightful seat in the Circle. It gives me hope and inspiration for a new day to dawn for everyone, a day of new beginnings based in love, respect, nurturing and understanding.
10. What are your future plans?
Infocus Global Media is my priority right now and has much of my attention. I also offer ongoing spiritual mentoring, women’s circles and retreats and Native American Ceremony. That is my spiritual path and is part of my heritage. It isn’t really a religion. It’s a way of viewing and living life in balance with the world around you. We Are All Related is the translation of a Lakota expression, Mitakuye Oyasin. It definitely speaks to the relationship between all people but for us, it also encompasses all of life.
So, I suppose my future plans are to continue doing what I do – peacemaking, promoting nonviolence, mentoring and producing films that help change the world.
11. Your message for the world?
Another Gandhi quote I love is, “Your life is your message.” So I do my best to live my life according to the principles of nonviolence, compassion, respect, gratitude, impeccability, service, integrity and forgiveness. I don’t always achieve my goal; it’s a practice. But I do find that it gets easier every day. It’s about changing the way we think, speak and act. It’s about breaking the old habits of violence, judgment and bias that have been taught over the past generations and developing new ones that allow for understanding, compassion and peace. It’s about balancing the logic of the head with the love of the heart.
“ When we are able to look into the eyes of ‘the other’ and recognize our own pain residing there,we have an opportunity to change not only ourselves, but the world.”- Ymani Simmons
Interviewed by Irma Velić