COMMUNITY INSIGHTS BLOG
The Point of A Gun
A poem written and performed for Don't Shoot, Just Listen
Interview with Heather and Leslie Gunn-Rivera. Heather is an Inspire artist and he mother, Leslie, is an art teacher and a survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.
Interview with poet, educator, and community organizer, Petra Thombs about her relationship with poetry, her connection to youth, and her perspective on the gun violence epidemic in America.
Interview with Lyna Hinkle, founder of 350NYC and singer/songwriter
Interview with Monica Weiss from the New York Society for Ethical Culture and 350NYC
Audience member Dana Anderson contemplates her moving
experience attending our first concert.
The Point of a Gun
Written and performed by
Petra Thombs and Nathaniel Vadivieso
What’s the point of a gun? Manufactured hand of god.
In America, in our home -what is the point of a gun?
to manage those we fear...to protect us from harm,
We let countless die at the hands of them and tell ourselves we need them for protection. what’s the point of a gun?
Who does the gun really protect? who’s coming for you?
Is backbone that much of a recessive trait? Are they holding a gun too?
How do you protect yourself from guns.. with guns? How do you right a wrong with a wrong?
Is it possible to right a wrong with a right? Does that still exist anymore? Is this now my generation?
Our love of Guns, fueled by greed-
A diet of destruction causes a continual bleed.
We dream carnage and collateral damage
guns symbolize our ego, become the Untouchable Figures. Guns don’t kill, only people pull the trigger....
What’s the point of a gun?
¿Qué sentido tiene un arma? dios bendiga el paso.
an open letter to every psychopath standing in front of their backstory.
And do not hold those who are ill as the proverbial fall guy, as a shield to keep from doing justice- to guns!
forget race i promise you its easier to hate everyone equally.. i should know.. i fear everyone equally.. because thats what we are now, scared. is that the point of a gun? to fire at everyone who knows its there? when i saw a gun for the first time, it wasn't pointed at me but i felt a pang of fear so real it could have been lead. i remember it hurt, like a breakup and punch in the face stabbed my sense of security like an eviction. shot fear through my chest. thats the thing about Lead poisoning, you cant get that out. I didn’t. is that the point of a gun? fear? i just want to graduate alive. Is that the point of a gun?
The point of a gun guards the sanctity of white supremacy. Guns get glory!
a killing machine’s right is more than human lives?
What is the point of a gun?
It is not the tool of reason, or compromise. It’s a tool of treason for human demise. The point of a gun is the barrel, where the bullets blast, breaking the silence, finding its target, shattering lives with violence.
Bargaining expectations down till my own life is a fleeting privilege not a right? “Life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” key word: life. Isn’t that American? Aren’t values supposed to win over amendments?.. Congress, you guys should really know that.. congress?.. leaders?.. role models?.. literally anyone in power that cares if people live or die?
You know I used to read in books about the ironic silence after a gunshot.. I didn’t think it was real..
is that the point of a gun? silence?
The point of a gun, the end of innocent life. So, what is the point? To dominate! Stand your ground, over a body forced to lie in state.
what is the point of a gun?
It is not a mechanism for peace, no matter how many times you shoot, a gun can never stand up and be righteous!
Whats the point of freedom, in a country where shots from an AR 15 ring louder than millions of voices. thoughts while walking into the first day of school: i wonder if that door could be busted open, i wondered if someone could slip in unnoticed, duffle bag carrying what filled the void that love couldn't reach, where friends were never found, the void that didn't get a prom date, or a stable income, a second parent, a role model what makes a killer? how do you come
to love a gun more than yourself. thoughts on the first day of school: whats the margin between me and a trigger?.. Between anyone and a trigger? an open letter to all the eww’s, the that kids weird, the i almost threw up’s and the give me all your lunch money’s, do you know how a boomerang works? did you know that words can make a time bomb out of an infant? do you know how hard it is to diffuse a bomb? Can you yell “loser” at a bullet and stop it mid air? An open letter to the domestic abuse that makes a killer, the pill popped that makes abuse, the dealer that sold the pill, the starving kid that sold the dealers soul, do you know a chain of hate is? Did you know that chains of hate never end?
And we Americans do not teach our history, we teach more myth and mystery. The second amendment constructed a standing militia. rolling patrols, guarding against miles of bound slaves, who’d surely rebel, Strike fear in their hearts to answer the fear in ours, and tip the balance of power.
Whats the point of a gun? Did you know that guns are also a mindset? do you know that hate points a gun every time you invoke its name? did you know that? So go ahead, tell me how you hate the weird kid at school how you hate your boss hate trump hate obama hate whites blacks latinos and jews, hate when they try your right to bear arms, i mean time bombs, i mean death, i mean guns, tell me how you hate, politicians, activists hate drugs hate guns hate the 2nd amendment hate life hate death hate god hate the devil hate hate itself hate how we sing for healing, stand united, and hate when we ask: “whats the point of a gun?”
Our greed is too great for simple solutions, like background checks or
banning weapons of mass destruction; white supremacy requires its tools for the bully pulpit-to perpetuate the chaos, the point of supremacy shows the world the image of greatness, with blood running out of those mowed down. You’re a killing machine, a one-dimensional tool, a manufactured imperial fool, a “follows orders” brute- nothing like the innocent you decided to shoot.
At the point of a gun, there is no conscience, at the point of a gun there can be no love. Supremacy is a tale of toxic masculinity in every scenario. Proud Boys march with MAGA hate, believing themselves second rate, mega ego losing the race war, reveals the need to get a gun, to take out all the Color. History repeats itself, MAGA going forward is our going backward. Your fear of us has always been... at the point of a gun.
At the point of a gun are Black bodies, Ronnie Reagan passed gun laws in Caly when Black Panthers armed themselves against police
brutality. Their guns taken for opening breakfast programs and medical clinics for the poor and underserved.... Not everyone in America has the right to bear arms. At the point of a gun, are Black bodies- its quicker than a noose, cause you Ain’t got time to kill...
The point of a gun is efficiency! Be the lean killing machine, be sexy in someone’s dream. Make America great again! Like it never was before, say kill the Indian save the man, and kidnapped Africans providing profits for America, with guns trained on them. Put back in charge those who know how to dominate, we can keep this engine going, dividing the spoils through state hate. Make America fight again, like it never ever stopped, like the sound of a gun that destroys while the innocent drop.
it’s not what you hate it’s if you hate it. the bill comes clean. is it right that a society more polarized than ever should be more efficient
at hate? is it right that kids should fear the one place that was supposed to be the way out for them? The way out for us, does that seem right? is it right that no one seems to care? does that sound right to you? what’s the point of a gun? is there a point?
The point of a gun has no place in a democracy,
Our constitution should not shield guns while failing us,
The point of a gun has no place in community, Because you have to have people in a community, you have to have love in a
community. some will tell you that guns are a tool.. but, what kind of tool doesn’t build things? That gun in your hands doesn't serve you its out for itself.
The point of a gun cannot create the salvation we so desperately need,
The point of a gun cannot create the salvation we so desperately need, its not closure.. we need closure. Do you know what salvation is. the real kind he kind that rebuilds. That repurposes
Melt its handle, cradled by the one that holds the intent, melt the trigger that springs the violence, melt the barrel which jettisons the bullet from inside the chambers and melt down to ashes the bullet, the messenger of harm, inflictor of destruction. Melt down to hell the point of a gun, crushing its criminal corruption, converting them into box cars, clarinets and cyclone rides.
Did you know they’re making magical musical instruments? from an instrument of death to one of music, something that makes people
cry for mercy, makes people sing for joy-that’s power, the real kind, the kind that people love -not fear.
Fire them in the kiln, make memorials to honor our Beloveds,
Fashion them into instruments to heal our hearts and mend the wounded, connect our souls and progress into a New and Just World.
When war and vengeance, vindictiveness is through, make of guns a relic of times long past, bring forth a future of peace; our prayers, our dreams, our deep desires, will be transformed at last.
Heather and Leslie Interview
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Heather and Leslie. Leslie was the art teacher at Sandy Hook during the shooting, and her daughter Heather led the efforts to create a space for healing for the Sandy Hook community. We are thrilled to have Heather joining Inspire for our upcoming “Don’t Shoot - Just Listen” concert and Tour.
I would love for you to start by sharing a bit of your story and some of your thoughts connected to Sandy Hook Promise, music and youth.
Leslie: I felt that music was our healing from the very get go. It was gathering together in song. Broadway reached out and they were sending all kinds of people up to the school. It culminated in several different concerts and recordings. Then thereafter there were assemblies in the gym. It wasn’t our gym - it was a new space. But just with a simple guitar just singing our school song or singing folk songs, or anything that could just bond us together as a community again we were strong and we would hold each other up and we were going to make it.
And then it would be in classrooms, just taking time out to sing. Even if a child isn’t singing, they’re feeling it around them, or if you lose your voice ‘cause your emotions are there, that’s okay. And we did drumming, we did dancing - anything that involved the kinesthetics with the voice or the body.
Heather: So Josh, my mother was the art teacher at Sandy Hook. And music was was just a part of how she taught every day. Talk about that the music you had with the students after the shooting, and how your room really became that sanctuary for people.
Leslie: The oasis of, just healing sounds. Just sound of chanting. Sounds of quiet. That allowed a child to enter in and feel not at risk - that was my philosophy of teaching. I had children underneath tables that were unable to come out of those spaces. So it was whatever space I could provide that provided comfort and a feeling of being safe. I think that was the number one thing. I was next door to the music teacher and we just went back and forth to each other constantly, offering different ideas and different modes of music.
I mean music is your soul. For me, it brings everything to the top. And we went on with our performances and children just engaged. I think it’s just empowering because it’s your voice. And Heather knows that I lost my voice for 5 years. Through trauma, it just robs you of who you are and where you are. Finding that again and then singing through that is huge. And hearing your voice.
Now, when I talk to teenagers, I make certain that they understand that no voice is too small. Anything that you have to say is important. Don’t ever underestimate the power of one voice. And then put a whole group together and you have a choir!
Leslie: I’m getting emotional right now, sorry. I’m feeling it all through my body. I just feel like any time I talk about it it puts me right back there and I’m certain that’s true of any of my colleagues and my kids. It’s just… it’s so… I mean, overwhelming is an underestimation of what it is that happens, but then the power by which you find within yourself again to be able to bring forth your voice and have others hear and then learn that your voice can empower others is the power of one.
Can you talk about the process of healing and the role of music in healing?
Leslie: Heather came in when healing wasn’t even a thought. It was just “well we need to talk to these people and get them back to work.” It was the government coming in and doing what they do. Protocol. But seriously, sitting in metal chairs in the gymnasium with a stranger asking how you are is not going to be conducive to any healing. Heather came in an in two days created this whole healing space out of this warehouse. Got contributions from all sorts and put it out there and she had I don’t know, I think she had like 30 different healers?
Heather: Oh no - we had hundreds!
So my mom had said to me “We need a place to heal” and I said “I’m on it!” I don’t know why I said I’m on it. But if I was ever divinely led… I’m not a religious person but I’m a spiritual person. We just had to do this. I just put intention out there and it was led. And I was led.
I put on facebook “calling all healers.” I didn’t know what I was going to do exactly. I just knew I needed a space that wasn’t going to tell people how to heal. It was going to offer healing to people in the way that they chose to heal. And I didn’t want to tell healers how to heal someone, because there’s so many different modalities out there and they come with their own special way of doing that.
I knew that I wanted a space that affected all 5 senses. So we had this warehouse donated to us and people just came. People came from all over and helped put together a space for healing. We had rooms that were created for traditional therapy, acupressure, reiki, that were all private.
You entered the space and the lighting was thought about, so it had to be this calming lighting.
The smell was thought about, so we had an aromatherapist there that helped with the scent in the space but she also had a table where she could create concoctions for you to take home based on whatever worked for you.
We wanted sound to be important, so even before entering the space we had a choir show up from NYC that was singing. We had volunteer violinists. And then we had in the space itself we had constant reiki music and kind of new world music happening.
We had the taste. So we had a chef there that was putting together food for the space but also recipes for you to take home that were comforting and healing.
We had an art space that was just dedicated with a child art therapist there. You could come if you had children and wanted to have a healing, you could drop your child off in the child’s space.
We had a living room, so that if your way of healing was you wanted to commune with others, your community you could. You sat down, there were therapy dogs in the space. Big comfy couches. We had baskets of yarn and knitting needles so if you wanted to knit you could. We had books, so if you wanted to read you could.
It expanded actually, we got other rooms donated in the warehouse for movement. So you could choose to dance. You could choose to do yoga.
It really became quite a sought after thing within the community. We had an organization called the Joyful Heart Foundation that got wind of this and they flew in their people and oversaw us so they became our umbrella so legally we could have these therapists coming in. We had people vetting them right there. It wasn’t easy but we did it.
We were open for 12 days. We had a lawyer starting the process to become a non profit. And I just got personally overwhelmed because what we were thinking was “okay we are going to take this on the road” and this is gonna be something where we are going to go into communities and we are just going to become a scaffolding. We are not gonna take over, we’re gonna become a scaffolding and we are going to teach the community how to have their own healing centers and then we’ll leave.
But at the time I was also going through all of this with my mom and I was so overwhelmed by everything. And honestly in my head I was like “Really, how many more of these are going to happen? This is kind of a fluke, and this isn’t going to happen again.” And we ended up after 12 days we ended up closing the doors.
And kind of pursuing the idea of taking it on the road for some time after but I run another business and I just got overwhelmed. And really that idea of “Would this really ever happen again? No it’s not going to happen!” And now it’s like the trend. And I still think there’s room for that to happen. It’s still not an idea out there.
There’s definitely organizations like [Inspire] which are seeing the holistic aspect of healing and that just putting people together in a community and using their voice and having the song it heals, which is... It’s the aftermath and what gets left in the wings. People get back to their daily lives. That’s the thing that’s horrible, I think about all these shootings that happen. They become these big glamorized moments, and then they just fall by the wayside. Nobody is really taken care of, nobody is told this is what you need to do.
I had heard about Inspire through my friend Julia, who’s actually just getting into the choir now. Having been a professional singer and having it not be part of my life for the last 10 years, I have children, I run a business, and I had been saying to myself “I would really want to sing again, I would love to be in a choir.” And if you know anything else about me, I probably am involved in like 5 other organizations, having started 3 of them on my own, that give back. And so having that component in this is just awesome. And I think it’s great that it’s not just singular to this particular organization that you are showcasing right now. There are many things we can bring light to through song and healing.
I was going to ask what it’s like for you to be coming into our choir when our first organization that we’re sponsoring really hits close such a close vein to your own life experiences.
Heather: I feel divinely led, everything happens with a reason and so...
Leslie: Absolutely, I think that’s one of the strong takeaways. Is believing in that and believing your voice can channel other opportunities and create new paths - and paths for others. And so it’s the voice, it’s the spoken word. It’s the song, the lyric words, or the poet. We didn’t speak about The Next Chapter, but that group of students that Heather became involved with and I became involved with as a survivor - these are High School students who want to use their voice in the spoken word. Honestly, when we had an event there were those who had lyrics for songs and it’s just so important. I just can’t emphasize the importance enough of feeling validated, that they have something important to say from the smallest small to oldest adults. It’s so important.
Heather: So the next chapter, which we started over a year ago now, happened because of the Parkland, Florida shootings. Just seeing these kids coming out and speaking, and seeing the government really try to shut them down - shut down their voices and say “oh you’re a child.” All these politicians saying “well you don’t have anything to say you’re a child.” So I was speaking with a friend of mine I was like “You know, I want to do something. I don’t want to do it FOR them. They need a platform to speak.” And my friend was like “What can we do? What can we do?” “I think as adults, we need to step back and let the next generation come in and give these kids a platform to speak. We need to help them. They’re trying but they’re getting shut down.”
So we got these group of teens together from this other organization called Rightopia, it’s an amazing organization. So the kids we used, they had already been used to writing and speaking and we had a round table and talked about it and they came up with what they wanted to call it. They’re called “The Next Chapter - Students Voice for Change.” It’s about being against gun violence.
We were gonna give them a stage to speak. It was however they felt they could express themselves, whether that's through prose, through songs, through spoken word. We put it out there and we got about 30 people and we had 10 go and then in-between we had 3 adults that were from different shootings. So my mother spoke, then we had someone from the Aurora shooting and then we had someone from the Las Vegas shooting.
The things that these kids, what they had to say. What they had to express was just awe inspiring. These teenagers, they’re having having trauma. They’re growing up in it. Trauma is happening.
Leslie: The lockdown generation
Heather: Right, that they can’t... they don't feel they can express... So I think through song, though spoken word, through the arts, they’re really able to say what they want to say without being conformed to how they’re supposed to say it.
Leslie: Taking a leadership role and feeling empowered, and connecting to those around them. That their voice can impact someone else’s voice. It’s like dropping that pebble in the water and watching it grow rings around it. It’s just been an amazing web. Everybody is just in a terrific path of “we’re strong -- we’re stronger than what it is, and we are going to make a difference! And we’re going to try to make a difference, and that’s what we have to do.”
Heather: Yes! Love is louder. We can focus on all the negative aspects or scary things, or really look at all the wonderful things that are coming out of this because of that. People aren’t brought to awareness until... Us humans, we go on with our daily lives and we - it doesn’t mean we’re bad people, we’re just trying - we’re conditioned... We’re so conditioned, especially in the United States, we are so conditioned to see things a certain way. Until that awareness is literally put right in front of our face - ‘cause things can happen, but we turn a blind eye - It needs to be so big, so dramatic for us to get shocked out of where we were for us to actually make a change. Because if there’s nothing to make a change about why would we make a change.
Leslie: And it’s purpose. It’s giving purpose to life in so many ways. And it’s such a simple way but it’s so powerful. We know the number of tragedies that have occurred in our world, and the way that song comes in to heal. We all have this rhythm within ourselves that we cannot NOT connect to; from a lullaby to a requiem.
Heather: And it crosses the barriers of difference, because song can be in a different language, but you can feel. The feeling and the sound is what is really connecting - it’s unifying. “Inspire: A Choir for Unity.” It’s really inspiring that unity subconsciously. I think you then you are bringing the conscious aspect when you’re combining it with these organizations.
Petra Thombs Interview
Petra Thombs is returning to partner with us for our third iteration of “Don’t Shoot, Just Listen,” a concert commemorating all those lost to gun violence and seeking to inspire unity and peace.
Petra is now the Executive Director of the Ramapough Lenape Community Center in Mahwah,
New Jersey. She has been an advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and nations. A graduate from Union Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity, having majored in Church History, her focus is largely addressing the Doctrine of Discovery as it has fostered racism and extreme marginalization for Indigenous communities globally.
Prior to coming to Union, Petra retired from her career in the NYC Dept of Education. A lifelong
poet, she writes about historical, cultural, religious and personal experiences, expressing the
perspectives of marginalized communities. Petra is married to Bernard, has two adult sons, Benjamin and Matthew and a cat named Esteban.
We sat down with Petra to learn more about her relationship with poetry, her connection to youth, her own perspective on the gun violence epidemic and to get a sneak peek of her poetry.
Can you talk about what poetry means to you?
Poetry for me is a reaction. It’s a reaction to what society has done to my community, and so poetry is therapy. It’s a way to manage. It’s a way to give voice. It’s a way to work around the disparities that society has inflicted on Communities of Color.
For me, I use poetry as a way to deal with the stress, to deal with disenfranchisement, to deal with subjugating factors of society. A lot of my poetry deals with misperceptions and trying to give voice to clarify, to promote, to redirect away from negative stereotypes that society promotes.
Can you speak to how you got connected with INSPIRE?
When I met Justin [and Megan], there was a workshop that was given at Union [Theological Seminary]. People were asked to bring their writing, and they were going to work with musicians around what they brought. They wanted something crustier, so I offered a piece about Black Jezebel. There is a belief about a rather rancid story about Black female sexuality. This was to reclaim that, and redefine that. Reshape that narrative.
There’s a line in particular—”Seeking justice for me and my Sisters, despite all those Misogynistic Misters”—talking about how misogyny has devalued women, and particularly Black women, as the patriarchy has a pecking order. There’s a binary of Black and white, and then there’s the binary of gender. White males, then white females, then Black males, then Black females at the base of that. This was an attempt to address that picture.
After I had read what I had written, Justin approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing something [together]. That’s how that started. For me it was a happenstance. Every time Troy Messenger would have something I would have some other obligation, and strangely enough I didn’t have something stopping me, and I could actually go.
This concert focuses on amplifying the work of Sandy Hook Promise and addressing the gun violence epidemic in the U.S. Can you speak to how this issue has impacted you?
I think about the children who I had in my own care in class, the children I supervised in Kindergarten and first and second grade—as educators, all of us feeling so vulnerable. The first thing you do when putting your classroom together is to make a warm, welcoming, safe environment. You look to make a place where children know they are cared for; parents know it's great to bring their children there. You can’t do that and at the same time think that they are of such a mindset that we can’t put sensible gun legislation in place, but we would rather risk blood in those classrooms.
That that is who we are is an abomination. You know, I’m thinking from a teacher’s perspective and how we would huddle them inside the closet in order to be safe. This is the business we are involved in because we can’t get our act together?
And that we have yet to solve it just speaks to [how], as a country, we have always been so negligent about humanity. We’ve been negligent because we didn’t have a problem with genocide and enslavement. So what we do to one comes back to another. What we do to one comes back to ourselves. We are cooperative to having that pain visited on mainstream communities like the children who were taken away at Sandy Hook. There’s something radically wrong here.
And it’s the opportunity to be able to speak to that, because it needs to be changed. It has to be different. And if the only thing we can do to make an impact is to use our voice to that degree, then that’s a good use of our efforts. We have to get behind our representatives and force their hands. We have to get behind corporations and force their hands. And we have to use our voices to do that.
Can you tell us about the poem you’re working on for this concert?
I was thinking the other day, and I started to put something together. The phrase that keeps repeating is “the point of a gun.”
“The point of a gun,” and then it talks about it being the physical point of the gun, the barrel, what comes out. And the point of the gun, meaning also the meaning for a gun: the logistics, the logic, the purpose.
So it’s a conversation that goes on about that and different ways of looking at some victims. Those family members impacted. To those making profits. From the point of a gun. It just keeps rolling. It’s this point. It’s that... It’s death. It's who we hold sacred. What it does not create—the safety it doesn’t create. It doesn’t create love. What we claim in order to protect the gun. It goes on.
Our theme for our third season is youth leadership. Can you speak to how working with youth has impacted you?
I think that I enjoy the boldness, the wokeness... I enjoy that energy because it is energy, and it invites conversation and opening up and thinking about something new.
My ideal picture that I have always had is to have an environment [that has] three different vantage points age-wise. Yes, there should be seasoned people, but not overwhelmingly. Seasoned people, people in the middle, and absolutely younger, newer people coming in: the cross pollination. Sharing those ideas from one end. And also understanding, knowing the way of the land and being able to share some wisdom. I think it’s important for people to hear that everyone’s got something to provide in a process and a journey. You can’t have all brand new people, because they are just spinning, and that’s not helpful either. Having people who have experiences gives some grounding. And having people in the middle to be able to speak to both ends is also valuable. I think the ideal thing is to have all three represented. And I think that’s the richest type of environment.
Lest we forget that it's not good for any one of those to be isolated, I think it’s a healthier environment for everyone to be able to lend. I look forward to that type of engagement. I’m looking to hear what’s being said, because it is invigorating. And also be able to share what I can to be able to move the process forward.
Interview with Lyna Hinkle,
founder of 350NYC and singer/songwriter
We recently spoke with Lyna Hinkel, founder of 350 NYC and singer/songwriter whose piece "Touch the Water" will be featured in our concert next week! Lyna shared her incredible journey from the mountains of Wyoming to NYC and the incredible advocacy she has done for the climate movement.
Could you walk us through your journey in terms of how you got to where you are and your current relationship with 350 NYC?
Lyna: Growing up in Wyoming was a big piece of my connection to the Earth. We had Casper mountain right there. I spent a lot of time up on the mountain and just appreciated the natural beauty. I was surrounded by the Fossil Fuel industry. A large part of the people that lived there were in the oil and gas and coal industry. Back then we didn’t really know how harmful it all was. Innately when I was pretty young, coming around the corner and being horrified by seeing the whole side of the mountain had been removed, I had this innate feeling that something was terribly wrong.
I moved to MA when I was in High School, to Amherst. My first big experience was in the no nuke movement where I got trained to do civil disobedience. I was working on a film crew. We were filming some local actions that were taking place where they were building a power plant on an Indian burial ground and also on a fault, so the locals got involved. I was filming that and then we put our cameras down and we occupied the site with 1414 people. It was a huge action. We camped out. We surrounded all four sides the night before and we moved in and set up camp until they dragged us all away and I spent three weeks in jail as a result of that action. That was a pretty life changing. I was about 21 or so at that time.
That was the first big thing that I got involved with. I really was just peripherally involved for quite a while. I had a career in film and television. I moved to NY and worked in children’s television. I wasn’t active on the ground for quite a few years. When 350 started, I had read Bill McKibben’s book (The End of Nature). It was a terribly depressing book, or it depressed me anyway at the time, so I was really heartened to find out 20 years later that he still had hope. It was just something about that, and the fact that it was him, and this group of him that was inspiring.
I wanted to get involved. They were having a global day of action. I looked to see what was going on in NY, only to find out there was nothing going on. There was all these actions going on around the world and I was basically embarrassed into it. I thought, “I’ll do something,” that’s how I started with 350. I did a big action that was about light bulbs. I raised enough money to give away 5,000 energy efficient lightbulbs to low income residents. Got a bunch of people together for that project. That’s how I started with 350. And then, well, basically they identified me as one of 13 star organizers in the country because they were pretty young at that point and they sent us all down to DC for a leadership training workshop.
We went back to our cities and I just happened to be in NY. We started our group chapters in various cities and we took it from there. Not a lot of people had heard of 350 back then. And there was still a lot of resistance to technology. It’s been a real process. I remember when we were all so excited, I can’t remember what year that was, but it was not that long ago when Obama finally uttered the words “climate change” in his speech. And that was so exciting. I used to have to really hunt to find articles to post, and now it’s really mainstream. There’s just articles every day.
Is there a moment in the work in recent years that you’ve done with 350 NYC that you’re particularly proud of?
Most recently the divestment campaign would take the cake. That was something that seemed like it was an impossible challenge, but it also seemed like it made too much sense not to attempt. We started that back at the end of 2012, with just a couple of people. We just first went to see the controller, who was still the Manhattan Borough president. We were doing office visits and educating all the people that sit on the board. It became very clear early on that the ethical argument wasn’t going to cut it. Everyone already agreed with the ethical argument. Their fiduciary responsibility was a serious thing to be respected. I had to spend a lot of time learning the language and get digging into the weeds, pulling numbers.
Most of the trustees didn’t know what they were holding in terms of fossil fuels. We tried to get them to run studies for years, which they finally did. But we ran a few studies on our own, just to make the case that we were losing money every day. We got them to pull out of coal a couple of years ago. But we were holding almost a billion dollars on the city level on Exxon alone. When Schneiderman started a lawsuit against Exxon that was just another tool that we had because of the hypocrisy of suing them at the same time that we are investing in them. It was a very big accomplishment when they actually finally agreed to do it. It really boosted our spirits to think we could actually have a victory like that. And to work so successfully with our elected officials. They have come around to thank us know, which is amazing.
I’m curious to know a little bit about your relationship with music, in terms of what music means to you, and obviously I want to talk about Touch the Water as well.
Music has always been part of my life. My grandparents and my mom were all musicians. My mom was a marimbist and also a great singer. My grandparents met in the opera. We had a singing family. We loved to sing together. I started young doing folk singing groups. Touch the Water I’m not sure quite where that song came from. I didn’t write it for a particular event or anything. It was just one of those songs that just appeared in that form. It got a lot of college radio play at the time, it’s like 20 years old that song. Recently, it had been suggested to me to bring that song out and dedicate it to the water protectors of Standing Rock. They could use a good water anthem. And now everybody’s taking on the role of water protectors. I’m happy to see it have a viewing. I was just so moved by Ari’s arrangement. And you guys are just so great.
I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your story with me tonight. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you were preparing in your head to share?
It has just been very rewarding to see how this group, which just started with me and whoever I could find at the time to care about climate change, has taken root. We work in coalition with all these really great groups in the city and have developed a real network of like-minded people. Very special people coming in, and not all of them staying, but passing through and contributing what they can. It’s very inspiring because the issue of climate change itself is pretty depressing. It’s a lot to carry, you know, to be awake and conscious of everything and stay educated about the horrors of what’s going on. The sense of community that we’ve built, and all the people that are so devoted to trying to do something has really helped a lot in terms of getting through the hard stuff.
Interview with Monica Weiss from
the New York Society for Ethical Culture and 350NYC
How would you describe Ethical Culture?
Monica: We are a religious congregation, non-theistic, and we function as a religious organization. We go through all the functions that any other religious congregation fulfills. Everything centers around an exploration of ethics and ethical relationships. It’s considered a humanist religion, there is no theism involved, no religion ideology.
Can you tell us about the relationship between Ethical Culture and 350 NYC?
We have a lot of groups that meet in our building, but our primary partner by choice has been 350 NYC. We joined them about 8 years ago on something called Moving Planet Day. We’ve been partnering with them for at least the last 5 years.
It seemed like a natural relationship to foster. We went from giving them space once a month to have a general meeting to twice a month to three times a month because there are now working groups (divestment group, sustainable solutions, etc.) We’ve partnered over the years and put on phenomenal events and educational programs and panels. It’s really blossomed into a mutually nourishing relationship.
(Pictured: Helen Rosenthal Reading NYC Proclamation for Ethical Culture's Climate Awareness Day)
Is there a moment where you saw a lot of people coming together that you are particularly proud of?
There were two pretty memorable points, I think. One was shortly after 350 started meeting at Ethical Culture. Lyna [Hinkel from 350NYC] knew a lot of people in the climate community. We had these monthly meetings in a relatively small space at Ethical Culture, a room that holds about 40 people. She suggested we open up one of those meetings to some of her other friends that were working in other groups, like Food and Water Watch and United for Action. So we said “Sure, why not invite them all in?”
It was just sort of an opportunity for people to talk about what their groups are doing and so we could all know what everybody else is doing and find a way to connect and not all be doing like the same thing in different ways and different places but together in a common surface and seeing where the work connected. I can’t tell you exactly when that was, probably about 5 years ago. The room was overflowing with bodies. It was the most exciting evening because we learned so much about what all these groups were doing. It was so exciting to know that there were so many other people out there doing that work and coming at it from different focus and different perspective, but all really towards the same end. Saving the planet from ourselves. That became the New York City Grassroots Alliance.
The other one was right before the first climate march in 2014; 350 NYC & Ethical Culture hosted that night before the march The Road to Paris, why the US must Lead. We hosted 12 different people. It was just a wealth of important people speaking on all these issues and getting people ready for the march the next day. One of the most important jumping off points for the climate movement. We filled the house. We have an 800 seat auditorium.
Audience member Dana Anderson contemplates her moving
experience attending our first concert.
Inspire: A Choir for Unity held it’s inaugural concert at James Memorial Chapel on November 17th. Titled Don’t Shoot, Just Listen, the performance commemorated the victims of gun violence and partnered with Sandy Hook Promise, an organization dedicated to honoring those lost to tragic shootings and offering preventative programs in communities across the United States.
As a former violist with a passion for children’s rights and social justice, I attended the concert in support of Inspire’s vision and mission. I wanted to witness the official launch of this choir; the concept brings together music and social change, which are two particularly meaningful areas of my life. I expected to enjoy myself simply because of this alignment.
While I certainly lament gun violence, its utter senselessness usually leaves me with feelings of frustration and hopelessness — so I’ve never previously felt that I could do much to create change in this area. I’ve found myself building a mental wall of protectiveness to stand against the true awfulness of these occurrences, rather than engaging deeply with the issue. I wondered how the choir would approach such an incredibly heavy topic and admired the group for taking on the challenge right from the start.
Through the experience of listening and watching this beautiful performance, my feeling of helplessness toward the violence in our society began to shift. The concert managed to bring the grief closer to home, making it more personal; this is a loss that we all share and consequently must all take responsibility for finding a solution. We weren’t asked to dwell on the darkness, but rather were uplifted by words and sounds that were peaceful, hopeful, and innocent.
The performance seemed destined to heal: commemorative candles flickered, friends and family and strangers sat close to each other, and I saw many small signs of love. The blending of spoken words, traditional spiritual music, an original song written in response to shootings, and simple but meaningful moments for the audience to participate — all came together to create an experience that somehow managed to be both a catalyst for taking action and a moment of profound peace.
The experience didn’t end with the last song. I’d had my mind opened to engaging with the issue and experienced a feeling of hope and connectedness, but I’d also learned information needed to take the first steps toward being more involved. I’ve been researching Sandy Hook Promise and talking with others about both the concert and the cause. Inspire truly has the potential to instigate change through the power of music, performance, and partnership. I greatly look forward to attending the next concert!