Student Circles, Street Art, and the Legacy of Bobby Kennedy
The legacy of Robert Kennedy came into full focus as those who carry on his work gathered for a celebration of time, space, and place, at a Los Angeles school site bearing his name.
The symposium "Seeing Through Others' Eyes" was convened by the Ojai Foundation, and Council in Schools, March 10.
"Council" is a program winnowing its way into the Los Angeles Unified School District where and when principals can be convinced of its utility.
"I tell principals the same thing," said Council in Schools, director, Joe Provisor. "You can be a bridgewalker between the vertical axis of authority and responsibility, and the horizontal access of humanity."
Council essentially deconstructs the way schooling is doled out in the public square, by letting students see their fellows' faces rather than the back of their heads, via the formation of a circle.
An act through which, Provisor said, "students demonstrate their willingness to be human."
Provisor and Council were not at the RFK Community Schools Paul Schrade Library by chance. It is one of the local institutions that weaves the circle into its curriculum.
The library also happens to be constructed over the footprint of the place where Kennedy gave his last speech.
"To see that event unfold here was devastating and changed my life," he recalled. "This is where that event took place. We stand on that sacred ground. He gave the acceptance speech here that night and this was the entry to the pantry where we lost him. But certainly not the spirit of what he represented."
The gathering, Provisor said, was convened to honor union man Paul Schrade's vision and efforts "to keep this a sacred place," through "bulldog activism." And also to honor Baca, whose two murals at each end of the library, Proviso said, "remind us who we've been and what we can be, through courageous recollection and self-expression."
Finally, the gathering was intended to honor the vision of Council in Schools, "This wild idea that we are going to shift the paradigm from the triangle to the circle, a simple vision of what learning can be when we're truly receptive to one another, to the natural world, and to the truth of our own experience."
All of which could have made for a rather disjointed event were it not for the conceptual links between council, Bobby Kennedy, and street art.
The 88-year old Schrade, a former United Auto Workers official, observed that circles are nothing to new to education or democracy, and that his union posted one a mile long around North American Aviation in Los Angeles during a strike years and years ago.
Schrade was one of the people shot along with Kennedy that fateful night of June 5, 1968.
"This beautiful room doesn't bring back the memories of that night, but it brings back the legacy of Robert Kennedy and what he stood for," Schrade said. "So many good things can happen in this room for students. And that's its great value."
Schrade detailed his long struggle to determine what happened in the pantry right behind the podium at which he was speaking
"We always knew there was a second gunman in the pantry with us that night," he told his audience. "Not just Sirhan Sirhan. I'm not trying to exonerate Sirhan one bit. He tried to shoot Robert Kennedy. He shot me and he probably shot four other people. But he never got a shot into Robert Kennedy."
The good news, Schrade said, is that after 44 years, an important piece of evidence supporting the idea of a second shooter has been found. There were, he explained, no television cameras and no tape recorders in the pantry that night...except for one in the FBI's possession recently uncovered by a CNN reporter.
Mural at South Wall of Paul Schrade Library
According to Schrade, the tape, currently undergoing forensic testing at an FBI lab in Quantico, Virg., reveals the possibility of double shots being fired and presents an opportunity to determine the make and model of the gun(s) used.
"So fortunately, we are in that position now," he continued, "because Robert Kennedy was trying to find out who killed President Kennedy right up until the day he died. He knew he had to become president to get behind [then-president] Johnson, and [FBI director] Hoover, and the CIA in order to find out. And he died trying."
Judy Baca discussed the mental processes behind the giant murals she created at each end of the notorious "ballroom" where Kennedy died.
"My entire life has been about public memory," she explained. "About the land's memory. And I think that comes from my indigenous grandmother who knew that memory resided in place. No matter who you are in the world, what culture you come from, or where you live, or what experiences you had, you go to the place where the events occurred and you stand there to understand them, to feel them, to have them come into your body so that you can understand exactly how that battle was won on the fields of Gettysburg or to the Wailing Walls, or to all the places we stand at, at the edge of our river that has turned to stone, hardening the arteries of our land. You must go to the river to understand."
She quoted Kennedy's famed Day of Affirmation Speech delivered in South Africa, 1966: "Each time a man stands for another man's lot, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. Taken from a million different centers of energy it will bring down the mightiest walls of oppression."
This is a feeling, Baca observed, that we understand, but it was her challenge to conjure what it might look like. She opted for the interpretation of an iconic depiction placing Kennedy atop the hood of a car, touching at multiple hands reaching up for him.
"So I tried to imagine," Baca said, "what we kept seeing every time we looked at the campaign. Every time we saw Robert Kennedy in the public environment, people reached for him, the crowds circled him, they wanted to touch him. They stole his cufflinks, they were constantly crowding him. And Bobby was not a person who kept them away. He allowed them near him."
Kennedy was a man in transition at the time of his murder, Baca noted. "He said, 'I come from tons and tons of questionable wealth'. He understood that he had an obligation beyond that wealth...
"And he was in this transition of really understanding how to come from the darker recesses of mire, into the blooming. He was transforming himself as a leader."
The second mural at the north end of the library, above the entrance, had special meaning on this day, because its focus is an image of Kennedy breaking bread with United Farmworkers leader Cesar Chavez after a long hunger strike the latter had endured on behalf of the California field laborer's plight.
Detail of North Wall Mural
It was the 45th anniversary of that happening. Baca described in detail her attempt to render the problems youth will confront as they are launched into the world: war, health care challenges, environmental degradation, and put a person's face on each.
Mural at the north wall
"This is how we learn compassion. In the specificity of the human story," she declared.
Those attending what was also a fundraiser for Council in Schools were treated to a short documentary film, "Seeing Through Other's Eyes," on the concept, which they then experienced in practice, turning inward at their tables to express their sentiments on the afternoon's revelations.
Student Luis Rivas provided an overview of the RFK Youth Council Club on the multi-schooled campus.
"That is one of our primary goals," explained Monica Chinlund, an associate director for Council in Schools. "To develop Youth Council Leaders who will become the organizers of the community and, in doing so, manifest RFK Schools' core vision: turning out global leaders who address the world's problems while considering the perspectives of others by 'seeing through others' eyes'."
Omar Torrez returned from Mexico City for the tribute, and was scheduled to head back a day later. Despite a two-hour plus program, the Latin Hendrix kept attendees glued to their seats.
Torrez tipped his hat to Mexican sensibilities with a spare rendition of "La Llorona," sowed anarchistic sentiments with "Burn It Down," and fortified, what he believed to be, an underrepresented quotient of "aggressive masculinity" by getting everyone to sing his pirate song, "Marina."
This blog specializes in the sardonic, the satirical, the sophomoric, and other low-grade, low-risk literary endeavors, but you have to believe in something, and Bobby Kennedy has always been good enough for that. Every year we run a memorial on the anniversary of his death.
Bobby still speaks clearly through the years with his novel pledge to "make gentler the life of the world."
He rendered politics in poetic terms and so -- as a blog that celebrates the intersection of politics, poetry and prose -- we take the time and space and place to recall him once again.