There is Something that Can Actually Help to ‘Put the Guns Down’

I visited Jazale’s Art Studio with my friend Judith yesterday. Darren Hill and his wife, Cookie, showed us around the new space that already is drawing in kids from the neighborhood and from other neighborhood organizations.  Darren has just received his degree in Educational Policy/Communications from UWM, and his brother, Vedale Hill, is a graduate of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.  Vedale credits Judith, a professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, for his success at the school, where he developed both his artistic and writing talents.

As we walked into the building that houses the studio, the poster  “Put the Guns Down” was prominently displayed on the wall. This was not the usual “no weapons allowed” sign that is on most public Wisconsin buildings now since the right to carry concealed was passed by our legislature last year.  No, it was a home-made plea from the neighborhood.

In today’s Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel is an article called ‘Put the Guns Down’ by Gina Barton, recounting the shooting of Debra Hopkins, who was attending a vigil for her son, Kendrai Walker—Milwaukee’s 59th homicide victim this year, shot May 15 in an alley near 28th and Auer. The next day, gunmen opened fire on a vigil in his memory, wounding five people, including his mother. From the hospital, Kendrai’s mother says, “I just hope people start waking up and…start doing for each other like we used to do instead of hating on each other. Put the guns down and pick up a Bible or book or something. Pick up a phone and say, ‘Hey, how you doing? Let’s go to a show or something. Let’s go to the park and play some ball.’”

Last Friday evening, her friends and neighbors came together for another vigil. The Rev. Erik Rodriguez said, “It’s watching out for each other. It’s knowing something is not acceptable and saying something about it. We can’t be afraid.”

As our daughter, Jessi, a public-health nurse in Madison, notes, violence is a public health issue that can only be solved by community-building.

How do we do that? Another article, from today’s New York Times , Why Do We Experience Awe? by professor of psychology and social behavior Paul Piff,  says that research provides strong evidence that activities which often produce “awe,” like “collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship,” shift focus from “narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.”  He goes on to suggest that our culture is “awe-deprived.”  We spend less time outdoors in nature; we attend fewer live arts events; arts and music programs in schools “are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing.”  Even brief experiences of awe, research shows, “redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.” He goes on to echo Ms. Hopkins’ plea: “we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees [how many trees are in Kendrai’s neighborhood? how safe are the parks?], night skies [how much can be seen past orange sodium street lights?], patterns of wind on water [how many kids in Kendrai’s neighborhood have actually seen Lake Michigan?], or the quotidian nobility of others—the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation [how many have mentors who have told them to do so?], the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds [yes, there are still those].”

Darren, Judith, Cookie, and I bemoaned these realities in Jazale’s Art Studio.  We can’t change everything, we decided, but we can support small pockets of awe-inspiring places like Jazale’s where kids can have access to some of these experiences, including the support to ‘put down the guns’ and to see that there really are alternatives out there for them.  

The Wilhelm version of the I Ching speaks, in Hexagram 16, “Enthusiasm,” of this effect of the arts:

When, at the beginning of summer, thunder—electrical energy—comes rushing forth from the earth again, and the first thunderstorm refreshes nature, a prolonged state of tension is resolved. Joy and relief make themselves felt. So too, music has power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart expresses itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance and rhythmic movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiriting effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together, has mystified mankind.

On June 6,  I hope that you will be moved to talk with Darren or Vedale after the recital to find out more about what they are doing to bring the possibility of awe to a new generation of kids, and perhaps to contribute some support.

My book, The Beautiful Unnamed, is now available on As I’ve said before, all royalties will go to Jazale’s Art Studio.

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