Peace Activist Interview
When Laura came to work at Sisters of the Road in 2001 as a floor manager, she started with a facet of knowledge in the experience of homelessness and mental illness. My mother, Laura, is a functioning women who suffers from PTSD and social anxiety, common disorders that are not easily addressed or accommodated for in our society. She’s also familiar with the dislocation and dismissal of the homeless in the U.S. because of her own personal experience of living off the streets.
Through Sisters, Laura was given nonviolence training to handle disputes between people on the floor. Her job, as a floor manager, was to accommodate and create community with the volunteers and customers, taking care of the floor along with diffusing conflict situations. Sisters of the Road was founded by co-owners Genny Nelson and Sandy Gooch influenced and based on the Catholic Workers Movement founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day during the great depression. Sisters was created in the support of building a safe place for the everyone, where people with no money could eat good food with dignity. To foster community through nonviolence and love, and enforce simple human rights that have been neglected by society. Genny Nelson highly influenced my mom because of her dedication to the homeless even though she’d never experienced it herself. Genny had the compassion that no person deserves neglect or abuse. Through Boxcar Bertha’s, Genny and Sandy discovered that most of the women who came through the center had experience rape and abuse, and they were exposed to the fact that there was no safe place for the homeless. This was the driving force in creating sisters; to build a public place where everyone feels safe.
Through Sisters, Laura was given a safe environment where she could openly state her needs without feeling judged. She was able to confront her own racism, classism, and sexism, and realized that no matter the trauma she has experience, she would never understand what it’s like to be a black man in a society. She was found an awareness to notice how aggression triggers others, including herself, and by this she was able to advocate for herself and her needs. She understood the anger from a person being triggered, and created a high tolerance for others actions. Laura was influenced by the fact that she was not alone with mental illness, and felt empowered to advocate for others who didn’t have the privilege of nonviolence training to speak up for themselves. Her strategy was to speak as a voice for others without bias, to hear others and not judge that she understood what it’s like in their shoes, and to always admit when she was at fault.
From her experience at Sisters, Laura honed her training to resolve conflict and advocate for others in her everyday life. Laura recounted a confrontation between a security guard and a homeless woman at a Burger King where she and her partner, Will, were eating. The woman came in and ordered a burger with a cup for water, and after paying for the burger, preceded to fill her water cup with soda. The security guard from the moment she walked in was watching her, and when he witnessed her pour the water cup full of soda, the officer yelled at the woman and asked her to leave. The woman started screaming and cussing at the officer, causing him to pull out his baton. By this time Laura had walked in between the woman and officer. Will put his hand on the officer’s shoulder and said to the man, ‘I know this woman is acting out, but this isn’t the right moment.’ Laura then told the women that it’s not safe for her to stay there, and asks her to politely leave with her. The officer yelled that she couldn’t leave with her stolen soda, and Laura set the soda back on the counter and asked for the refund for the woman’s burger. Once the woman went outside, she was screaming and rightfully upset and my mom consoled to the officer that the woman was triggered and acting out, but leaving her alone and letting her blow off steam would leave less room for conflict. The officer took her advice, and the woman finally left. Laura defused the situation by stepping in and speaking up for the woman with a broader insight. She acknowledged the woman was triggered and acting out, however diverted the officer from violence by confronting that his actions were rash.
Laura recounted a second incident when she stood up for a black man on the bus. The man didn’t have money for a ticket and asked for a free ride. The bus driver let him on, and after a few blocks the man started acting aggressive and yelling, and the bus driver stopped the bus and asked the man to get off. The man stated to the bus driver, ‘you’re one of those guys.’ By this time most of the passengers wanted this man off the bus. Laura then decided to intervene and walked up to the bus driver and told him that ‘what I hear this man saying is that you’re kicking him off because he’s black. You’re a white man, and I’m a white woman, and we will never understand what it’s like to be in his shoes. I know he’s acting out, but if you let him get off at his stop this situation will resolve itself.’ The bus driver was calm and without saying anything started driving the bus again. The man got off on his stop, and when my mom left to get off the bus, the bus driver thanked her for helping resolve the situation. The bus driver felt he had done the man a favor by letting him get a free ride, and felt unjustly persecuted when man inferred that he was racist. Laura advocated for the man by admitting he was acting out, but voiced what the man was saying and translating into words the bus driver could relate to.
Laura’s connection to Sisters did not last, and after some time of trying to influence there systemic change she dislocated herself. When Laura was on staff at Sisters, there were 8 formally homeless people on staff, and the last time she volunteered there were only two. When she approached the higher staff about this issue, they became defensive. Laura got in a disagreement with another staff member who felt her experience with child molestation allowed her to understand the plight of homelessness. This angered her. The fact is, in Laura’s view, even though she has experienced discrimination for being a queer woman, it is impossible for her to understand the racism of a black man. Assuming you understand what someone’s been through is a judgment. What is most constructive is to have a tolerance for others actions and resolve that no one deserves to be treated with abuse and discrimination.
Laura believes that there is an inequality with the staff of Sisters and the community they are advocating for. She believes in a simple gandhian theory, that the homeless should lead the homeless, not the privileged lead the homeless. Indeed, the homeless should be leaders in their movement for basic rights, like safety, thus the homeless should be a majority of the staff at Sisters.
In an article, Sharing Power, in Sisters’ Voice Newsletter of May, 2006, Laura spoke out about her experience with mental illness. She believes if we can open up about our own battle with mental disorders, we all relate and realize we are not alone. Laura is a woman who suffers from mental illness, as do a large sum of our population. She used her experience and education of nonviolence to speak up for others who cannot. Laura believes that through nonviolence communication we can break down what divides and persecutes us; racism, sexism, and classism, and begin building respect and community. Instead of seeing a dirty homeless man on the street, we’d see a man name Tom that you could approach with dignity. This starts with people becoming aware of their judgment and learning to appreciate each other for their virtues and faults, to not assume you understand, but instead account what each other has gone through.
Most importantly, Laura’s goal is to end homeless discrimination, for people dealing with mental health issues and drug addictions to be taken off the streets and provided security. She wants to see nonviolence communication adopted in the workplace, schools, and government, building community between our coworkers and superiors, our students and our teachers. For people to not be afraid or judged for admitting what triggers them. She believes that building a system that advocates for everyone, including the mentally disabled, is the most beneficial for the populous. For Laura, if the work force applied nonviolence communication she would be able to get a job, however her social anxiety leads her to feel unsafe because her needs are ignored. Instead she has to live on state funding and social security to get by. If we mended our system, people like Laura, my mom, could be reintegrated back into society as fully functioning individuals.
When my mom started working at Sisters of the Road I was eleven years old. I would come in and volunteer when I was staying with my mom, and she would force me to where her big men’s t-shirts because she didn’t want people to take advantage of me. I remember a few instances where she had to intervene between people who got in a scuffle in line, when she would ask a person politely to stop yelling because it was causing others to feel triggered, when the fire truck drove up because someone had a seizure while waiting in line. I remember how strong my mom held herself in those situations, and it inspired me.
I was introduced to the homeless community by my mom, and met amazing individuals, like Jada Mae Langloss. Jada was a woman with no boundaries, when I met her she had become bossy old grandma with heart. In her time she had campaigned for governor, mayor, and Multnomah County chair in the Preservative Party. She lived in a communal house with me and my mom for some time. Jada died in 2004 from lung complications after living in camp dignity that winter. Through this influence I was handed open insight to the homeless community, and was given the chance to see them as unique individuals, and not by their discriminated vision.
I too am a woman in society that suffers from mental health issues. I too suffer from social anxiety, and am easily triggered. My plight isn’t as obvious as others, but I understand how it is to feel paranoid, insecure, and ashamed. The fact is so many people suffer from a common form of mental illness, and yet it is not accommodated nor acknowledged in our society. People are left on the streets because they can’t function in our competitive economic system.
I believe nonviolence communication not only builds community, it breaks down the walls that segregate us. Violence is never a means of resolving conflict; it’s the selfless ability of a person to step out of their comfort zone to speak out for others who cannot communicate for themselves, to have insight above anger and judgment. If people took a moment to move aside their own personal inflictions to accommodate others, to act on the welfare of another’s behalf, we would have the building blocks for utilizing nonviolence universally.