Lessons from journalism, tai chi, and life

Finding ‘a way of looking inwards, confronting my own demons, and competing with my own best self”‘

My keynote speech at the first affinity graduation celebration for AAPI – Asian American and Pacific Islander / APIDA: Asian Pacific Islander Desi-American – at Harvard University, 23 May 2022

With my mother Prof. Zakia Sarwar, plus Harvard School of Education graduates after the ceremony: Najwa Maqbool and Nishant Singh from India, and Nigel Gray from Sri Lanka. Their families couldn’t make it so we were glad to be there for them. Photo: Lipofskyphoto.com

Beena Sarwar, video and text of speech below. Also published in Sapan News Network

Greetings everyone. Thank you so much for inviting me and thank you Colin for the generous introduction.

I am grateful to my comrades at BSAC – the Boston South Asia Coalition – for entrusting me to speak on their behalf. I also represent Sapan, the Southasia Peace Action Network that some of us launched in March 2021, at the height of the pandemic.

The past two-and-a-half years have been challenging. We have lost loved ones, experienced isolation, faced other difficulties.

Incidents of domestic violence have increased. Racially motivated violence has increased. There is a sharp rise in hate incidents targeting Asian American Pacific Islander communities, reports the StopAAPIhate.org site.

Women of colour are even more vulnerable.

None of these pandemics are over, and it can feel overwhelming.

For now, let’s take a moment of gratitude for being here, for being alive, for being together. Take a breath. Take in this beautiful moment.

Video recording of the first APIDA affinity graduation ceremony at Harvard University, May 2022. Video courtesy: Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, Harvard University

Let me share how I have coping over the past couple of years. I returned to yoga and walking. I also took up Tai Chi, an ancient martial art from China that Pakistan shares a border with.

Everything is connected.

In Tai chi, we look into the eyes of an imaginary opponent or someone about our own height. For me it’s a way of looking inwards, confronting my own demons, and competing with my own best self.

Tai chi teaches us to never be the aggressor. To yield and be flexible while holding on to our core and being strongly rooted.

Yin and yang – the idea that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Female-male, dark-light, old-young, good-evil. We hold all these within us.

I was excited to find lessons in this practice that resonate with my work as a journalist, an activist, and more recently, journalism teacher.

What you take from my words today is more important than any lessons I can share with you.

Learner-centered teaching is a concept I got from my mother Zakia Sarwar, a language teaching specialist and teacher trainer. She’s in the audience here and I’d like to acknowledge her – at 83, still addressing seminars and editing journal articles, and walking ten thousand steps a day.

The lesson: Never stop learning, keep taking the steps.

Let me confess that I am an addict.

I’m addicted to journalism. To the power of storytelling.

To the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’

Why do some people engage in violence, either as individuals or in gangs or militias? How can we prevent it?

To understand different points of view, we have to be able to step out of ourselves, to not be reactive.

It’s hard to be compassionate and feel empathy for someone who’s attacking us. To not take it personally.

But when we step back and take the long view, we see that systemic racial injustice and violence in the United States stem from the same place as caste or class discrimination in Southasia or the trampling of women’s rights in Afghanistan. They’re rooted in fear, fear of change, fear of losing privilege and power.

Some examples:

  • A man who voted for Obama turns to Trump in the next election, afraid of his values being undermined by legislation like gay marriage or legalised abortion.
  • A teenager attacks an elderly Asian woman on a subway, scared she’ll infect him.
  • A woman in Pakistan accuses someone from a lower socio-economic class and different religion of “blasphemy” for drinking from the same cup. She’s insecure about changing social norms that are allowing people to cross the caste barrier.

You all know many other such examples.

Fear has no logic. It can’t be used to justify violence.

Arguing or censorship will not change minds.

So what can we do?

We can’t control how other people think or behave. We can only be responsible for ourselves. Our own words and actions, how we respond to situations.

The personal is political. How we behave at the personal level impacts our professional and political behaviour.

One of the hardest things to do when we experience violence, loss, outrage, fear, hurt, or anger, is to not react.

To set aside our own pain and hold on to ourselves enough to calmly hear out someone whose views we disagree with, who has hurt us and our community. To remember that we are all part of a larger humanity.

This does not mean we will accept violence, injustices or inequalities.

An exercise I have students do is to listen to a partner for five minutes.

Active listening is good journalism practice. It helps journalists to retain credibility while being activists.

I’ve lived under and been part of the resistance against two military dictatorships as a journalist and an activist.

Journalists in the US are starting to realize that to be a journalist is to be an activist.

Because we choose what stories to tell and how to tell them, who to talk to and not to. What to keep, and what to leave out.

While doing so, we have a responsibility to represent all sides fairly regardless of our political leanings, without labelling or stereotyping.

When we stop being good professionals, we open the doors for polarization and even enable violence.

Active listening is also good life practice. Often, the wisest course of action. Just listen. Good listeners make good leaders.

You have tools we never had growing up, like the Internet and smartphones that help fuel movements for social justice.

The flip side is the reactivity they enable, the empty outrage and cancel culture, the us versus them outlook.

The wisdom to know when to act, and when to just listen, to just ‘be’ comes from meditative practices, like tai chi.

It may feel like we are doing nothing when we hold still and listen, but sometimes, that’s the most powerful thing we can do.

It helps us to acknowledge the emotions under the fear and anger which often disguise hurt. Our own, or other people’s.

Tai chi teaches us to yield. Let go. Islam, the religion I was born into, means ‘submission’. It teaches that the ‘greater jihad is the struggle within’, not physical violence. This echoes the mantra of ‘be the change’.

It requires humility and courage to look inwards rather than blame others.

While looking inwards, we also gaze into the distance, take the long view. Yin and yang.

When we react, we contribute to hardening attitudes.

My tai chi teacher Aliya is from the troubled province of Balochistan in Pakistan. We reconnected some years ago in New Jersey after over 25 years. Her words from back then returned to me as I got deeper into my peacebuilding work: “Behta pani apna raasta bana leta hai” – Flowing water finds its own path.

Go with the flow. Chart your own course. With curiosity and openness. Without aggression.

We know that knowledge is power.

The tai chi salute symbolizes knowledge OVER power.

One of Aliya’s students, a teacher at an inner-city school in New Jersey used it to stop bullying in the playground. Overcoming her fear, she went up to the biggest bully and told him that she was impressed by his physical power.

Then she showed him the tai chi salute. Palm over fist. Knowledge over power. Much more impressive.

The student shared the tai chi salute with friends. They began using it and competing about their learnings.

It changed the culture of that inner city school.

Imagine if everyone did that – competed about knowledge and ways to help each other rather than power or money.

It may not always seem that way but the world is making steady progress in the right direction – towards more inclusivity, human dignity and rights, recognition of injustices and climate change.

It is important to recognize and affirm this, not just react to the bad news – of which there is plenty of course.

Let me close with five points.

1. Connections and collaboration are powerful.

We are all in this together, and together we are stronger. We can work together only when we practice humility, let go of our egos, feel the pain and release the hurt.

2. We talk about inclusivity – let’s practice it.

Talk to those we disagree with. In these polarized times we need dialogue and bridge-building more than ever. Open doors to dialogue. Talk to the bullies on the block. Find a minimum common agenda. Who doesn’t want peace – except perhaps the weapons sellers? And even they, on a personal level, might want it.

3. We know that the blame game doesn’t help. Let’s not play it.

Let’s use our words to be observational, not judgmental. Focus on issues, not personalities. Don’t generalize.

4. Everything is connected. Everything is political.

Take the long view. Engage strategically and keep your eye on the bigger picture.

5. The process is as important as the goal, which we may never fully attain. There are no shortcuts to peace, social justice, democracy. Or healthy relationships. 

Regardless of how daunting the challenges, we need to keep taking the steps. This may feel frustrating but two steps forward, one step back, is still a step forward.

All this takes practice. Practice patience, calm, humility, listening to others. Respond, don’t react.

Easier said than done of course.

But when we make these practices a part of our lifestyle, practice compassion towards ourselves, we do our part to connect and make the world a better place.

In closing, I invite you to use your words, use technology.

Be a pebble in a pond, spread ripples of knowledge, compassion, love and understanding.

I wish you luck as you move into the next phase of your lives. I know that each one of you will do amazing things to change the world.

You already are by being present today.

Thank you.  And congratulations!

Some more images below from the event. Photos: Lipofskyphoto.com


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