Share Peace and Love. If you disagree, try to do so with respect. Try to always come from a loving place. That’s why I started the Valentine’s Day Campaign. I wanted to come from a place of love. I did not want the people who died from police brutality to be remembered in anger or hate.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katerina Canyon.
Katerina Canyon has a Master’s Degree in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is a child rights activist, poet and Managing Director of Valentine’s Day Campaign, a national peace campaign against police brutality. Ms. Canyon is the founder of Camp BPW (Building Powerful Women, a camp for low-income teenage girls) As a poet, she is a 2020 and 2019 Pushcart prize nominee. Her latest book of poetry, Changing the Lines is available on Amazon. Her next book, entitled Surviving Home is due out from Kelsay Books in December.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I have a big family with 12 brothers and 2 sisters who love me very much. That being said, I had a challenging childhood. My father was very abusive, but my mother was very loving. Getting through our childhood was like surviving a war. Both my parents were drug addicts. We spent a good deal of our time homeless. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was 10 years old. This left me to take care of my two younger brothers. One is autistic and the other is 10 years younger than I am. That being said, I was a pretty positive kid. I did well in school and always hoped to do something that would make the world a better place.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
As a low income child who suffered a tremendous amount abuse, I know how vulnerable children can be. I wanted to do something to help make the world better for children. Police brutality is especially hard on children. Not only are children sometimes victims themselves, but when the parents are victims, it effects family structure. It is very traumatizing for a child when someone in their family experiences police brutality.
Also, as someone who has seen a lot of violence in her life, I try to focus on peace and positivity. The Valentine’s Day Campaign is a campaign that sends Valentines to legislators with the names of those who have died due to police brutality within the Valentine. We do this with the hope that these cards will produce a visual impact on legislators and encourage them to pass stronger police accountability legislation.
This campaign was inspired by riots that occurred after the death of George Floyd. I thought it was important that we focused on peaceful change.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now, we are focusing on panels to educate people on police brutality and accountability. Our future panels involve police accountability policies that work and panels that teach children how to interact with the police.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
A few years ago, I had a serious bout of depression. I did not know how I was going to move forward in child rights because I thought there was no solution to dealing with the Trump administration in the field I was working in. I was completely despondent. My friend and Valentine’s Day Campaign’s Outreach and Partnership Director, Adrienne Klein helped pulled me out. She truly encourages me. She makes me feel like I can accomplish anything.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I was in Nepal working to help end child labor in brick kilns, I went to this very big event on ending child labor. I was suddenly called up to give a speech. The problem was that no one ever told me I was expected to give one. I walked up to the stage, and I just started talking about how I felt about child labor. At the end, people came up to me and told me they loved the speech. That experience taught me that I have nothing to fear if I always speak from the heart.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer helped me face the negative voice in my head. I learned that the only thing between me and the things I want to accomplish is me.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek. — Barack Obama
This resonates with me because I often ask myself, “If I don’t do this, who will?” Even if someone is doing something, they surely need help. No one can make major change on their own.
A few years back, I saw a video of an amazing teenager looking to be adopted. She reminded me of my own kids. I thought to myself, “If I don’t adopt her, who will?” I said to my husband, “This is our daughter. We have to adopt her,” and we did.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is a process for producing coordinated action by trusting and supporting the team you lead. As a leader, I supply the vision, and the team supplies the action. For example, with the Valentine’s Day Campaign, I had this idea to send Valentines to legislators, but it was the team who helped me coordinate the means of making it happen.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think we have distinct groups of people who think the world is unfair, and those groups are at odds with one another. Rural areas are seeing disparities in poverty, health, and access to education. Meanwhile urban areas are having problems with housing, overcrowding, and education. Trump connected to the rural population. They felt like their problems were being heard, and they often felt ignored by liberals who they believe focus on urban issues. What anyone fails to see is that we are all suffering. I think that a lot of people were unhappy with President Obama. I think those people felt he was taking something from them. Trump spoke for those people, but Trump also appealed to extremists, and those extremists helped to fuel the divide in our country.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
One of my brothers is strongly conservative. As a Black family, this has been hard for many of us to accept. I love my brother, but I got to the point where I had to mute his posts on Facebook. I only talk with him on the phone now. Our relationship is much better this way.
My in-laws are white and conservative. We often have an unspoken no-politics agreement. Presidential Elections are the hardest times to live up to that. When President Obama was elected, I was elated. They were not, and they were very vocal about their feelings. When Trump was elected, and I went to D.C. to protest, they thought I was overreacting, but we talked it through, and we came out of it understanding one another a bit better. Now they support pretty much everything I do.
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
I think people need to take their minds back in time to a point where they cared about the people they disagreed with. They need to think about how those people enriched their lives before they hit these major divides. They should realize these people are the same ones who cared about them five years ago. They are the same people who took them through good times and bad. They are just people who think differently.
I have this friend who is the sweetest guy in the world. We used to work at the same company. We have had a lot of good times together, but sometimes he’ll respond to my posts with what I believe are outlandish and insensitive political statements. I know there’s no changing his mind by arguing with him, so when I disagree with him, I just respond, “I love you too.” That’s actually how my brothers and I often disagree as well. We will say, “I love you, but I disagree with that.”
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
As a leader, it is best to focus on the mission. You make it clear what the organizational policy and beliefs are, and that employees need to respect those policies. As far as fractured relationships in the workplace, it is impossible for everyone to like each other in any given situation, but it is important everyone respect one another. We need to emphasize that.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
It is wonderful when we can focus on things that unite us. I think when Amanda Gorman read her inaugural poem, many people across the country connected with that. When COVID-19 first started to affect us, we felt united. We tried to make sure nurses had masks. We delivered groceries to those in need. We unite when we find the right cause. Basically, most people want to focus on doing good, so let’s focus on the good.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
Social media is a strong tool. I depend on it to get my message out. The problem comes with the abuses. I am not aware of any sort of national social media code of conduct that social media companies are held accountable to, but they should be.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
We can remember who we are and that political belief is only one aspect of our lives. We are all bound by our basic humanity.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
We need to remind ourselves that every election cycle is not a battle for the very existence of our country. If we hold elections legally and ethically, our country will get through this. We have had some very dark moments in our country, but cooler heads often prevail, and we pull through.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Listen. If someone disagrees with your political belief. Listen to what they are saying to determine what that belief is based on. After Trump won the Election in 2016, I was so upset. I did not understand how anyone could vote for him. My friend contacted me and told me why she voted for him. She talked to me about job losses and struggles in the midwest. She said Trump promised to return jobs they lost years prior. Listening to her helped me understand her and Trump supporters a lot more.
- Do Something Non-Political Together. I cannot sing, but the first thing I’m going to do when the stay-at-home policies are lifted is join a choir. I want to be a part of something that isn’t political. I just want to connect with people. We need to find different ways to connect with each other, through art, music, or sports. Let the politics go for a day or so!
- Engage Civically. Volunteer for a political campaign. I always try to volunteer for at least one campaign per election cycle. I get to talk to people and learn about things that matter to them. They also get to learn about me and why I do what I do.
- Forgive. Forgive your family and friends for whatever they said to you in the heat of a political disagreement, if not for them, for your own peace of mind. I was really upset with my in-laws at how they treated Obama’s victory back in 2008. I took it personally. I thought it was a race thing. I held onto that bitterness for 8 years. When I told them how I felt, they apologized and promised to be more sensitive to my feelings.
- Share Peace and Love. If you disagree, try to do so with respect. Try to always come from a loving place. That’s why I started the Valentine’s Day Campaign. I wanted to come from a place of love. I did not want the people who died from police brutality to be remembered in anger or hate.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
You can share food. My older daughter moved into a new neighborhood recently, and she was nervous because she saw a few Trump signs on lawns. Those neighbors stopped by with muffins, oranges and cookies. This eased my daughter’s mind, and now they are friendly with one another. Food goes a long way toward healing divides.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am very optimistic. If I weren’t, I would not be doing this. Conditions now are better than they were in the 80s. The 80s are better than they were in the 60s. We are on an upward trend. We are just experiencing some growing pains right now. It may be painful right now, but I truly believe we will grow as a country because of what we are all going through right now.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
If you have an idea, and you think it will make a positive impact, make that idea happen. Most of the time all you need is the desire and will to make it happen. You will be surprised by how much support you receive once you get going.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of The Children’s Defense Fund. As a BIPOC children’s rights activist, she is my hero.
How can our readers follow you online?
For Valentine’s Day Campaign: Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/valdaycampaign/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/VDayCampaign1 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/valdaycampaign/ Website: https://www.vdaycampaign.org/
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!