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Honoring the heroes who don’t stand by

Rescue Project stops in Brattleboro, exploring the psychology of those who step in when most others won’t

BRATTLEBORO—The Rescue Project echoes some of the peace and healing initiatives of many organizations that are active in efforts to defuse conflict.

But according to its proponents, the project, formed by Leora Kahn, a graduate of the SIT Graduate Institute, exists principally to honor those who have been rescuers when the danger is clear.

The project also broadcasts far and wide the belief that everyone has the option to rescue, as well as measures one might take to choose that option.

The organization’s literature asks, “What motivates ordinary people to become rescuers in the face of conflict? What prompts one person to act while another stands by?”

Rescue Project events in Brattleboro and Putney included an exhibition of nearly life-size photographs, with text, of rescuers and their work, and public discussions.

The events have been sponsored by the Southern Vermont Friends of Jung (adherents of the teachings of turn-of-the 20th century psychiatrist Carl Jung), in collaboration with the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, The School for International Training, and the Putney School.

The exhibits, which cost several thousand dollars to arrange, travel within the United States and to countries where human rights offenses have taken place or, in some cases, continue to take place.

Frequently, the remnants of genocide, even when the mass killing stops, remain in the form of authoritarian governments and struggles for power.

Present day Rwanda is one such example.

The photographs document the stories of people who forged ahead, and saved the lives of individuals and families. They did so in defiance of deadly manipulation by those in power to dehumanize opponents, as well as kill-or-be-killed threats and implications.

Their stories recount events during the Holocaust, and in the countries where well-documented genocides have taken place, including Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Cambodia.

The exhibition opened in October with events that included remarks from those involved in Rescue and related efforts in conflict transformation.

Participants included Nora Riley, a Brattleboro psychiatrist, who coordinated and helped sponsor the local programs; Leora Kahn, the organizer and producer of the exhibits and the initiator of the Rescue Project and founder of PROOF, who came up from New York; and Larry Hames, the executive director of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center.

Also commenting at a forum at SIT was Paula Green, the founder and director of CONTACT (Conflict Transformation Across Cultures) at the SIT Graduate Institute.

Joseph Sebarenzi, who now teaches part-time at SIT, and works for the U. S. Dept. of Justice in Washington, also spoke. A Rwandan by birth, Sebarenzi’s mother, father, and seven siblings were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide in his home country.

In conversations before and after the forums, several participants described their connections to — and interest in — the Rescue Project.

How people make choices

Kahn, a prominent photo editor, filmmaker, and social activist in New York for more than 25 years, spoke of her journey from employment as a full-time photo editor in a large publishing house to becoming an active spokesperson for social change.

In 2006, she founded PROOF: Media for Social Justice, a nonprofit whose mission is to encourage social change using photography and education.

She works currently with Amnesty International, the United Nations, and several universities with interest in transforming conflict, including Yale, which since 1998 has run the Genocide Studies Program.

Kahn collaborated on several books, including Child Soldiers and Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, as well as worked on a number of films on related subjects.

“I decided to use photography for social change, and I’ve traveled with the exhibit, including going to Rwanda,” she said.

“Millions of people have been killed and displaced before the world’s eyes,” she added. “I collected testimonies for a project, and I’m still collecting stories — they’re the most important narratives.”

Kahn speaks of “upstanders” (rescuers) and “bystanders,” and continues to collect stories from both categories.

“It’s about choice,” she said, “and I’m very interested in why [the choice is made].”

“Rescuers are everyday people,” she said. ”Most people think of rescuers such as Schindler [who saved more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust],” Kahn explained. “But it’s ordinary people.”

Learning how people make those choices is one goal of The Rescue Project.

“There are lots of different reasons people choose to be rescuers,” Kahn believes, adding, “What is the urge to rescue? The bystander is the norm. Why does someone risk his life to rescue?”

She said she was struck by how stories of rescuer experiences have almost always been left out of narratives of deadly conflicts.

She also said she does not work with perpetrators and is not concerned with why they do what they do. “We want to look at what’s good, not at what’s evil.”

“I helped to bring Rescue here, partly because of the obvious tie-in to the racism at the high school,” said Larry Hames, the executive director of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, noting that he is also fascinated by what goes on in the mind of the bystander.

“We may not eradicate racism but we must not be inactive bystanders,” he said.

Hames considers rescue from a slightly different perspective, concentrating on concepts of reparative/restorative justice, as well as training people to become “active bystanders.”

While he knew of the Rescue Project, this is the first time he’s been directly involved, Hames said. He has friends who have participated.

“In this state and others,” Hames said, “there are efforts to move cases, such as shoplifting, away from the criminal justice system and into diversion programs.”

A pamphlet describing the work of the justice center lists five goals the center considers when partnering with the community: Repair the harm done, restore those who committed crimes into the community, provide free mediation services, host dialogues, and deliver training and education.

The active bystander component grew out of egregious racial incidents perpetrated, in part, by several Brattleboro Union High School students in 2008.

Such incidents, as well as other examples of local bullying and harassment, strengthened the resolve of community members to foster the active bystander movement.

“Refuse to be a bystander” is one slogan of the movement, which calls on members of the community to speak up when seeing or hearing something unacceptable, and generally to intervene when, for example, verbal exchanges include racial intolerance and degradation.

“Three years ago, the community was forced to make a moral choice,” Hames said. “We came together over the racial incidents at the high school, and I think I was involved in 17 of the 18 gatherings” generated by the events.

“Keeping racial crimes on the radar screen” was a goal, he explained.

Meanwhile, stagnant prison conditions generated interest in alternative justice.

Hames explained that several conditions drove so many young people to prison, including, he said, “the war on drugs and mandated sentencing.”

“If you met the qualifications, the local courts had no options” but to send the offender to prison, whether the crime was violent or shoplifting, he said.

“Since 2003, we have offered reparative panels,” Hames said. Such panels meet with offenders and victims to make clear the harm of the offense and to explore possible actions to repair the harm done to the victim. They work with offenders to make amends, and to ascertain what might be needed to transform them.

Police and others may refer offenders to the center before any court process and, if the conditions are right, the offenders could avoid formal misdemeanor charges.

Hames explains that the process includes asking the question, “What does the offender need to do to get back into the good graces of the community?”

The answer, he said, might include the input of the victim.

The concepts of truth and reconciliation also drive the reparative system, and justice center panels are staffed, in part, with community volunteers.

After the 2008 racial incidents, “students pledged to not be passive bystanders, starting the local no-bystander movement,” Hames said.

Though her friend Hames was an enthusiastic supporter of bringing the project to Windham County, Brattleboro psychotherapist Nora Riley was really the prime mover in the efforts, as well as providing financial support.

Riley, active in the Southern Vermont Friends of Jung, had already met Kahn at Yale, where Kahn was connected to Yale genocide studies. Both had also participated in the CONTACT certificate program at SIT, and both had gone to Rwanda.

Her interest in Rescue focuses, in part, on the psychological makeup of rescuers, just one of her interests after 25 years as a therapist.

“Who is the real human article — the bystander or the rescuer?” Riley asks. “I believe there is a natural urge or instinct for rescue, that it’s part of our makeup. How to access it [is the issue].”

“It’s much harder to access when you are on your own” she added, pointing to the value of group action.

“I have a friend in western Massachusetts who gives help to the homelessness and he feels the regular population disapproves,” Riley said. “He does it, he says, because he feels compelled.”

She continued, “I fed starving dogs in Mexico, and everyone thought I was crazy, but I felt that the life of this dog was important.”

Something that represses the urge to rescue, she believes, “is too much thinking.”

“I saw a woman in a wheelchair at a crossing. I knew her. But too much thinking and analyzing was going on. Then the man in front just helped her to cross,” she said.

And, finally, she said, “in psychology, the focusing on the self sometimes comes at the cost of the other.”

“Psychology has to be able to make better people,” she said.

She continues to wonder just where in our psyche is the rescuer.

“When I was in Rwanda, I met victims and killers and it made me think, ‘Would I be a rescuer?’” she said. “I think it’s spontaneous.”

Riley, one of what she described as a rich local community of Jungians, said that she is interested in applying the theories of Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychiatry, who had been a friend and correspondent of the older Sigmund Freud before the two scholars sharply diverged to more contemporary issues.

“We must move to the other, rather than the self,” she said. “Jung says the rescue of the world consists of the rescue of one.”

She believes now that is reversed.

“The rescue of one soul is the rescue of the world,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #127 (Wednesday, November 16, 2011).

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