Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 2: Overcoming Us versus Them

We talk with Cyril Cromwell and Kyle Schmalenberg about the current conversation on race and identity, and consider how principles of justice, oneness and equality can help us to overcome the divisions between “us” and “them”. Cromwell is the Learning and Development Manager at YouthREX, and Schmalenberg is a freelance filmmaker.

Read the Transcript

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

LAURA FRIEDMANN (Media Officer, Office of Public Affairs): I'm thrilled to be joined on The Public Discourse by Cyril Cromwell and Kyle Schmalenberg. This is a second episode of our new series on Rebuilding Together, where we being to look at the future beyond COVID-19. Thank you to Kyle and Cyril for joining us on this episode of The Public Discourse. I'm really excited to be talking to you about how we can overcome the social divisions that keep us apart as we look to rebuild our society together.

I wonder if you could each briefly introduce yourselves. Maybe Cyril you could kick us off?

CYRIL CROMWELL (Learning and Development Manager, YouthREX): Sure. Thanks so much for having me. I'm Cyril Cromwell. Right now my primary role in the youth sector is with YouthREX: Youth Research and Evaluation Exchange. I'm the Learning and Development Manager there and I've been with YouthREXfor the last five or so years.

Prior to that I was working in the front lines as well with young people across the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). Outside of my daytime work I'm also a photographer. I've been doing photography for over twelve years now. I have a small studio in the East End where I also work with community members and young entrepreneurs. So those are some of the things I'm up to.

LAURA: Wonderful. It all sounds really exciting. Kyle, what about you?

KYLE SCHMALENBERG (Filmmaker): Hello Laura and Cyril. It's great to be here.

I am currently working as a freelance filmmaker. I've been involved in various projects that have to do with humanitarian efforts. Some things involved with the United Nations and with the Bahá’í community, internationally as well as locally. Most recently I've been working on a feature documentary about gender equality in Bahá’í communities around the world, and we're very excited about that to come out.

In addition to being a filmmaker, I'm completing my Masters of counselling and psychotherapy. I'm very close to being finished that so I'm excited to not be in school anymore. In addition to filmmaking and school, I've been focused a lot for the last five or six years on doing youth-based and community service work in a neighbourhood in Toronto called St. James Town. In that neighbourhood, I've been working with other youth, facilitating children's programs and junior youth programs, and service initiatives aimed at youth as well.

LAURA: Kyle, as you know we have all been deeply affected by the growing public consciousness of systemic racism and by the renewed efforts of many people to reshape social structures. I know that you have been involved in community-based efforts, as you said, to promote a dialogue on race and identity. Where does your inspiration come from to do this work? And what concepts and principles do you think are important for us to navigate these conversations?

KYLE: I'll try to answer that first question first. Where does my inspiration come from to do this work? Well, as I think about it, working with youth and junior youth, and children – that whole demographic of our society – it really highlights the parts of society that are lacking. When we look at what young people are concerned with – what they have learned, what they value, and so on – it teaches us a lot about what is implicit in our society and our culture, but it also shows us where values are evolving from generation to generation. So, in part, inspiration for me comes from serving with a population that is inherently filled with hope and potential.

Another thing that motivates me to promote and have dialogue on race and identity is seeing how people I know around me react to the growing consciousness of systemic racism, and overall lack of justice that pervades our everyday [lives].

So all this comes down to me to answer then the second question: thinking about what concepts and principles are important for us to navigate these conversations. To me, it always comes down to the recognition of humanity's inherent oneness. That's the foundation, because when we have a deep understanding of this really simple phrase "The Oneness of Humanity", and we act based upon it, we can find a remedy for all of the social ills that we have.

Recognizing our oneness leads to equality of all sorts. If I see myself and you as equal – I'm a man, you're a woman – that helps us move forward in terms of gender equality. If I recognize my oneness with someone from a different culture or a different ethnicity, that helps us see what's common rather than what's different, and we can also move forward away from prejudice.

It leads to exploring a true understanding and practice of justice as well. And I think understanding our inherent oneness allows us also to see each other as contributors to the societies that we're building, and the world that we're stewards of.

And then of course a couple other things that I really always have to focus on and try to develop within myself are the principles of patience and understanding. If anybody has ever worked with youth and children, you know that patience is definitely required. But for anybody that's also been in involved in conversations or actions around re-shaping societal structures, you know that these things weren't built overnight. Our systemic issues weren't created overnight, and it stands to reason that they won't be dismantled or changed overnight either.

But then also understanding. I don't think we can over-value understanding; and I use that term broadly. All motivation is rooted in understanding. If we don't understand why we would do something, or why something is the way it is, then how could we be moved to do anything? We can't be motivated to do anything unless we understand what those actions would yield.

LAURA: You spoke about patience that is required in this work with youth, and this is a great segue to Cyril. I wanted to ask you: what is the source of your inspiration to work with youth serving organizations? And also, what ideas do you think are helpful to these organizations that are trying to help young people to challenge racism that exists in their communities?

CYRIL: Yeah. Thanks for that question. Working with young people was really encouraging, really energizing, or re-energizing, and felt purposeful because you're supporting other human beings in a very important developmental stage of life where they are exploring their interests, and their contributions to society, and commitment, and drive to contribute to society. But when I left the frontline youth work a couple of years ago and I started working directly with youth workers and organizations, I found that my passion, my inspiration, came from supporting other youth workers.

As a youth worker, I experienced a lot of challenges in the sector itself. I found that not only were the voices of young people, and the humanity of young people, sometimes underestimated and undervalued by those that were in administrative positions, and positions of authority, but that also was an experience by the youth workers themselves. When I started working with youth serving organizations, I wanted to find space to build capacity to support other youth workers in doing their jobs, and also to be able to identify and speak to some of those challenges that they are experiencing.

So, my inspiration is coming from a desire to be advocating and to move systems to change and to be accountable for the injustice that they keep reproducing; even if it's not necessarily intentional because we have the greatest of intentions. We want to help. But if we position ourselves as the helper, and the other person as the helped, that's kind of the crux of this whole conversation of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

So I won't go too much into that, but in terms of looking at strategies for organizations – for programs to help or rather cooperate with young people to address the challenges of racism in their communities – I would say that it's really about organizations making space at the table, and also making sure that any actions or recommendations that young people and community members are recommending, they actually have an action plan to be implemented.

LAURA: Well I'm glad we have people like you with this inspiration, and this determination, and perseverance in a very challenging context. So, shifting gears a little bit. Kyle, you've been working with young people in the St. James Town neighbourhood in Toronto for a number of years, and you've been helping them to contribute to the advancement of their community. And in response to the recent killing of George Floyd, as well as many other acts of violence directed towards Black and Indigenous people, you've been helping to foster a number of conversations with young people about race. Can you share some of the insights that have emerged from these conversations you've been having?

KYLE: St. James Town is a community that has over 10,000 people and it's not a very large neighbourhood. So it's tall apartment buildings, many people living in a very small place together, and the majority of that population are what we would call newcomers; newcomers to Canada. So they are immigrant families. They are Black people, they're brown people, they're religious people. We don't have to think too hard about what their experience in a predominantly white secular society is like.

A lot of the conversations that we have in the neighbourhood activities revolve around this concept of a two-fold moral purpose. On the one side, this purpose is to grow spiritually and intellectually as individuals, and on the other side it's to contribute to the betterment of society. That’s a simple phrase, but it has deep implications because we know that none of us exist outside of our environment. None of us are separate from our environment, and our environment is the way that it is because it's made up of individuals like us. So, it's kind of like these two sides feed into each other. When we're consciously thinking about, and acting upon these two sides of this moral purpose – growing spiritually and intellectually for ourselves and thinking about the betterment of society – that's a way that we could affect real positive lasting change in our communities and in our own lives.

Talking about these things – talking about the injustices like the killing of George Floyd and others – talking about these things with youth is very easy; in the sense that it comes up easily. Because young people are in a time in their lives when their eyes are opening up to the social forces that exist around them. They're starting to critically think about the values that they're taught at home, and how those values are contradicted by the wider society.

The world over, youth are the drivers of change because of this energy that inherently comes with being young. There's a freshness and a boldness. Imagine you combine a fresh ball of energy with a strong sense of morality, or a strong sense of right and wrong, and a strong sense of justice. I mean, just take a glance at history, this is how every revolution ever, formed. They're not being driven by children, they're not being driven by the elderly, they're being driven by youth who are being awakened to the problems of their society, and they want to change it.

Earlier on in the pandemic, everybody was getting shut in, and then a lot of things were popping up in the news; a lot of things similar to the death of George Floyd, and so on. And it seemed like the dominoes were all falling. So, a friend and I decided that it would be a good idea to bring together a group of people who are similarly concerned with these things, and perhaps even have thoughts and questions, to bring them together into a sort of group consultation and see what we could all learn from one another.

It became clear to me that a lot of people, first of all, don't know how to absorb what they're seeing and what we're experiencing. They have questions, but they are crippled by not knowing how to ask those questions.

Prejudice is something that is rooted in ignorance, and I think fear. When you're ignorant about something, and you're fearful about what it means to look into that even, to try and understand it more, you just become more and more entrenched in your own problematic beliefs.

LAURA: What did you learn from that experience?

KYLE: It's okay to not have answers. Because if you have a question, and you're able to ask that question and you don't have an answer, then the only other thing left to do is to listen. And listening is invaluable in these times. If you want to learn something, you really, really have to listen.

LAURA: I find it really inspiring to hear these experiences that you've had at the community level with youth at the grassroots. I know that Cyril has a lot of experience there too, as well as in more institutional places. So Cyril, I've been thinking about inter-generational healing, and the power that lies behind that. What are you hearing from youth leaders and social workers on how we can collectively overcome challenges of race, inequality, and violence? Because this is clearly a problem that cannot be solved only by one group in society, right? It involves all of us. So, what are you learning about the role of youth in the process? And how do you think mentors and older people can support these efforts of young people for race unity?

CYRIL: If we're looking at the history of struggle that's been successful, it's always in my opinion, in my observations, [been] inter-generational. We have many layers, and if we're struggling against one another, it's not very productive. I will say that in every society and every culture, we have individuals that are more self-seeking and -serving than community focused, and when we get disappointed by leadership that are in positions of power, and also seniority – not only in ranking but also age – we look at the older generation and we're like, "Oh you guys sold out! You guys didn't do anything. You guys are just playing the game because you want to make sure your mortgage is paid and you have those nice cruises. You know? When the ships open again. Rather than struggle for your community daily."

So we often see that those on the front lines are those that might have a little bit more proximity to the consequences of the injustice – in terms of police brutality and experiences directly – because you're in the streets maybe more, because you're more active, and you're going to different places, and your social circle, and your social meetings, you're encountering this quicker.

If we're looking specifically at the context of the Black community and we're thinking about how important for a Black and Indigenous community inter-generational harmony is. Not just with the generations that are present with you in life, but connection with the generations that have gone before you. You can look at a youth program, for example, like “rites of passage” programs that really encourage a space and a place for young people to walk a journey that's not only about connecting with legacy and dynasty, but also about carving a new way forward. So I think looking at some of those models can really help us as we're looking for ways forward to bring inter-generational contributors to the struggle together to work in harmony.

LAURA: Thank you. What you shared kind of takes me into the next question for Kyle around the power of sharing stories and telling stories. I know Kyle, you are also a filmmaker and story teller. Obviously the stories that we tell about ourselves are incredibly important. And sometimes the stories that we tell leave out large parts of the population, and are in a sense one-sided. So, what kinds of new stories do we need right now?

KYLE: It's not hyperbole to say that stories change people's lives, because they literally do, every single day. That's why, for example, the news is so powerful. That's why social media is such an overwhelming force today. But in an unjust society, the stories that we're told as citizens tend to distort the truth or show parts of a picture. They perpetuate these falsehoods that ultimately reinforce the very things that uphold the unjust society.

Stories like that can literally make somebody hate themselves or hate their own people, because that's how powerful stories are. But at the same time, this power, the power of stories is not inherently negative. It's negative if we use it to be negative. Just like any power, it can be wielded for good or for evil; to say it simply.

I recently, in conversation with my grandfather, found out that we were slaves. And before Bermuda, we were slaves in some other island in the West Indies. And before that we came from some country in West Africa. That's unfortunately as specific as he could be. But knowing that story, that's the beginning. That's a very common beginning of a family story that Black people in North America have. Unless they immigrated here at some point, which obviously happens, Black people are on this continent as a result of slavery.

But this story is a little bit different because my grandfather eventually became Bermuda's first director of cultural affairs in that department of their government, and he was actually the person who wrote the human rights commission for the nation. That's their human rights bill. Thinking through this story: my family went from people living in Africa – living their own lives in Africa – to being stolen and brought to another country as slaves, to eventually being freed from slavery, but having to live in a segregated society, and then to not only government workers within that society, but the person who writes down the human rights bill for all the citizens of that country.

That is a story that is tremendously powerful. Because there are many lessons that you could take from that story, and the most obvious one is how somebody, through education and resilience, can achieve a status of quite a lot of influence, and be a force for positive change within an entire community, and an entire country.

I think the stories that we need right now are ones that, instead of reinforcing the negative and unjust things about our society, or the things that try to debase us into thinking that we actually aren't any better than animals, or that we actually can't overcome prejudice, or that actually violence is inherent in our human nature – all of these things, we're thrown a lot of different messages – I think we need stories that reinforce the nobility that's inherent in human beings. We need stories that promote a view of the oneness of our humanity. We need to be showing each other things that help us to be more compassionate about these kinds of people, these kinds of situations, whatever it might be.

LAURA: Thank you. You've talked a lot about oneness, and kind of bringing us always back to oneness. Cyril, we have called this episode "Overcoming 'us' versus 'them'". I know you spoke about it a little bit earlier, but what does it mean to you to overcome this 'us' versus 'them'?

CYRIL: Like what Kyle was saying earlier, I think in like in the first question, Kyle was talking about the oneness of humanity. I think about religion in terms of… guidelines, advice, insight into how you can become the full version of you. And not only 'you', but that 'you' is also an 'us'. It's also a universal connection to 'you' in terms of your person, and the Source, the Creator, everything else. And so that's why we have the Golden Rule. That's why in Judeo-Christian beliefs, that I'm more familiar with, the greatest commandment has to do with love of God, the Creator, but also your neighbour. And not only that but also a sense of self-love – because how can you love someone else if you don't love yourself? So, treat your neighbour as you would treat yourself.

I would say instead of looking up these structures and institutions that are organizing human society that have so much baggage and context, let us look inward. How are you reconciling your relationship with yourself? How are you reconciling your relationship in reality of being connected to other selves? Are they a part of you? Are you a part of them? Like, what makes up your body? What makes up your physical elements that exist in the environment around and around the earth?

Is there a greater connectedness that we can understand to kind of start us off and center ourselves so that we can not just refer to our own social programming? "Oh, he's Black. He's white. She’s female." Like, we understand the social categorization that is happening, and the functions that they may serve, and their limitations, but is there a baseline that we can start to see ourselves in another person? And then even question that sense of self.

I would say that moving forward in the 'us' versus 'them' debate and trying to overcome that, we need empathy. Empathy that's not exploitative, just to kind of see what you want to see in, or from, another person, but critically looking at yourself and, as Kyle was saying as well, listening to others so that we can together build a fuller version of our human experience. Being aware that the social political competition that we're in, and that we're positioned in, is not necessarily conducive to a harmonious society.

So, stepping back and challenging our presumptions of who the “other” is, and doing so with a sense of urgency. So as much as we love ourselves… And we all want to be understood. And we all, most of us perhaps, know what it feels like to be misunderstood. And as much as we would like people to see our true value and our true contribution, let us also open our eyes so that we can start seeing the value and contribution from another soul. You know… And I think that then turns into a spiritual connection.

LAURA: Thank you. It makes me think of this quote I heard about: “we listen to the other to see that there is no other”. Listening is incredibly powerful; sometimes more than speaking.

So I was wondering if you have any last thoughts? Any other responses to what each other said? Anything you'd like to add?

KYLE: This isn't so much a response. It's just something that what Cyril was just saying right now brought up for me. And I think I'll mention it here because it's always good for me, and maybe for others, to remember that what is legal isn't necessarily what is moral. Apartheid was legal. Residential schools were legal. But how far from moral and ethical are these things? And tying it as well to what Cyril was talking about in terms of spirituality and these underlying truths and principles that we should be focusing on and trying to live by. This is all tied to what I was saying earlier about the two-fold moral purpose: about developing one's own intellectual and spiritual capacity and thinking about the betterment of society. Like, you can't do one without the other, and I'm just reinforcing what Cyril was saying.

LAURA: Beautiful. Thank You. Cyril, I want to give you a last chance because, you might want to share.

CYRIL: Yeah. I find it sometimes difficult to be very constructive in terms of 'you should do this' and 'you should do that', 'this is the advice' when it’s such an existential type of meditation.

So, I feel like a bit of a drifting away in terms of an abstraction where the concept of empathy has to be taken two ways. One, in terms of its pure function. And the other in terms of response to our social context. And what I mean by that is empathy in terms of seeing yourself in another person, but also cautious empathy and recognizing that you are not that person. You also have to become vulnerable, you also have to open up and see your own connection to the struggle that lies beyond your position, or your degrees, or your ambition, or your sense of self-righteousness. And that is a very difficult thing to question.

LAURA: Thank you. That was very profound and beautiful. And inspiring. I want to thank you both for a very rich, and thoughtful, and reflective conversation. Thank you for being on The Public Discourse.

KYLE: Thank you.

CYRIL: Thank you.