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talking with HawaH Kasat

Jen Hagedorn

WorldChanging Managing Editor

HawaH is an artist, author, educator, yoga instructor and community organizer who has dedicated his life to cultivating experiences and teaching nonviolence. He has traveled the world facilitating workshops, talks, performances, and speaking with those interested in creating a caring, sustainable, and equitable world.

I grab HawaH on the phone on International Peace Day just after his group meditation with the 20-person staff at One Common Unity. “Let’s breathe together, it’s so important!” he says. And I admit I need to catch my breath a bit as I’m a little nervous and, almost always, awkward on a call. He continues, “I told my staff okay we’re going to stop what we’re doing and we’re all going to meditate together for the next half an hour for global peace. There’s a synchronized meditation, we’re going to meditate with people all around the world.”

HawaH also shares with me that every week their staff gets one half hour of paid self-care time. “We’re helping each staff member create their own plans for being and staying healthy, to eliminate stress and overwhelm, to find space for themselves. We ask them to do a lot, so we have to keep our batteries full.”

Jennifer: What is your vision and how do you go about it through the many projects you have?

HawaH: Are we talking about my personal vision or my work vision with the organization One Common Unity? 

Jennifer: Are they separate? Or, are you still in the process of finding out they are actually quite integrated?

HawaH: To an extent they are definitely integrated. You know, the work I’m so blessed to do is my life’s work, and it’s work that I’m passionate about. One Common Unity has part of my vision for the world, but I think it’s only a part. My life work expresses itself through One Common Unity. The other part of my vision for the world is unable to express its full breath, quite yet. The easiest way I could break that down is that One Common Unity, at this time, as a small non-profit organization, can only work on so many issues. And the issues we’ve chosen to work on are education, art and healing, while also using music to promote social justice and to build the leaders of the future.

That’s the vision of One Common Unity. My personal vision as a human being on earth would love to realize an end to global poverty, an end to systemic racism and oppression of all kinds, a fair distribution of wealth across the planet, a reprioritization of where government is investing our money – away from militarization and into global health care and equity, shared resources, public lands remaining public, and rainforests remaining protected. So my personal vision is one that is connected to a global struggle and connected to some really systemic issues that I believe are failing.

Much of humanity is failing our entire planet. One Common Unity’s vision is more focused, more tuned in to what is tangible and possible right now with the resources we have in education. So my personal vision is not necessarily tied to the resources and capabilities we have as an organization at the moment.

via @everlutionary – To move humanity forward will require cooperation we’ve never realized; a level of coming together across ethnic, racial, religious, gender barriers and walls and divisions. Click To Tweet

Jennifer: How does your vision show roots today?

HawaH: The way my vision applies in my life today is in the way I keep educating myself and others. We all need to be constantly learning and humbling ourselves every moment to the magnitude of what exists. Right now to move humanity forward will require a level of cooperation we’ve never realized; a level of coming together across ethnic, racial, religious, gender barriers and walls and divisions.

Teaching and learning starts with embracing that change is possible. The most powerful drivers and vehicles of social change are creativity and inspiration. We need inspiration to then move into action in life. We can inspire each other to believe that these systems are actually transmutable; things can be addressed, we can do something and change can happen.

I stay rooted and grounded in that, as someone who’s not afraid to push the larger conversation into dialogue. We all need the courage to push up and push each other.

“The most revolutionary thing we can do right now is to care — to teach empathy and peace to our children so that when they grow up, they know kindness, compassion, and love over violence, racism, and hate. Shift the culture. Teach love. Model peace. Together, we are louder than a gun.”

Jennifer: What is the big mission if let’s say all barriers were removed?

HawaH: We would be moving into futurism. We begin to consider what life looks like when we spend more time cultivating our inner resources; our spiritual resources. We would collectively cultivate a better understanding of our place in the world and in the universe. We would spend less time in conflict and war. We would spend less time, or no time even, doing things we’re not interested in or passionate about. We wouldn’t one day wake up and be 50 years old wondering what the hell we just did, or living 30 years of life thinking that it has no relevance or importance.

We would awaken earlier, and society would embrace larger existential questions. If we accomplished that mission of dissolving those barriers, we would be a renewed ecosystem; the whole planet would restore back into the vibrant and harmonious state it used to be in.

I constantly put myself in spaces that are unfamiliar, that are challenging or vulnerable or ugly and uncomfortable. That’s how I stay inspired. Click To Tweet

Jennifer: Does HawaH have a big mission?

HawaH: My big mission is to keep steady on the ship and keep going. I’m a lifelong educator. I’ve been teaching since I was 18 or 19 years old. I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, joined Americorps, I was a big brother, a tutor, and a mentor. I lived in the projects of Washington DC, in one of the most violent neighborhoods in America.

Whenever I was aware that I was teaching, I was aware of my purpose in life. The biggest realization I had then was that I wasn’t really teaching anybody anything; that I was the one learning, and that every day I was gaining more than giving.

If we are breaking down what it means to be an educator, my mission is to inspire and strengthen those around me. But the trick is staying inspired. I think staying inspired is just as important because how can you uplift others unless you are inspired yourself?

I constantly put myself in spaces that are unfamiliar, that are challenging or vulnerable or ugly and uncomfortable. That’s how I stay inspired. I put myself in spaces that transform me as a human and that don’t let me get too comfortable.

To offer your life to improve the lives of others – it’s what’s tangible for me. Everything else is so big and vast.

Do you have any questions that you are living these days?

I do have questions! I have so many questions, oh my god where to start? I think one of the deepest, fundamental questions I have is: Am I spending my time in the best way? I know I’m lucky because I chose this path of service at a really young age. I realize it’s what fills my heart, it’s what makes me feel alive, and it’s what makes me feel connected to purpose and to the planet. At the same time, I’m constantly questioning whether or not starting a non-profit organization was the best way to contribute to the healing I want to see happen on the planet. Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve went into business and hit goals on some tech startup company and then use all that money and resource to invest into the movement and into the greater work that’s needing to take place around the world. So I have that question, it’s a real question. I still wonder, for example on a day when I’m working on grants with my team, and it literally feels as if we’re competing with other great, well-intentioned organizations for the same small crumb. And the crumbs aren’t even on the table, these crumbs are crumbs on the ground and all the non-profits are scavenging after them so they can try to mend the broken hole of society. So, another question would be, first of all, did I pick the right sector to go into? That’s one of my big existential questions.

My other question would be connected to that because I spent 4 or 5 years of my life now really building this organization. I feel like I’ve lost touch with my creative side as a writer, a public speaker, and as a filmmaker. I used to write books. I haven’t written a book in 5 years. I produced 3 documentary films, I haven’t made a new film in 5 years. I used to do touring and spoken word artistry. I was teaching yoga all around the globe. I don’t get to do all that anymore. I’ve decided to put 40, 50, 60 hours a week into this work as a director of an NGO but I sacrificed a part of me that is really important so that’s a big question I have: how do I get back to my artist-creative-educator self? And then use the work that I do there to also create healing on the planet. How much more energy do I have to be the executive director of a non-profit organization? Is it possible to even be in the position I’m in and still be my creative self? I know I’m creative in other ways, I’m learning a lot about other things but it’s not the same kind of creativity. I’m not writing poetry first thing when I wake up the morning. I’m checking my calendar and my schedules and where and what’s needed. It’s a whole different thing.

Jennifer: How do you fill your cup?

HawaH: I play. I play frisbee, I get on my bike and I ride. I love mountain biking. I also love scuba diving, so I do that a few times a year. I love being in the ocean. If you put me in the ocean I become like an 8-year old kid, I just jump around with those waves. That’s how I fill my cup. I allow myself to not lose that connection to my inner child. There are important people in my life that will tell you I’m like the biggest kid you’ll ever meet. Also, I stay in touch with people. Relationships are really important to me. You know I’m still friends with my friends from grade school and I maintain close connections with them. So even though I’m a busy guy who’s got days that are packed, if I have a friend who’s moving, I’m going to help my friend move. Those are the things that keep me real. It helps me not lose sight of the important things. I also spontaneously go dancing and this is why I love living in a city like DC. You can decide you want to go dancing,  and just like that you can walk 10 blocks down the road to one of your favorite spots or cafés where they have West African Mali music every Tuesday night.

I’m curious about how you got on this path. What traumas in your own story led you to work with youth facing trauma?

I grew up in a white suburban town. The town I lived in did not have a lot of people of color and the neighborhood I grew up in had a handful of extremely bigoted, racist, and prejudiced people. I was confronted every day and they would never let me forget that I wasn’t one of them. I’ve been jumped, I was name called and I heard it all. I also got shot at by a bb gun once. It wasn’t a real gun thankfully, but it was a metal bb gun. I was being shot at but instead it cracked the window in the school bus we were in. All for no reason other than I wasn’t white. So I had to deal with racism since I was a little kid. Then I went to college in DC and that all pretty much changed. In college people were more intrigued and excited and wanted to learn about me. I had a chance to go ahead and make myself known and make myself feel like I was part of a community. Having to deal with racism at such an early age gave me an opportunity to become stronger on the inside. There were some mental health issues as well within the family and witnessing that, even though it was very challenging at times, just kept on giving me a greater awareness and later on made me understand those conditions better. In terms of my work with the kids, all that I’ve been through has helped me to understand, support and really empathize with what they go through in their own dynamics at home. Some have family members that might be difficult or hard to relate to.

Jennifer: Fly by Light. There’s a follow-up right?

HawaH: There is. We’re working on it right now. We’re putting the finishing touches on the “5 years later” follow up project where we followed the same youth from the original film for about a year, documenting where they are now. We created a 30-minute short documentary follow up to the original and we should be finished around December.

Jennifer: What don’t we see in the movie that is hard to communicate?

HawaH: I think what you don’t see in the movie is all the tough points in between. All the workshops that were leading up to getting the kids into the mountains for the retreat. All the workshops we did after coming back to DC. Those moments. The weekly, bi-weekly sessions we had after coming back to DC to integrate with the kids. The graduation ceremony; all of them graduating from our program. The curriculum that you see in the movie is mainly the trauma. The scenes around trauma were highlighted in the movie but you don’t see all the time we spent with them around social justice and learning about gun violence and racism. You also don’t see the time we spent with them learning about nutrition and diet, teaching them about whole foods and ways to feed their body for the long haul. It’s not easy to show how much time, effort and planning goes into this work and how challenging it was at times when there were facilitators who dropped out last minute. There was also some funding we didn’t have. We were scraping to pull it together just a few weeks before leaving for the retreat. These are the things we didn’t put in the movie because you only have 60 to 70 minutes in a movie to tell a story. The struggles to organize the program, the work we did to even make it possible. Even just more about the facilitators lives’, I mean you see me in the movie as somebody that’s kind of like the narrator, I’m like your host, I’m holding your hand through the journey. There are a couple of scenes where I talk a little bit about how hard the work is and what it takes for somebody to hold space for kids – what it really takes from us, what it requires from me day in and day out so I can emotionally be available for the kids. Overall, we wanted to really prioritize the kids, we wanted the kids to shine in the movie. We had to make a hard decision – we showed the home life of the kids but we didn’t show the home life of the facilitators.

Jennifer: If you were a superhero, what would your superhero power be, and how would you use it to change the world?

HawaH: I think about how a superpower could bring about a world that I would love to see for all of us. I’m thinking about a superpower that will allow me to, by simply touching somebody or by meditating, give people the ability to see and feel our interconnectedness. Through my presence the barriers and the divisions would dissolve and we would go to a space where we’d be able to see what we share in common instead of what might separate us or make us different. I’m tuned into the superpower of healing. I really don’t know what that would look like but I think about all the pain and suffering in the world and wonder if there’s a way to dissolve ego. I think ego is such a barrier to world peace.

To catch a glimpse of HawaH’s personal site:

For One Common Unity:

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