Lorna Gonsalves could choose to immerse herself in academia, fine arts, or high society.
But the 61-year-old native of India prefers to spend her time and energy fighting racism by urging Toledo’s minority young people to find peaceful ways to express the frustration and rage they experience as a result of prejudice and discrimination.
The University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University professor took her international experience to young Toledoans who were arrested during violent protests to a neo-Nazi march in North Toledo in 2005.
“Those ‘bad, potential criminals’ — people actually called them this, people in leadership positions,” Ms. Gonsalves said, still appalled eight years later about how some city officials labeled young African-Americans who were involved in the rioting.
She agreed to work with them, but on her terms, including no law enforcement officers in the room when she talked with the young people. “I was actually told by law enforcement and other people, ‘Don’t be alone with these youth.’ I said, ‘Why? They’re kids.’ ”
Ms. Gonsalves has a wealth of insight about racism and its effects, some stemming from personal experience.
She holds bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in psychology, counseling, and sociology, respectively. She has worked with high school and college students and founded organizations to address racism, participated in national and international conferences, and promoted racial justice at the college, city, and national levels. She has co-produced an award-winning documentary video on the topic, and has facilitated numerous workshops.
Still, she learned by listening to the North Toledo youths.
“I wanted to know what [was] behind their behavior. It was an eye-opening experience for me,” she said. “The first thing I talked with them about is — this comes up again and again, in all my work — the concept of creative peaceful resistance, and how you can make change happen through peaceful resistance. I didn’t want to go into the neighborhood and say, ‘Come on, let me save you,’ because there’s too much of that. I believe in communities growing from the inside.”
She talked with her young subjects about nonviolence, a concept embraced by some history’s most notable figures: Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Peaceful resistance, she told them, is “so much more powerful than hitting someone or shooting somebody.”
Taking it to the streets
Here’s an anecdote that reveals who Lorna Gonsalves is: At a world conference on racism in South Africa, she asked why conferees were housed in posh hotels and were not in townships where racism is prevalent. She also wanted to know why conferees were not participating in a march against poverty.
She was told she couldn’t visit the townships or take part in the march. She’s someone you never tell no.
“I got a small group together and we visited the townships and participated in the march against poverty. I was just inspired. It was people protesting the intertwined evils of racism and classism,” she said. When she learned there were no mattresses for young people, she went to the conference and raised money to buy mattresses. “That again was more useful than just talking. I believe in talking, but the action is [more fulfilling].”
Her enthusiasm to eliminate racism and its damage reverberated in the audience during the September forum on racism at Woodward High School. One of several panelists, Ms. Gonsalves displayed paintings depicting the ideas of how young North Toledo men and women want to make their lives and neighborhoods better.
Introduction to racism
In 1972, Ms. Gonsalves immigrated to Chapel Hill, N.C., where she worked at the North Carolina Memorial Hospital and had her first experiences with racism. She found solace and friendship among African-Americans, who showed her how to negotiate the problem.
“I was very young and I was not prepared for the kind of racism that hit me square in the face. I was embraced by the black community in Chapel Hill. It was through them that I learned about this awful brand of racism in the U.S. I was completely naïve when I came here.”
Perhaps that’s surprising coming from a native of India, a country with rigid caste and class systems. But in India, it’s a “different, related evil. I was just not prepared for the hostility toward immigrants” in America, she said. In this country, “it was both blatant and subtle. It was not just ‘go home where you came from,’ which I got, but it was also, ‘you are so exotic, and why can’t you dress like an American? And you actually speak English?’ ”
‘One short life’
Ms. Gonsalves learned early that immigrant women should dress in their native attire, be seen, and not say too much. Girls were supposed to be “pretty, dainty, cute, soft-spoken.” None of that was for her. She was considered different. She questioned everything, making people uncomfortable and sometimes hostile, she said.
“I wanted to know why, why are there so many poor people in a country that boasts so much wealth. Why do girls always have to stay quiet and be inside helping, while boys have the freedom to run out and play,” she said.
“For me, we have one life, sort of a short life, and you’ve got all this misery and it’s caused either by people’s action or inaction. It shouldn’t be that difficult to reduce suffering. What our young people, who are considered troubled kids, are facing is caused by somebody’s actions or somebody’s inaction,” she said.
Ms. Gonsalves is the wife of retired BGSU professor Peter Pinto, also a native of India, and is the mother of two adult children who live in Manhattan. A son, Sanjay, 36, teaches at Columbia University and daughter, Maya, 32, works at a think tank.e9d0b7a9-c8e8-4671-8729-22b7db402f31
She believes in tackling important issues from the grass-roots level.
“Policy makers and decision makers who sit in board rooms and city halls who are making policy are really far removed from people who are really struggling,” she said. So if a difference will be made, it must “come from the bottom up, from struggle.”
For many young people, the struggle comes from living where there are no jobs, where there’s little at home, where schools are a problem, and where other adults who have worked with them have low expectations, she said. It’s no surprise that they tell her they don’t like school, have nothing to do, and have no way to vent their frustrations.
“So when something happens, you snap. When young people are arrested, they are marked and marred for life, and these are kids,” she said. Ms. Gonsalves sees them as potential leaders, not criminals.
Throwing out ideas
Art is a powerful way for disaffected youth to express their feelings.
“They felt they could speak through the murals in a very eloquent way,” she said about the 14 paintings in the city. “It became a chance for them to dream and be silly, to throw out ideas and to develop those ideas. Murals are not just art. They are a call to action. It is our way of giving back to our community. They say, ‘We’re just practicing being agents of change.’ ”
The unfairness and injustices Ms. Gonsalves encountered drove her to mold her own career instead of stepping into a ready-made one. As a professor, she taught the first half of a semester and took students to do hands-on work in communities during the second half.
“I realized that any time I worked in the community with my hands and I worked alongside people who were trying to make change happen, that was inspiring to me. That was energizing,” she said.
No wonder she was the go-to person when former BGSU president Sidney Ribeau wanted to make “diversity” a household word, she said.
“My thrust was to focus on difference as an asset versus a liability, because you know very often when you look at people who are different, difference is a problem. So we started to have forums on campus with young people talking about difference, and it was pretty remarkable,” she said, because students got excited about the idea and that some spoke at a college teaching conference.
“What I’m saying is when you give young people an opportunity, they will take it and they will fly,” she said. “Young people, if they have a chance, can really make change happen.”
Contact Rose Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6178