You mentioned you think all types of fundamentalist thinking is flawed. Why do you think this type of thinking is attractive to some people? And how can it be detrimental in your experience?
These are such great questions and at the heart of so much of my writing. Fundamentalism is essentially a strict belief in a literal interpretation of a religious text. But who decides what the “literal” interpretation is? The people who adhere to this path firmly believe that God is telling them what that interpretation is. The danger is that they can then justify any of their actions because God is telling them to do it. This is a big topic and one that fascinates me. If you look at the history of God in the United States in terms of an overarching driving force in government, and you can do that by looking at the references to God by our presidents, God isn’t mentioned in an inaugural speech until 1821 with James Monroe. Up until that time, God was a distant force, not a father-figure with whom you had a personal relationship. With the Protestant revival, all that changed. Monroe’s reference to God was neatly planted into the American people’s subconscious at the same time as the Second Great Awakening of Baptists and Protestants, as a backlash against the beliefs of the Forefathers about a distant force out there somewhere. Since World War I, every incoming president has made a reference to God, although Roosevelt stands out as someone who balked against it. Americans have all grown up in this atmosphere of God being on our side. And we have been affected by it more than we realize. Fundamentalists, conservative Christians, might not learn all the historical details, but it is ingrained in them that God is very real and personal and he talks to you (to the men in charge, mostly) and you obey him unquestioningly. I grew up in a family of intellectuals, so as a child it was okay for me to use my mind and asks questions, but at a certain point, it was understood that my intellect should shut down and I should find the right answers. This was fascinating because no matter how smart you are as a Christian, you have to be willing to shut down a certain part of your brain in order to believe the teachings. There is no deviation.
This is a huge topic. Suffice it to say, if you look back you will see how the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States propelled our world into the situation it is in today, with the rise of fundamentalism has grown beyond a fringe element to become a driving, passionate force, giving so many people a purpose to their lives that goes beyond the mundane.
It was a terrible realization that although my parents loved me, and I knew that they did, I was also, in a very real sense their enemy. I was a child of the Devil. I was told this as a teenager. If the Rapture happened, I would be left on earth and my family, and the people I had grown up with in our church, would come back with swords and kill all the infidels — and that included me. My own parents would not think twice about running me through with a sword.
It took courage to stand up against a fear that was pounded into me day after day, year after year. Speaking out against it meant that I became an outcast in the world in which I was raised. No more connections, no more help up the food chain. However, I didn’t see any other alternative, if I was to be as honest as I possibly could with myself.
We are convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is so different, but it isn’t. It is a mirror image of Christian fundamentalism. This might be a controversial thing to say and people will resist it and even find it repulsive, but it is how I see things, based on the experiences I have had traveling and being raised in that atmosphere.
Why bring art to rural places? What do you think creative activities achieve with children in these environments?
Well, the arts should be everywhere, in all schools and communities. For children in rural areas, it is really a chance, like all creativity, to expand their minds, their worlds, their universes. The arts open a door to imagination, helping children believe that they can go anywhere. And by introducing these different far-flung communities of children to one another, they become curious about the world beyond the borders of their neighborhoods, their comfort zone.
How has working with children all over the world affected your perception of the world?
It has shown me, and I hope it will show other people, how similar we all are. When I worked with kids in juvenile hall, you would get kids at the writing table who came from different gangs. They might live one block away from each other, but on the street, they were enemies. But when they sat down at the writing table, what inevitably came out of it, when they began to communicate on a deeper level than just appearance and emotional reaction to a look or a gang sign, was that they were all the same. Inside. Take away the outer paraphernalia, the bravado, the mask that they got used to wearing, and they were all wounded, frightened, seeking children who wanted love and security. Kids are no different anywhere, be it a small village in the heart of the Amazon forest, or a barrio in the heart of Los Angeles, or the wealthiest neighborhood. It has shown me the importance of stripping away the mask and communicating from the heart with one another. It has shown me that we as adults should listen to our children. They have a wisdom and simplicity that we have forgotten.
What do you hope to achieve with this project?
First of all, I want to connect with individual children, to perhaps make a little bit of an impact in individual lives. To keep it simple in that way.
Then, there is the bigger picture, that maybe these young people will be empowered, through realizing that their voices are being heard by a wider audience, to think that what they have to say is important. Perhaps a few of them will grow up to be make an impact in the world in a positive way. You never know what seeds you are planting. Our world doesn’t have to focus on killing and revenge and further isolation. The message can be about acceptance and understanding and learning to co-exist and respect and appreciate one another’s differences, realizing that underneath, we are all the same.
Then, perhaps at some point we can put on an exhibit of the children’s work, and have a child chosen from each community attend a leadership event and then go back and share their experiences with their peers.
You said you have friends who help you. Where did you meet and how did they get involved?
I am so happy to be able to acknowledge these wonderful friends. I have people who I have known for years and who have encouraged me through hard times and celebrated in the good times. I live a simple life. I am a single mother and I raised three children on my own. So, when I started doing this project, I called on a couple of friends to help out and they did. It was a small step towards making the project more official, to say, okay these people support this project by donating funds to help me get to Morocco. That, so far, is the extent of the funding. So, I acknowledge Richard and Lucille Reid and Rob Shavell. I’ve known Richard and Lucille for many years, through our sons who have been friends since middle school. We’ve been through a lot together and they’ve been a fantastic support system for me as a single mother. Richard is responsible for the popular College Bowl games and is responsible for the most successful academic college television show in Africa, so he understands the value of My World Project. I’ve known Rob since my days with InsideOUT Writers. He is an advisor for start-up companies and has a wealth of knowledge and experience that I greatly appreciate. Beyond the financial help, these are people I trust and that I know I can call on at any time to ask their advice. It’s a great note to end on because it is the people who understand and appreciate your vision that help turn it from that nebulous idea into something solid and real. They are the driving force behind the magic.