Musician and activist Holly Near joins MUSE Cincinnati Women's Choir for its 23rd annual spring concert, "The Great Peace March." The two-day event includes pre-concert teach-ins featuring Cindy Sheehan, AKA the "Peace Mom," on Friday and Muslim Mothers Against Violence (MMAV) on Saturday. The concert also showcases a portion of the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, featuring 24 pairs of combat boots, each representing 100 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.
The globetrotting Sheehan agreed to wedge the event into her busy schedule after Near contacted her. Sheehan says she always welcomes the opportunity to support strong women and has long admired Near's tireless work for peace.
The founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, Sheehan gained fame by camping outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex. during his vacation last year. Hundreds of peace activists joined her; the protest was named Camp Casey, after her son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq.
Sheehan says she will talk about what people can do to stop the war in Iraq and make sure it never happens again.
"I believe that the paradigm of violent resolution to conflict will only stop/change when we women say enough is enough," she says in a telephone interview.
Sheehan believes the peace movement has been a catalyst for change. On July 4 she plans to stage the Troops Home Fast; supporters join her in fasting for peace.
"I believe that it is the grassroots efforts that were magnified at Camp Casey that have made a huge difference in the polls -- the discourse about this war -- and have enabled and encouraged more people to speak up and speak out," Sheehan says.
"I will do what I do everyday -- travel, do actions, go back to Camp Casey in August, etc. Whatever it takes."
Peace through dialogue
Members of MMAV don't consider themselves activists but educators. The second teach-in will be a nice balance for those wanting to learn more about Muslim culture and ideals, according to Natalie Mathis, managing director of MUSE.
"It also sounds like they like to do work on a more individual and human level, so rather than doing overt and formally political work," she says. "They like to have discussions, so that's kind of the way they're going to do the teach-ins."
Shakila Ahmad says she and Saba Chughtai will share their personal experiences, then open the floor for dialogue. MMAV, which started in 2005 as an initiative of the Islamic Center of Cincinnati, now boasts more than 100 members dedicated to establishing peace and resolution of conflict through non-violent methods.
Unfortunately their ideas won't reach many of those most in need -- people filled with prejudice or misconceptions who refuse to open their minds to new ideas, Ahmad says. However, she feels dialogue might filter down to those in the community anxious to learn and share new ideas.
"It's really peace through education and through dialogue," she says. "We hope that this will be an opportunity for people both to be educated to learn about one another and to begin to have open and honest dialogue with people they don't normally have dialogue with or they don't get to know."
Besides speaking to schools, faith-based organizations and community groups, MMAV also sponsors programs within the Islamic Center community to educate young people on topics of non-violence and how Islamic beliefs are consistent with utilizing every peaceful method possible in order to resolve differences -- ideas not normally seen or heard in the media, Ahmad says.
"So we feel it's an obligation to not just educate the greater community through these lectures and talks and dialogue, but really to educate our own community as well," she says.
'A powerful instrument'
In keeping with the theme, MUSE Artistic Director Catherine Roma says the concert will be a multi-cultural and multi-generational blend of music celebrating peace and diversity. She says the concert focuses on people standing together, urging those who want to make a difference to unite and raise their voices.
"We have to be talking to each other through all different genres of music and languages, because it's what a democracy is built on and that's really what we're all about," Roma says. "We need to have an open, national dialogue about what's going on in our country, and we have to talk to the people who don't necessarily believe the same as we do in every instance."
The concert will include a song by MUSE members and their children. The choir will also present its 4th Annual Enduring Spirit Award to a woman who embodies MUSE philosophies of feminism, diversity, musical excellence, community service and social justice.
The entire event revolves around telling stories, via the teach-ins and through the music, Roma says. She hopes the act of connecting with others and sharing ideas will allow those in attendance to leave with a renewed sense of empowerment.
"It is a powerful instrument, and I love bringing people together to work together through music with a message -- music that gets out, reaches into your whole self," she says.
Focusing on a powerful theme often helps a large choir find a single voice, Near says. The title song of her new album, Show Up, points out that the world benefits from people's visibility; when they "show themselves," they can establish a majority position to initiate change, she says.
Near says she revels in the chance to escape with others from the world of TVs and computers to sit with neighbors and contemplate life.
"I try to let the music inspire, heal, challenge, educate, amuse, entertain, and if I do my job well, people leave feeling different about themselves and their work than when they came in," she says. "We are uplifted as a group and sometimes transformed as individuals."
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