2017 Gandhi-King Conference with Kaiya

This year I returned to the wonderful city of Memphis, TN to attend and facilitate a workshop at the Gandhi-King Conference. This was my sixth time attending the conference and this year the experience was that much more special because I got to share it with my (just turned) five-year old daughter, Kaiya.

There are a number of reasons why I love this conference, which happens every year and always takes place in Memphis. This year I facilitated a workshop, “Podcasting for Peace” during which I and the participants co-created an episode of the Peace Frequency – a podcast series I host and produce at the United States Institute of Peace. The series taps into the stories of people across the globe who are making peace possible and finding ways to create a world free of violent conflict. Through the co-creation process, participants learned about how the podcast series came to be and some of the ways in which I structure the episodes and facilitate conversation with guests. That was the main reason I came to Memphis, but the day to day experience is worth documenting.


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Kaiya and I on the plane ready to head to Memphis.

Just before this photo was taken we were on the shuttle bus that took us from the gate to the plane. As we were waiting for the shuttle to depart, I look at the women standing in front of me and I realize it’s Nancy Lindborg, President of the United States Institute of Peace! It was an odd coincidence that we happened to both be going to Memphis that weekend. It was also great to start the trip off by introducing Nancy to Kaiya and saying, “This is the President of the organization where I work and the leader of the peacebuilders I work with.” That chance encounter set a nice tone and expectation for the trip – meeting and interacting with amazing peacebuilders. Since this was Nancy’s first trip to Memphis, and because she is a vegetarian, I also got the opportunity to share with her all the wonderful things I love about the city, in particular some nice vegan and vegetarian restaurants.

The very first thing we did when arriving in Memphis was get on our walking shoes, load up the stroller, and start exploring. We first took a stroll along the Mississippi river and then headed over to East Memphis (about 5.5 miles away) to eat dinner at one of the greatest vegan restaurants, Imagine Vegan Cafe, run by a couple and their four daughters.

Every year I go to Memphis I eat at this restaurant. In years past the family actually ran the restaurant out of their house. But starting in late 2016 they moved into a new restaurant space just down the street from their house and it looks fabulous. Kaiya asked about all the farm animals that were drawn on the wall – pigs, cows, ducks, chickens, and lambs – and I told her that this restaurant does not serve any meat and nothing else that comes from animals and that the drawings on the wall were there to celebrate and honor animals. I then noticed the sign hanging behind us that read, “Stop Eating Animals,” and I snapped the above picture. We also got a chance to chat with one of the owners and congratulate him on the new space. He remembered me from years past as did his daughter, who came and visited us at our table and spent some time drawing with Kaiya. She drew a picture of Kaiya and me, and Kaiya drew a picture of her. So, I am telling you all, vegan or not, if you are in Memphis, TN you have to go to Imagine Vegan Cafe. Absolutely delicious!


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Proudly displaying our name tags

The next morning we made the same 5.5 mile walk from our hotel in downtown Memphis to East Memphis and we arrived at Christian Brothers University, checked in, and got our name tags. Kaiya was able to immediately identify the two famous peacebuilders featured on the name cards. And on the back, appropriately so, was written “Peace.” We were then able to catch last 15 minutes of the opening plenary session focused on reforming the criminal justice system.

As the start of my session approached, Kaiya and I set up the room and got everything in order – reviewed the workshop outline and agenda, got the projector hooked up and turned on, and tested the microphone. As mentioned earlier, the session was titled, “Podcasting for Peace” and invited participants to both learn about and be featured in the Peace Frequency. The session involved dialogue around some of the key stories and insights that have emerged from the series, educational applications of the series, and tips on producing a podcast for peace. Click the image below to download the presentation slides.

Podcasting for Peace

And you can listen to the podcast we recorded below. Enjoy!

After the workshop Kaiya and I spent some time at a nearby playground and then had lunch at another awesome social justice oriented spot, Otherlands Coffee Bar. It’s got vegan baked goods, fishtanks tableside, chalkboards in the bathroom, and a colorful entryway delightful to anyone who loves the full spectrum of colors in the rainbow.

After spending most of the day in East Memphis we made the 5.5 mile walk back to our hotel. As we were walking Kaiya saw a dead squirrel on the road, which had clearly been hit by a car. She became upset that the squirrel died and commented that it was sad that it was not able to live its full life. I can’t help but think that our experience at Imagine Vegan Cafe may have planted a thought seed in her head and it was beginning to grow. Quick side bar, my partner and I do not raise Kaiya to be vegan. She is allowed to eat whatever she wants (for the most part). She basically eats vegetarian at home since we don’t have any meat in the house. But when she goes to school, to parties, friends and family’s houses, we allow her to make her own food choices. I could see the five year old gears turning during that walk, though. I don’t know what food choices she will make as she gets older, my only hope is that they are healthy and compassionate choices that make her and those around her feel good.

Another topic of conversation that came up during our 1 hour and 45 minute walk back to the hotel was about riding in a horse drawn carriage. The night before, Kaiya had noticed that across the street from our hotel was a long line of horse drawn carriages  picking up people and taking them on rides around downtown Memphis. Some of the carriages were open top, western style others were Cinderella style, adorned with bright lights, ribbons, and sparkles. During our walk we discussed the possibility to doing a carriage ride. I could see the excitement and anticipation growing in her eyes the more we talked about it.

When we got back to the hotel all the carriages were lined up, one in front of the other. Kaiya asked, “Can we choose which one we want to ride?” I said, “I am not sure. We may need to ride the one that in the front of the line, but we can ask.” So, we went up to our hotel, dropped off the stroller and bags and came back down. As we walked across the street to the front of the carriage line, the most beautiful, decorative, Cinderella style carriage with hearts, ribbons, lights, sparkles and a white horse pulled right up to us. The driver said, “Ya’all want a ride?” I looked down at Kaiya and then looked up at the driver and said, “You have no idea! This is a dream come true right now!”

It was a wonderful 30 minute ride that we got to share with the driver, Karen’s two chihuahuas. The other weird coincidence about this ride was that Karen was actually a vegan herself. So we spent a good portion of the ride talking about all things vegan and plant-based.

We had already had a full day of fun and the main event was still yet to come – the closing banquet for the conference, which was being held at the National Civil Rights Museum and was featuring Valarie Kaur – civil rights activist, lawyer, award-winning filmmaker, media commentator, educator, entrepreneur, author, and Sikh American justice leader.

Valarie Kaur speaking about Revolutionary Love.

I wasn’t sure whether or not Kaiya was going to enjoy or get much out of the banquet. After all, its an adult talking to a bunch of other adults for over an hour. I think for any five year old, regardless of the topic, that could pose a challenge. Well, it turned out this was one of the most powerful experiences for Kaiya and I found it so important that I actually wrote Valarie an email telling her about Kaiya’s experience. Below is an excerpt from what I wrote to her.

First I want to say thank you for your powerful words, stories, insights, ideas, and remembrances of those who have suffered and been harmed by rage. I appreciate so much what you have dedicated your life, talents, and energy to.

Second, I want to share a short story with you about what your speech meant specifically to my daughter (and me). During the first part of your speech when you told the story of giving birth to your son, both Kaiya and I were fixated on what that experience was like. Kaiya is a new big sister (her baby sister Zoey is a little over 2 months old now). So, I think that story really resonated with her. Also, we talk a lot about love and “love power” in our house. We associate and identify acts of love as being powerful and transformative (not necessarily just weak and sentimental). So hearing you talk about love in those same ways from up on that stage also peaked her and my interest.

As your talk continued, as anticipated, Kaiya’s five year old energy and attention began to wax and wane. She tried “napping” for a bit. She walked back and forth to the water fountain for a bit. She got a little loopy, if you will. When we left, I couldn’t really get a read on what she had absorbed.

It wasn’t until the next day, when we were on the plane waiting to take off and I was showing her photos from the weekend that it was revealed to me how important seeing your talk was to her.

She was quickly scrolling through the photos on my Instagram feed (#dadandkaiyagotomemphis), skipping through all sorts of pictures. She stopped suddenly when the picture of you came up, standing on the stage with the words, “Revolutionary Love” projected on the screen in the background, cast in pink and purple. Honestly, I was surprised that she wanted to stop and look at that photo, specifically. After all, there were other pictures of the horse-drawn carriage ride we went on, the ducks we’d seen, the many colorful murals. Nope. None of those were of interest to her at that point. She wanted to look at the photo of you on that stage.

So, I said to her, “Yes. that’s a great picture. What do you remember from that moment?” and she said to me, “She talked a lot about love. She is really good at speaking. She was not nervous at all.” And she continued to just stare and the picture, clearly in deep thought.

I wish you could have seen the look on her face or heard the tone of her voice in that moment.  As a parent yourself, I assume you can imagine how much it touched me to see the meaning she was making from that moment.

Kaiya is constantly inspiring me, helping me love more deeply, more powerfully. And its moments like this that further reinforce why my partner and I do our best to expose her to folks like you.

She is a young girl growing up at a time (a time of rage) where the explicit disdain, disrespect and discrimination against women is celebrated a bit more loudly, and championed a bit more abrasively thanks to the person who sits in the White House. We all feel it and as a cisgender, heterosexual father, I am learning how to see and respond to the toxic, negative messages that women and girls encounter on a minute by minute basis.

In short, to see a women, speaking powerfully and confidently about love as a revolutionary force to fight against injustice and rage, on a stage, in front of over a hundred people, surrounded by pink and purple, at a conference organized in the spirit of Gandhi and King, RESONATED! It struck a deep chord with me and my daughter at such a critical time and I thank you for making that experience possible.

This really was one of the highlights of the trip. A moment I will remember forever.

After the banquet, Kaiya and I grabbed a bit to eat at a cool spot near the museum.


What to do on our last day in Memphis? Well, my mom had told me about the march of the ducks at the historic Peabody Hotel, which was right across the street from where we were staying. In short, there are families of ducks that have lived on the roof of the Peabody Hotel and every day at 11am they get on the elevator, go down to the lobby and march their way to grand fountain in the middle of the lobby to go swimming. We did a lot of waiting for a march of ducks that was more like the sprint of the ducks. That being said, we had a lot of fun waiting, and the hotel does a good job making the whole thing a real event.

After the march of the ducks we took a nice long stroll along the Mississippi river waterfront, we stopped at a playground, and eventually made our way to the National Civil Rights Museum.

We had been there their night before, but did not have an opportunity to go through the different exhibits. I had been through the museum a couple time before, but this was, of course, the first time going through it with Kaiya. Walking through it with a five year old certainly makes it a whole new experience. It was powerful, difficult, inspiring, and challenging all at the same time.

The first room in the exhibit focuses on the slavery and the slave trade. One of the first statues that you see is that of a mother holding her child, standing on an auction block, being sold. You then turn to your right and you see statues of men chained and shackled together, lined up and packed into the bottom of a slave ship. You look down at the floor and you see a map of the world showing you the different slave trading routes. How do you explain this to a five-year-old?

I had been thinking about this question for several days leading up to our trip and, to be honest, hadn’t really decided what I was going to say until the very moment we were there. I explained the practice of slavery meant that people were taken from their homes, taken from their families, and forced to do things they did not want to do. I asked her what she thought about that. We talked about how slavery caused a lot of harm, suffering, and sadness. Many people, like her, saw slavery as being wrong, mean, and fought to end it. As I was explaining this, Kaiya took our her notebook and a pen and said, “This is important. I need to write this down.”

“This is important. I need to write this down.” -Kaiya

As we went from room to room we learned and talked about what segregation meant and the ways in which people fought nonviolently to end it in schools, in transportation, in business, etc. We learned about the Montgomery bus boycott and spent some time looking at a mural of mug shots of women who had been arrested for participating in the boycott and refusing the ride the bus. We looked at their faces and talked about what kinds of feelings we thought they were holding in those pictures – sad? angry? proud? brave? tired? happy? We took a seat in a replica of the public bus where Rosa Parks and others directed their resistance. When you walk on the bus, a statue of the bus driver is turned towards the back of the bus and a voice yells at you saying, “Get to the back of the bus!” The voices yells again, “I am not going to tell you again. Get to the back of the bus!” Then a different voice comes on the loudspeaker and says, “If you had not moved by this point you would have been arrested.”

After this room, I noticed Kaiya beginning to look a little somber and sad. She told me she was ready to leave. It was a lot to absorb. We hurried a bit through the remaining rooms. When we exited the exhibit, I asked her if she wanted to talk about why she was sad. She said, “No, I don’t want to talk about it.” She was clearly processing some difficult things.

By the time we got back to hotel, about an hour later, I asked her again about what the experience was like for her going through the museum. I said, “I noticed you were sad. Do you want to talk about it? What made you sad?” She said, “I was sad because I saw a man who had been killed.” I assumed she was talking about Dr. King. After all, the museum is built off of the Loraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. I said, “Yes, it makes me sad too. It can be really hard to walk through that museum and learn about those kinds of things.” Then I said, “Was there any moment in the museum that made you feel proud?” And she said, “Yes, when the women said they would not ride the bus.” My heart swelled during this entire conversation.

Later that afternoon, we eventually made our way to airport and started our journey back to home. The entire weekend was a powerful, magical, and special moment that I will certainly remember for the rest of my life and I hope she does too.

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Kaiya riding the walking escalator at the airport for the first time. Lovin’ it!

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