History has shown us that forces advocating for hatred have the power to lead to discrimination, persecution and even extermination. But history also shows that when people rise together against hatred, they can create a new reality.
That’s the driving force behind I Am Your Protector, a nonprofit that brings people from various religious backgrounds—often, ones that are "at war" in other parts of the world—together to demonstrate compassion and performance art. Each depicts acts of "protection" around one another in order to raise awareness for issues surrounding hate and to bring people together to prevent violence on the ground. They also run a number of campaigns within schools, various media outlets, and host local community events and exhibitions in order to make their grassroots mission to end violence and build tolerance a reality.
“We often hear that if we get to know one another, it will prevent hatred. It is incredibly important to create links between people and communities,” said Founder and Co-Director Dani Laurence Andrea Varadi. “What shields communities from hatred and turning against each other is when people have each other’s backs, going beyond just knowing each other.”
“Stories depicting the other side as a threat have the power to turn people against each other. Those stories are often put under a magnifying glass, while numerous stories of people standing up for each other and being each other's protectors are unseen."
Comprised of 55 volunteers who donate their time in chapters around the world within the U.S., Europe, the Balkans and Pakistan, you may have seen I Am Your Protector orchestrating events such as gathering a group of orthodox Jews to patrol around Mosques and protect Muslim worshipers during times of peaking anti-Muslim attacks.
For Varadi, what is now an international movement began with the notion that “narratives shape what we do” and shape our reality, with the solution being to take control of that narrative in order to influence substantial change. In bringing people together and encouraging acts of compassion and dignity, members of the organization have observed a high number of individuals previously holding hateful beliefs experiencing a change of heart.
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“I traveled and talked with people in areas of tension, conflict, post-conflict and post-génocide, as well as with people from various backgrounds who held hateful views of other groups. A pattern emerged: almost everyone who ‘changed’ did so after they were protected in some way by their perceived enemy,” she said. “People have told us that Protector has changed their perception after certain events.”
She described an account given to her after an exhibition in Europe from a mother who brought her teenagers to witness the testimonies of protectors and their photos—for weeks, her kids spent dinnertime talking about how seeing refugees as protector figures changed the way they saw them, when all they had were initially vague perceptions to go on. A parent from Pakistan shared with Varadi that their exhibition had an impact on the way they wanted to raise their children: to have a different perspective on minority communities.
"If we get to know one another, it will prevent hatred."
“Stories depicting the other side as a threat have the power to turn people against each other. Those stories are often put under a magnifying glass, while numerous stories of people standing up for each other and being each other's protectors are unseen,” said Varadi.
Other events have taken place in the form of theatrical performances, such as the one that took place during their launch in 2015 at in The Living Theater in Times Square in which actors reenacted a collection of testimonies and stories of Black, Latino, Muslim, and Jewish ‘Protectors’ as 1,000 spectators looked on. An exhibition in Europe featured the stories of heroes who have come to the rescue of people whose lives were in danger despite strong religious differences, and others still have centered on local acts of kindness, like people volunteering to feed homeless communities populated with refugees commonly seen as “the enemy.”
“In times and places where people spoke up and stood up for the other, the effects were that hatred, discrimination and persecution were prevented and halted,” said Varadi. “Today, we see many examples of individuals and communities who stand up for the other across lines of perceived divide or conflict, such as Muslims making a human shield to protect Christians in Pakistan and Muslims who created a human chain around a synagogue to protect Jewish worshippers in Copenhagen.”
Another call to action comes in the form of a special campaign that’s just launched nationally, which entails a call to share Protector stories of people in minority communities across the U.S.
Submit or nominate a Protector by filling out this form by June 14th. The Protectors who make the cut will be part of collections exhibited across the US and internationally. Previously, these exhibitions have taken place everywhere from the United Nations headquarters to the City Hall of London.
“Because hatred is constructed, it can also be deconstructed. When our perceived enemy is our protector, it makes it very difficult to indiscriminately hate,” Varadi said.