At the end of a recent three-hour civil disobedience training session at Sisters of the Road Cafe, speaker Tom Hastings asked the 25 attendees whether they had read the introduction to Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.
Hastings explained that the collection of essays by Lewis Thomas describes the “hive mentality” of termites, whose seemingly random scuttling actually contributes to a complex underground network of walls, columns and tunnels. People interested in civil disobedience could learn a thing or two from termites, he said.
Sisters of the Road “is the wellspring for that in this town,” he said.
At least it’s gearing up to be that wellspring. The nonprofit, whose flagship program is a cafe at 133 NW 6th Ave., offered its first public civil disobedience training in June and held another workshop last month. The most recent free training was Saturday, Nov. 15, and another remains to be scheduled this year.
So why is a nonprofit that serves about 370 meals a day to homeless people getting into the civil disobedience business?
“We don’t look at our nonprofit as [just] direct service,” says Heather Fercho, research project coordinator at Sisters. “We look at it more as community building and educating folks.”
A few of the people attending the Nov. 15 workshop were there to mobilize for a specific cause—Sisters’ campaign against Portland’s sit-lie law prohibiting anyone from sitting or lying on a public sidewalk between 7 am and 9 pm in the downtown and Rose Quarter areas.
Sisters and its civic action group, a coalition of homeless or formerly homeless people who work on problems facing Portland’s homeless, say the sit-lie law unfairly targets the homeless. In May, the nonprofit ended its involvement with the mayor’s Street Access for Everyone oversight committee in protest.
But Hastings, 58, says the civil disobedience training doesn’t relate exclusively to that crusade.
“I’ve only been to one protest and I waited to see what it was like to effect that change from outside, rather than the inside,” says Brian Linss, a 32-year-old technical engineer for Yahoo.
Linss was among the participants wanting to learn other skills. Among them: how not to unwittingly support businesses whose practices don’t align with nonviolent ideals, and how to bring the nonviolent movement’s lessons into the public schools where they work. And a few also were trying to reconcile their own violent pasts by learning new approaches to conflict resolution.
At the workshop, fliers and a PowerPoint presentation narrated by Hastings—a Portland State University conflict resolution program faculty member with a graying ponytail—stressed what nonviolence is not: a passive shrug at conflict, characterized only by the absence of violence.
“Nonviolence is another form of combat,” says Hastings. “I’m not a naturally nonviolent person. My father raised me to be a hockey player in Minnesota, so I have a lot to overcome, I guess.”
FACT: For information, contact Sisters’ Devin DiBernardo at 503-222-5694, ext. 16, or firstname.lastname@example.org.