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The Jelani Tree
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Last Year’s Jelani Institute Program and Day of Remembrance
April 2006
From Beginning to End, Priceless!

With colorful 4-by-3-foot-posters of The Jelani Tree children’s book and of our dear Jelani in the background, Institute President Carol Manigault began her opening remarks for the 2006 celebration.

Carol welcomed the audience with her own special twist on the definition of “priceless,” made popular by the Master Card commercials. She explained that air travel to New Jersey (from Indianapolis, where she was working on a special project at Purdue University), had cost so many dollars. She added that the flight itself, which was delayed, along with months of preparation for the event, had taken so many hours. But, she concluded, “the privilege and pleasure of sharing your company at this event is …priceless.”
Warm, appreciative applause followed from the assembled at Teaneck High School’s student center.
Carol introduced and reminded the audience of the Institute’s two missions: the first, “that young people of all ages recognize in themselves and others numerous positive qualities, as identified in the fruits of the spirit,” and the second, “that we expand tolerance and change the mindset of first responders to people in crisis.”
Carol noted that each year the institute moves much further along in being a vital part of the nationwide movement to change the mindsets of police organizations when it comes to dealing with human beings who are emotionally or mentally distressed.
She concluded her introductory remarks by thanking the many people who had helped make the celebration possible, including Jelani’s large assortment of “loyal friends,” family members, and Felician College colleagues.

Progress with Mission #1

Next, people who are actively working on the first part of the institute’s mission were invited to give updates on their progress.
Author Caroline Brewer took the podium. Brewer explained that from April 2005 to April 2006, The Jelani Tree had traveled thousands of miles and been introduced to thousands of people, including some as young as pre-school. Brewer read the book to summer school students in her native Fort Wayne, Indiana, to dozens of students at elementary schools in Washington, D.C., to 700 students at Herndon Elementary in Herdon, Va., and to parents and children who attended a book-signing at Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem.
During many readings, young children asked very thoughtful questions about the real Jelani. One 6-year-old, upon hearing of how Jelani died, strongly and empathetically suggested that the police should have done something different to save his life. The author agreed, and praised the youngster for his insight.
Portions of the story were read also on WBAI radio in New York, as saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and keyboardist Melvin Davis played in the background. The musical reading was so powerful and touching that a New Jersey man called Brewer to inquire as to whether the trio would be available to perform at a jazz fundraiser at the New Jersey PAC. Brewer and company were delighted by the possibility of doing a book performance of The Jelani Treeat such an esteemed venue. However, they never received a firm invitation or offer from the fundraising committee.
Still, it was nice to be considered, and to know that audiences were pleased by, and appreciative of, the story.
After Brewer’s remarks, Carol noted that several people had purchased copies of the book to donate to schools and libraries.

The Jelani Tree in Africa.

Speaking of donations, Akos Spigner, a North Jersey pharmacist who hails from Ghana, took the podium next. Spigner shared a mind-blowing story of what became of 25 Jelani Tree books she purchased to give to schools in Ghana.
To make the donation, Spigner had to meet with 10 chiefs from 10 different regions (including the Eastern region, the Greater Accra region, and the Bolta region) in Ghana to get their approval of the book first.
Reactions to the book were swift and powerful. Upon seeing the cover, one chief remarked that the Jelani tree reminded him of “the tree of life.” When told that tree and its fruit symbolized a young man who had died, the chief instantly exclaimed, “That book is about someone who is alive!”
Spigner then gave the chiefs, who meet monthly to oversee and plan development in the area, an opportunity to read the book. Chief Nana Ansaa Sasraku was amazed by the story and its morals. He announced that while the story would be shared with children, he wanted it first to be shared with adults – particularly all of the men in leadership positions in the regions.
It turns out that the chiefs themselves have been meeting for years without getting much accomplished, because, according to Sasraku, “We already have a conception about every tribe.” And many of their conceptions are not positive. Some of the feelings beneath them are harsh and bitter. He added, “This (book) should serve as a building block for us to try to get to know one another. This (book) will keep people alive.”
Spigner was as astounded by the chief’s announcement, as was the Jelani Institute audience.
“I was invited to this meeting, because this feud has been going on forever. I was just hoping they would tell me we would donate the books and that would be it,” Spigner explained. “But (the book) was such a barrier breaker, and I was relieved to see a kid’s book do that. They can’t get to anything on the agenda, because they have all these personality conflicts. It just tells you our human nature.”
Our human nature, indeed. A nature that the institute and the book are trying to change.
Once this news sunk in, an audible gasp fell over the audience. That a children’s book about Jelani would be shared with grown men in another country, indeed, the Motherland, to help bring about reconciliation and healing was amazing. That it could “keep people alive,” was even more profound. Yet, that is exactly what Jelani’s life was about. It was wonderful to see Jelani come alive to another group of “strangers,” as has been the case with the book everywhere it has traveled.
Spigner informed us recently that Chief Sasraku has kept in touch with her since her visit and reports positive changes are happening with the chiefs and their communities. One major occurrence is that The Jelani Tree has helped the leaders understand the power of books. The chiefs have initiated a book drive so that they can get great books into the hands of more children and adults throughout their regions. They asked for the help of a Ghanaian who lives in Maryland, and government leaders are so excited about the possibilities that more books present that they too are supporting the drive with money, time, and effort.
Spigner also recently told us that she is eager to help the institute with its mission to change the mind-set of police departments here in America. She has a young son and is concerned about teaching him how to interact with police so that he remains safe. “Now that I have a young son growing up, the whole thing with the police is important. I want to know how to prepare him for what is ahead. Anything I can do personally in that area, I would like to help. I want to be an active participant,” she said.

The Jelani Tree in Children’s Literature Classes.

Another thrilling presentation about The Jelani Tree came from Children’s Literature Professor Margaret Gardineer, of Felician College in New Jersey.
Gardineer, who is now in her fourth semester teaching the book, presented a breathtakingly thorough report on the wide variety of children’s literature genres exhibited by The Jelani Tree. She noted that it represents adventure, fantasy, science fiction, folk tale, fairy tale, contemporary realistic fiction, a picture book, a journey book (spiritual, intellectual, physical, and psychological), poetry (with uses of rhythm, rhyme, symbolism, metaphors, figurative language, and personification).
“The students seem most interested in studying the book as poetry,” Gardineer recently explained.
“They really like it as poetry, with its similes and metaphors,” the professor said.
One of their favorite sections, the professor noted, is this evocative one: “Hours melted like butter, and the sun withdrew its crown of rays, sank below the horizon, closing the curtains on a remarkable day…As the black of the night crawled into the sun’s space, a shining banana moon took its celestial place….Days, and days, and days went by. Jelani kept speaking for his leafy neighbors, while awaiting Devonte’s reply.”
Gardineer’s students appreciate the fact that the book is full of hidden and symbolic meanings that illustrate the use of allegory, and they quickly pick upon the spiritual roots of the story. This semester, she said, “They were talking about the spiritual elements, recognizing the importance of the fruits to the story and seeing their relationship to the (biblical) Fruits of the Spirit. They are also getting the idea that (through spirituality) we confront the ugliness in our lives -- the racism and prejudice -- with love.”
Each semester, Gardineer’s students study up to 20 books during the 15-week courses. Among some of the literature gems are Dragon Rings by Laurence Yep, Bridge to Terabithia, which has just become a movie, a biography of Harriet Tubman, and a book from the Harry Potter series. And yet amongst these literary giants, when last semester’s students had the chance to choose a book to do a report on, the majority, according to the professor, chose The Jelani Tree.
Because The Jelani Treetouches so many genres, Gardineer says it’s a great book for giving students a view of the children’s literature landscape. Another touchstone for the colorful, lyrical book is its personal connection to Carol Manigault, whom many of the students know and love.
Gardineer noted that she teaches this English course to many education majors, who, after graduation, will travel with The Jelani Tree to classrooms all across America. More evidence, again, that the wonderful young man who inspired this book is alive in spirit and touching people as he did while on earth.

Mission #2

Crisis Intervention Teams.

Caroline Brewer returned to the podium to give a report on how Crisis Intervention Teams are working in her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The institute plans to bring to North Jersey Major Sam Cochran, the founder of the Crisis Intervention Team approach to police work. Brewer explained that Fort Wayne adopted the model in 2000. The case that provoked change occurred in 1994. A young black man was killed by a Fort Wayne SWAT team, after emerging from a small closet in his apartment, armed with a knife. Fort Wayne’s lead CIT trainer, Capt. Dottie Davis, led the SWAT team when it responded to Church’s family’s call for assistance. The family said Church had barricaded himself in the closet with a knife and threatened suicide. They had hoped the police would talk him out of it. Instead, when he finally came out of the closet, the police claimed he lunged at them and they did, unfortunately, the only thing they were trained to do. They opened fire on him.
Now, however, Fort Wayne is experiencing great success with its CIT teams. All team members volunteer to be part of CIT. And almost all, said Davis, have relatives who have experienced mental and emotional distress. No one has been killed or injured by police since the CIT teams began. In fact, more than 90 percent of police calls to deal with someone mentally or emotionally distressed, result in the person being taken home by family, to a hospital or other treatment center. Only 1 person out of 90 was taken to jail during a specified period.
The institute is determined to bring this more humane approach to police work to North Jersey and other communities.
Carol Manigault returned to the podium and discussed the fact that Toya Randolph and Rafe Jadrosich had been analyzing numerous articles from around the country about incidents where police responded to a call of someone being emotionally or mentally distressed. She reviewed the headlines of some of their extensive work via an overhead projector.
Carol stopped to talk a little more in-depth about the case of the lost coyote in Central Park. She noted how the media, police, animal rights and other city officials responded with sensitivity to the coyote roaming the park. They had group discussions about how to approach him, as to not scare or traumatize him, and about how to treat him once captured. Ultimately, the coyote was tranquilized, and extra doctors were dispatched to be by his side when he awoke. They would tend to him and help him manage “the stress” he had undergone.
Carol noted that the highly thoughtful and sensitive treatment shown this animal far exceeded the treatment that Jelani, a completely non-violent human being, received, and that so many other human beings receive when they may be feeling lost and are experiencing an unusual amount of stress.

The Compelling Significance of the Book ‘Blink’ and the Movie ‘Crash’.

The final highlight of the institute’s program was a compelling multi-media presentation by Felician College Philosophy Professor George Abaunza.
Using excerpts from the best-selling book, Blink, and the 2005 Best Motion Picture Oscar winner, Crash, Abaunza presented a seamless and emotional portrait of what the institute’s work is all about.
From Blink, he offered by Power Point these nuggets:
I say that humankind is condemned to be free. And from the moment we are thrown into this world we are responsible for everything we do. Humankind is responsible for its passion.” -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions
“Blink’s first task is to convince us that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled. In other words, there is the hope that we can teach ourselves to make better judgments by shaping, managing, educating – in a word – cultivating our unconscious reactions.” Malcolm Gladwell, Author of Blink
Blink suggests that we can make decisions in small increments of time, rather than reasoning out and stopping and thinking,” explained Abaunza. “This relates to what we’re trying to do with the institute. (Police officers) should make very careful decisions, even though done in a short time and under pressure.”
The idea that a person, any person, can make a good judgment about another person or situation in a short period of time is a radical one to many people. And yet, Blink’s author argues that in society we MUST learn to make good decisions very quickly, and that we have the wherewithal to do so.
As Abaunza further explains, as the movie Crash unflinchingly conveys, and as we know personally and painfully, these decisions are a matter of life and death. “ Crash was trying to show that we’re put in these situations every single day,” says Abaunza.
Indeed, the movie examined some of these real-life situations:
***A racist cop pulls over and sexually molests the wife of an affluent black man in front of him and dares the black man to stop him. The cop’s partner – a rookie – is disgusted and asks for a transfer. While riding alone, the rookie picks up a young black male hitchhiker and in a moment of fear shoots and kills him, only to discover that what the young black male had in his pocket was a religious symbol that the cop also had in his car, not a gun.
***In another incident, the white housewife of an L.A. district attorney expresses racist suspicions about the Hispanic locksmith who has come to fix her locks, after she and her husband were carjacked by black males. But after falling down her second floor staircase, and being unable to get up, she is rescued by her Hispanic housekeeper.
“We’re constantly crashing into one another because we bring certain dispositions, habits, and ways of looking at the world (to our relationships),” says Abaunza. “The movie shows you the power of human choice and human decision-making. Given everything we carry with us, we’re still free to make a different choice, something that’s positive, that empowers, instead of something that oppresses.”
Relating that power of choice to the institute’s mission to change the mind-sets of first-responders, Abaunza concludes: “We carry lots of information with us already. It’s what you do with that (information) that makes the difference…To the police we say, we realize you’re in the front lines; you’re the ones with the guns. We want you to be as prepared as possible to deal with these situations in a positive way, one that’s geared toward life, instead of death.”
Speaking of Jelani and the tragedy that can happen when police make snap decisions sometimes based on misconceptions, instead of a deeper understanding and appreciation of every man’s humanity, Abaunza said, “The loss is immeasurable.”
To which we at the institute say, “Amen.”

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