This article originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain News September 9, 2002
As part of the Jane Goodall Institute's (www.jgi.org) Roots & Shoots program, for which I'm the regional coordinator, I've been working at the Boulder County Jail teaching animal behavior, conservation biology, and animal and environmental ethics. It thrills me at how outspoken and informed these men are about important issues. I never leave without having learned something that I incorporate into my daily life. Roots & Shoots is about building appreciation and respect for animals, people and the environment. It originally focused on youngsters but now there are thousands of groups for all age groups in more than 70 countries worldwide. A major aspect of this program stresses that all individuals matter - that the voice of each and every individual needs to be heard. Crossing the divide into a habitat in which I've never lived really has been an education for me. In my groups we talk about animal behavior and spend considerable time discussing ethics - how humans should interact with animals and how we should interact with the environment. Discussions of sustainability rival those of my university classes and debates about animal thinking, emotions, pain, and ethics are informed and moving.
It never fails to impress me that most of the men with whom I work are also incredibly hopeful individuals. And they're helping to nurture hope among youngsters by writing letters and poems telling kids about the mistakes they made, stressing that jail just isn't the place to be if they really want to make a difference, if they want to be able to work for a better world.
Many of the men with whom I work enjoy sharing messages of hope. Many have families and want them to develop and sustain hope in what often is presented as a bleak and hopeless world.
And they do indeed have much wisdom to share. Their messages often bring me to tears - sincere outcries to try to make this a better world for all beings - messages that stress the importance of "being a kid" and the overriding importance of having a positive self-image and of boundless love. Some of the drawings that accompany their prose are outstanding works of art.
A few weeks ago, during one of my visits, one man couldn't wait to tell me about a wonderful bilingual project he'd begun called The Book of Hope - El Libro De La Esperanza. It began with a well-known verse: We are the world/we are the children/we are the ones to make a brighter day/so let's start giving. A very accomplished artist did incredibly detailed pencil drawings to accompany the text. Some of the messages:
Kids out there - you don't want to be like us - it's up to you to change the world and make it a better place.
Tell your teachers you want to help stop the destruction of your heritage. I hope that I can help those in need of help as I would want others to
help me when I need assistance.
Obtaining an education will help unlock the doors to gaining opportunities.
If I could do my life over, these are the things I would do: Love myself, go to school to learn how to live, be a good friend, love and respect my family . . . you can feel in your heart what is right. Have faith and hope for the future. Be happy. Time passes very fast, so please don't waste it. You are all very special.
Be a kid, have fun, play ball in the afternoon sun . . . climb trees and care about the birds and the bees . . . have simple days and simple ways, a Kool-Aid smile to light up your face. The future is like a bottled promise . . . the single greatest commodity known to man is hope. Hope is like dancing in stiletto heels - how it takes all your fears and breaks them down to making you feel good about yourself.
We can all learn from one another and we need to build bridges that carry messages of hope, peace, respect, compassion, and love. Perhaps more now than ever everyone should be encouraged to spread the word, for there are many reasons for hope.
Looking for something to do? Go out and build new bridges, cross frustrating and challenging divides. It isn't always easy but never say never, ever. We all can make a difference. We all have something to say, and sharing messages of peace and hope with youngsters - for that matter sharing these messages with everyone - certainly is a good road to travel starting now, not tomorrow because "things" might get in the way, but right now.
Marc Bekoff (http://literati.net/Bekoff) teaches biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of many books including Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart and The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care For the Animals We Love (with Jane