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The HumanThread: Connecting Communities, Art and Peace.

 I have known Michiko Kobayashi for quite some time and I’ve always wanted to share her story. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with her to discuss her organization and story in depth.   Michiko is the founder and director of The HumanThread Center/Gallery for Peace, Arts & Education, a nonprofit organization that engages individuals in conversations about peace, non-violence and human dignity through art, education and discussion. Full of passion and wisdom, Michiko’s story, from her childhood in Japan to her life in the U.S. is inspiring. A driven and motivated individual, Michiko discusses the experiences that led her to create The HumanThread. “Art is a universal language”, she says. “It touches the core of humanity and human creativity.” 

“I AM” Annual Juried High School Student Art Exhibition 2013. (Image courtesy of HumanThread)

Sophia Nahli (SN): HumanThread focuses on celebrating and sharing art that promotes peace. You’ve also made sure the organization focuses on empowering youth and creating an environment for their work to be seen. What were you like as a youth? Were you an activist or artist?

Michiko Kobayashi (MK): As a youth I think I was idealistic. Always questioning about social inequities, because I’m half Korean, and I was raised in Japan. I’m not sure if one knows the history, but one should know the atrocities committed by the militaristic government of Japan against the neighboring Asian countries. By the time I came along it was not as severe, but certainly I was sensitive to the legacies of discrimination and prejudicial thinking. My siblings who are much older were affected by that prejudicial treatment.

SN: You were born and raised in Japan.  What was that experience like for you, and what made you decide to move to the U.S?

MK: My father is Korean, and my mother is Japanese. Since I was questioning a lot of things, I came across the civil rights movement, the books and the images of the civil rights.  It was introduced to me by my sister who had a very keen sense of African culture. From the age of 12-15 I learned a lot about the civil rights movement and leaders, and that actually kind of intrigued me and inspired me to come to the U.S. It was the black leaders who moved me to come here not really understanding what I was going to do or anything like that, just the fantasy. My fantasy was really to live in the ghetto in the U.S., and that was my dream. You know a lot of times when we talk about immigrants they talk about the American dream, and my American dream was to actually live in the poverty and amongst the people.  I don’t want to make myself sound like I had this sense of mission; I was looking for something that moves me, some truth about life. It’s not like I had this great intellectual understanding of what I was doing or that I wanted to be an activist; it was more of me being between fantasy and idealism and a little bit of ignorance even, naivety.  But when I landed in O’Hare and saw the diversity of people, I felt at home. The moment I landed in Chicago at the age eighteen I knew I was home.

Michiko Kobayashi. (Image courtesy of Michiko)

SN: How do social issues differ in Japan compared to the U.S?

MK: Japan is a very confined society and very much about the collectivism. They value the collective thinking the most. Though the U.S. is becoming more collective thinking than I thought it was. When I first came here there was more individualism, in terms of uniqueness. I feel like the Americans are losing this uniqueness.  I think we worry about what other people think more than before; I mean that’s my perception.  Japan has always been that way. They always worry about what other people are doing, what other people are thinking and how they can conform to the quote unquote norm. So that’s Japanese society.  It is still a very conformed society.

SN: What inspired you to create HumanThread?

MK: Since teenage years I was questioning social inequities, but I can only say this looking back. At that time I didn’t  know how to address it or articulate it, but that’s what I was questioning. At that time, maybe even now this may be true, but in Japan the lighter the color skin, the better you are perceived to be, especially for girls. Even from that I was questioning why that is so. Why darker skin has to be something less. Naively just questioning these things. So when I came here and lived in the “ghetto” and I did what I came here to do and had two sons, I knew I had to make money and provide for my children. I understood then how the society works in the U.S. You have to have money. That’s what I thought. I switched completely from “money doesn’t  mean anything” to “money does mean something”. If you do have money or social status you can be viewed or treated differently.

“Diversity and its Penalties” Exhibition. 2012. (Image courtesy of HumanThread)

My sons may have better opportunities. Making the switch, I concentrated on getting a good job and putting my passion on the back burner, but I still read the newspaper voraciously and was always affected by what I read. But I felt powerless to what I could do. Finally my sons grew up, and it was time for me.  I decided I really wanted to do something with my life that was meaningful to me. So here comes human thread.

SN: How was that process for you? Especially being a woman, creating an organization by yourself. Was that a challenge?

MK: You say all by yourself, but I don’t think we are ever quite alone. We would like to believe “oh I’ve done that all by myself”, and sometimes I do say that to my partner, Tim, but that’s not true. I cannot imagine this journey without him in my life. We are supported by so many wonderful, wonderful people. That includes incredible volunteers, with incredible hearts. I wouldn’t say just because you are a woman or a man. I don’t really look at it that way. I look at if your heart is in the right place regardless of your gender or ethnic background.  All you can do is really be true to yourself and to your soul and spirit. Once the focus is elsewhere, whether about your gender or the language or whatever disabilities we think we have or may not have, once the focus is there, we cannot accomplish anything. We can’t do anything. We can only focus on our calling, small or big, it really doesn’t matter. We have to listen to ourselves.

SN: What inspires you?

MK: People. I think we have incredible examples of champions of human rights, civil rights and human spirit, period.  So when we look at those examples how can we not be inspired? People like Dr. Martin Luther King, my mentor in life, Daisaku Ikeda, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and all these incredible human beings. Also, we don’t have to reach to the people who have passed or someone who is really great. I’m inspired by my own sons. I’m inspired by you Sophia [yes I did blush at Michiko’s kind compliment] you know people… people inspire me

SN: What changes would you like to see in the world? 

“American Spring: A Cause For Justice” Exhibition. 2012.  (Image courtesy of HumanThread)

MK: Human connection. It means education. The society or world that values the human connection, human dignity. That’s the change that I would like to see. Not just one group of people or groups of people with, you know, quote unquote deeper understanding of life or compassion.  I think that it’s in us; it doesn’t matter who you are, regardless of your social economic status.  We talk about the 99% vs. the 1. Even the 1% are human beings. They are people with real heart and soul.  It’s about education. Education that we are connected and we do share this greater destiny in the world and to be able to see that. That’s the kind of change I’d like to see.

SN: Why is art important to you?

MK: Art is a universal language. It touches the core of humanity and human creativity. To be able to create is a unique advantage and talent that is given only to the human being. To be able to create and build something, not just for ourselves, but that benefits the entirety of the community. That shows who we are.  When we talk about advanced species, being the human being, that’s what it means. Any other species, human beings included, can destroy things, but I think it’s only human beings who can build, create and connect. We have the capacity. It’s a matter of whether or not we are awakened to that capacity or not. That’s the only difference. Once we are awakened to that capacity there is no limit to what we can accomplish as humankind.

SN: Why is it important to have art for the youth in Chicago, and why did you decide to have HumanThread focus on youth on Chicago’s West and South side?

MK: The south and west side youth are unjustly deprived of the opportunity to be able to create. It’s taken away from them unfortunately a lot of times in our current educational system. I want to state not just to the youth but to the system that art is critical to let them know who they are. They are not numbers. They are human beings with the greatest potential. I wanted to bring back to the youngsters, who needed that kind of emphasis about who they are the most, and have them realize how beautiful they are and how they can build from within. They have the assets and materials already. They have the goods within. You use those outside materials, but your creativity and humanity comes from within.

“I AM” Exhibition Award Ceremony/Reception at Rainbow Push. (Image courtesy of HumanThread)

SN: What can we expect from HumanThread?

MK: We have this great space thanks to the Bridgeport Art Center, so we are going to bring in more exciting programming in terms of afterschool programs, and I want to bring in more visual art. What I want to always incorporate is a curriculum on culture, peace and non-violence. We will never do or teach just art. HumanThread’s mission is to teach and introduce culture and humanist values because non-violence is a way of life. My ultimate goal is is to have a center where we can offer classes and have the material where the youth from the south side and west side can perform and connect with the “mainstream” audience. My mission is to connect the gaps. This fragmentation of society, that’s what disturbs me the most. So I want to have a space that can really dismantle that kind of fragmentation and segregation mentally. We are physically segregated because of our mindset, because of our mentality. It’s really not a mystery. It’s how we think. It’s manifested physically, and that’s what’s happening in Chicago. So I want to create a space where that is not a strange thing to see but the most beautiful scene you could imagine.

To learn more about HumanThread visit http://www.humanthread.net/

facebook: HumanThread

Or contact Michiko at info@humanthread.net

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