Spreading the message of peace to youth through drumming, dancing, and arts.
Photo by @tedxrva
“The community must be uplifted by the victims of trauma, the oppressed, who must not become perpetrators, but who, through a process of self-healing, uplift the community.”
In his 2015 TED Talk at TEDxRVA, Dr. Ram Bhagat, educator and peace advocate, closed by quoting Paulo Friere, reinstating his own personal core belief in the power and vitality of community.
Who is Dr. Ram Bhagat?
Dr. Ram Bhagat, a Richmond local and Connecticut native, is a retired educator and community activist.
Much of his career has been spent educating, as he worked in the Richmond Public School system for 27 years teaching various levels of science. His teaching approach had been considered firm but creatively-driven, many unique lessons revolving around learning science through drumming, drama, and dance.
In addition to working with youth in a classroom setting, Dr. Bhagat is a public advocate of nonviolence. He helped start Drums No Guns, founded the Richmond Youth Peace Project, and serves as president on the board for The Conciliation Project, a local social justice theater organization.
Dr. Bhagat strives to use creativity and music to prevent violence and promote harmony among youth and their community.
As a science teacher in Richmond Public Schools, Dr. Bhagat taught based on the philosophy that students learn better through creative expression. Even as a science teacher, he incorporated drumming and dance into lessons, using activities like salsa and rhythm to teach about even the most seemingly dry topics.
He was a firm believer that every student, even students that seemed “hopeless,” had the capability to excel when given the right opportunity.
And last spring, he was invited to speak at the 2015 TEDxRVA conference. When reflecting on his work as an educator, he stated, “One of the things that really bothered me the most was hearing my colleagues talk about ‘Those students couldn’t learn,’ or ‘Those students didn’t want to learn.’ …I look at the classroom as a microcosm of society. Where there are disparities in the classroom, I see my students as having come from situations where they’ve been traumatized by violence that they’ve witnessed or experienced.”
Drums No Guns
Years ago, living in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, Dr. Bhagat tragically lost his brother to gun violence. From there, he channeled his energy into creating a local youth group called “Children of the Sun,” spreading the message of peace, love, and justice. In 1981, Dr. Bhagat moved down to Richmond and continued to circulate the philosophy of peace and nonviolence.
Years later, in the thick of multiple mass school shootings like Columbine, he and fellow co-founders started to hone in on gun violence prevention. Working at a local community center, Dr. Bhagat asked the kids how many of them knew someone that had been shot or killed by a gun. He remembers, “I was surprised, but not surprised, by how many of the kids were affected by gun violence.”
Inspired, he helped found Drums No Guns. This youth program works to prevent handgun violence, domestic violence, and crime through community building and youth development, encouraging teens to exert their energy on music, rhythm, and arts.
But what is it exactly about drums, specifically, that’s so unifying? Dr. Bhagat asserts, “A drum is one of the oldest instruments, connecting with the spirit and connecting with all cultures. Like a primal connection that everyone can relate to… It just generates that sense of we are one; all cultures are different but there’s a unifying pulse.”
Richmond Youth Peace Project
In 2004, two Richmond students, well-known among their peers and beloved in the community, were murdered.
Shocked and shaken, the community refused to let them die in vain, and sought to pay tribute to their lives. Ram Bhagat, in partnership with Drums No Guns and the Richmond Peace Education Center, worked to create a program that would offer teens a voice, a safe space, and an outlet to work out nonviolent solutions even in high-risk areas.
The Richmond Youth Peace Project quickly came into fruition, engaging community youth in peaceful situations and encouraging nonviolent solutions to issues that might otherwise be resolved with aggression. Now, participating teens are able to develop leadership skills by putting together and leading workshops for fellow youth, learn conflict resolution techniques from adult leaders and fellow teens, and express themselves through creative channels such as music and arts.
Dr. Bhagat hoped to use this program as not just a method of teaching alternatives to violence, but also an outlet for youth and a way to network and connect.
And in addition to regular activities and programs, RYPP started the annual Youth Peace Summit in 2005. This educational conference, which celebrated its 12th year in April, brings a day full of youth empowerment and nonviolent workshops, much of it organized and led by teens themselves.
Just as Paulo Friere said, Dr. Bhagat strives to use RYPP to bring a ray of constructive action in the midst of senseless school shootings and city violence.
Richmond Peace Education Center
The Richmond Peace Education Center works hard to bring peace and nonviolence to Central Virginia and its community through education and action. They started nearly 40 years ago, when our country was still reeling from the chaos and violence of the Vietnam War. They initially aspired to spread awareness of peaceful approaches to conflict to the surrounding community.
Today they continue to circulate the word of peace through workshops, public events, and educational trainings.
Peacemaker of the Year Award
Since the beginning of RPEC, members noticed hundreds of peace advocates and outstanding figures in the community. So in 2003, the organization created the Peacemaker of the Year award to honor and recognize the socially just work of a specific organization or individual in Virginia.
Last month, due to his 27 years of public education and countless outside hours spent working and advocating for local youth, the Richmond Peace Education Center honored Dr. Ram Bhagat with the 2016 Peacemaker of the Year award.
His impact on the community has spread far and wide, but still, when he was contacted about winning, Dr. Bhagat says, “I was so surprised.” He remembers of the award ceremony, “It was incredible, and one of the most humbling experiences to hear people talk about my impact on their lives.”
Though he’s now retired, Dr. Bhagat continues to work in the community and inspire individuals all over, “The most fulfilling part as a teacher is when your students take what they’ve learned from you. I watched my students go off to college, carry the message with them, and I get to see firsthand what they do with it.”