Guiding light

Actor and filmmaker Forest Whitaker was raised on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Today he uses that experience, and the lessons he learned, to help lift the lives of young people touched by conflict.


There is a divine spark within every human being that gives all of us the capacity for extraordinary goodness: to love, to create, to help, to forgive. It is a universal light that connects all of us to the flame of humanity. My journey – as an artist, as an actor, and as a social activist – has always been fundamentally about strengthening my connection with the individual or the character in front of me, to pull away all the outer layers that obscure the truth, and to discover the light hidden deep within.

This search for the light has guided my work from the beginning, as it guides us all. Since I was young, I have had role models who have helped me learn to discover this light where others might overlook it.

My mother was a special education teacher who worked closely with students with severe learning disabilities. Watching her interact with those students, seeing the love and attention she gave to each and every one, had a big impact on me. Sometimes I had the opportunity to come to her class and work with these students myself, and I was able to see the strength they possessed as they struggled to cope with some of their challenges.

I saw this light in other hidden places, too. My childhood was marked, in many ways, by conflict. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles during what was a tumultuous time for that part of the city, to say the least.

The Watts riots occurred a few miles from my house. The Black Panthers had a headquarters in my neighbourhood that I saw blown up one day by the police. The Bloods and the Crips were formed when I was still a student in middle school.

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Children in the street during the 1965 race riots in the United States. Photo: Bill Ray.

“Conflict and violence are almost always symptoms of some fundamental underlying need that is going unmet.”

I had a unique perspective on many of these events, observing them from the inside. Where other people saw controversy and violence, we saw organisations that were trying to help our communities.

The Black Panthers were creating lunch programmes and taking care of young kids in our neighbourhood. They would pick me up every day from school and talk to me about taking care of myself and working hard to get an education. Even the Crips and the Bloods started as community-building organisations.

Over time, they became criminal groups that waged wholesale violence, but that wasn’t the intention of the people who started them; they were giving young people who had been disenfranchised and displaced by society a community of their own.

I think it’s important to understand gangs – to understand all conflict – in this light, to see that conflict and violence are almost always symptoms of some fundamental underlying need that is going unmet.

The many friends I had growing up who joined gangs had, in some respects, been left behind by society. Most came from broken homes, had no real economic opportunities, had no identities. For them, the Crips and the Bloods would become their families. It was devastating to see these destructive forces take over my friends’ lives, but I never stopped seeing the light inside them.

I observed something similar many years later when I began working with former child soldiers. It was horrifying to hear these young men and women describe their experiences. They had invariably been abused, demoralised, or forced to commit unspeakable acts against their friends and neighbours. Their plights were tragic.

But in an insidious way, for many of these youth – even those who had been abducted – being in an armed group filled a need that had been going unmet in their lives. These groups provided many of the youth with food and shelter that they often could not receive elsewhere.

Having a role in these groups gave many of these young people a purpose and an identity; a profoundly harmful and destructive one, but an identity, nonetheless.

"There is a divine spark within every human being that gives all of us the capacity for extraordinary goodness."

I am grateful for all the organisations around the world that work to liberate children from these horrific situations, but I’ve also seen that taking a child out of an army does not necessarily fill these fundamental needs.

We have to do more for these children, to fill that void in their lives with love, an education, a community to give them a new purpose and allow them to find an opportunity to succeed. The light has never left these children. We just need to help them rediscover it.

This desire to empower young people to fill the unmet needs in their lives became the impetus behind the creation of my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative. We operate in parts of the world touched by conflict, from Uganda to Tijuana, from South Sudan to Los Angeles. We work with young women and men to help them develop the tools they need to become leaders and peacebuilders in their communities.

The challenges in many of the places where we work are truly daunting; there’s a keen sense of struggle, pushing forward, making sure you keep your eyes open to the successes that are occurring in front of you. And there are successes.

We started working in South Sudan in 2013, just a few months before civil war broke out and plunged the country into chaos and violence. When the fighting started, we had to suspend the programme. It was disappointing to halt our progress, and it was heartbreaking to see how this tragedy was impacting our youth peacemakers.

Many of them were forced to leave their homes. Some lost family members. But in the midst of the violence and bloodshed, these young women and men – who came from different tribes and who, in many cases, found each other on opposite sides of the ethnic line that was dividing the country – reached out to one another and helped each other find safety.

They acted almost as an early-warning system, calling each other to say, ‘don’t go down that road, it’s not safe for your tribe there’. These youth were taking what they had learned from the programme and using it to come together, to build peace, to save lives.

It is these individual stories of love and strength – of boundless care for our fellow human beings – that give me hope, for South Sudan and for our world.

People and communities across the globe are confronting some massive challenges; from civil war, to abject poverty, to a climate that is changing before our eyes. When you look at these challenges from afar, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by it all.

That’s why these stories of heroism and compassion matter so much. They are a reminder that there are lights inside all of us that persist despite the darkness. They make us believe that, one day, with our continued care, guidance and advocacy, these lights will come together to form a human flame of enduring peace – a fire bright enough to drive out any darkness. - PA