From Murder to Meaning

Photo by Katalin Karolyi

The power of one moment, one word.

The moment: Easter Monday, 1978.  The moment Margot Van Sluytman’s father was murdered while attempting to stop an armed robbery.

The word: sawbonna.  A Zulu greeting that translates to “I see you”.  To see our shared humanity, the goodness in one another, our fragility.  The way Van Sluytman now sees her father’s murderer.

After the tragic loss of her father, and an attempt to join him, Van Sluytman turned to the therapeutic power of words, using poetry and writing to free herself from behind her invisible bars.  Finding her niche, she went on to launch a publishing company, Palabras Press, published several books, and accepted an award from the National Association for Poetry Therapy for her work.

It was around this time when Van Sluytman and her father’s murderer, released from prison as a transformed man dedicated to rehabilitation work within his community, began to share words, eventually stumbling into moments.  Moments that transform sawbonna from a simple word into a living framework in which to view humanity even after the most devastating of nightmares.

Today, Van Sluytman’s life work is dedicated to The Sawbonna Project: transforming the culture of justice through the shared healing of both victim and offender, through respect, responsibility, and relationship.  She accomplishes this by not just talking the talk—she walks the walk, right alongside her father’s murderer.  Together, they speak about restorative justice at schools and in jails.  Together, they are the shared voice of reconciliation.  Of restoration.  Of sawbonna.

And now this moment: AU has awarded Van Sluytman, an MA-IS graduate, with the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award: a formal recognition of the honour and prestige that her notable contributions to humanity brings to the University.

Margot has generously accepted my request for an email interview, where she discusses her serendipitous path to AU, her reaction to winning the Award, and how AU has fit into her overall vision.

What brought you to choose AU to pursue your MA-IS, especially over a brick and mortar university?

I chose AU because for years I had been looking for a Graduate Program that spoke to my pressing yearning for a program that would be interdisciplinary and inclusive of “mature” students.  I also wanted my studies and research to be done via distance education where I could run my publishing press, continue to offer my courses and talks about Therapeutic Writing and Social Justice around the world, and be able to study within my schedule.  I could study anywhere, not curtailed by the time-zones.  My in-depth research about AU proved inspiring.  MA-IS underscored for me that it was “bricks and mortar” of the very essence of quality, commitment, and support to its students.   A truly precious story that made me know beyond the shadow of a doubt that AU was for me, was a powerfully auspicious meeting that happened in Portland, Oregon, in April 2007.  I was there to present a workshop and to receive an award from The National Association for Poetry Therapy, for my Therapeutic Writing Courses and Publication, Dance With Your Healing: Tears Let Me Begin to Speak.  The then President, Dr. Perie Longo, introduced me to Dr. Reinekke Lengelle.  Dr. Lengelle and I were the only Canadians (both from Alberta at that time) at that conference of several hundred people from around the Globe.  Our work with and for and because of Therapeutic Writing and how it permits “voice” and “agency”, was a poignantly shared-passion.  When I told her about my desire to engage in Graduate Studies, she told me about AU.  She is one of the gifted and committed professors at AU with whom I eventually studied.

In your master’s thesis, you had mentioned your belief in being the change you wished to see in the world.  It is beautiful to see someone act toward this belief as you do.  How do you feel that AU has helped you in the journey towards being the change?

Three names among a rich and inspiring list stand out for me when I think of the most potent mentors in my AU journey.  Dr. Paul Nonnekes, Dr. Dale Dewhurst, Dr. Carolyn Redl.  My first teacher was Dr. Nonnekes.  By class three, I was ready to “quit.” The reason was that I was over-whelmed with excitement.  I commented on everything, often my linking my comments and responses to sawbonna.  Other students challenged me about this, asking why I always told “my” story.  Rather than respect and treasure their voices, I felt scared, threatened, embarrassed.  Paul said to me, “I will be disappointed in you if you quit.” Why did this matter to me? It mattered because what Paul knew and what he taught us, was that learning is about being challenged, is about asking and being asked abundant questions, and learning how to respond with and from and because of the intellect of the heart—the heart of the intellect.  His cancer diagnosis during our course left me and my classmates deeply, deeply saddened.  His death was a blow to his students and colleagues.  His wisdom of, “Do not quit.  Honour the gift that education is,” ie. discourses of all manner, will stay with me as another treasure from AU.  Drs. Dewhurst and Redl, my co-thesis supervisors remain the very light at the tunnel of my commitment to sawbonna.  Carolyn supported and trained me in the use of my research methodology: autoethnography.  She compelled me to write with vigour, with vision, with courage, with precision, and with focus, so that this methodology, one that is as yet challenged, will be seen for the academic rigour that is insisted upon—a rigour that demands clarity and that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all others.

The one time we met in Edmonton, Dale’s words, “You have stumbled upon a new justice theory with sawbonna,” were, and are, the very essence of my daily life’s compulsion for, and commitment to, affect change in Canada’s justice policy.  Dale’s encouragement to me to write a thesis that would do what I wanted it to do, that which it is still doing, “Affect the heart of the intellect of those in political power,” compelled me to write, write, write, re-write, re-write, re-write, so that I could hone in on the foundational essence of sawbonna.  His other words to me, “Use the word sawbonna everywhere.” I do.

How can we, as distance education students from around the world and from different perspectives of life (including those that study at AU while incarcerated) incorporate sawbonna into our lives?

Sawbonna means shared-humanity.  The simple phrase, “I see you.” To incorporate it in all that we do is to be present to our very self first, so that we come to know our voice of love, which is the essential voice of justice.  In those moments during my studies, when I was feeling “out of my league,” “useless,” “too, too tired,” or “unworthy” of even putting pen to paper, I reminded myself that sawbonna starts from my heart of kindness with myself and works outward from there.  That each student knows they matter, is vital.  Even as AU is not the tradition of “bricks and mortar,” it is the traditional act of teaching and learning that attests to exquisite learning, whereby the intellect of the heart infuses a desire to thrive.  And, AU is the non-traditional of courage in the very act of making exquisite learning available around the Globe.  Students and professors are always near.  Sawbonna is about relationship.  AU is about relationship.  We are seen.  We matter.

What was your reaction when you learned you’ll be receiving the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award?

Tears.  Awe.  Gratitude.  I was in the car with my brother, Jeremy, who was visiting from overseas.  The phone rang and he pulled over and asked, “What’s up, Marg?” I suspect on my face he saw an expression of, “What? Me? No way!” The reason for this, now that I have had time to digest, is the fact that from the time my Dad, Theodore, was murdered, when I was a girl of 16, to now, a woman of 56, I have been walking a tight-rope dance of creating and finding meaning.  My one constant has been reading, writing, research, and curiosity about how learning, how education can be a force for change, for “meaning-making.” Discovering AU was as if discovering a vein of pure gold.  My seeming severed vocal cords found a way to voice again.  AU has twice-blessed me.

What advice can you give to aspiring future alumni?

Always remember, particularly in those moments when you feel too, too tired, incapable, unworthy, that you are the very voice of hope, justice, freedom, and creative-fire that the learning at AU inspires you savour.  “Don’t quit!” Sawbonna!

I, for one, hold my head up a little higher as an AU student, honoured to be alongside someone as strong and admirable as Margot Van Sluytman.
Congratulations, Margot!