Try this: Before you go to bed tonight, make it the last thing you do to look in the mirror and say “I love you.” And when you wake up in the morning, do it again.
Don’t buy it? Well, to Alvyn Haywood, a professor of communications at Mercer County Community College, that reaction says a lot. He’s heard it a thousand times, particularly from the kids he meets at the Garden State Correctional Facility, where he holds classes in intra-personal communication. Their reactions, he admits, are a little more pointed than those he gets from students in his course at Mercer, but the resistance is well-represented.
What does this have to do with economics? Plenty, says Haywood. Until you can face yourself in the mirror you will never be able to fix the problems around you. “There’s all this talk about revitalizing Trenton,” Haywood says. “What I’ve found is, you can build brick and mortar and you can restructure the community, but sooner or later the community is going to look like it used to. We concentrate a lot on edifice, but we have to change how we think.”
Haywood will present “Improving & Enhancing Intra-personal Communications (Inner-Communications)” before We Are BOOST, a Trenton-based social nonprofit organization, on Saturday, August 22, at 11 a.m. at 9 Willow Street (next to City Deli) in Trenton. Cost: $25. Call 609-439-7115 or E-mail email@example.com.
While personal empowerment and socio-economics might seem odd bedfellows, Haywood is convinced that the key to revitalizing any society starts with a deeper, fuller awareness of self. Trenton, in particular, is a special case. The city, he says, is the epicenter of the American Revolution. “If certain things didn’t happen here, we wouldn’t have things like democracy,” he says. “And we throw Trenton away.”
As a microcosm of the American character, Trenton shows us where the problems are, Haywood says. Trenton’s residents — and plenty of their neighbors — like to look at the city in terms of us vs. them, or “I’m chocolate and you’re vanilla.” Even when people are trying to do the right thing, he says, this perspective gets in the way. He refers to it as “the language of hate,” even if there is no specific animosity intended.
But even if no animosity is intended, the anger is there. The separation is there. And so long as these obstacles are in the way, the city Haywood would like so desperately to save will not be able to look itself in the mirror.
Growing up in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, Haywood was easy to get mad. The causes all seemed external — “It’s always the other guy,” he says. “It’s never ourselves. He would fight, he would lash out, he would take things to heart — but he never put the responsibility on himself.
As the angry young man stepped out on his own, he made a living as an R&B and jazz musician and earned his bachelor’s at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina. He turned to the Princeton Theological Seminary for graduate work in an effort to find a way to connect the world with God.
Instead, he found himself just as angry and turned off by organized religion, which he finds more of a business than a vocation. “I tell people, ‘You know what my religion is? Life,’” he says.
Still, Haywood first worked at the First Presbyterian Church of Trenton before landing a job at MCCC about 15 years ago. At Mercer he is a professor of communications and hosts “Jazz School,” a program on the college’s radio station, WWFM, as well as a nightly television program called “What Might Happen,” a student program run on Mercer’s Channel 26.
Though he considers himself blessed with “a beautiful run at Mercer,” Haywood landed himself in the hospital some years ago, throwing up for no reason anyone could figure out. When the doctor left his room, he says, Haywood suddenly realized what had happened to him. “I said to myself, ‘You’re upset about something that happened at school, you didn’t feel like you could share it with anybody, and you imploded,’” he says. “Then I sat there and wept.”
He also vowed to feel happy, no matter what. With a lot of help from practitioners of intra-personal communication, Haywood says he found his balance and started to build his new life, starting with loving the guy in the mirror.
Haywood’s credibility, as he sees it, hinges on the fact that he is not a minister or a priest. “I’m a fellow struggler like you,” he says. A guy who, if you listen, still sounds like he’s angry, but who has learned to re-direct it into making people listen.
It can be tough with the kids from the correctional facility, Haywood says. Profoundly lost, these kids have built elaborate defenses against trusting anyone, including themselves. But these kids are not required to sit in the classroom with him. Something draws them there, and with that tenuous start, Haywood figures he’s got an in.
Especially when they come back. There is always a person or two who thinks what he has just told them about looking in the mirror is crap. They walk out of the classroom very angry and very unreceptive. And the next time are sitting back there again. “If they come to class, I feel that we’ve been drawn together for a reason,” Haywood says. “If I can just get them to think, to ask a question, I’m confident that the universe can provide the answer.”
It is this spark, Haywood says, one person at a time if need be, that will lead to a revitalized Trenton, and world. If you can master yourself — realize that the onus is on you to control your feelings, rather than blaming others and letting your feelings dictate your actions — you can master a house. And then a neighborhood. And then a city at the epicenter of democracy.
“If Trenton is moved, the world will move,” he says.