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The Alchemy of Disarmament: Transforming Guns Into Shovels to Plant Trees

Liberating gun metal from its histories of murder.

A volunteer with Lead to Life melts down a weapon to create a shovel with the gunmetal.

Part of the Series

It could be described as the alchemy of disarmament.

Lead to Life: A People’s Alchemy for Regeneration is the project, and its goal is peace, justice and regeneration.

Intention in medicine is defined as the healing process of a wound,” reads the website. “Our intention through Lead to Life is to transform that which ends life into that which sustains life — to facilitate an alchemical healing process that can physically transform both our weapons and our imaginations.”

Weapons are literally being melted down and turned into shovels, which are then used to plant trees. The disarmament process that the project uses collects weapons that are donated from the general public, as well as weapons housed in police departments that have been rendered dormant and disposable after investigations have been completed. Then, partnering with local artists and metalsmiths, the weapons are literally transformed into shovels and tools which are then used in ceremonial tree plantings. The project is based in Oakland but has just completed a tree-planting ceremony in Atlanta.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

brontë velez, the creative director, and Kyle Lemle, the program director, co-founded the project in 2017.

velez is a multimedia artist, life-long student and designer engaged with the praxis (theory + action, as she describes it) that lives at the intersections of critical geography, Black liberation ecologies and creative place-making.

“This project, Lead to Life, and my soul work, begin with the unnecessary and horrific murders that fall largely upon my own communities — Black, Brown and Indigenous communities — and especially the children of these communities,” she told Truthout.

Lemle is a community forester, musician and organizer working at the intersections of environmental justice and cultural regeneration.

“I come to the story of our work haunted by another form of violence — violence against the Earth,” he told Truthout. “The election of the current president is calling us to look deeply at the cultures and cosmovisions that elected him — the greed, fear and hatred — both ancient and alive. For me, it is no coincidence that the administration deleted the White House web pages on civil rights and climate change in the same click, the day he took office.”

Transforming Violence

Lead to Life: A People's Alchemy for Regeneration creative director brontë velez and program director Kyle Lemle, program director. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Lemle)A People’s Alchemy for Regeneration’s brontë velez, creative director and Kyle Lemle, program director. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Lemle; Edited: LW / TO)

For velez, the work began with her dear friend Harry sending her an image of the Van Gogh bike path located in the Netherlands — a glow-in-the-dark path honoring Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting.

When she saw the image of the bike path, velez was immediately flooded by memories of X’avier, her dear friend who was shot and killed five years ago by a 14-year-old on the Kirkwood bike path in Atlanta. The teenager, now 18, is serving three life-sentences with an additional 15 years. X’avier’s mother told velez she felt neither healing nor justice by way of this sentencing. A similar grief fills velez now.

“I always and in all ways think about the design of things — what things are made up of, what oppression is made up of, how evil arrives to itself,” she said. “When I saw the glow-in-the-dark bike path, I wondered if the conditions of X’avier’s murder would have been the same had the Kirkwood bike path been designed differently?”

velez explained that she stared at the image and asked herself questions like: Could you kill someone with that much imagination and beauty around you? And then to further strengthen that question: What other environmental conditions are necessary for a community to support that kind of creative infrastructure? What other life is supporting the sustainability of imagination in this place?

Lemle feels similarly about the necessity of the project regarding Earth.

He believes that the care for our common home is being deleted, and what’s being empowered instead is the glory of the individual money-maker, and a system that benefits the separate and fenced-in individual at the expense of all other beings — especially people of color, Indigenous peoples, animals and future beings.

“I imagine a world where, as we walk, what trails behind us is not waste, is not desert, is not forgotten, but where our shadows grow as gifts,” Lemle said. “Where our footsteps are not violence, our actions yield no shame, where we don’t need earphones and medical masks to shield us from the mess we’ve made.”

Lemle’s dream job when he was a child was to literally be Johnny Appleseed. Today, his heroes continue to be the tree planters of the world — like Wangari Maathai, the legendary Matriarch of Kenya who, through planting trees, helped bring down an oppressive political regime. What interests him now is how, through the process of healing the Earth, we can also heal our relationship to it.

“There are the weapons destroying the world, and the tools to repair our world,” Lemle said. “And the technologies are as ancient as they are alive. They are not hiding deep in the forest. They are the forest. Trees stabilize our climate. Trees bring the rain. Trees, for many, are home to the gods. For me, it has always been about the trees.”

Simultaneously, velez’s work in the project reminds us of how, as she explained, gun violence in the United States results in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries annually, from suicides to homicides to mass murders to police brutality.

“The reverberations of trauma must go somewhere, and as I have learned in my study of ‘waste management,’ there is no such thing as ‘away’,” she said. “Our bodies and lands are crowded with the histories of violence that daily affect us and inform the way we grow or do not grow.”

“I am thinking of the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers, friends — of the air and soil and land, who must absorb the impact of these traumas,” she said. “The question I am left with asks, ‘Can we disrupt patterns of oppression by transforming the processes by which they are designed?’ I believe that when we disrupt those patterns, there is more room to breathe, to feel, to heal, to rest.”

Synthesis and Focus

Lead to Life is a labor of love for several people and groups.

One of them, Micky ScottBey Jones, describes herself as “the Justice Doula,” and is a womanist contemplative activist, healer, nonviolent direct-action organizer and consultant who facilitates conferences, workshops, pilgrimages and online conversations. She is working as a supporting partner to the project, primarily by her work with The People’s Supper, a project that aims to repair the breach in interpersonal relationships across the US which have been injured by political, ideological and identity differences.

Jones hopes that as the result of Lead to Life, people are able to spend a few hours being human with one another — connecting to their own stories and the stories of others.

“We so often come to interactions with another person focused on the potential transaction: I need to check out of the grocery store, I need my child to listen to me, even, I need to catch up with this friend and find out the latest in their life,” she told Truthout. “Rarely do we sit down with another person to just be human together, to breathe in their story without needing to give advice, share an answer or correct what they are saying.”

Jones’s hope is that her work with The People’s Supper inspires those involved in the project to bring this mentality to their own dinner tables.

Sarah Thompson is Lead to Life’s connector at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta, Georgia, (the King Center).

She told Truthout it was important for her to be part of Lead to Life because it brings the metaphors of swords into plowshares into physical reality.

“Lead to Life is a reminder that, as the minerals taken from Earth are healed and restored, we are healed,” Thompson said. “We are healed when the alchemy of community comes together to melt down the barriers between us and [we] experience the flames of passion for life. It is also important to be a part of this project because it is an artful and soulful way to honor those impacted by gun violence.”

Thompson hopes that the project results in more people becoming excited about discovering the ecological analysis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As she sees it, not only did Dr. King preach about the connections between humans — precious connections that were being destroyed by racism and racist systems — he spoke of the interrelated cosmos, too.

“By choosing to feature parts of MLK’s sermons that focus on transformation of our relationships with one another and the Earth, it allows people to see and read King in a new way,” Thompson said. “He was an important strategist, and his voice is as important now as it was a half century ago.”

Thompson is grateful that the King Center partnered with Lead to Life for a week of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which was April 4. She reminded us how, as a victim of gun violence himself, during his life, Dr. King spoke out about gun violence on both the interpersonal and structural levels.

“He named militarism as one of the ‘triple evils’ that are incapable of being conquered when ‘machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people’,” she said. “We are invited to be led to life in a new way after experiencing the embodied transformation offered through the community rituals of eating, dreaming, storytelling, melting and singing that Kyle and brontë created.”

Michael Martin is also a partner of Lead to Life. Martin is the founder and executive director of RAWtools, a Colorado-based group which describes itself as “replacing narratives of violence with communities of creation.”

RAWtools is actively looking to partner with organizations and projects that do work toward turning swords to plowshares.

“It’s rare that we get to work with a project like Lead to Life that fits so well with our own mission and vision,” Martin told Truthout. “The idea of swords turning into plowshares and guns into garden tools requires us to make changes to the systems of violence and restore these very systems into tools that bring life.”

He believes Lead to Life does this and brings a much-needed aspect of ritual into the process.

“Our world is quick to move from one thing to the next without recognition of transition that often includes joy and pain, trauma and celebration,” he said. “Ritual is a vital role in the alchemy of our communities, and Lead to Life does it beautifully.”

Martin, a former youth and young adult pastor, wants to see whole neighborhoods making a transition to weapon-free environments.

“How better can we do that than to literally plant that environment with tools made out of guns?” He said. “And not just plant them, but recognize this transition as a paradigm shift in how we move from exploiting each other to giving life to each other.”

While RAWtools’ mission is to “disarm hearts and forge peace,” Martin thinks Lead to Life has created a beautiful process to do exactly that.

“Gun violence speaks from a variety of issues that need to be addressed, like racial and environmental injustice that Kyle and brontë are so wonderfully passionate about,” he said. “It speaks from places of loneliness and marginalization, where violence seems like the only option.”

Martin believes Lead to Life offers another way to help folks transition from these spaces of loneliness and hurt and into spaces of support and love.

Backstory and Moving Forward

Lemle and velez met when they were both inaugural recipients of the Spiritual Ecology Fellowship. The concept of spiritual ecology creates the space for that necessary gap between reverence, stewardship and environmental justice to be sutured. On a bus ride together, they found themselves, as Lemle described it, “Discovering the intersections of our work, with ease, magic, whimsy and spontaneity, and a profound collaboration was birthed with the intention to bridge restorative and environmental justice through our project.”

“Inside of that excitement, many beautiful questions arose that now guide our praxis through Lead to Life,” he added.

Their work is aimed at designing answers to these questions, according to Lemle:

• What does a reconciliation process with the Earth look like? Who is invited into that process?

• What does a public, human-to-human reconciliation process look like? What does deep, sustainable community healing look like beyond fleeting actions? What does a #BlackLivesMatter tree planting look like?

• What are the physical technologies of the spiritual ecology movement? As the spiritual ecology liturgy does not itself sequester carbon or pull the toxins from our rivers, what are the tools that people can hold and the actions that people can do to remember our deepest roots and answer the prayers of our great-great-grandchildren?

Lead to Life was born in order to answer these very questions. Thus, the project intentionally chose the US to create their alchemy and cultural healing work due to the fact that Lemle calls it “the heart of imperialism and violence against people and planet.”

Lemle and velez’s hope is that even within the current climate of pervasive environmental racism, gun violence and desecration of the land, Lead to Life will serve as an immediate enactment of values. In that way, it is participatory culture creation, and in the context of violence, their ceremonies can leave people with a dignified and honorable memorialization.

Lead to Life recently converged in Atlanta for a series of events around the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination to hold a People’s Supper, a Swords to Plowshares ceremony and a permaculture action day. The events culminated in a tree planting ceremony at the King Center.

Lead to Life will bring their work to cities across the US, starting in Oakland, California, later this fall. Furthermore, Lead to Life is launching a “National Call to Disarm & Transform” in partnership with RAWtools’ Swords to Plows program.

For every gun they receive, Lead to Life will transform it into a garden tool and plant one tree. Leveraging their network of metal artists and civic partners across the US and the #OneLess campaign, Lead to Life will send a “Call To Action” to millions to join them.

Lead to Life sees pausing in an era dominated by urgency as an act of resistance in order to generate alternatives to violence.

The project’s physical act of “turning swords into plowshares” creatively fulfills the prophecy Dr. King invoked throughout his speeches. According to Lemle and velez, gun metal will be liberated from histories of murder, and the soil and air where violence took place will be remediated by the trees.

“Our goal is to release powerful content to inspire nationwide action on gun violence through creative nonviolent direct service and ecological restoration,” Lemle said. “We believe that people will only stand up to take action when they feel resonance at the soul level.”

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