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Let me bring you into the world of Sharon Katz, a South African by birth, a music therapist by profession—and, in the words of musician Pete Seeger, “one of the people who is saving the world.”

She was born in Port Elizabeth (now called Nelson Mandela Bay) under apartheid—the rigid racial/social ideology system that required citizens to live by race designations (black, colored/mixed race, Indian, white) in segregated areas of the country, with restrictions about who could go where and when.

“We lived in a conspiracy of silence,” she says. “South Africa was a prison for everybody.”

As a young woman traveling with her family, Katz saw how others barely survived in their segregated communities, and she became obsessed with finding a way to support change. “How can this be my country?” she asked herself. “Seeing all of that changed me forever.”

In her teens, she would sneak out to the “blacks only” townships by hiding under blankets in the back seat of a friend’s car in order to get past identification checkpoints.

After getting her education as a music therapist, Katz began her mission to bridge the country’s artificially imposed racial barriers through music. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but before the promised national elections were held, Katz came up with a revolutionary idea: She would form an integrated children’s choir to bring together young people from across South Africa, to show that they were all the same when their voices were blended.

“I saw music as a way to transform the system,” says Katz. She traveled throughout the country teaching the same songs and dance routines to students in their individual segregated schools.

In 1992, Katz brought 500 children to Durban, where, for the first time, they were grouped by voice, regardless of race, and practiced together for their first concert. One of the student participants said, “Being in the group made me believe I could do anything with my life.”

Expecting a small audience response, Katz was overwhelmed when the hall was overflowing—and those attending somehow overcame traditions about integrating as an audience.

“There were so many people,” says Katz, “that they not only sat together, but people actually had to sit on other people’s laps. It was truly something to see.”

Enter Marilyn Cohen, executive producer of When Voices Meet, the film that documents Katz’s work. Cohen helped raise money to procure a train that became known as the Peace Train, which toured throughout South Africa in 1993 with the children’s choir, dancers and musicians. The government and protesters did not make it easy, but these remarkable women prevailed.

“It was music that brought the disparate groups together,” says Katz, “and the harmony of their voices became emblematic of the New South Africa.”

At each stop along the route, they performed their concert and encouraged people of all races, cultures, ages and political affiliations to put down their guns and hostilities, and to prepare for the country’s transition to a peaceful democracy. Mandela was elected president several months later.

Actress and filmmaker Shari Belafonte is on the advisory board of Palm Springs Women in Film and Television (PSWIFT). She saw the documentary at a film festival in Washington, D.C., and was so impressed—not just by the film, but by its subject matter and its “star”—that she encouraged PSWIFT to find a way to bring the film to Palm Springs.

I attended the PSWIFT-sponsored screening in the evening, shortly after 120 students from Palm Springs High School had seen it. The film, first released in 2015, is powerful and uplifting, and has won awards throughout the world. Its staff, crew and supporters represent an integrated coalition of cultures.

The local audience was spellbound, with many in tears. Both Katz and Cohen attended. Afterward, Katz brought her guitar on stage, answered questions and led us all in song.

Cohen spoke about their upcoming project, “The Peace Train 2016 Tour Across America: Diverse Voices Singing in Harmony,” which will begin on July 4 in Ferguson, Mo., where local youth, arts educators and police are working together to coordinate the kickoff events. It will then make its way to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and end with performances in Washington, D.C., on July 17 at the Washington Monument, and July 18 at the South African Embassy.

“We received impassioned calls from throughout the U.S.,” says Cohen. “The film has inspired people to re-examine the issues currently dividing Americans and to do something constructive about improving human relations and social justice.”

Many of the Palm Springs High School students hope to get on the train, and opportunities exist for chaperones and parents to accompany them. Katz and Cohen are traveling around the U.S. to show the film and garner support for the project. The cost per person is $1,800, which includes choral training before the tour, train fare, meals, hotels and performances. Tax-deductible support can be offered through the project’s website, www.GetOnThePeaceTrain.org. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for some of our local students if corporate sponsors came forward to help?

Cohen is reverent in describing Katz: “There are angels who walk among us. There are those who choose the selfless path for the good of those less fortunate, especially children, and who dedicate their time on this earth to doing that work.”

Katz is most eloquent when speaking about her fellow South Africans.

“It’s an incredible spirit, a spirit of optimism and love and openness to something new,” she said. “If we could infuse the whole world with the spirit of the South African people, we would be living in a wonderful place now.”

Every once in a while, I meet someone who revives my faith in the idealistic notion that one person can make a difference that changes the world. I now humbly add two names to that short list: Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The film Selma is one of the most acclaimed movies heading into awards season. It’s nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Drama, even though it doesn’t open in wide release until Jan. 9.

A week before that opening date, the film was the star attraction as the official opening night screening of the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, at Palm Springs High School, on Friday, Jan. 2.

On the unusually crowded red carpet, director Ava DuVernay and two of the film’s actors, David Oyelowo and Common, graciously posed for photographers and spoke with news crews and reporters about the controversy stirred by the powerful film.

“We couldn’t have prepared for this. I’m just thankful that we made a truthful enough film that it is meeting this moment in a real and potent way,” said Oyelowo, who portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film, referring to current tension happening after the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Mo., and many other areas across the nation.

“Seven years ago when I first read this script, I felt God tell me that I was going to play this role,” Oyelowo continued. “There were very frustrating moments along the road where the film just wouldn’t get made, so to look at this divine timing of it coming out now, for me, I don’t think it’s an accident at all. I just feel very honored and humbled to be at the center of it.”

Scroll down to see some photos from the red carpet.

Published in Snapshot

Shari Belafonte is best known as an actress, but she’s also done modeling and singing—and now she’s focusing on photography.

On Saturday, Sept. 20, she’ll be celebrating her 60th birthday at Gallery 446 in Palm Springs as part of the Face Off Exhibition. The evening will serve as a benefit for the Lili Claire Foundation, a charity that helps children living with neurogenetic conditions.

The daughter of singer-songwriter and actor Harry Belafonte, Shari explained how she was first exposed to photography.

“It’s something I’ve always done,” Belafonte said about photography during a recent phone interview. “My grandmother gave me my first camera when I was 4 years old. I was an attention deficit hyperactive child, and we didn’t know that’s what the term was, given that was 55 years ago.

“I’ve been taking pictures for about 55 years now. Most of my high school years were spent in the dark room, and even when I came out to California, I anticipated being behind the camera. I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and my background is in production, not acting. Acting was something I did on the side. I’ve been behind the camera again in recent years, shooting photos for friends and stills for movies.”

She said being behind the camera was therapy for her.

“I could be focused and still,” she explained. “There’s that process of having to be still when you’re trying to capture that brief moment, and it kind of kept me in my seat. I could definitely stay and be focused, which is the be-all, end-all for people with ADHD. Staying focused is clearly the battle that we have.”

While she’s primarily known for shooting landscapes, the moon and solar eclipses, Shari is currently putting together a book of photographs showing both recognizable and not-so-recognizable people making less-than-flattering faces. One goal of Gimme Your Goofy-ist is to encourage people to refrain from judging others with physical and emotional conditions beyond their control.

“I’ve had a number of gallery shows through the years in New York and in Palm Springs,” Belafonte said. “Mostly when I shoot, I shoot either crazy stuff or landscapes. Most of my work is landscapes, given I take trips to Cuba and the Grand Canyon, so that’s usually been the theme of my shows. … My gallery guys in New York said, ‘So for your next show, we’d love for you to do faces.’ Dimitri Halkidis, who owns Gallery 446 in Palm Springs, also told me, ‘You’re such a great photographer. Why don’t you shoot faces?’ I never thought of myself as a portrait photographer.”

She said her father and a famous friend gave her some inspiration a while back.

“A number of years ago, I shot a picture of my dad and Gregory Peck, and they gave me the goofiest, funny faces you could possibly imagine,” Belafonte said. “The few people I showed that photo to, including my dad and Gregory, thought it was hysterical. That sort of became the springboard for this project. The only way I could get away with having people give me goofy faces is if I give the proceeds to a charity that’s near and dear to my heart.”

Shari is a board member of the Lili Claire Foundation.

“The Lili Claire Foundation is a foundation for children with neurogenetic conditions like autism, Williams syndrome and Down syndrome,” Belafonte said. “They do diagnostics; they do treatments and a lot of programs that are not just for children that have any of these symptoms, but also for the families. Often times, in a family with two or three kids, and one kid with a neurogenetic condition, there’s so much focus drawn and taken away from the other kids. So we try to do some programs for them, and we also treat people for free, and not just people in the United States, but we fly people in from Europe, Africa, Asia or wherever to do treatments for them.”

Shari Belafonte’s 60th Birthday Party, which coincides with the Face Off Exhibition, takes place from 6 to 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 20, at Gallery 446, located at 444 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. For more information, call (760) 459-3142, or visit gallery446.com

Published in Visual Arts