Still Organizing After All Those Years

31 01 2011

In 30 years, our lives can take us many places, and sometimes even home again. Steve Sumerford was in his 20s when the War Resister’s League received one of PDF’s first grants and sent him off on a disarmament tour of the South. Supporting the year-old Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign which pressured the government to stop the nuclear arms build-up, especially between Russia and the U.S., grassroots groups were organizing across the country to push for nuclear reductions through ballot initiatives in towns and cities. PDF was an early funder and deeply involved in this effort.

Today Sumerford is Assistant Director of the Greensboro Public Library in his native North Carolina, and comments, “I have wonderful things to say about PDF.”  Said Sumerford recently on, “I think that the fact that what was going on for me in high school and college really shaped me about my career and how to spend my time and money.” He noted that many of the achievements younger generations take for granted now were issues we fought long and hard over in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Sumerford says that it intrigues him that so much of what was important to him and to his development growing up in the 1960s and 1970s – including the national conversation about social justice, equal rights and U.S. foreign policy – is largely silent today.

And despite the achievements of the past three decades, the same issues keep surfacing. Consider the New Start treaty, an arms control pact that would force the United States and Russia to pare back nuclear arsenals and resume mutual inspections that lapsed in 2009 for the first time since the cold war. Are we back to where we, and PDF, began?

Sumerford says that he is heartened by what he sees among many younger people, who are bringing their own values to the idea of making a difference in the world. “I am happy to see that there is a growing number of college students and young adults in Greensboro who are getting involved in social change and peace work. They are doing it differently from the way my generation did it and that’s a good thing. They organize meetings and activities with text messaging and blogs. We used to have to turn the crank on a mimeograph machine to get the word out.”

Organizing our communities, one step at a time, perhaps in different ways, but we’re still organizing.

from Peace Developments, May 1982, Vol. 1, No. 1

“Tour Sparks New Groups” by Steve Sumerford, Staff of the War Resister’s League in Durham, North Carolina

With the financial assistance of the Peace Development Fund and the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, I spent five weeks on a disarmament speaking/organizing tour of the South. I visited the following communities: Atlanta; Hazard (KY); Charlottesville; Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Auburn (LA); Tuskegee, Mobile, Carrolton (AL); Memphis, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Dallas and Houston. It would be impossible to detail or even summarize my experiences in each of these communities, but I can share a few of my impressions.

I served many functions on this tour, depending on the needs and desires of the local organizers. In my role as Speaker/Resource person, I gave talks, workshops and media interviews on the following topics: the draft, counter-recruitment, the links between racism and militarism, the economic impact of the arms race, how to make arms control a local issue, the “Freeze” campaign, and the UN Special Session on Disarmament. It became clear to me just how isolated Southerners feel from the rest of the peace and disarmament movement. A personal visit from a regional organizer served to lessen this isolation, and I will be following up this tour with letters and phone calls to local organizers to maintain their new connection with regional and national events.

The most exciting thing about the tour is that I discovered just how much disarmament and anti-militarism organizing is going on in the South. When we first opened the War Resister’s League regional office in 1977, you could count on one hand the disarmament groups in the South. Now there are at least 50 or 60 groups focusing on the issue of militarism in some direct way.

I feel the tour was very successful. I came home with a great sense of hope because of the growing commitment of those dedicated organizers in places throughout the region.


We’re Not Supposed to Blow Each Other Up

19 01 2011

A pacifist, war-tax resister, and advocate for social justice, Randy Kehler co-founded the Traprock Peace Center in 1979 (an early PDF grantee) and served as National Coordinator for the National Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign from 1981 to 1984. In 1985 Randy received the first Peace Development Fund Fellowship, established to provide an opportunity for a leader in the peace movement to take some time off from the sometimes hectic intensity of peace work, and be able to study, reflect, travel and rest. He worked for PDF’s Exchange Program from 1986-1988, offering strategic advice for grassroots justice and peace groups across the country.

Randy’s article about “Keepin’ On” continues to be a timely reminder that in the midst of frustration, electoral disappointment or violence such as the recent tragedy in Tucson, together we can follow our vision of a more just world and work for peace.

from Peace Developments,Winter 85-86, No. 11

“Keepin’ On for Peace and Disarmament” by Randy Kehler

“I think it’s because I believe in some kind of ultimate truth that says we’re not supposed to blow each other up.”

“For me it’s because of my love for my family and my kids.”

“I guess I just can’t not do it.”

These were just a few of the responses I heard this past summer when I asked local activists in southern Indiana, eastern Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee why they were doing peace and disarmament work. I asked other questions, too: “What keeps you going when you feel like giving up?” “How hopeful are you?”

At first I felt a little apologetic about asking people to come together – in living rooms, a public library, a church hall, a tiny office – just to answer my questions. But I quickly discovered that they really wanted to answer them. One woman exclaimed, upon hearing the questions, “Oh, I can’t wait to hear what everyone else is going to say!”

As I knew from my own experience, activists rarely take time just to sit and reflect on some of the larger, seemingly less pressing issues our work raises, much less to share their thoughts with their co-workers.

For me these sessions had a double value. It was energizing just to see and visit with lots of good folks – to be reassured that there is indeed an alive, functioning network of hard-working, creative, insightful, and generally wonderful people out there who are “keepin’ on” despite all the frustrations and disappointments of recent times.

Even in one region, there is a tremendous diversity of effort and of results, from the small and embattled Peacemakers of Southern Indiana, for whom success can mean getting permission to hand out literature at a church picnic, to the newly-thriving Nashville Peace Alliance, whose recent riverfront Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemorations brought out a record crowd of 4,000 Nashvillians.

The post-election period, not surprisingly, has been discouraging for almost everyone, especially in comparison with the heady years of 1982-3. But I saw no signs that anyone was giving up – though many are spending proportionally more time on issues that seem easier to address or more demanding of immediate attention.

Everywhere I went, two primary explanations emerged as to what keeps people going: first, the group itself and the people in it, the camaraderie and the mutual support; and second, though not as common as the first, meaningful activities, satisfying work, specific tasks that individuals can do and feel good about.

As for what’s needed, at least three things were mentioned over and over again: a compelling overall strategy for the movement as a whole, a strategy within which people can see the larger significance of the small actions they take locally; a sense of urgency, of creative tension, that will shake people loose from their apathy and business-as-usual attitudes; and an “inspiring vision” of positive alternatives to the arms race, military intervention, and economic exploitation.

At the same time I heard much concern about political “polarization,” in local communities and nationally. For some, this was coupled with a feeling that as we search for better ways to build bridges to the more conservative (though not necessarily unsympathetic) sectors of the community, we need to address what one organizer called the Reagan brand of patriotism: “my country, right or wrong.”

Few of the peace and disarmament groups I heard about seemed to have any kind of medium- or long-term strategy. Most seem to plan their work from one major event to the next and not much further. Thanks in part to PDF’s Exchange Project, some groups are now learning how to be much more effective fundraisers. I noticed a crying need for strategizing and organizational development skills, and am happy to note that the Exchange Project is now including more and more training in these areas, also.

Finally, it was so clear what a difference PDF “seed” grants have made in the lives of peace and disarmament organization in this region – the different between crawling along and starting to fly.

New Beginnings

3 01 2011

It seems appropriate to begin the new year and the start of the Peace Development Fund’s 30th Anniversary celebrations with articles from our first newsletter. Especially this one, which describes PDF’s first years.

from Peace Developments, May 1982, Vol. 1, No. 1

“PDF Off and Funding”

The Peace Development Fund is now fully operational. From our office in Amherst, Mass., we are raising money in order to award grants to projects and organizations from across the country working to promote world peace, global demilitarization and non-violent conflict resolution. We made our first series of grants in February and our second funding cycle will take place in May.

We are especially pleased to be able to make these grants at a time when there is such an extraordinary increase in concern about nuclear war in the United States. We know that many of these activities designed to inform the public about war and peace have taken place on a shoestring budget and we anticipate giving the people who carry these out a boost by attempting to provide them with essential funding.

The idea for PDF originated in 1980. Meg Gage (Executive Director) and Bob Mazer (Director of Development) initiated work on the Fund and hired Betsy Blish as an additional staff member in fall of 1981.

Meg Gage and Bob Mazer reminisce in PDF's offices in 2007.

Robby Meeropol has temporarily replaced Meg, who is on maternity leave. All of the staff have worked on behalf of peace and are aware of the problems groups face when they lack sufficient funding. We are anxious to be helpful and to remain involved with ongoing peace work.

Our grants provide timely assistance so that new local groups will be able to establish themselves and grow. We are also providing support to national organizations for the production of educational resources which local groups rely on.

If you would like to become involved with our work or want more information, please contact us. We can only do it with your help.