From Washington to Rural PA: Candles and Congressmen

11 02 2011

It has never been unusual for Peace Development Fund grantees to go to Washington for a demonstration or to meet with their congressman.  What was unusual—and still is for many grassroots groups—is to get funding to make the trek.  PDF has a proud history of funding groups in isolated areas to foster connections to the larger social justice and peace movement.

“The trip to Washington in this PDF article from 1984 was memorable on many levels,” says Bob Borzok today.  “I brought home a large poster and still use it from time to time.  Last year I took Russian, and showed it to my professor from Volgragrad University.  She is in her late twenties, and I thought she’d be interested in knowing what was going on over here on this side of the world during that time.”

The Peace Development Fund, like many groups, focused on the nuclear arms race in the early 80s.  Mr. Borzok’s group, PDF grantee the Nuclear War Education Group (NWEG) of Tioga and Potter Counties, evolved into a more general stand for peace.  Today, the Peace Education Group (NWEG’s successor) sponsors an annual Candlelight Walk for Peace.  People hold candles and walk from one end of the town to the other, ending with a message by a local pastor and Christmas tree lighting.  Adds Mr. Borzok, “The event has actually gotten much larger than back in the days when we were more or less protesting.”

Says Bryn Hammarstrom, the Peace Education Group co-chair, “Our area is in the heart of the Marcellus shale natural gas development, and much of the area’s political activity/momentum has shifted to stopping the drilling in NY or limiting the environmental impact of the exploitation in PA.”

Yet through 30 years of acting for social change, the residents of Tioga and Potter Counties five principles for rural organizing that this article talks about still hold:

Move the meetings around.

Publicity is more important than meetings.

Reach people where they live.

Vary the activities.

Take time out for fun!

That’s still how we get to peace.

From Peace Developments, Winter 1984-85

“Working for Peace in Rural Pennsylvania”

Bob Borzok lives in farm country and cares about the arms race. One day he went down to Washington from his home in Pennsylvania to talk to his congressman, Joseph M. McDade, a powerful Republican on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

After listening to the argument that the U.S. needs a huge arms build-up before it can negotiate disarmament, Borzok answered, “In Tioga County farmers know that if you’re going to tear down a barn, you don’t start by building a new roof!”

How do you work for peace in a rural area? Plain speaking and common sense like Bob Borzok’s certainly help. Nonetheless, by all accounts from grantees  in places like Sweetwater County, Wyoming or the mountain country of southwest Virginia, such work is not easy.

The basic hindrance is isolation. People in rural, conservative regions who share a common interest in nuclear disarmament often live geographically far from one another and psychologically even farther from the concentrations of peace activities and strong support systems found in the cities.

If the problem is isolation, then the solution is connection. When Bob Borzok and others formed the Nuclear War Education Group of Tioga and Potter Counties in the spring of 1982, they were connected by one central article of faith: “We believe that our efforts can change the direction of the arms race.” After about six months of educating themselves on the issues, this group of physicians, farmers, public school and university teachers, homemakers, and others started to bring the issues to their larger community.

A skillful approach in such outreach is crucial. This farm country in northern Pennsylvania is solidly Republican. Instead of horrifying people with visions of holocaust, a tactic that probably would have backfired, the Nuclear War Education Group carefully connected with people’s other concerns. For example, it showed a slideshow on the civil defense crisis relocation plan to the Lions and Rotary and asked, “What would actually happen in our community if this plan had to be put into effect?”

When Borzok returned from his visit to Congressman McDade, he shared his experience with his neighbors at the local Grange. Because they have “duly sworn to protect the resources of the land and the rural life we love,” the Charleston Valley Subordinate Grange of Tioga County subsequently adopted a resolution condemning the arms race and supporting a nuclear freeze.

After much experience and success with such local outreach, the Nuclear War Education Group cast its net far wider. With a grant from PDF the group held a conference last spring of peace groups from all over Pennsylvania’s huge, sprawling Tenth Congressional District. Comprising ten counties and lacking any city which serves as a hub of communications, the Tenth District presents a formidable challenge to coordination.

The conference met this challenge well, drawing many participants and creating a district-wide steering committee and communications network for the region’s peace groups. A second grant from PDF has helped to pay for a newsletter and other costs of the new network.

After nearly three years of practice, the Nuclear War Education Group has learned a good deal about working for peace in a rural area. Here are some of their conclusions:

Move the meetings around. With long working days and with long distances to travel, rural people find it hard to get to meetings. Not everyone will come when you alternate the locations of meetings but people in isolated corners of the countryside get a chance to participate and to feel included in the effort.

Publicity is more important than meetings. Small rural newspapers are hungry for substantive articles and good letters to the editor. Many people will not go to meetings, but almost everyone reads either the paper or the “penny saver.” So even though only a small number of people might come to a film about the nuclear issue, hundreds will read the article detailing the film’s message when it appears in the paper.

Reach people where they live. Many farmers will not feel comfortable on a university campus, but they might discuss the nuclear freeze at their Grange or at a church meeting.

Vary the activities. A colloquium is an important medium for some kinds of people, while coffee house events draw others.

Take time out for fun! Working constantly on the subject of nuclear war can become grim. It helps now and then to put aside Mutual Assured Destruction, megatonnage, throw weight, or the prospect of nuclear winter, and to gather instead for a potluck supper where people can bring the kids and just enjoy each other. “I have met some terrific people in this work,” says Dennis Murray, one of the founders of the Nuclear War Education Group. “It is very important in a rural area to find like-minded people, to know that your neighbors care.”

The coming together of people who care remains one of America’s oldest and healthiest traditions. From Crooked Creek, Pennsylvania to the “global village,” it is by such connection that peace will be won.

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