Still Open for Business!

22 12 2011

The Peace Development Fund history blog moves on now from a 30 year reflection of how the past has affected where PDF and the peace and social justice movements are today, to our 31st year and a focus forward. Like any business, we have had our ups and downs. Operating with no endowment, each year we must raise the necessary funds to make grants and support grassroots communities.

Nothing has dimmed the “fierce commitment” The Boston Globe ascribed to PDF in 1988. If anything, we are only more determined to continue providing grants, training and other vital resources necessary to grassroots communities working on peaceful conflict resolution, human rights and environmental sustainability in the U.S.

From The Boston Globe, Sunday, May 29, 1988

 “Peace-minded Fund takes businesslike approach to goals”

By Stephen J. Simurda, Special to the Globe

AMHERST – Across the United States, hundreds of grass-roots political organizations are working on peace and justice issues ranging from the prevention of nuclear war to maintaining political stability in Central America.

Among the things these groups have in common is that they generally work with a fierce commitment in their community to influence thinking on an issue of international significance. According to the movement, these groups act locally and think globally. And they usually do it on a shoestring budget with little guidance or expertise in organizational skills.

The Amherst-based Peace Development Fund has been working since 1981 to change that by providing funding, organizational training and recognition to community-based groups.

Through its work, the fund has become well known to community political groups throughout the United States and has built itself into the only national source of funding and advice for many of these groups.

“Before there was the Peace Development Fund, there was no single voice to advocate for peace groups,” said Meg Gage, executive director and cofounder of the fund.

PDF Co-founders, Meg Gage and Bob Mazer

Since its inception, the fund has given about $2 million to more than 400 groups in all 50 states and watched its annual budget grow from $130,000 to $1.6 million for the coming fiscal year. It also sponsors training workshops for political activists.

Recently, the fund presented the first Grassroots Peace Award to Citizen Alert of Reno, Nevada, a group that promotes public participation in nuclear, environmental and military matters. It is hoped that the award can become a yearly alternative peace prize for small political organizations.

According to Gage, one thing most grass-roots political organizations have in common is that they do not like to talk about money.

“A lot of these people would much rather talk about weapon systems and politics” than budget planning and fund-raising strategy, Gage said. But by not talking about those practical matters, many groups can work themselves right out of existence, she said.

“The feeling [when we started the fund] was that what a lot of groups needed was funding,” Gage said. Soon it became clear that just providing money was not enough and that training in organization building was crucial to make money more effective. “I would ask a group what their budget was and they’d way ‘It depends on how much we raise.’” Gage said.

Trainer Randy Kehler said the training program that grew out of that realization is “an adaption on what you’d find in a workshop for a small business.” While the issues covered focus on budget and fund-raising planning, training sessions also cover organizational development issues, such as how to best locate and train new staff, and how to do more effective outreach work in the community.

The fund’s work does pay off in tangible ways, according to Jean Weiss, fund-raising coordinator for the New England Central America Network in Cambridge, a group that has received funds and training. The fund is “very involved with the groups that they give money to. It’s a model we’ve adopted from them,” Weiss said.

The Central America network has grown from a string of 30 community organizations in 1983 to about 200 today. A $3,000 grant from the Peace Development Fund last year allowed the network to begin its own training program for other Central America groups.

According to the Peace Development Fund, grants are given to carefully screened organizations for specific projects.

“This is the best way to support [peace groups] other than my personal contribution,” said Arthur Obermayer, chief executive of Moleculon Inc., a Cambridge medical technology firm.

Obermayer said he particularly likes the fact that the fund helps community-based groups in all parts of the country. “I feel that often the most important work is done at the grassroots level.”

Asked to evaluate the role the fund has played nationally, Gage says simply, “The sheer fact that we have succeeded and grown is one of the achievements of the peace movement in the 1980s.”

PDF Grantee, Citizen Alert





Time for Another Great March?

20 10 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement spreading across the country reminds us of other movements when ordinary people—like the “diverse bunch” who organized to create a non-violent focus for positive change—embarked on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament from California to Washington, DC. In 1986, the Peace Development Fund supported the marchers who, despite loose organization and trying circumstances, stood up to say “enough” to war and make their voices heard. The Great Peace March nearly fell apart as it moved from the west coast eastward, and there are certainly a few lessons to learn from this by Occupy Wall Street. But like Occupy Wall Street, the Great Peace March gathered momentum. Now Occupy Wall Street is changing the terms of the public debate, from despair that the financial world is stacked against Main Street to active concern about local jobs, education and the environment. Just as the Great Peace March entered people’s collective consciousness as they marched forward, Occupy Wall Street has the potential to mobilize thousands demanding jobs for all and civil rights. Perhaps it’s time for another great march.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1986

“The Great Peace March”

“Sure, we’re a diverse bunch,” says Larry Heiss, camp doctor for the Great Peace March. “We’ve got kids and septuagenarians, professional people and counter-culture youth, straight and gay, the angry and the serene, the ministers and agnostics, politically left and politically right, people form 50 states and eleven countries. But we’ve got one important thing in common: we are all committed to global nuclear disarmament.

As one of the core group that has been on the 3,200-mile peace walk across the U.S.A. since its start, Larry has seen the whole panorama: from the shaky send-off in Los Angeles on the first of March, through the breakdown of the original ProPeace organization two weeks later, leaving 1,200 walkers stranded on the edge of the Mojave Desert; through a determined but wrenching struggled to reorganized, raise money, and keep going; across deserts and mountains and plains to Omaha at an incredible 20 to 25 miles a day in order to catch up to the original schedule.

Together they’ve walked, despite blisters and sunburn, through desert sizzle and mountain frost, through hail and thunderstorms, through the fallout area downwind of the Nevada Nuclear test Site at the time of the Mighty Oaks test, past some of the nuclear facilities and military installations that bristle across our West. There was a high moment of celebration as they crossed the Continental Divide, with jokes that from now on it would “all be downhill.”

The marchers had faced staggering problems in their forming their new organization. All their equipment, including support vehicles, had been repossessed. They wouldn’t be allowed to march without at least portable toilets (which the Peace Development Fund was instrumental in getting for them). Everything has to be started again from scratch, and by a group with no experience.

But there were people like a man and his daughter from Sydney, Australia, who had raised money in their community in order to get to Los Angeles and join the march. As Phyllis Rodin, another marcher, said, “no way could we tell people like that ‘It’s folded. It’s over. Go home.’”

“We were halted in our tracks for three weeks in Barstow, California,” related Phyllis. “But it was an important three weeks. We moved from a green, helpless group of strangers, into a cohesive, fired-up determined community.”

In order to get the march back on the road, the marchers began to scavenge and resuscitate ancient junkyard trucks. Soldiers (in civilian clothes) from nearby military bases turned up to help with that thankless job. In gratitude for the outpouring of help from Barstow, the marchers painted the town’s church inferiors.

A newly-formed advance team had to start contacting peace groups and town officials in the areas ahead, to arrange for camp sites, permits, water, waste disposal, peace rallies, and speaking engagements. It helped when town officials learned that the marchers were cleaning up the roadsides as they walked.

Omaha seemed like a turning point. There, they were back on schedule and could slow their pace to a mere 15 miles a day. There they were halfway to their final goal, Washington, DC.

“We don’t feel we’ll be stranded again,” Larry says with confidence in spite or reporting that their income at present is less than their outgo.” We know now that nothing can stop us from getting to Washington. We know the support is out there, and we’re confident the money will come in when people realize we need it.”

Expenses are $7 a day per marcher – $4,000 a day total – for food, insurance, payments on the support vehicles, campsite permits, publicity, gas. The high cost of marching has sometimes meant turning down people who would like to join in. In spite of that, the number had grown from 500 to 650 by Omaha, with hopes that as the new fundraising canvas bring in additional support, the group can also expand. By the time the group gets to New York City, in mid-October, the march almost certainly will be considerably larger. And optimism runs high when they talk about arriving in Washington, DC for a mid-November final rally.

Within the march there are, of course, differences of opinion. “Peace begins with ourselves,” as Larry Heiss says, “and it’s not always an easy lesson.”

But despite the occasional friction, there’s a lot of camaraderie, creativity, energy, and humor. Musicians, comics, and clowns have teamed up within the marching community to keep spirits high.

There is also support, both moral and financial, from “outside.” The marchers are visited by national celebrities, such as Pete Seeger, Holly Near, Hill Street’s Betty Thomas, and Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado. There are rallies and house parties, and marchers-for-a-day who join them in every city.

It’s an adventure for everyone, perhaps especially for the 40 children on the march, some of whom have become experienced speakers already. From one-year-old Alexa to 8-year-old Franklin Folsom, everyone counts.

“Something is very different about this march,” to quote marcher Tom Atlee. “I don’t’ know why so many cars honk and give us a peace sign; why so many mothers cry as we pass; why fundamentalist veterans stop by the road to bless us; why old women with American flags hanging over their doors thank us for marching for them. Maybe it’s because 95 percent of Americans really want peace, and that desire is beginning to ache inside. If they had a way to be peaceful AND patriotic AND honestly hopeful, they’d grab it in an instant …

“Hope grows here like moss on a pine. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m witnessing a metaphorical dawn; that the darkness is giving way; that in the next year, perhaps in the next few months or days, I will see the edge of the sun and know that we, as a planet, have made it.”





Face Time

18 08 2011

“We are more than just a grantmaker,” says PDF Executive Director Paul Haible. “We are partners in the peace and social justice movement.”

From the Peace Development Fund’s earliest days, PDF has visited with and advised grantees, encouraged networks such as our current initiative, BASE (Building Action for Sustainable Environments), and above all, LISTENED.

1985 Meg Gage and Linda Stout

Our model of philanthropy involves direct funding, advocacy where appropriate, and partnerships built around mutual respect, sharing of resources, and transparency of planning and decision-making. This article from 1985 highlights the person-to-person work that, over three decades, has made PDF unique among foundations.

from Peace Developments, Fall 1985

Learning Person-to-Person

“Visiting peace groups on site, in the communities where they work and live, sends valuable information both ways,” said Meg Gage, the Peace Development Fund’s executive director. “It gives us the chance to learn more about grassroots groups and the current state of the country’s peace movement.

“And in these visits the groups get to see us as people, to realize we are not Big Daddy Peacebucks. Though we have been a source of funds for hundreds of peace organizations, we are also engaged and active people much like themselves,” Meg added.

Making sure that our donor’s money is used responsibly and effectively is a high priority for the Peace Development Fund and [its sister organization] the Pacific Peace Fund (PPF). We have developed many ways to encourage effective use of our grants, such as researching, monitoring and consulting by mail and phone. But good as these long-distance methods are, we also try to observe conditions directly for ourselves through site visits.

Kim Klein, Exchange Project

Being in an organization’s actual working space can tell an astute visitor nearly as much as meeting the people themselves. The Bucks Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament (BAND), outside Philadelphia, has created a peace center consciously designed to reach a wide spectrum of people. Some groups work in places bristling with militant posters. By contract, BAND’s office is an open, pleasant, business-like environment where anyone would feel at home.

“As for BAND’s productivity,” says Paul Aicher, a PDF board member who visited the group with Meg Gage, “the number of activities listed on a wall chart and the number of people doing them speak volumes.”

PDF’s contact with one important Freeze organization in New York had led us to conclude that one strong person was orchestrating the whole enterprise. A visit by Andrea Avvazian, director of PDF’s Exchange Project, taught us something different. Though that individual does indeed exert a major influence, in fact there is a strong sense of shared leadership in the group.

PDF and PPF are located in the northeast and northwest corners of this vast nation. Through site visits we have been able to learn far more about regions of the country that are distant from or offices. For example, we once believed the Midwest to be a fairly homogenous region, until a staff person from PDF visited there. “Minneapolis and Chicago are not in the same region,” she was told firmly by one person. “We have nothing in common with northern Illinois,” said someone from southern Illinois.

In this way we learned that there are at least four “Midwests,” each with its own character and needs.

PDF Staff Members

Groups that host site visits from our funds benefit from the meetings, too. For one thing, we serve them as a window on the peace movement. Peace workers in northern Maine or rural Arkansas can feel very isolated in their effort. Such people love to hear news from the rest of the peace network; it gives them a sense of support, solidarity and hope. Because of our special role as hub and connector of grassroots peace activity, our Funds can talk – and literally have talked – about Maine in Arkansas and Arkansas in Maine.

Another boon to both PDF and the groups we visit is the appreciation which they stir in us. It is very energizing and gratifying to experience directly the fruits of our own labors, to see our support making such wonderful work possible.

Andrea Ayvazian, Exchange Project

This sense of appreciation for the work we see during site visits has taught us to balance carefully our judgment of groups we have visited with judgments of those we have not. “Whenever you visit a group and meet it members,” says Pat Close-Hastings, executive director of the Pacific Peace Fund, “you almost always end up liking them, and you are tempted to become their advocate. It can give them a great advantage in the competition for funding. A funder needs to be able to make fair decisions, which sometimes means turning down people you like.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit to local peace activists from our site visits is the way our coming affirms their sense of being worthwhile and needed. Taking the time and expense to see them at work sends a message as eloquent as words, and their gratitude for this extra expression of support can be very moving indeed – often shown in hand-printed welcome signs, special lunches prepared with care, and warm hospitality in their homes. “You’ve come so far,” a minister from remote Centertown, Kentucky, said over and over to Andrea Ayvazian with deep feeling. “You’ve come so far.”





Taking on Corporate America–and Winning!

3 05 2011

The Peace Development Fund has always been an early funder of small groups that take on the behemoths, whether they be in the government or corporate sector. INFACT, a grantee in 1985, was a young and small organization at that time, but had already waged a successful fight that brought about significant reforms in the life-threatening marketing of infant formula in poor countries. Thanks to funding from the Peace Development Fund in the first days of their campaign against nuclear weapons-maker General Electric, they soon brought down that “Goliath.”

Reporting on the fight against GE, they recall, “Our international boycott of GE products cost the company over $100 million in lost medical equipment sales. Major retail stores including Safeway and Target began stocking light bulbs made by other companies. In 1993, GE caved under enormous public pressure and moved out of the nuclear weapons business. When our campaign began, the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation: 50,000 nuclear warheads were on constant alert and the U.S. was building five nuclear bombs a day. At the close of the campaign, no nuclear bombs were in production on American soil. Allied organizations continue to work toward the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.”

INFACT, now called Corporate Accountability International, is no longer the small, young “David.” They have gone on to many more successful victories, including Challenging Big Tobacco and a highly visible Corporate Hall of Shame. We are proud that PDF’s early support has allowed them to win and flourish.  Like PDF, they can show 30+ years of extraordinary and effective work, “Setting the New Standard: Corporate Accountability.”

from Peace Developments, Winter 85-86

“INFACT Aims Slingshot at GE”

In a David and Goliath confrontation that stirs the imagination, one of the multibillion-dollar corporations most deeply involved in the nuclear weapons business is being challenged with – ironing boards.

The ironing boards, the latest thing in literature tables, are popping up on the streets of Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay area. They are used by volunteer activists for INFACT, the organization that initiated – and won – the famous international Nestle Boycott. INFACT is now turning its spotlights on General Electric, which claims to “Bring Good Things to Life,” but which also brings us many essential parts of nuclear weapons systems.

From those ironing boards, in the past ten months, 2,721 volunteers have generated 185,172 individually signed messages of opposition to eleven major weapons corporations including GTE, Morton Thiokol, Rockwell International, General Electric, Westinghouse, and Monsanto.

INFACT began in 1976 with a handful of people in Minneapolis who were concerned about infant-formula abuse in Third World countries. It has grown to become an international people’s organization whose purpose is to stop the abuses or transnational corporations that endanger the health and survival of people all over the world.

Thousands of people working together in the effective Nestle infant formula campaign changed the practices of the world’s largest food corporation. INFACT is certain that thousands of people working together can also bring some changes in the nuclear weapons industry.

“People just don’t accept that nuclear weapons give us security,” says Ruth Shy, national director of the Nuclear Weaponmakers Campaign. “They want to challenge the corporations about their role in the nuclear weapons network. It’s exciting!”

The group sees the greatest threat to global survival today as the production and aggressive promotion of nuclear weapons by the multibillion-dollar weapons industry. With so much money at stake, weapons transnationals are involved at every level of the nuclear weapons chain: creating, developing, promoting, producing, and profiting from weapons of mass destruction. They are an invisible force in the decision-making process in Congress.

The Weaponmakers Campaign has begun by exposing and publicly challenging the role of the weapons industry in the spiraling arms buildup.

Now the campaign is shifting to concentrate on General Electric, the country’s third largest maker of primary nuclear warfare systems, involved in the B-1B and Stealth bombers, Trident, MX, and “Star Wars,” and maker of the neutron generators that prime the initiation of the chain reaction within nuclear bombs. GE was heavily involved in the Manhattan Project and is a prime example, INFACT believes, of how the nuclear weapons industry had influenced and engineered nuclear weapons policy for more than 40 years. Since GE’s work is critical to the production of so many nuclear weapons systems, INFACT’s focus on this one manufacturer can have an impact on the entire industry.

“We feel good about this campaign,” Ruth Shy says. “People want something concrete they can do, and we offer them that opportunity,” referring to a highly effective mail campaign to GE. In the first phase of the GE campaign, INFACT volunteers are exposing GE’s role and issuing a public challenge to GE to live up to its corporate motto and stop making and promoting nuclear weapons. The challenge is being made by tens of thousands of people what are signing postcards to GE with an anti-nuclear message.

A replay of David and Goliath? Perhaps. But let’s not forget who won.





Nuclear Repercussions

2 04 2011

It’s so easy to make a mistake.  Or not believe that a tsunami big enough to damage a nuclear energy facility will ever wash ashore.  Or forget all the collateral damage that the race for nuclear weapons during the Cold War caused—and is still causing in our grassroots communities.  Let’s remember, while we watch with horror what’s happening in Japan today.

At the Peace Development Fund, we are committed to making this message heard.  Let’s hope that the lesson will finally get through.

from Peace Developments, Summer 1989

“The Human Cost of Nuclear Weapons Production”

The chances are good that you’ve passed them, unknowingly, while driving on the highways in your own state: a seemingly unremarkable convoy of one truck and two or more escort vehicles.  You probably didn’t event realize they were together – the escorts might have been Chevy Suburbans, or Beechcraft Motor Homes, or even a 40-passenger bus.  And the truck would have been unmarked, nothing to indicate its contents or attract attention.  A perfectly ordinary truck: why should you notice?

In fact, hundreds of trucks like these are under contract to the Department of Energy (DOE), a misnamed bureaucracy which spends more than 65% of its funds to make nuclear weapons.  Every day of the year they travel our public roads hauling refined uranium, plutonium, and tritium gas between the widespread reactor facilities and assembly plants that make up our H-bomb production network.  From 1976 through 1987, these trucks were involved in over 170 accidents on highways from New York to California.  At least once, torpedoes tipped with nuclear warheads have rolled off the bed of a speeding truck onto a metropolitan interstate highway.

Alarming though it may be, the transportation of highly radioactive materials is only a small part of the process of making nuclear weapons.  Some of the most serious environmental threats come from pollution at the facilities themselves.  Recent news reports have focused attention on problems at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and the Hanford Reservation in Washington, where production reactors make plutonium and tritium.  But these are only two of the thirteen DOE production sites, each of which has an ample record of mismanagement and disregard for the health of workers and townspeople.  In Tennessee, the Oak Ridge facility has released over 23,000 pounds of uranium into the air; at Fernald, in Ohio, six open pits contain a deadly tea of 11 million pound of uranium and other radioactive substances; in Ohio, plutonium from the Mound Laboratory has contaminated local ponds and a public park where children swim and play; and the list could go on.  Epidemiological surveys of surrounding populations are beginning to turn up hard evidence of the hazards that researchers long suspected: high cancer rates, infant leukemia, and genetically-associated deformities.

These problems won’t go away soon: plutonium-239, for example, the substance which initiates a nuclear explosion, has a half-life of 24,000 years.  If you care to figure it, it generally takes eleven half-lives for a substance to decay to “safe levels.”

In response to the health and environmental threat pose by weapons production, anti-nuclear citizen’s campaigns are turning toward new ways of organizing.  Bill Mitchell of the Nuclear Safety Campaign in Seattle sees an increasing sophistication among community-based organizations working in areas surrounding weapons production facilities.

“We’re seeing more and more emphasis on the research, litigation, and advocacy aspects of anti-nuclear activism,” says Mitchell.  “Many groups continue to sponsor civil disobedience actions, but they’re blending that with a commitment to outreach through public exposure of the issue.  Activists are learning the benefits of careful research through Freedom of Information Act requests and the like.”

While large national organizations such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been instrumental in providing technical and lobbying support, equally important is the grassroots organizing in neighborhoods surrounding weapons facilities.

These efforts are often complicated: offending facilities are also frequently the main source of livelihood for local residents.  Citizens who speak out for closing bomb factories are often met with suspicion, or worse, by their neighbors.  Management at the private facilities – and the Department of Energy – try to reinforce such suspicions by blaming activists and the media when plants are closed, even when financial problems and gross health risks are the cause.

In many ways, the problems at our nation’s nuclear weapons facilities represent deeper issues at the heart of our national infatuation with “the nuclear deterrent,” as policy makers call our immense arsenal.  For fifty years, civilian control over the military has been eroded by a special relationship between contractors and the Pentagon, and by the secrecy of nominally independent agencies like the Department of Energy.  The energy and sophistication of groups like the Nuclear Safety Campaign and Colorado Peace Network are helping to reestablish a measure of control over the contractors’ unsupervised conduct.  The impressive research and legal challenges being used alongside more traditional organizing activities is a measure of how far the peace movement has come.  Our alliance and environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, and our dialogue with trade union groups concerned for the health of employees indicates the way toward a more secure future – a future when the need for a national defense no longer gives cover to those who poison our water and air.

It’s a lesson in their perfect evil: weapons of mass destruction need not be detonated to bring suffering and death.  If we are going to teach that to the DOE and the profiteers who run its facilities, we have to start at the grassroots.  Thanks to organizers and activist in the peace and environmental movements, the lesson may finally be getting through.





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.





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 Guildfordboomers.org, “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.