Developing Basic Skills: Don’t carry the weight of the world alone

As a student who is still relatively new to what many organizations refer to as “getting to Zero”- or nuclear abolition-  I have found that the information on this topic is overwhelming.

Sure, when I write, I want to sound like I know what I am talking about. And to some extent I do. But my dad always had a saying that I am becoming more and more familiar with: “I have learned just enough to know how ignorant I am.” When I was young, this confused me. It just seems like a contradiction. But now I know.

When I began this journey, I realized that I was oblivious to the facts. But now, I admit that I had also been unaware of this framework that led up to all of these problems. I feel like I almost have to go back to my high school history class and dedicate the entire school day to just understand the foundation. This is a scary feeling. I am graduating college and until recently, I have been totally unprepared to dig into this issue I am so passionate about.

To sum it up, “overwhelming” didn’t even begin to cover it.
Monthly Meeting with WNC Physicians for Responsibility.
Monthly Meeting with WNC Physicians for Responsibility.

But when I sit down with these veterans of nuclear abolition movements, I feel at ease because while I do not know everything there is to know, they began the same way I did. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Terry Clark, President of the Western North Carolina chapter of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and psychiatrist by trade. He began to break down the steps it takes to be successful in efforts for social change.

As a part of a group that established itself in the same time frame as the Non Proliferation Treaty, I valued these seeds of wisdom.

His Tips:

1. Follow the principles of The Listening Project

The Listening Project is a non-profit organization founded in 1981 by Herb Walters. This organization dedicates itself to training communities to just learn how to listen. We never really think of this as an important skill to possess, but listening is a unique commodity to come by in a world full of voices.

Clark argues that if you can become a listener, you can make a more powerful impact. This teaches you how to interact with others, whether they are from the side you agree with or you cannot stand being around them because of their views. “Nothing comes from criticizing.” It’s useless, Clark reiterated. So clearly, there has to be another way and if people can learn to listen, this way might become clear.

2. You have to have a philosophy

For example: “Act Local, Think Global” is a common mantra that many, especially around Asheville, are accustomed to hearing.

You have all of these great goals in mind. But you cannot all of a sudden decide to address the United Nations. You have to build a foundation first and make a ripple-effect in your community. Write a Letter to the Editor. It seems simple, but your words will reach more people than you realize.

3. Educate

This is fairly self explanatory. But I will give a short summary.

I have said time and time again that it wasn’t until college that I became aware of these issues. If we can get into the education system so that future generations will be armed with this knowledge, we are already making an enormous impact.

4. Believe in a model and work as a group

You cannot accomplish anything on your own. This does not have to be a group of 20, but a team of four or five dedicated activists can stir up a movement. Once you have your team, however big, stick to an effective model. Sit down and make a plan. Write letters, lobby decision makers, whatever you choose, consistency is key.

There were so many valuable lessons I took away from our conversation. But the most important thing Clark helped me realize was bringing all of the steps of nuclear abolition into perspective.

***WARNING: CLICHE ALERT***

It does not have to be an overwhelming task if you just take it one step at a time.

Advice for all Activists: ‘Fighting with Non-Violence’

If you have the time, watch this powerful talk. I am in awe of such a rational woman and her approach to these intensely overwhelming global issues.

Let me just say: Scilla Elworthy is probably one of my biggest heroes now. Like, wow. Really? Such a human exists?

But let’s get down to what she discussed here:

Scilla Elworthy, three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, worked towards issues she believed in her entire life. Most relevant to this blog is her work in negotiating with nuclear policy makers to promote a safer world for generations to come. On her website, you can find out more about her current projects. I encourage you to take a moment after you’ve read this post to visit the site and absorb all the tips on advocating for your cause that  she has to offer- even if it’s not for nuclear nonproliferation. Her words can touch every aspect of your life and dealing with any adversary, whether it be a person or an opposing idea.

In this Ted Talk, she walks through the process she finds most effective when dealing with the opposing parties. But she is not the only activist who promotes this forgiving approach; in my earlier interviews with Lyndon Harris, responsible for The Garden of Forgiveness here in Asheville and Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, they stated this almost verbatim.

This idea of spearheading violence with more violence simply does not work.

Elworthy aptly stated in her talk, “What about anger? Wherever there is injustice there’s anger. But anger is like gasoline, and if you spray it around and somebody lights a match, you’ve got an inferno. But anger as an engine — in an engine — is powerful. If we can put our anger inside an engine, it can drive us forward, it can get us through the dreadful moments and it can give us real inner power.”

When Harris taught me about the process of making the first step to forgiveness so that the victim can then rebuild, he spoke about this idea of anger having a time and a place. Anger is very natural, but we must get over that stage in order to forgive and come up with a lasting solution.

The next step can then be the one that changes the entire game. I cannot begin to paraphrase such an enlightening statement, so I will quote her again: “I learned this in my work with nuclear weapon policy-makers. Because at the beginning I was so outraged at the dangers they were exposing us to that I just wanted to argue and blame and make them wrong. Totally ineffective. In order to develop a dialogue for change we have to deal with our anger. It’s okay to be angry with the thing — the nuclear weapons in this case — but it is hopeless to be angry with the people. They are human beings just like us. And they’re doing what they think is best. And that’s the basis on which we have to talk with them.”

This idea of overcoming the anger so that an effective dialogue can take place is, in a nutshell, what Restorative Justice is. And Elworthy has been overwhelmingly successful in her efforts through this approach. You can read more of her accomplishment here in her Personal Biography. In her biography, she argued that the most effective mediations she had with these mediators was not in a stately conference room. The effective dialogue occurred when she had created a comfortable environment for discussion.

 This Ted Talk with Scilla Elworthy is beyond relevant when working towards nuclear nonproliferation. But, clearly, the approaches she has adopted throughout her career in activism works for any issue one decides to advocate. Personally, I am going to eat up every word she says. I might be in intellectual love.

I urge you to read more about her here:  Scilla Elworthy Website

A Meaningful Conversation: ‘The Devil is in the Details’

When I first made the phone call to Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), I sat anxiously as the phone rang with well-thought questions in hand. The time came to ask an important player in nuclear non-proliferation the questions percolating in my mind since the beginning of my internship with NIRS.

During World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, became the staging area for the development of the materials for the Manhattan Project. These fissile materials were created in the Uranium Enrichment Facility known as Y-12. The facility began operation in 1943 and produced the uranium used in Little Boy, the bomb that the United States would drop on Hiroshima, Japan. Later, in 1945, Oak Ridge became home to another facility, known as K-25, that specialized in gaseous diffusion.

Hutchison works with OREPA to promote nuclear non-proliferation through nonviolent actions such as grassroots organizing, public workshops, civil resistance actions, and speaking at public hearings. So when Hutchison and I finally made contact, my eagerness to hear his pearls of wisdom steered the conversation.

I wanted to know if this idea of restorative justice- an idea taken from criminal justice that deals with offenses in a very communitive way- could be applied to nuclear non-proliferation. The first question I asked dealt with the reception of government entities during these current dialogues.

His answer: “Everybody thinks nuclear non-proliferation is a good thing.”

The problem: The actions do not back up what these officials are saying. According to Hutchison, these conversations seem to end in agreement, but there is no financial backing going into these efforts to abolish nuclear weapons.

The next step: Hutchison holds the opinion that if the United States could simply admit that they are part of the problem, they could then become part of the solution. The United States is concerned with non-proliferation overseas in dissident countries, but there is no attention to these issues domestically. Hutchison refers to this as the U.S. focusing on the “horizontal” spread of these weapons; fighting against other countries trying to develop these dangerous nuclear capabilities. The “vertical” spread refers to the domestic increase of nuclear weapons arsenals in the superpower countries. Hutchison argues that the Nuclear Weapons States should honor their agreement so that we can take meaningful steps in the disarmament of these arsenals. He also states that when we propose to constantly modernize these weapons, we lose our credibility. In turn, this makes it difficult to carry on a meaningful non-proliferation dialogue with our global community. “We have a double standard when it comes to nuclear weapons,” he said.

In order to achieve these long-term goals, OREPA orchestrates multiple efforts. Currently, there is a proposed plan to invest $325 million into the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge. An overwhelming percent of OREPA’s energy goes into the prevention of this construction: “We have been successful so far in stopping the new bomb plan; it’s been the main focus of work. When we first began to talk about it nobody else paid attention to those things. Our first goal was to educate our colleagues about this, persuade them that this was important. We spent a couple of years getting people on board with it… We’ve had so much success that they’ve had to take a step back and regroup.”

Their efforts continue to halt these plans. For more information on the resistance to the newly proposed Uranium Processing Facility, follow this link.

Hutchison says they all have a shared stance on the construction of nuclear weapons: “If you can build a safe one…”

Later in the conversation, I brought up the idea of restorative justice becoming a venue for nuclear non-proliferation. Thoughtfully, he said, “I think it’s really useful to think outside the box. The vehicles we have used for the past 40 years have not been terribly effective,” he then added, “The devil is in the details.”

Indeed, the devil will be in trying to get all of these ideas and thoughts into action. But, as Hutchison suggested earlier in the conversation, the next best step the United States can take is admitting their contribution to the current situation.

This reflects the first step that many perpetrators must face in examples of restorative justice. They must face their community and admit to all of the crimes they have committed in hopes of restoring what was lost. The community and perpetrator can then sit down and participate in the problem-solving step together.

To get involved with OREPA, visit their website: Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance

Healing the Wounds of History: ‘A hero’s journey, not a victim’s perspective’

Lyndon Harris welcomed me into his home to speak with me about restorative justice and all of the possibilities that activism through forgiveness can offer. When we arrived at Tigg’s Pond, the retreat center that Harris co-directs along with Reverend Posy Jackson, we rushed in from the frigid winds and blowing snow. The warmth of the center and Harris surrounded us, and began to soften the rough grip of February air. After we finished our comforting meal of chili and grilled cheese and exchanged routine introductions, we started at the heart of the matter: What is restorative justice? He began by explaining the Garden of Forgiveness, an organization that Alexandra Asseily originated in Beirut, Lebanon. After the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) ripped through the country, leaving devastation and discrimination in its wake, Asseily decided to take responsibility for creating peace and became a psychotherapist. The garden itself is located on the Green Line where the most fighting took place; it is designed to be a place for reflection and to escape the cycles of violence. These cycles of violence hold many areas of the world in its command. Since its success through Lebanon, ideas of restorative justice has spread to multiple regions. This led to a discussion of what happened after the Rwandan Genocide in recent years. Harris appeared at the 2009 Forgiveness International campaign in Rwanda. His speech followed a man and woman from Rwanda.

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Lyndon Harris at Tigg’s Pond Retreat on the day of our interview.

They took the stage- he noticed the woman was missing a hand. As she began to speak, she held the hand of the man next to her. What they shared next would shock the crowd. She explained she became a victim during the genocide and had her hand taken from her. The man who held her remaining hand took the microphone: “I am the one who did this to her.” As Harris relayed the event, tears caught in my throat. I caught a glimpse of true forgiveness. He explained that if a community devastated by these crimes against humanity can come together to spread a message of forgiveness and rebuild their home, how can we have an excuse for not following suit? In Rwanda, this idea works well because of the strong community identity they share. Inspired, Harris described non-forgiveness as a poison that could spread; for Rwanda, the community depends upon its members to keep itself afloat. To these areas in Rwanda, no good can come from wallowing in the grief and despair of the past. Restorative justice manifests through community meetings where the perpetrators will give a statement and admit to all of the crimes they have committed. As a consequence, the community then decides what the best course of action will be. They do not have traditional prisons. Their “prisons” consist of areas where they are free to roam about and there are no cell walls. But how could this work? This idea of community identity plays a large role in keeping these perpetrators on course. They will lose their own identity if they betray the community. Instead of normal sentencing, they commit to service projects to help rebuild for their community members. By this time in this blog entry, I’m sure you’re wondering: I thought this site was about non-proliferation… Well, yes. As part of my exploration for securing a safer future for our global community, I am pursuing the idea of restorative justice as a useful and cooperative tool for parties to come together to discuss the common good of reducing these threats. I discussed this idea with Harris and his response encouraged me: “We’re all in this together,” he said. Forgiveness is a large part of activism because if we go to a rally for our cause and meet the opposing side with anger, what change will we see? Harris became inspired after 9/11 when he found himself witnessing our national tragedy front and center. He resided over his ministry directly across from where the World Trade Center was located on that heartrending morning. As soon as he caught wind of the events unfolding, he rushed to aid his fellow citizens by ministering to them and helping in any way he could. We suffered a great loss that day, but it did not and does not have to keep us from greater things. As Harris so aptly stated, “When you give up your victim’s narrative, you regain your power.” After the fact, Harris decided to help heal the hurt of the area by heading a Garden of Forgiveness at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, this project did not gain support and enlarged anger from many who chose to hold onto rage instead of embracing the healing process of forgiveness. Earlier in the interview, I asked him “What is forgiveness?” This may seem a mundane question, but his answer helped me connect my cause to his. He explained that forgiveness is when we pursue justice or reparations from this act. The act of forgiveness does not mean letting perpetrators off the hook, it simply allows us to move forward in the solution-building process. If we can admit that there is a wrong, that will be the first step in the right direction. There are so many words and jewels of wisdom I gained from our discussion, I wish I could put every word he shared in this blog. I look forward to more communication with him in the future and embrace challenges with the knowledge he has armed so many others with. To learn more about Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center and the Forgiveness Seminar on March 21, 2015 go to Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center.

“We’re all Part of the Big Picture”: A Conversation with Kitty Boniske

Through my internship with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, I am going to have the opportunity to meet and talk with outstanding people in our community. When I originally planned on taking on an internship, I expected to be given many tasks to accomplish and maybe the stereotypical grunt work. But what I have discovered thus far through this experience is pure freedom with helpful nudges in the right direction.

So when Mary Olson, Southern Director at NIRS and my internship supervisor, suggested I sit down with people who have contributed to this field of work, I eagerly accepted. Mary facilitated the first dialogue with a local legend in the nuclear awareness and non-proliferation game: Kitty Boniske- also known as Kate Coburn Boniske.

Kitty Boniske made a name for herself in activism throughout her life with many organizations, but she found her niche as the Program Chair for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The WILPF dedicates its time and energy to many issues such as ensuring compliance at the federal, state and local levels with international human rights treaties signed and ratified by the US government. As part of this mission, Kitty participated in a letter addressed to both President Bill Clinton and President Vladmir Putin addressing concerns over the fissile materials that would be left over after both countries declared a surplus of plutonium in their possession. (This letter can be found here: Letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladmir Putin).

In addition to incredible contributions on the international stage, Kitty Boniske, has also lodged a piece of herself into the heart of the Western North Carolina Mountains. She bought and renovated a house in the historic Montford area of Asheville, N.C., for use as the Center for New Priorities. This center hosted a number of organizations dedicated to peace and education in the surrounding areas.

So when I rang her doorbell on Thursday afternoon, my brain began to go into overdrive to articulate thoughtful questions to ask the woman who had seen everything. But as she opened the door, an air of warmth surrounded her smile and welcoming gestures. I began to relax as Mary began easy chatter with her old-time friend and mentor.

After introductions and formalities, we began to talk about the injustices she witnessed in her life. Kitty shared many experiences and I found it very easy to listen.

The first issue weighing on her mind were the social cruelties she had witnessed African American citizens shoulder in the 1940s. At the time, Kitty attended Chapel Hill, and rode on the public transit system. She witnessed the classic tales of the black population being forced to sit on the back of the bus without room for complaint.

One story of a black soldier being taken away by the police after refusing to move shook me to the core. Kitty stood up to the brutality she had witnessed and was cast outside the “white” social circle by other bystanders. But why did she have a different view on civil rights than other privileged white people of the day? Her family had always shown compassion through understanding that “we’re all part of the big picture.” This had been a valued ideal for generations, dating back to the Civil War.

But these stories were just the beginning.

To bring the conversation back to the context of non-proliferation, I asked her about her views on what happened when the U.S. was developing the first nuclear weapons and when they had decided to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She thought for a moment and said, “We believed that the boys were not coming home soon without the dropping of the bomb…” She continued to explain that the media covered these stories to appeal to the families anxiously awaiting the return of their sons, husbands, brothers.

While she continues to believe that the bombs were a tremendous crime against humanity, she maintained the same train of thought as many others that if the U.S. did not develop these technologies first, the Germans would beat us to it. But, at the time, the population was not educated on the effects these weapons could have- even the creators were not sure of the consequences. “We, flat out, did not know enough,” Kitty aptly stated.

As she spoke, the question came to mind: What do you think the consequences would have been if we had not dropped those first bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I decided to ask this question aloud.

After she gave this some thought she urged me to think about the atrocities happening during the Holocaust. Kitty admitted that if any war was justified, that one was. We are not able to know the alternate outcome of that situation. She then added, “That kind of cruelty is inherent in us.”

What a privilege this was! For nearly two hours, I was able to pick the mind of a woman who had seen it all and who had made a noticeable difference in this field. I regret that I cannot relay every single contribution she has made, but I will say that I am humbled to have experienced this dialogue with such an impeccable human.

Her final words of hope before we parted ways reverberate in my mind: “We are living on the cusp of the greatest change we’ve ever seen.”

Visit the website for the WILPF:

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Finding hope in a dismal situation

Okay, so maybe the title of this post may give you the illusion that I have some idea or theory on how to help the situation I have described in “The Purpose” section of the website. But, no. I do have some rather utopian ideas like, “Why can’t we just say ‘no’ to nukes and all get along like when we were in grade school?”

I am beginning an internship with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. I have not quite found my niche in the spheres of dealing with Nuclear Reactor issues or the Nuclear Weapons side of the worldwide crisis.

My fearless leader, Mary Olson, Director of the Southeast branch of NIRS, has been very patient while I try to sort my thoughts out on where I would like to lead my research. I am blessed with such an ally in trying to find a place where I feel like I can make positive changes in the world we find ourselves in. But I am not rushing in my decision too much because I find knowledge in both of these fields (weapons and energy) so fascinating that I would be remiss to focus on just one of these branches.

I have sentiments that reflect that hopeful little voice inside of me saying that we can find a solution to beginning to end the “Nuclear Age”. And many might think that is a juvenile and unrealistic view on the topic. But before I delve any deeper into the confounding mess we find ourselves in, I do believe it is helpful to remember that tiny, hopeful voice inside of our heads. I have to at least partially credit this wishful thinking to Mary. She had the opportunity to speak at the third installment of the conference on The Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna at the end of 2014.

When she returned and relayed her experience, she acknowledged the very serious and heartbreaking tales the survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima shared. But she also brought back the overall tone of the conference: resounding hope.

If the direct victims of these violent retaliations could purvey hope in their messages, why could I not have this little voice rallying me forward? This is a very light and cheerful first post on an issue that really scares me to the core.

I hope to be able to find hope through the sad stories and events in which all of the research is based. Through this blog, I am looking forward to recording my interviews with many important figures and trailblazers in nuclear abolition and peace activists. There are so many venues we can try to find solutions in. I am so excited to be sharing these experiences and hope with all of my potential readers who will lend an ear to these world-altering issues.

Ideas and accounts of the world's ongoing security issue: The Nuclear Age