Interview: Laurie Childers


Laurie Childers is an artist, ceramics instructor, and singer/songwriter in Corvallis, Oregon. In the 1980s, she worked around the world with artisans building fuel-efficient cookstoves and learned much about the effect of foreign and domestic economic policies upon the lives of real people as well as the land.   She also observed the usually destructive and easily manipulated power of identity politics based on race/tribe/religion/class in post-colonial Africa, Asia, S. Pacific and Latin America.  In the days following 9/11/01, Laurie felt compelled to help her local community self-educate about the US’s involvement in the Middle East.  With like-minded folks, Alternatives to War was founded in Corvallis.   Laurie continues volunteer work as one of the Sisters of Perpetual Organizing, setting up monthly benefit concerts which build community and financially assist groups creating peaceful alternatives.

Informed by many spiritual traditions, Laurie is a convinced Quaker. She has served on the National Council of Fellowship of Reconciliation since 2000 and is now its national chair.   Her web site is www.lauriechilders.com <http://www.lauriechilders.com> .

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What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?

I don’t think of myself as an organizer per se, but as a person with an internal imperative to service and a strong sense of justice.   As an artist in graduate school, I got involved with a group that worked on fuel-efficent wood cookstoves for the “Third World,” as it was called in those days.  My degrees in ceramics gave me a head start in being useful for this effort to save forests.  I loved the science of it and the multiple levels and applications of creativity in problem-solving.  This lead to fascinating work with artisans, mostly in Africa and Asia, during the 1980’s.  Among the many gifts of this work, it gave me exposure to the effects of foreign policy on very real people who were near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.   I bore witness to variations of corruption in a newly post-colonial world, and they were very much like the once-legal corruptions of the colonial world:  the people at the top siphoned off what they could for themselves.  What we were taught as “the American Dream” of working diligently and honestly to create a slowly-growing, economically stabile life is not possible when the system is stacked against humble, steady work.  Everything can be taken away, without warning, without just cause.   Foreign policies such as World Bank loans and even well-meaning smaller development projects often (but not always) made things worse by unwittingly introducing economic disruptions.  I learned that it is difficult to make things better if you are inserting money into the equation, and that without honest and mutually respectful human relationships, interventions only create chaos.  Chaos never helped the poor anywhere I have been.

And then there was 9/11/2001.  My youngest child was to start kindergarden the next day and I had anticipated a new era in my life, with more creative time again.  Instead, I sensed that unless people like me rose up to respond, that our government(s) might destroy the world as we knew it in a few weeks.   By then I had some understanding of nonviolence and knew that first, our community needed to learn everything we could about relevant history, about the motivations (however misguided) for the attack, about Islam, and to create bridges where there were presently chasms.  I helped start a local coalition, Alternatives to War, and organized public education events in those first months.  This was probably my first real “organizing.”

When the mosque in our community was firebombed a few years ago, we already had a large network of relationships in place and many people came together to respond with love and care.  It was moving and gratifying.

I learned so much about nonviolence from the annual regional Fellowship of Reconciliation conference at Seabeck, WA since first attending in 1996.  Every year I learn something that deepens my comprehension, and I’ve met many teachers and heroes there.  Eventually I helped in organizing the conference, and have been on the Board of Directors of Oregon FOR, then elected to FOR’s National Council.  I re-started our local chapter of FOR and am about to serve as chair of the National Council.  FOR is now 100 years old, with an amazing legacy of interfaith efforts to end war and the root causes of violence, such as racism.  Currently there are so many challenges that need effective nonviolent responses.  We will not be idle.

 

Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?

The list keeps growing longer as I learn more.   It was HH the Dalai Lama who planted the first seed of comprehension of nonviolence when I heard him speak in the late 1980’s.  He described being a young boy with a little telescope up in his palace, through which he could see “his” people in the city below. One day he was watching the Chinese soldiers destroy his city and commit unspeakable atrocities on the people for whom he was their leader.  “And I felt so sorry for them!  Who knows what they were told about us?  They did not speak our language, they did not understand that we would not fight back, they were doing as they were told to do, young boys of only 18 or so, fearing for their own lives.  They have to live with the terrible things they did that day – and because I am Buddhist, I believe they have to live with it in many lives to come.”   Up until that moment, I thought that nonviolence was suppressing anger.  I suddenly understood that it was genuinely feeling something else.  Now I can name that feeling “compassion.”

Mohandas Gandhi is certainly my hero.  His example of compassion, patience, genuine respectful friendships across lines of “otherness,” and creativity in adapting to the evolving situation are all admirable.  He reached toward the best in his adversaries.  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Ella Jo Baker, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks, Rev. Jim Lawson, and the many many other people who devoted their lives to the Black Freedom Struggle (AKA Civil Rights Movement) have my deep respect and appreciation for making life so much better for all of us, again using truth, love and creativity.  Alice Paul and the other women who suffered for women’s suffrage are my heroes.  Caesar Chavez understood the power of nonviolence and helped bring invisible injustices to light, appealing to the desire in people’s hearts to be good and not create suffering.  Nelson Mandela’s and Rev. Desmond Tutu’s desire to heal and forgive inspire me.  Howard Zinn, Walter Wink, Morris Dees, Barbara Lee.  George Fox who founded the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and John Woolman who carried his inner nudging that slavery was wrong to turn all Quakers into abolitionists.  Clare Grady.  Harvey Milk.  Aaron Wolf.   The founders and leaders over the last century of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for their commitment to respond to the social justice issues of their time and continually seek to eliminate war:  A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin (again), Glenn Smiley, Richard Deats.  The Afghan Peace Volunteers and their allies Hakim,  Kathy Kelly,  and Doug Mackey,  and Jim Murphy, Rick Ufford-Chase, Rev. Lucas Johnson and John Lindsay-Poland among many others I know via FOR.  Jody Williams, Alberto Perez Esquivel, and Shirin Ebadi whom I met through PeaceJam.   Leah Bolger who worked nationally and articulately with Veterans for Peace while staying a Sister of Perpetual Organizing with me and a couple of other local steady, compassionate women raising money monthly for good causes.  There are so many people that dedicate their lives to creating peace and comprehend both the justice and the compassion elements.

I also appreciate the artists and musicians who shine a light on both difficult realities and a peaceful path:  Spike Lee, Richard Notkin, Jim Page, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Pete Seeger, Tom Rawson.

I must also acknowledge that everyone who creates joy and beauty, and does so with kindness, are my heroes.  It’s easy to criticize; it’s far more difficult to create something better.

 

What role do you think artists have in the struggle for social justice?

Artists influence people who are attracted to what they create.   I think that artists have a responsibility to be a wise and positive influence.  To be fair, I think that of all people, all professions.  Because much of art is not logical or conscious, it can catch us by surprise and evoke emotions and spiritual connections and a deeper appreciation of life.  It can reach across boundaries of cultures and sub-cultures.  But it’s got to be attractive to have any effect.   Holly Near said something to the effect of “there is nothing worse than a bad political song.”
Beauty is a powerful, calming and attractive element in art – and art can help us see beauty in what gets overlooked by, for example, advertising art, which traditionally relies upon the human desire to belong to a special class of people.  The personal connection with a favorite handmade coffee mug is also a connection to the living person that made it with her hands.  Humor can heal and unite us.  Dancing expresses our exuberance, or helps us move through our sorrows.   There have been a number of times that I have wept uncontrollably in the presence of great art, theatrical or visual.   What is it that catches me by surprise?

It’s valuable to recognize the subtle ways that art can inspire people to value, for example, compassion rather than greed.  Songs, stories, images, films, all mirror the society they come from and create the one to come. I don’t understand people who use their creative gifts to dream up gruesome murders and make horrifying films about them.  It’s a cheap trick to appeal to fear, and it unnecessarily creates more fear.   Films and stories that illustrate our shared humanity regardless of nationality, religion, race, class, gender – while also informing us of cultural and personal peculiarities and/or historical realities – are much more challenging but much more rewarding to make.   I wish that more artists were aware and willing to own this responsibility.   Harriet Beecher Stowe did more with Uncle Tom’s Cabin than any that argued logically against slavery, because she made the fictional Jim a human being with whom white readers could identify.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle inspired more just working conditions.  John Steinbeck illuminated hidden injustices in The Grapes of Wrath and I expect made Caesar Chavez’s social justice movement more possible.  Alex Haley’s research chronicled in Roots made African-American history personal to the reader during our lifetime.  Until I have a moment of compassionate connection, my brain tends to make excuses for how things are, or not want to look deeper.  If there are not enough informed and outraged people, then oppressive injustices will easily continue or worsen, because there is money to be made the way things already are.

So I think artists can tell the stories that we need to hear about each other.  Artists can create joyful music or events that bring people together.  It’s not enough to just fight against injustice –  fighting by itself is exhausting.  We need to create the society that we want to live in.  Active criticism has its place.  But to create something better than what already exists is a huge and continuous challenge.  I am continually inspired by festivals that are something of a temporary utopia experiment, that bring art and music and live theater in minimally commercial venues.

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They give us a glimpse of what humanity can be, and each year the volunteers (and minimal staff) respond to needs and create it better.  We learn sensitivity and flexibility making art.  We learn to make things that are durable.  We learn something of what we are capable.  We learn that out of some mystery, something beautiful is possible.   For a person who feels powerless and angry, to experience the pleasure and surprise and power of making something beautiful and meaningful, well, that illuminates a bright path.  Teaching art and creating art are both sacred work.  Artmaking trains us to connect what comes from within to what will be shared with another.

I’ll close this response linking two favorite quotes.   One, by Leonard Bernstein, with whom I proudly share a birthday:  “This will be our reply to violence:  to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”    And another, by Robert Fulgrum, which startled and nudged me at a significant time:  “Music is far too important to be left to the professionals.”

 

What gives you hope for the future?

With the decentralization of information sources via the internet, it’s possible more than ever for us to educate ourselves and each other about nonviolence.   It’s a complex concept, usually misunderstood at first, that only eventually feels like a simple truth.   The world is smaller than ever, and almost every country is less isolated, less provincial, less oblivious to the humanity of the rest of the world than even a few decades ago.   With Facebook and Skype, many of us communicate daily with people all over the world.  It is up to those of us that believe in the power of compassion and fairness to create peace to continue to practice it in our communications and spread the word.  We must also share images and stories so that people do not suffer without witness.

There are also many organizations doing good work that we can support via donations of time or money.   I encourage people to get involved rather than complain.  You meet the best people in these efforts!   Courageous, caring, interesting, joyful people.   I am constantly inspired.   And not just organizations responding to crises, but those creating festivals and fairs that highlight the best of humanity and create community.  A first taste of something better can be transformative.

The Occupy movement brought together young and old to seek economic justice, and I am certain that the relationships and inspiration of that time will bear fruit for decades.  The propensity for young people to embrace horizontal organizing and sharing of responsibility and power makes me smile.  Collaboration is powerful.  Consensus is powerful.  These are paradigm shifts away from obedience to individuals who derive power from charisma or inherited wealth or job title.

That I grew up in a severely homophobic society that has turned around hearts and laws in a pretty short time is exhilarating.  My children grew up mystified that when I was born, people were segregated by something as trivial as skin color.   Such progress is not universal but it’s increasingly widespread.

Truth is stronger than lies.  Love is stronger than fear.  Truth and love are beautiful; fear and lies are exhausting.

 

What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?

Impatience.  Willful ignorance.  Those with power who fear sharing it.  Fear itself.   Racism/tribalism/classism/otherism/misogyny (all expressions of fear and a reluctance to share power).  Overpopulation.  Dwindling resources and insufficient local self-reliance for basic needs.  Changing climate, which will affect food production faster than we will adjust.  Pollution of increasingly rare water sources.   The misuse of religion to politically manipulate the less-powerful.  Corruption at the top, inexhaustible greed.  The desire of victors for everyone to accept things as they are, while the severely mistreated cannot forget or ignore the injustices that created the present inequalities or misery.  Insufficient compassion.

 

What is the role of nonviolence in the struggle for social justice?

I am philosophically open to the possibility that violence might sometimes be necessary to stop a greater violence, and I am grateful that the Nazi concentration camps were liberated.  But my observations of history point to the efficacy of nonviolence:  non-cooperation, actions illuminating the folly of repression, and creating a loving alternative.  Many a revolution has been started in the name of justice, but those that chose violence as their tactic have perpetuated violence and fear, and those that chose nonviolence, begin at a much better place when they eventually win.    My list of heroes includes the thousands of nameless or less famous people all over the world (including Rwanda, Chile, and anti-bullying initiators at our local elementary schools!) that chose/choose peaceful means to make their world more just.

I hear people say that nonviolence doesn’t work, and it is true that it rarely works “quickly.”   Nonviolent actions to overturn the laws in the US that kept people separate because of race took well over a decade – over a century if you start counting from the end of slavery after the Civil War.   Violence, however, not only doesn’t always work, it rarely works, and it also is not “quick” to improve outcomes.  As a recent example, I was so proud of and hopeful for the Syrian people.  They held nonviolent demonstrations against Assad, wanting to know the status of loved ones taken prisoner, starting in 2011 for nearly 2 years.  But it was not working fast enough for some, and so they took to arms.  In the time since, is their situation better?  Did violence work better than nonviolence?  I know this is a simplification of history – early on there were isolated bombs of contested origin – but the window of opportunity for nonviolence to succeed was closed by answering violence with violence.  Perhaps another window will open, but meanwhile there is unspeakable widespread suffering and less of Syria will be intact when the time comes to rebuild.

 

What books would you recommend people look at for social change?

I love to read and I wish that I could say that I finished every book I started that analyzes social justice issues.  I tend to get the point and then lose interest in the details.    Armchair political analysis is less compelling to me than the personal stories revealing the sources of courage and creativity of people who put themselves directly into the struggles for justice.   Perhaps it’s too easy for me to critique academic theories, and see holes in them.  Karl Marx, for example, was waited on hand and foot by the women in his home, and he never did a lick of housework – and so his great treatise on labor and injustice omitted valuing the traditional work of women cleaning/caring/feeding in the home, something that the male victors in communist countries had no impulse to correct.

The books that kept my attention all the way through are mainly memoirs and autobiographies. I have been inspired by the self-reflections of Joan Baez, Jody Williams, John Perkins, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, HH Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gen. Smedley Butler among others I’m sure I’ll regret not mentioning.  Although fiction, Johnny Got His Gun affected me as a young teen during the Vietnam war.  Nam made it real years afterward.  Personal stories such as Black Like Me, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Woman, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – really anything written from an indigenous voice – shine a light on lives that are otherwise unimaginable to white middle-class Americans like me.  Savages and Scoundrels by Paul VanDevelder.  We cannot begin to reconcile with the people on the receiving end of the violence that helped create our privilege and “freedoms” unless we are willing to listen to the pain that endures as a result of it.

 

Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?

I love a well-made movie to convey history because the power of combining visual images and voices makes more sense of who/where/when/what happened.   I owe a great debt to all the films in the series A Force More Powerful; perhaps my favorite is Bringing Down a Dictator, but I learned important things from every one of them.  I bought them and share them often.   Gandhi is one of Hollywood’s better efforts.  Twelve Years a Slave, too.   Iron-Jawed Angels.   The documentary on the Weather Underground illustrates how tactics involving violence can quickly destroy a huge movement.  Sir! No Sir! illustrates noble bravery of soldiers that’s left out of the history books and films that glorify war.   The last show of the last season of of the British comedy Blackadder (with Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie) is perhaps the best anti-war film message I’ve seen.

 

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