Leah Bolger joined the U.S. Navy in 1980 and received her commission as an Ensign from Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI. Her duty stations included such disparate locations as Iceland, Bermuda, Japan and Tunisia, as well as stateside tours in Texas, Rhode Island and Virginia. She received her master’s degree in national security and strategic affairs from the Naval War College, and served as a Military Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Strategic Studies Program. She retired from active duty service in July 2000 at the rank of Commander. She went on to form the Veterans for Peace Linus Pauling Chapter in Corvallis, Oregon, and served as its President before she went on to become the national president of Veterans for Peace. She currently serves as the Secretary of Defense for the Green Party Shadow Cabinet, the Chair of the Coordinating Committee and the Outreach Committee of World Beyond War, is the Chair of the Veterans For Peace working group on Drones, and is the Coordinator for the Drones Quilt Project
What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?
Organizing for me has been a natural outgrowth of being an activist. Most people find themselves drawn into activism gradually, however I had a pivotal experience which turned me from “concerned citizen” into “activist.” I went to Eugene, Oregon to see an exhibit created by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) called “Eyes Wide Open.” The exhibit consisted of rows and rows of army boots, lined up as if in formation, or as tombstones at Arlington. Attached to the boots were dog tags with the name of a solider who had died in Iraq. Sometimes there were other items like photos, notes, or other mementos with the boots. In another part of the exhibit there were piles of civilian shoes…women’s shoes, men’s sandals, small children’s shoes–meant to represent the Iraqis who had been killed. This exhibit had a real impact on me. I had a visceral reaction to it, like a punch in the gut, and I felt compelled to start doing something about the Iraq war. That’s when I became an activist. I formed a chapter of Veterans For Peace, and took off from there–networking with other peace activists, working on different campaigns and issues, lobbying, attending conferences, protesting, committing acts of civil resistance, speaking, traveling, and connecting with others. I think that 20 years of being a military officer may have something to do with my tendency towards leadership and management. “Organizing” just seems to fit in my comfort zone, though I usually identify myself as an “activist” rather than an “organizer.
How do you distinguish between activism and organizing, then?
I would say that all organizing is activism, but the reverse is not true. There are many forms of activism: writing letters, speaking, demonstrating, lobbying, Civil Resistance…but they are not necessarily organizing. An individual can write a letter to the editor and call that an action of activism, however an organizer would coordinate many people writing letters at the same time. Organizing is about getting others on the same page acting in coordination. Organizers coalesce the power and potential of the activists.
Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?
I would like to mention three women who are not only heroes to me, but who I would also consider as mentors: Kathy Kelly, Medea Benjamin and Ann Wright.
Kathy Kelly has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, has deliberately lived below the poverty line in order to resist paying war taxes, and traveled extensively to Iraq in defiance of U.S. sanctions. She has been arrested dozens of times and served jail time as a result of her actions in opposition to war and social injustice.
Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink. Through creative, gutsy and media-savvy actions, she has brought attention to countless social justice issues, and Code Pink has become a recognized force to be reckoned in D.C. She has also traveled extensively, building relationships with women all over the world, working in collaboration to resist war and oppression.
Ann Wright retired from the U.S. Army, then went on to serve 16 years as a Foreign Service Officer before she resigned from the State Department in protest just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Today Ann continuously travels the world speaking, protesting, and organizing against war, militarism and injustice. She was a passenger on the Challenger I, part of the Gaza Flotilla which was attacked by the Israeli Defense Force, resulting in the deaths of 10 unarmed civilians. What these three women have in common is selfless devotion to justice and peace, and a real commitment to the difficult work they have chosen.
What gives you hope for the future?
Sadly, I frequently feel very pessimistic about the future. The problems we face are so big and numerous, and it is difficult to see where we are making any significant progress. However, we have to continue trying, and I am heartened to realize how many others are out there working as hard or harder than I am.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?
The biggest problem in my mind, is the disparity between the rich and everyone else that has led to a government which could be described as an oligarchy or plutocracy. Money controls and drives everything. This is why you have children going to bed hungry, but weapons contractors making record profits.
What books would you recommend people look at for social change and why?
A People’s History of the U.S., by Howard Zinn, Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Animal Farm, by George Orwell, many Chomsky books.
Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?
I highly recommend “A Force More Powerful,” which chronicles the history of strategic nonviolent conflict throughout the world; also “Inequality for All,” a recent film featuring Robert Reich. Non-documentaries would include “Gandhi,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Dead Man Walking,” and “Erin Brockovich.”