Thursday, April 16, 2009

Organizing for Peace and Social Justice


“There's nothing magical about organizing people for peace and social justice,” said 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams, but it's a lot of work because it requires logic, planning, follow up, follow through and the constant search for allies.

This is what Williams did in 1992 when she headed the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Five years later she and a team of activists persuaded 121 nations to ban the use of landmines, weapons, which at the time were considered legal in over 80 countries.

Williams is one of several Nobel Peace laureates working with PeaceJam (www.peacejam.org) to help create a new generation of young leaders committed to peace through positive change in themselves, their communities and the world.

Organizing first requires that you figure out whom you can get to build a coalition to work on an issue, she said. Then you find existing laws or treaties and figure out how they can be used to advance your issue. Finally, you find allies in government who share your view and will push through legislation.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) turned out to be her government contact, which was a natural since she, too, was a native Vermonter. He'd seen victims of landmines in the late 1980s and had started the Leahy War Victims Relief Fund in 1989, which is administered by USAID for civilians disabled by civil strife, war and landmines. He also sponsored legislation—the first in the world—to lead a moratorium on the exportation of landmines.

“We got a big boost for banning landmines right at the starting gate,” said Williams. “It energized Europe [who was also involved in these exportation practices] and created a competition among nations to outdo each other.” For example, France upped the ante on the United States and proposed a three-year moratorium. After that, the movement just gained momentum.

Unfortunately, the United States, Russia and China did not sign the treaty, but that has not stopped Williams from continuing her effort to rid the world of violence.

“You must have an outline for a plan of action for the next six to twelve months,” she said. “Most people don't think through strategy but instead adopt yours, if you have one.

The key to the ICBL's success on banning landmines was in forming close partnerships with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments, the (ICRC) and United Nations agencies, according to the organization's website (www.icbl.org). In order to obtain these partnerships, the ICBL managed the following activities:

· Provide expertise and credible documentation
· Articulate goals and messages clearly and simply
· Maintain a flexible but unified coalition structure that is inclusive and diverse
· Recognize that most of the work is done by a few
· Communicate key developments with all concerned
· Organize people to move an issue forward
· Formulate plans with achievable deadlines and goals to build momentum and excitement

Prior to her starting ICBL, Williams worked for eleven years to build public awareness about U.S. Policy toward Central America. From 1986 to 1992, she developed and directed humanitarian relief projects as the deputy director of the Los Angeles-based Medical Aid for El Salvador. From 1984 to 1986 she was co-coordinator of the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project, leading fact-finding delegations to the region. Previously, she taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Washington, D.C.

Teaching the young about nonviolence is essential, said Williams, who contends that peace is about talking through differences and finding compromises. It takes schools and families to change things and end the continuum of violence that pervades a culture that “glorifies screeching.”

One example of effective education, organization and action Williams cited was a fourth grade teacher who taught a unit about banning landmines. The students then decided to go to the University of West Virginia near their home to teach the college students there about the dangers of landmines. Recently, the students had a tenth anniversary to celebrate their work.

“Those are the ones who blow me away,” said Williams.

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