Why Do Some People Become Peace and Justice Activists?

Why do some people become peace and justice activists, when other people who grew up in the same environment don’t? This question has intrigued me for a long time as I can’t explain my own activism.

From my early teen years, I was aware of and a supporter of the “underdog.” I was good at sports and hated it when teams were selected and the least athletic girls were the last to be chosen. I felt bad when students were shunned in the school cafeteria and had no-one to sit with. It bothered me when people reacted suspiciously when Roma or travelers (referred to as gypsies) visited each summer selling wooden clothespins door to door. But, in those days, I didn’t speak up. I just felt bad and resolved not to do the same.

I was about 16 when I joined much older members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in handing out leaflets outside a cinema in my hometown in NW England. I still remember how fast my heart beat, how dry my mouth became, and how difficult it was to say just a few words when approaching strangers to talk about an issue that didn’t have much popular support. I’m not sure what was worse—being ignored, being laughed at, or being challenged.

CND symbol, which has become a universal peace sign. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_symbols

I didn’t grow up in a progressive or activist home. I grew up in a nominally Church of England home, but realized by the age of 14 that I was not a believer, so religious faith didn’t play a part. I was fascinated by current events and devoured the news, but never studied in school about modern British history, including colonialism, even while the British Empire was falling apart and the news was filled with Caribbean, African, and Far Eastern countries gaining their long-wished-for independence.

When I went to college, I met people who had similar interests and perspectives on current events, but we weren’t activists. We didn’t organize around important issues. We didn’t go to demonstrations. We didn’t write letters to politicians. We just cared and talked a lot about the issues that concerned us.

Finding Out About the Origins of Peace and Justice Activism in Other People

I thought that I might be able to better understand the origins of my own activism by talking with other people who are peace and justice activists. So, I spoke with five people living in Oakland who are different ages, come from different ethnic groups, and are peace and justice activists.

Abel Regalado (17) lives in the Fruitvale and attends a small neighborhood high school, ARISE (http://www.arisehighschool.org/). He is also an Oakland Voices correspondent (http://oaklandvoices.us/author/abel-regalado/).  Most of the students at ARISE are Latinos and, according to Abel, 60 percent are Dreamers (they were brought to the U.S. as young children without documentation, but have been educated in U.S. schools).

Abel credits his teachers with his becoming an activist. “Much of it came from being in a school like ARISE where the focus is on teaching social justice and student leadership. A majority of our teachers are Black, Brown, and Asian. They are real activists. They go to walkouts, rallies. They change the minds of students and support students’ actions,” he said.

Abel Regalado speaking at a conference. Source: http://www.engineerabel.com/

Abel is also very active in efforts to expand tech opportunities and resources in his community. “At ARISE, I started the first computer club and co-taught students to code. In my junior year, I had a 9-month internship at the library, teaching patrons to use computers. I’m still working to help neighbors,” Abel said. He also has a very interesting website that reflects his interests: http://www.engineerabel.com/

Abel’s homepage. Source: http://www.engineerabel.com/

Pierre Labossiere (61) was also influenced by teachers, in addition to the oppressive conditions in his home country, Haiti; events in the U.S. when he came to New York City with his family; and his parents—they taught him the importance of respecting every person, regardless of their status in society.

Pierre Labossiere speaking at a conference. Source: San Francisco Bay View

Pierre grew up under the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, when people who did not support the government were often labeled Communists and imprisoned, where they were treated very harshly. “Even as a young child, I couldn’t stand abuse. There were terrible public beatings of people. Families were being wiped out. I was 8 -years- old and a family that was friends of ours went back to visit their hometown and they never came back,” he told me.

One of Pierre’s first acts of activism occurred when he was 12 and class president at his school: “I took my role as president very seriously and I was appalled at so many children in the streets (who were) not going to school. I had a conscience. I had an idea and I told my principal, ‘Why don’t some of us teach these children after school?’ She said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you a Communist?’”

Some Catholic priests in his hometown in Haiti also influenced Pierre, particularly one young priest who had been influenced by liberation theology (an interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes liberation of the oppressed.) The priest ran a youth group, which Pierre participated in, and the group discussed many topics that were grounded in social justice issues, such as the gap between rich and poor.

Pierre came to the U.S. when he was about 14, and he talked about how events at that time had an impact on him: “When I came to the U.S. in 1970, people were in the streets fighting the Vietnam War. You had the Black Panthers. There was César Chávez and the grape boycott. The women’s movement. Disabled people’s rights. All of these served to help me. Students at my high school walked out in protest of the war. I walked out because I was aware the Vietnam War was unjust. All of that really empowered me,” he said.

Pierre continues to be very active, most recently in two Haiti-related organizations: the Haiti Action Committee (http://haitisolidarity.net/), which he started in 1990 – it informs people about what is happening in Haiti – and the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (http://www.haitiemergencyrelief.org/Haiti_Emergency_Relief_Fund/home.html).

Pierre at left at a rally. Source: Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle

Tri-an Cao (17) is a student at Bishop O’Dowd High School in East Oakland. Like Abel, she became an activist in high school. Being the child of “boat people,” refugees from Vietnam, influenced her to become active in immigration rights.

Tri-an’s Catholic faith has also influenced her. She told me how her “more liberal” faith has led her to see how Jesus was an activist: “I see Jesus as someone who would put his foot down and say, ‘No, you can’t oppress people.’ Other people’s view of Jesus see him as someone who is charitable, to forgive, (but) there’s a call to action, not to simply give money or food,” she said.

Tri-an Cao holding a sign at an interfaith vigil

The integration of concern for immigrant rights, faith, and activism occurred earlier this year, when Tri-an organized a student-led interfaith vigil at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility (http://oaklandvoices.us/student-led-vigil-support-detained-immigrants/); the vigil is held on the first Saturday of each month to support immigrants who are seeking asylum and are being held in detention.

Tri-an, in center with sign, with other student activists at West Contra County Detention Center

Tri-an is also active in environmental justice issues, particularly those that affect low-income people. For example, she has helped out at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in East Oakland that grows food, provides community housing, and emphasizes restorative justice (http://oaklandvoices.us/canticle-farms-dancing-on-the-horizon/).

Jim Haber (54) grew up in a liberal Bay Area home and has been a long-time peace and justice activist. For example, when he was 16, he attended a peace vigil at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County. Later, when he was a student at UC Santa Barbara, he became active in protests at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, CA, where intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were being tested (and are still being tested); these missiles are designed to carry nuclear weapons. In fact, he more recently worked as coordinator of the Nevada Desert Experience, which organizes interfaith resistance to war and nuclear weapons.

Jim Haber in Afghanistan. Source: www.uspacifistparty.org

In the mid-80s, Jim joined the Catholic Worker movement (http://www.catholicworker.org/), whose commitment to peace and justice issues aligned with his own. “I liked the soup kitchen idea. I liked that it’s a network of independent houses and there’s no overseeing body. I liked the commitment. Their willingness to put their lives on the line. Their honesty and integrity. Their willingness to do civil disobedience. Their willingness to risk. They’ve gone to war zones. They’ve gone to Afghanistan,” he said.

Jim’s Jewish background has had a profound influence on his activism on behalf of Palestinians living under a brutal Israeli occupation. In 2000, after the Second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israel initiated by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Old Jerusalem), he began to meet with members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) (https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/), which is opposed to the Israeli occupation. He remains an active member of JVP because he is Jewish and American. “Because of the attacks on Palestinians, it feels important for Jews and Americans to speak up about the attacks on Palestinians,” he explained.

Jim at a rally. Source unknown

When asked about influences on his activism, Jim commented on how he is unable to ignore the plight of others. “I have a painful inability to look away. I take putting myself in other people’s shoes seriously,” he said.

Dina Ezzeddine (49) was born in Lebanon and was 14 when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. She explained how personal experience and reading the newspapers contributed to her awareness of oppression. “I was in Beirut when Israel invaded Lebanon and there were the Sabra and Shatila massacres (in the camps where mainly Palestinian refugees lived). We lived one kilometer from Shatila and I remember the people saying, ‘They’re killing people in Sabra and Shatila.’ On the second day, I was eager to look at the local newspapers and see (what happened). It was a shock because most of the people killed were women and children. It was the first time I was aware of right and wrong and oppression.”

Dina Ezzeddine as a child. Source: Dina Ezzeddine

Dina’s family fled to South Lebanon and she remembers helicopters landing by the mosque in the downtown of her hometown. She described how her uncle, an imam, called the people to demonstrate against the invasion. “I went to the demonstration against the Israelis. They surrounded us and so we shouted at them. They looked at us. They came and took my uncle to prison for a year. We were just trying to survive.” Dina also explained how the continuing oppression of Palestinians has kept their cause uppermost in her mind: “With all the Palestinian refugees living among us, and the wars, Israel never gave us time to forget.”

Although Dina’s activism remains focused on Palestine, she is also very active in Black solidarity. “Mostly I am involved with Palestine freedom and justice for Black people. I think these are the two greatest injustices. Black people have been suffering for 400 years. The Palestinian (cause) is home. It is my language. It is my culture. It is my heritage. It is my history. It is my identity. In the Middle East, we have never been bought and sold, so we carry less of a burden (than Black people).”

Dina at a rally in support of Black lives. Source: Dina Ezzeddine

Dina explained the origins of her activism as being related to having experienced injustice first hand. “The experience of being a victim of injustice is my greatest motivation,” she said. It has also influenced how she responds to the oppression of others: “To see first hand calling for help and you don’t get any. Being called a terrorist when you are being bombed. When you are losing everything, but you are left out by the world. We frequently asked, ‘Where is the world?’ I don’t want to be like that. I know how painful it is to be alone and for it to be acknowledged that you are a victim. It’s the same with Black people. (People say) they’re thugs and they have to go to prison and the police are the victims. But, we don’t hear about segregation.”

Did I Find an Answer to My Original Question?

I didn’t find a single defining influence that everyone shared. And, I didn’t find a simple or quick answer to my original question, “Why did I become an activist?”

I wondered if it was possible that something in the brain, like a synapse, could be responsible, so I checked into the research. Although it doesn’t look like the topic has generated much research, there is some. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, “People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion,” which surprised the researchers, who anticipated that emotion would be the key factor (https://news.uchicago.edu/article/2014/03/27/brain-scans-link-concern-justice-reason-not-emotion).

This helps answer my original question and the varied influences on the development of activists. It also has implications for activists—to appeal to reason rather than emotion when advocating on behalf of peace and justice.

2 Comments

  1. vivian zelaya

    Love the stories and their diversity, but I especially love the concluding statement from research: According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, “People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion,” If we are truly human then caring about other humans follows not from fear but from logic!

  2. Susan Meyers

    This is a very interesting piece. It’s interesting to learn what motivates people to become conscious of our responsibility to engage in acts that protect our civil rights. Thank you Katharine Davies Samway!

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