Youth are Re-Invigorating the Peace Movement

Winners of Mass. Peace Action student poster contest, 2015

Remarks presented by Angela Kelly at Mass Peace Action’s 60th Anniversary Celebration

Angela KellyThank you to our wonderful MC, Jimmy Tingle, and to all of the staff, board, members and friends of Mass Peace Action, who have made possible not only today’s celebration, but the 60 years of activism that have preceded it! It is a pleasure to be with you all today and an honor to hear from the other speakers and performers, all of whom are truly inspiring.

I’ve been asked to speak with you briefly about Peace Action’s youth empowerment work, part of its broader commitments to movement building. My first connection with Peace Action was nearly 15 years ago, and the truth is, with each passing year since, I feel less qualified to be a spokesperson for youth activism. However, I do still vividly remember how much it meant to me to first find my way to Peace Action back then.

The politics of my college years were shaped by the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, catastrophes that compelled me to get involved with the peace movement. The first demonstration I organized was my school’s participation in the National Student Strike Against War in early March 2003, and Peace Action and the Student Peace Action Network were among the first websites I turned to while planning for that action, finding helpful tools like factsheets and petitions to print and circulate. These resources helped me believe I could organize those around me with confidence that we were becoming part of something much larger than ourselves.

A few weeks later, I was horrified to watch clips of blurry blasts exploding over Baghdad, one of the first invasions to be broadcast live on TV. It haunted me, knowing countless civilians were being killed by my government’s greed and lies, and that many of my own peers’ lives would be claimed, too, and that this senseless death and destruction was being carried out despite millions of us having taken to the streets to say: “NO, not in our names”.

When I graduated a year later, and the war was still raging on, I moved to DC to become a full time activist and started working at Peace Action’s national office. My first gig there was as a phone canvasser for the 2004 Peace Voter campaign, one of many efforts to reduce the recklessness of the Bush Administration to a single term. When that didn’t happen, I began to realize this was going to be long haul work, that the change we were seeking in our world would not be achieved by one action, one election, one organization, not even by one movement. After the election, my role expanded to include supporting chapter organizing, legislative advocacy, coordinating the growing Student Peace Action Network and representing it to movement-wide coalitions. I began to meet activist mentors and am endlessly grateful that one of the first with whom I connected was Steven Brion-Meisels.

As chair of the Mass Peace Action board, and its representative to the national board, as well, Steven brought many gifts to Peace Action in his 30+ years of leadership. Although his thoughtful presence has been greatly missed since his untimely death a few years ago, his legacy lives on in many ways, among them his deep commitment to the empowerment of young people and his principled insistence that we bring an intersectional approach to working for peace with justice by confronting the systems of oppression, particularly racism, that create and perpetuate so many manifestations of violence in our world.

Steven had a knack for noticing who “wasn’t in the room” and a corresponding gift for creating space for the voices, perspectives, and leadership of those whose experiences are often not centered. As a young person just finding my way into this work back then, he helped me to find my own voice, and he championed ways for us to invite other youth and under-represented folks into our work, as well.

Mass Peace Action’s commitment to supporting young people’s leadership continues today in the form of the Steven Brion-Meisels Youth Peace Fellowship, which supports organizing now led by Caitlin Forbes, Mass Peace Action’s first staff member solely devoted to engaging younger generations of peace-makers, especially needed now as we look to the next 60 years.

As a result of this investment, and the generous support of many of you, there are now Student Peace Action groups active on the campuses of Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, BC, Emmanuel and other area colleges, and high school groups in Newton and Cambridge, as well as a thriving internship program that engages several young leaders every year, creating opportunities for them to help lobby politicians, organize demonstrations, plan educational events, build multi-issue coalitions, and more.

At a moment when our future looks particularly grim as a result of the multiple crises worsening around us, I find hope in the passionate, creative activism of young people who will lead us forward. Already we see some of the most powerful movement of our time — the Movement for Black Lives, movements for climate justice and those in solidarity with Standing Rock, the movement of DREAMers for the rights of all immigrants — led by young people and those most impacted by these issues, as they experiment with bold and visionary new strategies for our times. As old wars persist, and the threats of new conflicts terrify us, I am also heartened by Peace Action’s commitment to uplifting the leadership of young activists and have been truly moved by those I’ve met thus far.

Some are here today, and I hope you get to meet them too. Like Kimia Tabatabaei, a senior at Newton South, who has organized teach-ins, forums, art exhibits, fund-raisers and demonstrations to educate her peers and community about the refugee crisis, the disastrous U.S. foreign policies that created it, and what we can do in response. A young Iranian-American, she has been outspoken against the Trump Administration’s policies of bigotry and exclusion, speaking out against the Muslim Ban and creating ways to connect people in the U.S. to the experiences of those she knows in Iran.

Micaela Fraccolossi, a campus organizer with Emmanuel Peace Action, gives voice to the hope she feels as a result of being part of this work, saying, “It brings me joy to see my fellow students become so passionate about what they believe in. It gives me hope that with this passion, many issues, domestically and internationally, will be addressed in this generation. I feel privileged to be part of an organization that never stops pushing for collective action and new initiatives for the common good.”

Over the break just now, I bumped into Susy Derby’s mom. Susy was an intern in the MAPA office during my time on staff. She and other young leaders helped us organize the 2008 Think Outside the Bomb conference at MIT, a transformative gathering of young anti-nuclear activists, making connections between the devastations caused by nuclear weapons, power, and waste, especially for frontline communities. Susy now lives in the shadows of the nuclear complex in New Mexico, where she is a devoted educator and remains a fierce and committed activist in multiple movements. Her mom just told me that Susy is going to “shake up the whole state of New Mexico” while she’s there.

And there are many other young people whose politics, activism, and journeys in working toward justice have been shaped by involvement in Peace Action. Though some of us are not so youthful anymore, we can still trace our passion for movement-building back to what we first learned and experienced in our time at Peace Action and through the grassroots efforts to which it connected us.=

So in closing, I’d like to invite all of you to think for a moment about who brought you into this work? Who mentored you in joining movements for peace and justice? Who are the inspirations, guides, and ancestors you looked to when you were younger? What are the groups that first helped you get involved — whether it was 10, 20, 40, 60 years ago — and who helps you stay involved today?

My mentor, Steven, often quoted Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of Peace Action’s earliest leaders, who said, “Hope arouses like nothing else a passion for the possible.” In memory of Steven, and all the activist ancestors on whose shoulders we now stand, and in honor of all the young people now building our futures, and those in the generations yet to come, may we keep alive this hope, trusting that a future of peace and justice is possible. May we continue to work together, across generations and differences that may otherwise divide us, in solidarity with many, in ever-growing movements of change, to make this more hopeful future a reality for all. Too much is at stake not to. Thank you.