Tuesday, December 2, 2008

When I Am a Grownup I Will Do Something

Barbara's decades of work as a peace advocate is featured in author Kay Kennedy's new anthology-- a compilation of stories about events in history as seen through the eyes of those who lived it.

The START II Treaty (cooperative threat reduction) targeted a site near our sister city for the building of a decommissioning plant to render weaponry harmless. When a previous site in Russia had attempted to build such a facility, Russian citizens who didn’t understand the plan and were afraid of the project successfully protested and closed down the plant. (It was great to see fledgling democracy at work, but the efforts in the case of stalling a bilateral mutual weapons elimination plan were misguided due to lack of information, education and misunderstandings.)

By the time START II came along, our sister city organization already had a decade of cooperative Russian-American relationship building experience. Mutually cooperative partnerships already existed between our municipal organizations—police and firefighters, mayor and city leaders. We already had healthcare, educational, social and business bridges with frequent personnel exchanges in the oblast (section) where the plant was scheduled to be built. USAID funded our project for $250,000.

As Executive Secretary with the Sister Cities program, Barbara wrote the grant and became the grant administrator for funding the foundational social infrastructure for a cooperative effort between cities that supported building a chemical weapons decommissioning plant in her sister city region in Russia. USAID funded the project as an adjunct to the Cooperative Threat Reduction START II Treaty between the United States and Russia. Her story appears in Kay Kennedy's new anthology Looking Back.

You may read the entire story here...


“What will it feel like to be vaporized? Will it hurt? Will I know right away that I am dead? My family will be dead too. Will we all go to heaven together? What about Jody, my dog? Will she come too?” The never-ending cycle of uninvited thoughts and the heart pounding fear was a nightly ritual. I tried to shift my focus to the coolness of summer sheets and pulled the comforter up to my chin. Even in summer I insisted on a blanket or comforter. Maybe in my young mind, the extra cover or extra weight would somehow protect me. An illusion can save you sometimes, even when you’re dealing with insanity.

My generation accepted the inevitability of nuclear war. None of us actually expected to make it to adulthood. We were surrounded by icons of fear—radiation symbols, evacuation drills and sirens—that high pitched and eerie wail that pierced the air resurrecting with each blast, the sickening feeling in my stomach and chest. I was nauseous for most of my childhood.

The image of Khrushchev pounding his shoe and screaming “We will bury you” was burned into our memory. The cold war was a daily reality with daily reminders. I didn’t understand how Russians and Americans could vow to annihilate one another when each knew nothing of the other. I couldn’t understand how the grownups who were in charge of the world could allow a philosophical disagreement to destroy the entire planet! I wondered if Russian kids were as scared as I was. I knew this wasn’t right and it wasn’t a good way to run the world. Why didn’t the grownups DO SOMETHING?!

One night after prayers, I made a vow. I vowed that if I lived long enough to be a grownup, I would do something. As a young adult, I joined the anti-war movement. My peers were dying daily in Viet Nam and after denouncing the legacy of complacency that characterized the youth of the fifties, my generation became angry—damn angry. We questioned, protested, rebelled against the hypocrisy of their government and the passivity of our parents. I believe the “Summer of Love” of 1967 was a pivotal point in social history.

We had hypocrisy fatigue, war fatigue and we sought to move toward love, peace and caring in any form. Tired of passivity and living with post traumatic stress from the constant threat of disintegration of not only us, but all of life, we rebelled. We took drugs because we had grown up with nuclear holocaust and impending doom in the collective human psyche, with no laughter, no promise of hope, and no future. We needed a break from too much reality. Tolerance faded for anything not genuine. It was an incredible time, an incredible counterculture and a very loud declaration to the world that this generation demanded change! My generation began a movement toward community and of inclusion—forming groups and communes because we could no longer tolerate divisiveness. The sixties defined a generation that wanted the grownups to do it differently. I was a flower child and I loved how it felt; for the first time, I thought more about love, hope and life than I did about death. We lived intensely, with love, and in the moment. It was a transcendental time that marked a transcendental birth in the human psyche.

I remained a transcendentalist throughout the stages of my life. The moon landing in 1969 had a profound impact on me; I saw the first picture of the earth over the horizon of the moon and knew that I was looking at an awe- inspiring spiritual icon heralding a new way of being in the world. An artist, I recreated in my work the theme of one life, one planet and respect for all life. Some of my creations ended up on posters and book covers or given as awards to champions of social justice and some ended up at citizen’s summits in Moscow. My daughter and I joined the Peace Child project and I helped found our local sister cities chapter as we partnered with a city in Russia and we began cultural exchanges. My children grew up with a peace activist and with Russians.

I learned later that indeed my Russian counterparts lay awake many nights with the same questions I had. We both felt betrayed by our governments. As we learned to trust each other, my Russian friends and I watched the world evolve through the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet coup and the democratization of Russia.

In the late nineties, one of the doctors in the program discovered that our sister city was located near a secret city where chemical weapons were stockpiled. The U.S. government was deeply committed to the Start II Treaty then—an agreement between the two countries to reduce their weapons stockpiles by cooperatively building decommissioning plants. An Executive Officer, I wrote a grant for USAID to fund a partnership between our city and the new city in Russia targeted for such a facility. Suspicious from past relations with Americans, the Russians had successfully halted the building of a similar plant in another city by employing the tactics of civil disobedience. I was thrilled for their new found freedoms, but alarmed by their misguided efforts to halt the mutual U.S. and Russian decommissioning of weapons of mass destruction. Since we, in Sister Cities had long ago made friends with Russian institutions in the area and had a 10 year successful track record of citizen diplomacy, maybe we could extend that fellowship to governmental institutions.

My dream of being a grownup and doing something came true at the dawning of the 21st century. Our grant funded, I found myself standing in Red Square looking at St. Basil’s Cathedral with a feeling of awe instead of the terror the image conjured in my childhood. I sat in a meeting with two army generals—a Russian and American who announced to the Russian media, their cooperative effort to begin destroying stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. I had a long distrust of the military and its leaders but I stood in a secret location looking at a construction site knowing that the project was in very good hands, the hands of two men who knew the stakes and came from a place of heart and honor.

I heard Russians acknowledge that for them too, this was a monumental historical moment, and they also felt humbled to be a small part of it. Now a grownup, I had fulfilled my promise to do something. There was no laughter when as a child, I thought about “Russians.” As a grownup I have laughed much and often with them. That particular “doing something” ended in a pub somewhere in Siberia the night before departure. I confessed to my Russian friend the story about my childhood and the dream of grownups doing something. I thanked her for her intrepid courage and asked her how did she do it? Her answer as we both dissolved into hysterics: “You forget my friend, I learned it from a Capitalist. This is a free county; and I can do anything I want!”

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A few Thoughts...

When I think about it, my own life is no less rich and the living no less inspiring than my pioneering ancestors and I come from a long line of Indians and outlaws so don't ever turn your back on me!

Life is, after all, a slice of human consciousness lived from its place in human evolution. "From here to eternity" as it were-- from earth to the stars, from personal space to cyberspace, from a small local footprint to the world reduced to the size of a notebook and sitting on your lap!

As a child I lived with the perpetual and immenent threat of annihilation. That's child abuse! It wasn't a kid-friendly world and I couldn't understand why the grown-ups who were in charge weren't doing something?

So at age seven with my face in the window eyes turned up into the night sky and staring at the stars I made a vow: "When I am a grown-up, I will do something."

My writing is that something and I write to "simply change the world." If that sounds like a lack of humility it isn't because I know that one person absolutely can change the world and I've met some who have.

Kay Kennedy put together an anthology that puts the reader in the midst of history to view it from the inside out.

When I was in high school and even college, history classes were stale and boring featuring memorization and regurgitation of dates that coincided with events that had no human face, certainly no magic, and no life!

Anthologies are great fun and stores are rich remembrances. History books chronicle; stories are little narrative slices of living. History comes alive through story. I often think of my grandmother and her story, her life-- the history she lived. In her lifetime she saw humankind evolve from horse and buggy to man on the moon.

I was a sixties kid and for the youth of the sixties, turmoil, disillusionment, and revolution were everyday 'business as usual'. Like a radio perpetually on low volume, fear and death dronned on in the background. The superpowers threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, the Vietnam War was escalating and peers were being escorted home under American Flag blankets. The civil rights and equal rights movements were testing human civility, and faster than one could recover from one shock another real life hero would fall to yet another assassin. Despair was commonplace. Contrast that with a man on the moon... we could conquer space travel but couldn't make nukes or war obsolete! It was a time when youth needed hope because hope was scarce. When it was finally resurrected, it came in the form of idealism and a philosophy of brotherly and universal love. Perfect principles; imperfect execution.

For others who contributed to "Looking Back," the history is different for each because the "times" were different as well as the perspective of the individuals. The stories of human societal evolution are enlightening, heartwarming, poignant and spellbinding. They put a human face on the past.

And there are people now who are putting a face on the future...