Home » PeaceTimes: Is the Peace Movement Racist?

PeaceTimes: Is the Peace Movement Racist?

Mary Liepold

Mary Liston Liepold

One statement calls racism and xenophobia “the most serious threat to world peace and therefore to the human right to peace.” Do you agree?


Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., probably the best-known peacebuilders in the US, if not the world, were both people of color. Yet if you go to a peace rally or a meeting of a peace organization in most US neighborhoods, you’ll see a rather notable preponderance of pale. What’s up with this?

First let me acknowledge that this is my personal observation, unsupported by statistics, and that (by the same subjective gauge) it’s less true than it used to be. The peace movement is not a formal institution, so stats are hard to come by. I’ve done internet research (some of which I’ll share in the sidebars to Thursday’s full edition) and asked a few of you how it looks from where you sit, but I’d love to hear from others.

Assuming this subjective impression is correct, the questions include why and what to do about it. Two women I admire, one African American and one an American Muslim, will describe what they do about it in the next segments. But maybe a few sub-questions need to be raised first.

Is the issue race or class? Those in the 99% who are working two or three jobs to make ends meet don’t have much time for meetings, and those who aren’t working may be either too busy looking for work or too discouraged to engage. What’s more, the “invisible knapsack” of privileges I wear to demonstrations and everywhere I go as a white American includes a get-out-of-jail card that many immigrants and minority citizens don’t have.

And what movement am I talking about, exactly? Is there one movement or a lot of them? How do we decide who’s in and who’s out of the peace movement, when some of us work at the level of personal peace and others shape national and international policy? Is my yoga teacher a peacebuilder? I think she is. If we add all the good people who work to strengthen the pillars of peace, like education and economic empowerment, maybe the movement is more diverse than I think. What do YOU think?

I’m writing to raise questions and invite your partnership in searching for answers, so this is at best a shallow introduction to a deep and knotty issue. The only assertion I’m out to make is that it behooves us as people of peace to be actively welcoming and inclusive and to commit ourselves to uprooting racism from our societies and ourselves. Opening our eyes to its pervasiveness is an important first step.

In 2009, 163 international NGOs signed on to an Asian Legal Resource Center statement, “The Human Right to Peace vs. Racism,” addressed to the 10th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The statement grew out of consultations on the Universal Declaration of the Human Right to Peace linking racism and peace. It calls racism and xenophobia “the most serious threat to world peace and therefore to the human right to peace.

That’s strong language. Do you agree? Disagree? I look forward to your comments.

This PeaceTimes feature offers two personal perspectives suggesting ways for peace people to extend themselves to groups and individuals who may not yet see themselves as our peace partners. As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this month, let’s all recommit ourselves to the pursuit of peace, partnership, and “the beloved community.”

Samina Sundas

Samina Sundas

Samina Faheem Sundas is the founder and Executive Director of the American Muslim Voice Foundation. Her focus is on eradicating Islamophobia by fostering friendships among all Americans and walking on the path Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. paved for us. She is an advocate of civic engagement through volunteerism, with a particular interest in empowering young women to become the leaders of tomorrow. She believes that through education and social interaction we can build an inclusive and beloved community where all of us feel safe and at home. Samina lives in Palo Alto, California with her daughter, son, nephew, niece, sister, a rabbit, and a Jack Russell terrier.


Why do you call yourself a peace person, Samina?

It is a title I earned from my fellow Americans during the past decade as they witnessed the work of bridging the gap between all communities. I believe it is my commitment and dedication to our mission that has earned me this title. I have dedicated my life for the cause of creating peace and harmony in our world.

American Muslim Voice deeply believes in fostering friendships among all Americans by bridging cultural and religious gaps. Every day we promote new relationships and nurture the old ones because our country’s safety, security and peace depend on us getting to know each other.

In my home, growing up in Pakistan, my parents did not preach a lot, but they practiced Islam and lived their lives according to its tenets. The word Islam means peace and they lived peace. They also taught me by example how to have confidence in myself as a woman. I was a soft-spoken child, so I learned to sit close to my dad whenever there was a large family gathering. He would know when I wanted to say something and ask the group to be quiet so I could be heard.

We as human beings need to be connected, become friends and understand each other’s struggles and whatever issues each community has. Getting to know each other is the first step toward building the beloved community. Breaking bread together, having eye contact, always keeping the dialogue open: That’s what will bring us together as one world. Peace is equality, social justice and harmony.

Peace and justice go hand in hand. Some people want to talk about peace in isolation. I am crystal clear about how we achieve it, and that’s by pursuing social justice.

What strategies do you use to achieve this?

Sincerity is most important of all. The best strategy can fail, but warm hospitality will always prevail. That’s the heart of American Muslim Voice. It’s a very simple program: Just open your door to strangers and friends.

You do have to be brave. When people think too much, they can always come up with something that will prevent them from doing good. Take the leap of faith. In Islam, intentions are very important. God rewards good intentions, whereas nothing good comes from bad intentions. My intention is for myself and others to open our homes for luncheons, Iftar dinners and Eid brunches during the holidays. That’s the only way people will learn who we are. There’s no propaganda―just conversation in a safe environment.

If people have concerns or questions, we answer them. When we open our doors, our homes, and our hearts, we send a message that we trust you. By accepting our invitation, our guests send the same message. That’s how we build trust. There’s only one rule: Don’t sit with someone or talk with someone you already know. We provide a safe, fertile environment to foster the seeds of new friendships. We also hold Peace Picnics outdoors, since people who are not ready to join us need a visual. They need to see that people of different ages, cultures, faiths can be together, have fun and build friendships.

We want our fellow Americans to join us in a new campaign we started in 2011, National Invite Your Neighbor to Dinner Day, on the first Sunday of October. All our work is inspired by the Koranic verse 49.13, Surah Al-Hujurat: “Oh humankind, we have created you from a single cell and divided you into nations and tribes so you may get to know each other, not despise each other.”

Do you ever find other Muslims unwilling to take part in your programs?

No, I have not experienced that. Once they understand the intention of creating a beloved community they are excited about it. If they are reluctant, it is for the same reason my fellow Americans are reluctant: fear of the unknown and inability to take a leap of faith. The results are always positive once they give each other a chance. Too many Americans focus on what divides us rather than what binds us. As you know well, ignorance breeds fear and person to person contact relieves that fear.

How long have you been doing this work?

I have been working for peace for 12 or 15 years but I founded American Muslim Voice in 2003. It has spread from Palo Alto to San Jose, Woodland, Sacramento and even New York City. If I had funding for two staff members, I believe we could take it national and one day, global. But even little by little, it will continue to grow. Six other organizations now join me in promoting Peace Picnics.

What has been the best thing, the most rewarding thing about your work?

It’s the relationships. People ask me why I’m not burned out. My parents knew what kind of work I was going to do, so they trained me well. When choosing a path, they taught me, never focus on the end result. Enjoy each step along the way. Each person I meet, every relationship I build is immensely satisfying. It gives me internal peace that billions of dollars could not buy. I know I am part of a greater scheme, following the will of God. I have beautiful relationships with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Peace X Peace, Code Pink, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, Friends of Human Relations, and too many other organizations to list, and I build on them every day. When we’re in trouble, like with the massive NYPD-CIA infiltration surveillance program that was exposed in August of this year or the scariest provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act that appears headed for President Obama’s signature, we send them an email and ask them to sign on our letter knowing they will. That shows deep trust and friendship, and I cherish each one of those relationships. We only raise about $25,000 a year, but we’ve had enormous success because of our friendship, coalitions and alliances.

Our organization is not just for Muslims; we have a Japanese-American on our Board. I invite everyone to join us.

What was your low point?

Getting started was hard because the typical image of a leader is a man with a Ph.D. At first people couldn’t see me as a leader, but now I have paid my dues, and they see I’m not going away.

What’s ahead?

In January, we’re starting Muslim Women’s Leadership Training, funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with a group of 12 women ranging from high school to a 55-year-old. SVCF is providing a skilled consultant who will give four hours of training each month. The women are excited and I am too. The foundation saw that this fills a gap―as I said a minute ago, most women are not seen as leaders and don’t see themselves as leaders.

I know from my own life that when you learn something at an early age you will keep it, no matter how busy you become. When a girl receives respect, confidence, trust and empowerment from the men in her family the way I did, she becomes a leader. If not, these are things she can learn, and the earlier the better. All my life I have been blessed with wonderful teachers and friends. Providing that for these young women is a sustainable plan for building peace.


Donna Grimes

Donna Toliver Grimes

Who are you, Donna? How do you describe yourself?

I am the Poverty Education and Outreach Manager in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. I am also a catechist in my parish and active in JustFaith, an exciting adult education program that works in parishes. I have served on the National Council of Pax Christi USA, which partners with Just Faith, and currently serve on the DC-Baltimore Regional Board. And I am active in various empowerment projects in my community. So, with humility I am learning and doing and learning some more.

In addition to various peace and justice efforts, I enjoy reading, writing, cooking, and travelling. I am an African-American Catholic and consider myself politically progressive, spiritually charismatic, and prolife all the way, from conception to resurrection. Not by any means least, I have three wonderful children.

My impression is that there are more people of color in the US peace movement now than there were 30 years ago, but the numbers are still not proportional. Is that your observation?

I’m a child of the 60s and 70s so for me advocating for peace is natural, coming straight from my high school and grade school exposure. I grew up with consciousness around the Vietnam War, and I’ve always believed wars are unnecessary I’ve been taking in alternative radio and TV for a long time. I can’t imagine serving in the military. But many in my community, while they may have a sense that the wars are not justified, they’re not anti-military because they have brothers, sisters, uncles in the service. It’s a way to get off the streets, a chance to get ahead.

At the same time, they are conscious of justice issues. We’re starting to make some progress, but we have to do things from the grassroots up and we have to constantly link peace with justice.

When I started this job in 2000 I would look out at the annual national Catholic social ministry gathering and see very few people of color. So I talked to the few who were there and we decided to caucus. We knew there had to be more of us outside who would be interested. They may not know the language of Catholic social teaching, but they have a rich tradition of helping each other. My grandmother who had 14 children always managed to take in others who needed food or a place to stay.

Our African American social ministry caucus wrote a letter to John Carr, the Executive Director of the (now) Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It didn’t make everyone happy, but we were respectful and we made specific suggestions. Where were the speakers of color on these programs, and the books by authors of color? Where were the others ―Asians, Latinos, Native Americans―including people with disabilities, who have very similar issues?

We asked the conference planners to bring in presenters from these groups and ask them what issues are important to them. Let them have a role in setting the agenda. And don’t assume we are always recipients of charity and assistance. We have a lot to contribute. There’s a good way still to go, but I’ve seen progress.

What strategies work for you to get people engaged?

The way to involve people is to start where they are. My parish has a lot of focus on liturgy, especially music, dance and good preaching, so when I was social justice minister I encouraged them to take that out into the community, to nursing homes and public spaces. Be observant about what’s already happening and go where the energy is. It can start small. We have a card ministry that was created to send cards to people who are sick, but the members saw for themselves it wasn’t enough just to send cards so now they visit, deliver the cards, sing carols at Christmas, bring warm socks.

There’s lots of energy around get-out-the-vote campaigns, because that affects us very personally. There’s a definite concern about violence in the streets and that’s in the media, while the truth about the wars isn’t. I come at this from my background in social justice education, but often you have to act your way into understanding the issues and becoming committed to justice. It’s important to be welcoming, to provide the basic needs when someone has a house fire, doesn’t have enough food for their children.

I have friends who care about the larger issues but they don’t feel informed enough. They’re at the mercy of corporate news outlets. They want to know more and they don’t feel they have the time to learn the facts. It’s a long-term process.

Outside of the church, how do you engage people?

The church is the hub for many African Americans, along with our fraternities and sororities, but I talk to my friends about things. I invite them to come out to peace events, and they try to read more and become informed.

Get people together to watch a movie and discuss it, even a popular movie. I got one friend to go to Promises, a movie about Palestinian and Israeli kids in Jerusalem. It was very interesting, and quite sad. Our policies on Israel are so crazy, and many people are just too busy to think things through. I think a film series is an excellent way to get people thinking and engaged in these complex issues.

Reach people through their children, get into the schools. A friend did a peace camp one summer at a nearby church, and the kids loved it. Anything to do with family issues is very important.

My parish has a Haiti ministry and it’s slowly growing. This is something I was talking about years ago, and now we have a medical mission and a sister parish. Groups have made visits, we support economic development initiatives there and are building a relationship with the local Haitian community.

I think economic justice is the strongest connector. People are concerned about how to make their dollars go further, how to have more control over their lives at the most fundamental level. I’m starting to hear that people see the connection between the war abroad and the war at home, as Pax Christi USA describes it. In DC the public education system is so challenged, and we’re told constantly there’s no money for education. Parents don’t feel they have enough options. Some are trying to do anything they can to get their kids into a private school and it’s harder and harder. They want their kids to go to college and then to have a job when they graduate. They feel that opportunities are shrinking for them and their children, even to get a decent apartment. People are very focused on their lives.

We have to keep making the same points over and over, because that’s what the other side does. We don’t have money for housing and schools because it’s going over there―so drones can blow wedding parties to bits?

We have to have a tough skin too. People will say, here comes Donna again. I insert the message everywhere I can. As relentless as the conservatives are, that’s how relentless we need to be. Put your vision out there, the way I did with Haiti. Invite the not-usual-suspects.

At USCCB, we try to put out bite-size actions to get people moving. We’re going toward more use of Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes it’s like yelling into cyberspace: Yoohoo, is anybody out there? You’ve got to get a buzz going around justice and peace.

At the same time, you have to be committed to relationships, personal connections, and face to face is still the way to make connections. That’s how I was recruited to the national Pax Christi Council, by Jean Stokan and others, and the people I have suggested for the Board have all been very active, very engaged. Let people see your sincerity.

We don’t need to save the world. Christ did that already. But if something is bothering you, like torture or the situation of the Palestinians, maybe God is pulling you in that direction. We all have power we don’t realize we have. Learn more about the issue. Start with small actions that build up the community. Maybe buy something locally made instead of those Dead Sea bath salts.

The principle for today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa, is Ujamaaa, cooperative economics. Think about where you shop. Make gifts instead of shopping, or donate to just causes. Start somewhere, and see where God wants to take you.



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