At a meeting of the coordinating council of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in late July, turnout is sparse. Only half of the council’s 12 members are present, and only two of those have given prior notice of their absence. The meeting begins with the ceremonial lighting of the peace flame, a tall candle at the center of the small table around which the council sits. They exchange greetings and then get down to business, approving some changes to the center’s brochure and a small library policy revision, then reviewing T-shirt design ideas for the annual Peace Party in October. Several of the members’ hands are in constant motion, folding dozens of tiny origami “peace cranes,” which council member Carel Schneider plans to take with her on an Aug. 5 trip to Jerusalem, Israel, for an international Women in Black conference. (Women in Black is a worldwide network of women committed to peace. The local chapter holds a silent vigil on the Higgins Avenue bridge every Friday.)
Midway through the meeting, the center’s new director, Betsy Mulligan-Dague, shifts gears and takes on an air of seriousness. She points out that the council needs to be more active in Peace Center events. Though she is the first to admit that it’s difficult to garner widespread interest in the peace movement these days, she wants the council to lead by example. Low turnout and participation in conscientious objector workshops, a recent Hiroshima commemoration program and board meetings are just a few examples of how the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center is struggling to engage the public in dialogue. Since the onset of the war in Iraq, getting people to respond to violence by volunteering time, participating in programs, becoming members and giving donations has become increasingly difficult, and Mulligan-Dague wants the board to set a better example.
“We have a lot of things going on, and yet only about half of the board is active in these events,” she tells the panel.
But since only half the council is present at the July meeting, they table any in-depth discussion and Mulligan-Dague vows to meet individually with all coordinating council members to talk about the organization and how they see their role in it.
With that business out of the way, Mulligan-Dague shifts gears once again, referring the board to a series of charts posted on a stand behind her. They outline the recent financial history of the Peace Center. Mulligan-Dague reports that the center is back on solid financial footing, having recovered from the dire financial straits of less than six months ago.
“We are in good shape at present, given where we were,” she says. “We did not end up the year in the hole. We’re on the right track, now we need to maintain that and not go on a spending spree.”
The board applauds and exhales a collective sigh of relief.
“It’s looking a lot better,” says council member Steve McArthur. “I think we’re doing the right thing.”
The board was facing a very different picture at the beginning of the year. The center had experienced a huge drop-off in membership, donations and participation in the months following the start of the Iraq war—a decline exacerbated by the results of November’s elections. Prior to the war, the center was firing on all cylinders and bringing in unprecedented donations. The global peace movement was alive and well in Western Montana, as hundreds of people gathered for peace rallies and anti-war demonstrations in Missoula. Activity at the center was at an all-time high, so the board decided in 2003 to hire an executive director and business director to help manage the activity. The increase in staff quadrupled the center’s personnel costs from $12,207 in 2002 to $50,802 in 2003. By fiscal year 2004, that number had ballooned to $62,492. But by then, enthusiasm for the peace movement had waned and donations had dropped off, from about $52,000 in 2003 to just over $24,000 in 2004. The war was in full gear and would-be peacemakers were not seeing the results they’d hoped for. The center ended the fiscal year in June of that year facing a $20,000 shortfall.
By February 2005 the center was facing the prospect of being unable to pay its bills.
“The danger was definitely that the expenses were overrunning the income,” says Mulligan-Dague. “We had tried to do some fund raising and find other ways to bring in income, but by February we realized that wasn’t going to be sufficient.”
In April, then-director Carol Bellin resigned. The council laid off Jean Duncan, the center’s business director, shortly thereafter.
Today, Mulligan-Dague says the center has recovered from the immediate financial crisis, thanks in large part to the huge reduction in staff costs. But one looming question remains: how does a local, grassroots peace center survive in an era of ongoing warfare?
At a time when the work of a peace center would seem to be more critical than ever, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center finds itself at a turning point, searching for new ways to re-energize the peace movement at the local level and change attitudes toward war. Meanwhile, the center’s leadership is forced to look at the center’s mission and find new ways to sustain the organization financially.
The center has a history of grassroots activism and education dating back to its humble beginnings in the basement of the University Congregational Church in October of 1987. The Peace Center moved to its present location at 519 S. Higgins in September 1994. By the early 1990s, the center was at the hub of regional anti-war demonstrations. A 1991 news article in the San Francisco Examiner labeled Missoula “the nation’s anti-war capital,” and the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center helped drive the movement with demonstrations and draft counseling services.
Over the years the center has hosted hundreds of programs and attracted speakers from all over the world to forward its message of peace, justice and sustainability, but it’s no stranger to the ebb and flow that comes with being a part of the peace movement.
Three years ago, the wounds of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were fresh, the United States was entrenched in combat operations in Afghanistan and it was becoming increasingly clear that the country was on a path to war in Iraq. In a period of heightened military conflict, and with the looming threat of an even bigger war on the horizon, the Peace Center didn’t have to struggle to get its message heard. It certainly had no difficulty drawing participants to scheduled programs and events. In fact, it was all the center could do to keep up with the constant stream of phone calls, event planning and requests for information that came pouring in. Donations from anti-war supporters were steady and center membership rose, as people from Missoula and across the region threw their weight behind the emergent peace movement.
Anita Doyle, one of the Peace Center’s founding members, took over as director of the center following 9/11. She says prior to 9/11, the center had struggled financially, with interest in the peace movement waning after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“The Peace Center was hanging on by its fingertips in the year before 9/11 happened,” says Doyle. “We were down to three members of the board who were holding the thing together on the basis of volunteer efforts.”
With the 9/11 attacks, the tide turned in a hurry. Doyle herself was preparing to start a new series of classes within her spiritual therapy practice, but when the towers fell she decided it was more important to return to the Peace Center instead.
“I made the decision that I would put that on hold and move in to direct the Peace Center. Either we would rise to 9/11 or we would fall,” she says now.
Almost immediately after the events of 9/11, the center was overwhelmed with calls from people looking to connect with others who felt that more violence was not the appropriate response to the attacks.
“That sort of event catalyzes everyone,” says Doyle. “Without the Peace Center, people might not know how to hook up with those who share their beliefs. The center acts as a lightning rod for that energy.”
Membership rose to nearly 700 people in 2003 from a meager 280 in 2002. The center saw increases in sales at its Fair Trade Store, and total contributions to the center climbed from about $35,000 in 2002 to about $52,000 in 2003.
“The reality is, the only time the Peace Center is functioning optimally is when there is a crisis,” says Doyle.
By the time fiscal year 2003 ended in June, the center had seen a 29-percent increase in revenues from the previous year. Much of that increase was due to higher membership rates, more donations and money coming in from special events. The Peace Center went from an all-volunteer staff in 2001 to employing three paid staff members by 2003. Doyle stepped down as part-time director in 2003, and the board decided that with the huge increase in activity, it was necessary to hire a 3/4-time director, a 3/4-time business manager, and a part-time person to staff the center’s Free Trade Store. They hired local activist Carol Bellin to fill the role of director, and Jean Duncan to manage the books.
Ethel MacDonald, the center’s 2005 Peacemaker of the Year, joined the coordinating council shortly before the decision was made to hire additional staff.
“From October of 2001 until March of 2003 we had two years of numerous peace rallies and steady activism, so we had more money. Running the Peace Center became a big job,” says MacDonald. “There was a need for activism and organization. We added a second staff person because we needed help with the bookkeeping and running the store so that the director could focus on running the center and organizing events and programs.”
Bellin brought new organization and structure to the center, says council member and longtime peace activist Carel Schneider.
“One of the gifts that Carol brought was her experience working with boards,” says Schneider. “But what ended up happening is we filled the board with all these different folks that the Peace Center wasn’t necessarily their passion. Some people were coming in with no board experience and with no experience of the Peace Center.”
Schneider says the energy began to drop off in March 2003, when peace efforts around the globe failed to prevent the war, and the U.S. began bombing Baghdad.
“When I came on board in 2002, I couldn’t believe all of the energy,” says Schneider. “After the war started, things started dying down. There was this sense of, ‘we weren’t able to prevent the war, so now what do we do?’”
MacDonald is less reserved in her analysis of the decline in activity at the center. Stepping out of her role as a council member, MacDonald states her belief that the Bush administration’s war policy has taken the wind out of the sails of the peace movement.
“I would say that 95 percent of the people who consider themselves peace activists wanted a peace candidate in the last election,” MacDonald says. “Most peacemakers absolutely believe that George Bush lied, that corporate oil and big weapons manufacturers are absolutely in control of the administration and that [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Bush advisor Karl] Rove are crooks.”
Joshua Frank, essayist, political commentator and author of Left Out: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, agrees with MacDonald, and says some liberal groups are partly responsible for the derailment of the peace movement.
“You had organizations coming to prominence that were very anti-war and definitely to the left of [Democratic presidential hopeful Sen.] John Kerry, but once John Kerry was hailed as Democratic candidate, there was complete capitulation,” says Frank, a Billings native. “Groups like MoveOn and United for Peace and Justice failed to hold Kerry’s feet to the fire. Instead of talking about war, they were talking about how to get Kerry in office or talking about how awful Bush was.”
After the implosion of the Howard Dean campaign, Frank says, the anti-war movement and progressive Democrats found themselves without a voice in the months leading up to the election. When even liberal outposts like The Nation and The Progressive magazines failed to take a critical look at Kerry’s war policy, the peace movement suffered, says Frank. When Bush won a second term in November 2004, MacDonald says, the peace movement took it hard.
“Bush has led us into a terrible state of ruling by fear and has divided the country by putting the emphasis on issues like gay marriage and abortion,” says MacDonald, choking back tears. “People who oppose the war, Peace Center supporters, are overwhelmingly devastated that this country could reelect a self-proclaimed war president.”
Peace centers around the country are under pressure to regain some of the energy they experienced after 9/11 and leading up to the war in Iraq. What’s to be done when tens of millions of people demonstrate around the world as part of a global push for peace and they get war instead?
Betty Ball, co-director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, one of the largest such centers in the nation, says the peace movement is still trying to regroup from the disappointments of the last two years.
As had the Rankin Peace Center, the Rocky Mountain Center experienced serious decline in membership and participation once war broke out.
“Very soon after the war started, we had a plummet,” says Ball. “Things just got bleaker and bleaker.”
Ball says the Boulder center remained financially stable thanks to a couple of large endowments from wills, but membership and contributions remain way down today. Prior to the war, the center had close to 2,000 members, Ball says. Today there are fewer than 1,000.
“We’re still scrambling to try to get back to the level we were enjoying in the pre-war period.”
The Resource Center for Nonviolence, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., is fortunate enough to own rental property that generates a steady revenue stream. Thus that center is able to weather drop-offs in contributions more easily. Nevertheless, bookkeeper Nanlouise Wolfe says her center is finding it increasingly difficult to get people to participate in events since Bush’s reelection.
“I really feel like people are feeling helpless and apathetic,” says Wolfe. “It’s been more of a struggle recently to get people involved and to find things that really feel meaningful to people. I think we’re trying to figure out what are the things we can do to bring people in and feel inspired.”
Local peace centers rooted in 60s-style pacifism are up against new challenges in today’s high-tech world of instant information and aggressive fund raising and political action. They now have to compete with high-profile online organizations vying for the same donations and contributions. That growing Internet community includes national groups like MoveOn.org, Truthout.org and United For Peace and Justice (www.unitedforpeace.org). Whereas in the past local peace centers were the logical place to turn for resources, information and as a gathering grounds for activism, today Internet-based organizations have worked their way into the public consciousness and e-mail inboxes. Concerned individuals can log on, sign petitions, donate to specific political actions or campaigns, or simply connect with people all over the world with the click of a mouse.
Mulligan-Dague says while the Internet has changed the way people explore ideas, it hasn’t replaced the need for local resources like the Rankin Peace Center.
Dague says she sometimes includes links to those groups in the center’s e-mail newsletters when the mission parallels that of the peace center. By doing so, she connects national issues to the local center.
“I think some of our members may choose to give nationally as well, but if they give locally it creates this community that they can be a part of,” she says. “I really don’t think people want to just give money. I think they want to feel that they are a part of something.”
One of Mulligan-Dague’s first actions since stepping into the role of director in April (on a volunteer basis until the council voted in June to hire her as paid staff) was to track down past-due memberships and find out what members want from the Peace Center.
In January the center was down to 350 members from its 2003 peak of around 670. Today the center is back up to 520 members who pay $35 for an individual membership, $50 for a family membership, and $60 for business memberships. A “living lightly” individual membership costs $20 annually.
A July 21 fund-raising event included a house concert with local singer/songwriter Amy Martin, which brought in $650 in ticket sales and resulted in a $500 membership donation from one of the attendees. July’s peace potluck at the center drew 32 people and recruited several more members.
But as the center slowly works toward regaining some of its pre-war momentum, Mulligan-Dague continues to face the challenges of donor fatigue and activist burnout.
“That is one of my biggest challenges,” she says. “Part of it is people are busy. Also, part of it might be complacency and apathy. That increases my challenge to create more interest and motivation for people to get involved. Today’s world makes you operate out of fear. The natural human response to fear is to close up and protect yourself.”
And Doyle insists it’s not just rallies, demonstrations and activism that define the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center—it’s the continuing work that goes on when there isn’t a crisis that matters most.
“The Peace Center was created with the mind of working steadily toward peace and shifting public awareness of what the options are; how we might create a world free of war,” she says.
Mulligan-Dague shares that belief. She says that in addition to raising money, programming and promoting events, and recruiting new members, one of her most important jobs is tapping into the strengths and interests of the people close to the center.
“For me, it’s a call back to being the change I want to see in the world,” she says, referring to a quote by Mahatma Gandhi and the theme of this year’s annual Peace Party. “We’ve always been a resource center. It isn’t about one person’s idea for achieving peace; it’s about having a dialogue around the issues. I may work to increase personal peace. Ethel [MacDonald] may work to embolden people. Both will help get us to where we need to go. We can’t give up. You may never know the impact you have. You plant seeds and see and dream what’s possible.”
It’s not easy to gauge success in the quest for peace, but Mulligan-Dague says there are promising signs. She points to the fact that demonstrations prior to the war drew massive turnouts, and recent polls indicate that Americans’ support for the military occupation of Iraq is plummeting.
Joshua Frank says the anti-war movement needs to take advantage of changing attitudes toward the war and shift focus in order to regain some of the pre-war momentum.
“It going to be tough,” says Frank. “Before the war, protesting was really the only thing that we could do. But now, I think the movement needs to start raising more awareness of who’s behind the profiteering of war.”
For her part, Mulligan-Dague doesn’t believe that America’s march to war was the result of a failure on behalf of the peace movement.
“Prior to Vietnam, war was popular…the whole concept of peace prior to Vietnam wasn’t really in the forefront,” says Dague. “It took 10 years to end the Vietnam War. Just because the [Iraq] war hasn’t ended doesn’t mean the peace movement has failed.”
For Philip Reed, a 27-year-old Army veteran whose enlistment ended just months before 9/11, the Peace Center plays an important role in the community. As a veteran trying to speak out against war as a means of conflict resolution, the Peace Center provides him with an avenue to reach out to teens and young adults. He’s working with the center to implement a program that will educate youths on how to establish a conscientious objector status claim, as well as help them find peaceful alternatives to achieving their goals of traveling, earning college money and having adventures.
“As a veteran of the United States Army, I once believed that war was an effective tool for defending my freedoms and securing my safety,” Reed wrote in a letter to Montana Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Representative Dennis Rehberg. “Before external peace can be achieved, internal peace must be present…I’ve learned from training missions as a tank gunner that war is not a place to cultivate inner peace.”
No one involved with the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center believes that fund-raising, rallying, monthly potlucks or small workshops in Missoula will magically deliver peace on earth. The quest for peace is an endless—some would say unattainable—struggle. But as the center nears its 20th anniversary, those closest to its mission understand that if that goal is ever to be achieved, a place must exist where peace can be nurtured and grow.
“It’s awfully hard for one individual alone to feel like they are making an impact on a global level,” Mulligan-Dague says. “Sometimes creating a local grassroots community is about working together so that 500 people can have a stronger voice than one. The creation of a community helps people feel like they can do more than they could by themselves.”
According to Anita Doyle, that sense of community lies at the heart of Missoula’s Peace Center.
“Over the years, when we’ve asked people what’s most important to them about the Peace Center,” recalls Doyle, “almost everyone replies, ‘that it’s there.’”
For now, at least, it’s not going anywhere.