Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God. –Matthew 5:9
This Friday two Missoulians will be honored for their peacemaking efforts in an increasingly perilous world.
Nearly seven months to the day after religious fundamentalists terrorized the United States, the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center is honoring two local peacemakers who, through their work in social and environmental justice, have made the world a bit saner and cleaner. Local human rights activist Scott Nicholson and environmentalist Bryony Schwan will share the award this year at the Peace Center’s 15th annual Peacemaker Award ceremony. Peace Center coordinator Anita Doyle says the dual awards represent a departure from a tradition of honoring just one individual each year.
“There was a desire to expand the scope of the Peacemaking Award after the extraordinary events in September,” she says.
Awardee Scott Nicholson was diverted from his original career goal of business and banking—and the never-ending pursuit of “upscale customers”—when he attended a lecture at Idaho State University on the plight of Central America. The “brilliant” political science professor introduced him to the harsh reality of America’s involvement in a bloody struggle for social justice and the control of valuable resources. “I had no idea any of this was going on,” he says.
That wake-up call was enough to persuade Nicholson to leave banking and the different life he had in mind for himself and plunge deeper into the life of a social worker. He found work with the Spokane Justice for Central America Committee. “It was the first time in my life I had a job that really mattered,” he says.
In 1989 he made his first trip to Central America, visiting the Mesa Grande refugee camp in Honduras where upwards of 12,000 El Salvadorans had fled. It was on this trip he came face-to-face with the victims of military violence. “I entered what was left of a home that a U.S.-made rocket had ripped through a month earlier, killing five family members, four of whom were children,” he says. “The father of the family, his head wrapped in a bandana, struggled to hold back his tears as he spoke of his children and showed me the bloodstains and shrapnel that remained in the ruins. Then he unwound his bandana and showed me the shrapnel in his head, on which the English words were clearly visible.”
Nicholson spoke with other victims of the attack a month later: an inconsolable mother of two children who were killed; a pregnant woman only weeks from delivery who received shrapnel wounds to her chest and legs and who, miraculously, delivered a live baby. And he read an autopsy report of a 10-year-old boy who died from the “complete destruction of all organs and tissues.” The boy had taken a direct hit from rocket fire.
In the summer of 2000, when most local media attention was focused on Montana’s wildfires, Nicholson quietly founded the Community Action for Justice in the Americas (CAJA). His purpose now is to bear witness to the ongoing violence in his hemisphere, and in particular to highlight the role the United States plays in perpetrating it. He notes that President Bush’s request for spending in the region includes $98 million for a military brigade to protect a pipeline that transports oil for Occidental Petroleum. Nicholson points out that there are no human rights conditions attached to the American “aid” package.
The second awardee, Bryony Schwan, is a native of Zimbabwe who formed the environmental justice group Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) in the fall of 1994 after her own and other women’s dissatisfaction with the male domination of the conservation movement.
“I had been doing a lot of activism in wilderness and national forest issues, and I found the movement to be difficult for women,” she says.
Schwan saw other women dropping out of the conservation movement for many of the same reasons, prompting her and others to band together to bring a more humane voice to environmental issues.
Focusing on people on the landscape rather pitting jobs against the environment has brought not only success to WVE, but has a resulted in a cleaner, more economically stable Missoula.
The first successful WVE project was convincing Stone Container to eliminate its chlorine bleaching process. The group did it not by targeting Stone as an enemy, but by researching the issue thoroughly enough to offer the company other options. The result: Chlorine was eliminated while jobs were safeguarded.
“What was unique to our style is that we recognized that Stone Container was a key player in our economy,” she says.
Schwan and WVE have turned up the volume considerably in the past year. Schwan is now national campaign director of an effort to get the chemical industry to clean up its toxic act. Though the participants only met for the first time last June in Louisiana, the heart of the chemical industry, they’ve already had one notable success.
Targeting Victoria’s Secret, the parent company of the Bath and Body Works company, they convinced Victoria’s Secret chief executive officer to phase out the use of polyvinyl chloride in Bath and Body Works packaging.
The Internet-driven campaign, called “Victoria’s Dirty Little Secret,” succeeded where others have failed because, again, Schwan recognizes what some environmental activists do not: Companies often buy packaging materials, like polyvinyl chloride, in bulk and cannot simply eliminate its use overnight without suffering economic loss. As an activist, she’s learned to give in order to get.
The Peacemaker Award came as a complete and welcome surprise, she says. “It was really gratifying getting it,” she says. “It meant a lot to me because doing this job you get yelled at a lot more than you get thanked.”
Nicholson says he’s doubly honored, not only for receiving the award, but for receiving it in Schwan’s respected company.
The 2002 Peacemaker Award ceremony will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. on April 12 at the University Congregational Church in Missoula. The awards ceremony follows at 7 p.m.