During March the US section of WILPF held elections for their board. This week WILPFs Secretariat interviewed the new WILPF US President Mary Harrison on how she came to WILPF and what she seeing in WILPF US future.
Where in the United States are you from?
I grew up on a small dairy farm in the Midwest out in the middle of the Iowa prairie. I had a view of the Raccoon River flowing through our bottomland under the shade-filled maples of Squirrel Hollow Park. Sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it. But not so much in reality. Even with the rich black soil, there was oppressive poverty and the eternal cycle of plenty or scarcity. What I learned from that small beginning was to work hard, to persevere and to understand the necessity of working together as a community to survive. This ethos brought with it the dream of not only surviving but changing the suffering I saw.
It all began in Iowa, what has been your focus since?
Since that time, I’ve lived on both coasts, in inner cities, a bit overseas and returned a few times to Iowa. And always my life in those many different settings led to community activism, even my late-blooming academic career. As a single mother with three young children, I received my Honors History degree at the University of Iowa, and then on to graduate school at Northwestern University near Chicago, Illinois. At this time in my life, I was inspired by the work of philosopher Jacques Derrida and feminist playwright and author Hélène Cixous. The deconstruction of Western binary oppositions: reason/imagination, logic/creativity, thinking/feeling (leaving the less-valued “side” closely identified with women) became my life’s work. A philosophical journey that fit perfectly into my passion for women’s rights and justice and interrogating the value systems force upon us.
How did you first come across WILPF?
When I moved back to Iowa from Chicago, I put theory into practice by working for non-profits; grant writing and fundraising in addition to teaching. Gathering support for underserved populations, particularly for mother/child health in African-American and immigrant communities had brought me full circle. By then I had met a rowdy bunch of inspiring women, the WILPF Des Moines branch, who gave all my searching for fairness and justice a home. Last October at WILPF DSMS’s international symposium, “Working for a Democratic Food System,” we heard clearly and personally the ravages of U.S. social policy, in particular the exported effects of chemical-reliant industrialised mega-agriculture. The women and men farmer/activists from Haiti, Brazil, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda showed us that the U.S. is the “third world” country, drowning in pesticides, polluted waters and animal waste. They are saying NO loud and clear.
Did something initially make you want to run for WILPF US section President?
Jane Addams. Living in Chicago, I knew of Addams and Hull House and her social activism. But I became better acquainted with her through my service on the Jane Addams Peace Association board. She rolled-up her sleeves and worked for the common good, to build a community with others not for them. Her trust in the power of imagination to make social change and her Midwestern pragmatism led to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 – a legacy that still lives in WILPF today.
What do you see as your main agenda?
In the coming months, we have a unique opportunity to re-establish the connective threads to each member, branch and section, and to WILPF International, to reimagine the possibilities of grassroots activism in a global context. We have the vitality and expertise to implement the much-needed criticism of U.S. government, its industrial-military complex and nuclear dependency, the scourge of multi-national corporations, the crises of environmental degradation, and blatant disregard for women’s rights. Of course, “Women’s Power to Stop War” starts right here in the U.S.
What is your vision for the US section during your presidency?
Addams implores us “to use moral energy to put a new sort of force into the world”. We can do that through creating a shared narrative around the world, with voices speaking from a multitude of cultures and perspectives, not a cacophony but rather a common refrain of perseverance and resiliency. Bringing the global home, individual by individual, branch by branch, section by section will require WILPF as an organisation to respect its grassroots activism, asking each time what it is that they need.
We are all farmers. Planting seeds, nurturing our foundation, gathering in a harvest (of peace); enduring through depravation and endless hostilities, only to start over again – perseverance.
The fascinating life of Mary Harrison is a perfect demonstration of the many extremely talented women that are a part of WILPF. The insights given by Mary in this interview give a representation of the importance of resolve of women, and the role women play in the international peace process.
The US Section also elected Altaira Hatton as Treasurer, Dehorah Holley as Secretary, Nicole Scott as Chair of the Personnel Committee, Sara Tess Neumann as Chair of the Development Committee, LaShawndra Vernon as Chair of the Membership Development Committee, Barbara Nielson as Chair of the Nominating Mommittee, Odile Hugonot-Haber as Co-Chair of the Program Committee, Deb Garreston as Co-Chair of the Program Committee, Millee Livingston as At-Large Board Member and Peggy Huhrs also as At-Large Board Member.