This year’s Midwest Peace and Justice Summit, the seventh annual, bristled with ideas for social justice activists. It took place March 26 on the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis and was sponsored by the IUPUI chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.
The all-day, free summit began with a plenary session on grassroots organizing: from the Middle East to the Midwest, by two state activists, Omar Atia, president of Bridge, and Allison Luthe, community activist with Central Indiana Jobs with Justice, with Carl Davidson, a long-time activist and writer from western Pennsylvania, moderating.
Eight workshops over three sessions followed, and the summit ended with a keynote address by Bill Ayers, who spoke about organizing for social justice in troubled times.
Atia, an American of Egyptian ancestry, stressed the basis of social justice organizing should be recognizing we’re “one human family” and that individuals who commit to the cause will find true fulfillment in collective action. Democracy is a process, he said, as one can see from the ongoing Egyptian revolution, and “community organizing is the life blood of democracy.”
Luthe focused on the importance of one-on-one relationships in movement building. Citizens need to embrace their differences, she said, nurture those relationships and educate people. The challenge, she went on to say, is to recognize that citizens have different activist
“passions” for social justice activism but should see them all as one struggle.
Indiana is small, she pointed out, and it doesn’t take may people to create social change. Social justice is a long process to commit to and consists of small victories over time, she said. She urged the participants to sign the Jobs with Justice pledge to “be there five times for someone else’s fight as well as [one’s] own. If enough of us are there, we’ll all start winning.”
The workshop “Making Media Work for You: A Media Training for Social Justice Activists” was led by the American Friends Service Committee’s Erin Polley, an Indianapolis community organizer. She presented guidelines for a successful media campaign, emphasizing broadcast media.
Polley covered four broad areas: basic tools, messaging and framing, how to be an effective spokesperson and how to reach out to reporters. She contended that with training, anyone can learn to put the media to good use in publicizing an event. She touched on everything from defining media terms to writing a public service announcement and how to conduct an interview with a reporter and much more.
The slide show she used in the workshop is available by e-mail from and is based on two Web sites she highly recommends, newstips.org and spinproject.org.
Since he took office, President Obama has quadrupled the drone (robotic, unmanned aerial vehicle) attacks on Pakistan and Afghanistan over the number that President Bush authorized. In his workshop “Indiana’s Connection to Drone Warfare,” Fran Quigley, journalist and visiting professor at the IUPUI law school, talked about the engineering, manufacture and support of drones in Indiana.
He’s offering the workshop to any organization in the state that’s interested in participating in a campaign to halt drone warfare in Indiana ().
In light of the Indiana connection, Quigley discussed the legal and moral concerns about drone warfare and the budding movement to end it around the country. He contends that drone attacks are “illegal, immoral, un-American and self-defeating,” making enemies of the United States because of their indiscriminate killing of civilians and possibly leading to future drone attacks on the United States by its “enemies” in other nations, which are rapidly producing drone technology.
"Luthe focused on the importance of one-on-one relationships in movement building."
A campaign against drone warfare, Quigley asserted, will encounter numerous impediments, including the facts that drone use doesn’t directly threaten American lives as conventional warfare does and that drone warfare is cheaper than that with conventional jet bombers with pilots on board.
Since the use of drones defies international law, one goal of the campaign is a treaty to ban it. In dealing with the universities (Purdue for one) and companies related to drones, Quigley said, it’s important to stress that drones kill innocent people.
Bill Ayers is a retired distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s written 15 books about teaching and children’s rights besides Fugitive Days, a memoir of his experience in the Weather Underground in the 1960s.
Ayers began his free-wheeling, upbeat keynote address, peppered with anecdotes that illustrated his points, by saying the “rhythm” of activism is captured in a line from a Mary Oliver poem: “Pay attention, be astonished, do something.” To that he added doubt what you see and hear.
"The essence of democracy, Ayres said, is talking to strangers."
The essence of democracy, Ayres said, is talking to strangers. For example, students who complain about apathy on their campuses are missing the point: apathy is a “condition” of activism.
It’s important, Ayers said, to connect the issues, make politics public, speak the truth and practice nonviolence. The fact is, he said, “Every revolution is impossible until it happens, and then, looking backwards, every revolution appears inevitable.”
People, like revolutions, are works in progress, he said.
Ayers said he believes in a “politics of hope.” Quoting the motto of the World Social Forum, “Another world is possible,” he emphasized that it’s important to work in solidarity with, not in service to, other people.
One mark of a good conference is that one has to agonize about which workshop to attend when several excellent ones take place simultaneously. The Midwest Peace and Justice Summit was such a conference.
Linda Greene can be reached at .