Kimber Heinz (KH): How did the two of you first get involved with WRL?
Mandy Carter (MC): It came about for me because of learning about the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, which was started by Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl in 1965. Joan had met Ira and she was interested in studying more about Gandhian nonviolence. Because of her dedication to that issue, they set up the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence down in Carmel Valley, California.
And the only reason why I heard about the Institute was because of Guy and Candie Carawan of the Highlander Center, who had been doing this kind of work. They were a young white folk singing couple that had come to our American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) high school work camp. In the South what they were doing as white allies was recording the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement. I was so impressed with them, what they’d said, and what they did. They believed deeply in the principles of nonviolence and the Highlander Institute and the Civil Rights Movement. And so by the time I’d hitchhiked back out to California, I remembered their mentioning the Institute. So I ended up going there and went to a session.
That’s when I heard that the War Resisters League was going to organize a nonviolent civil disobedience action at the Oakland Induction Center as part of Stop the Draft Week. So I ended up being one of the many people getting arrested in December of 1967 at the Oakland Induction Center. While I was in jail—it was all women who were there, Joan was there, as was her mom—this woman came up to me and said, “My name is Jane Schulman. Have you ever heard of the War Resisters League?” I said, “Nope never heard of it.” She said, “Well, I want to let you know that we’re having a potluck. Would you like to come?” I’d never heard of the concept of a potluck but I went and then met, of all people, Randy Kehler, who Jane ended up marrying. When Randy went to jail in 1969 for draft resistance, I had already been volunteering there and ended up getting hired at War Resisters League West.
Joanne Sheehan (JS): I moved to New York in 1970 to do defense committee work for the draft board raids. That was the community I had been introduced to through my uncle Shawn Sheehan, who was an activist priest up in Boston. A number of the people I was working with had close ties to the Catholic Worker and Catholic Peace Fellowship. Catholic Peace Fellowship at that time was in the Peace Pentagon, the WRL building on Lafayette Street. I moved down to the Lower East Side in late 1970 and started working with Catholic Peace Fellowship. I was drawn to the WRL folks because of my interest in nonviolent direct action and the organizing WRL was doing. Many of the staff were people around my own age, although I was very impressed that there were older staff, as well, like Ralph DiGia, Igal Roodenko, and David McReynolds. My first nonviolent direct action was on tax day April 15, 1971, with a group of WRL folks. I don’t think we even called it an affinity group at that point in time. In 1973, I was nominated for the Executive Committee, and that began my official relationship with WRL. I don’t even remember when I first met Mandy, but I’m assuming that would have been when I was at a National Committee meeting.
MC: What I found interesting about the War Resisters League was that I went to the western regional office in San Francisco which was filled with WWII conscientious objectors who had gone to jail for it. So you had this extraordinary combination of WWII resisters and anti-Viet Nam War resisters. But also what struck me about WRL were two things: first, the number of openly gay men in that office and the legacy of the men like Igal Roodenko and Bayard Rustin who worked there; and then the strong women of WRL. I had never seen that level of “we are who we are, we know what we’re doing” attitude. To have that around me while in the middle of this craziness that was the anti-Viet Nam War era, now when I look back on it, I realize it was an extraordinary time. It’s amazing to think that 40 years since 1973, when the 50th anniversary of War Resisters League was held, that you and I will be together at the 90th anniversary WRL conference.
JS: I just want to say that Mandy organized the 50th anniversary conference in 1973, and that gathering at Asilomar, California, is really legendary. Those things don’t just happen. They take a lot of time and effort.
KH: You both seem to have gotten into organizing at a relatively young age. What was your entrance into politics?
JS: Well, first I think it’s important to note that both Mandy and I are high school class of ’66. 1966 was the first year that the draft was a serious threat as the war in Viet Nam escalated. It was the year people of our age got active. We came of age at a particular time in history.
MC: That’s an important point because people our age were a little too young for the Civil Rights Movement. King gave his April 4, 1967, speech at the Riverside Church in New York City questioning the Viet Nam War. He said, “It’s time for us to question this war.” Not only because of being morally opposed, but also because if we’re working in the South for civil rights for black folks, how can you ask black men to go thousands of miles away to kill or be killed in Viet Nam in the name of democracy, yet didn’t have democracy at home in this country. What is wrong with this picture? For a whole generation of us activists, making the link from civil rights to Viet Nam was absolutely crucial, and King was central to that. King was someone who was willing to go outside the bounds. He initially got a huge push back only to later be proven right. But if the AFSC was not as active as they were at getting into high schools and Jane Schulman had never come up to me and asked me personally to get involved, I never would have heard of any of this. Both of those things matter.
JS: I think it’s interesting that on both coasts there were men who were active from WWII who influenced us, but also the fact that there were so many out gay men in particular at that point in time. Except for Barbara Deming, I don’t remember many women in WRL who were out when I got involved, although I think as the feminist movement grew with the Women’s Pentagon Action and other women’s actions like Seneca Peace Encampment, that changed. When we came into WRL, it still had chairs, and they were really strong women—women like Norma Becker and Irma Zigas. Norma, for instance, was one of the first key organizers of major demonstrations in New York City against the war. She led the 5th Avenue Peace Parade Committee. They knew that it had to be a coalition, that it couldn’t just be WRL. So I think we had some pretty good modeling, even by women who didn’t always identify as feminist. But there were certainly tensions as well between women with different approaches.
KH: Can you talk about who inspired you as young people?
JS: My family played a big role. My uncle was an activist and had been in the Civil Rights Movement. He went to Selma when the call for the clergy went out after the first march had been so violated. He was very active in Boston. My family talked about what was happening in the world. Multigenerational conversations happened around the table. The Sheehans talked a lot about the importance of being responsible to make this a better world. The name “Sheehan” in the original Gaelic means “of peace,” and my family crest is a dove of peace. That was something my grandfather was always very proud of and felt we needed to live up to it. But it wasn’t until after I’d been arrested that I found out that my grandfather had been arrested in Ireland for passing out anti-conscription leaflets. The commitment to peace and justice runs through the family. My sister Kate worked for both WRL and War Resisters’ International.
The thing I hear that’s common to both Mandy’s and my story, even though they’re different, is that there’s intentionality in these discussions being had with younger people, whether that’s ASFC going into schools or it’s a family talking with the younger ones about issues. I’ve carried that on as a parent myself.
MC: For me, I was raised in two orphanages and a foster home for my first 18 years as a ward of the state of New York. It was when I was in the Schenectady Children’s Home and they mainstreamed us into the local high school called Mt. Pleasant High School that I first heard about AFSC. I wasn’t really aware of what was going on at the time. In 1962 I remember that they were saying the last rites on the radio during the Cuban missile crisis because there was the threat that we might be bombed. I had a feeling of total insecurity as a young person. I wanted to be a doctor, and I’m sitting there wondering if I would live long enough to get through one year, let alone more? With the whole pervasiveness of the Cuban missile crisis, the air raid drills, building bomb shelters, and President Kennedy being assassinated, it was a very, very unsettling time for our generation.
Now for me, living in the two orphanages and being raised in a foster home that I hated, I can’t really say I had any role models per se when I was coming out as a young black lesbian. Had I only known about someone like Bayard Rustin or Audre Lorde! All I knew at the time was that Joan Baez and Janis Joplin were bisexual. And I don’t think we had the term “LGBT.”
Here’s the other question people ask: “Why are you still here doing this?” The longevity factor to me is remarkable. After the Viet Nam War was over, a lot of people said, “I can get back to my life now,” but a lot of other people said, “No, this is just part of this broader issue of equality and justice,” getting into feminism and nonviolence, issues of nuclear disarmament, and so forth. To me that’s what’s intriguing about WRL—its longevity. WRL is in it for the long haul.
JS: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the “long haul” thing but from a different angle, but I think it ties in. For me, one of the things that has been really crucial about WRL is that it’s not a single-issue organization. Even being an antiwar organization, it’s not a single-issue organization. Nonviolence gives a foundation, the underpinning, of what our politics is. I think nonviolence demands us not to be single issue. If you really look at what nonviolence is you can’t say, “I just care about this, or just a piece of this.”
WRL is by no means a perfect organization; we all know that. But we do see the links between issues. We see the interconnections. That’s something that I’ve really appreciated about WRL. Recently, a musician at the People’s Music Network was telling me that she felt people were not totally accepting of songs she was singing about Palestine and being transgender. As she was talking, it really struck me how much WRL is a place where there’s space for that. We work to create a society free of war, racism, sexism, and human exploitation. I think that dynamic of not being a single-issue organization, which also means inclusivity, contributes to that longevity.
MC: I do, too. And you know, the timing with you bringing that up is interesting. I say that because I’m being inundated with emails from the LGBT community about how the only thing they’re looking at from the Supreme Court are marriage equality and the Defense of Marriage Act. Meanwhile, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and affirmative action are under fire. So I question the lack of attention to the broader issues. Someone replied to me, “Well what does the 1965 Voting Rights Act have to do with me?” What does that have to do with you? It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where they marched for the right to vote that led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Some of the most important allies of the LGBT community have been the black caucuses on the state and federal level. So where’s the disconnect? I am stunned.
Here is where I think the larger national gay organizations miss the point of the broader justice agenda. But Joanne, this gets to the same point. What I loved about the gay men that were in the WRL national office years ago, is that they understood and thought about the broader implications and that’s one reason why there’s been the continuum in WRL.
But you know, one of the first things out of the gay community, after President Bill Clinton got elected, was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). Are you kidding me? They should have had jobs out there as the first priority, but they went for DADT. But a lot of LGBT people couldn’t get behind what the mainstream gay community was pushing. I understand why people go into the military, don’t get me wrong. But why is this the first issue they put out, knowing full well that it was going to be divisive for those of us who fought against the Viet Nam War as gay and lesbian people? But they went ahead with it anyway, and then marriage became the main issue.
So I think we’re at an interesting moment and WRL might fill a void with this by addressing how to make decisions about how this is a piece of a broader issue for full justice and equality for all. I’ve heard friends of mine say, “If I can serve in the military, get married, and get a job, that’s all I care about. I’m out of here. I’ve got mine.” And it’s because that’s the only lens through which they see things because no one told them any different about how they might view issues of justice or equality. They’ve never been exposed to intentional intersectional work that we can do and exemplify.
KH: It sounds like you both have seen parallels among different movements that were all intersecting—the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, the antiwar movement, and now the antiracist organizing that’s going on. I’m curious what some of the dynamics were around gender, race, class, and sexuality when you were young people in the movement? What were the challenges within WRL along those lines?
MC: I know for me, Kimber, the people who made a really powerful difference in my life were Wally and Juanita Nelson. Like AFSC and other peace groups, WRL is a predominantly white organization. It’s had its numbers of people of color who are very powerful people. For someone who’s black and coming into WRL, seeing other people who looked like me was very powerful. But more than just being black, what they did and what they stood for was very powerful.
There is a reality check for those of us who were raised in orphanages and foster homes. And this is why I always say that personal stories are so important. The two orphanages I spent most of my time in were pretty middle class in terms of the values they had and were having people aspire to. The only time I lived with a black family was when I lived in a foster home for four years in Chatham Center, New York, which I did not like. I was thinking of what I wanted to do with my future, and with the system in New York and like any other state in the country, unless you get adopted you are in the foster care system until you legally age out at 18. So you hope and pray that whatever skills you learn and whatever values you pick up will serve you well because then you are on your own. So I did not come from a traditional black family and when people see me I think they make a lot of assumptions. So I think that it is really important that we take the time to hear about people’s personal journeys, to get to say and share who we are, what our backgrounds have been, and all the experiences we have had.
For me, seeing other black people in WRL was really important. It was Wally and Juanita Nelson, William Dothard, and Lisa Miller, and other people of color within WRL. I had someone say to me, “Why would you want to belong to an organization that’s not a people of color group?” to which I said, “Well, the issue wasn’t people of color. It was the issue of justice and equality.” Because I know where I want to put my energy and can find the right outlets to devote my time to. I’ve got to bring all of who I am to the table.
JS: It’s interesting when you talk about assumptions, especially when you look at class. I can’t count how many times people bemoaned that we were “a middle-class group,” making the assumption that everybody grew up with that financial security, family support, and all that. I didn’t grow up with all that. I mean I got a lot of emotional family support, but financially we were pretty lower middle-class. When I went to college, I had to pay for it all by myself. All my parents could spare was my dad’s military disability check from having broken his back in the war, which was about $24 a month. That was the late 60s, but still it was a pretty tight budget even then. I went to school in Kentucky, and I grew up in Massachusetts. I benefited from the fact that there was a different economy there, so I could make money in the summer in Massachusetts, where there was a higher minimum wage and it would stretch a bit more in Kentucky.
There’s something about being raised in situations of adversity that gives you a kind of strength that, even though it’s annoying for those assumptions to be made—and I’m sure you’ve had to deal with those more than I have, Mandy—I feel like I come into the situations with a sense of being able to take a care of myself, of knowing things that didn’t come from a cushy, privileged background that most people don’t. Despite those comments by some, I did feel that there was diversity in terms of class in WRL. And I would say the same people that Mandy mentioned, for instance, William Dothard, who was a key person who organized the Continental Walk, were important to WRL and to me personally. William had been active in Birmingham, Alabama, when he was 15 or 16 years old in the Civil Rights Movement. But, as Mandy said, people of color were always a real minority of those involved. And I think that the work we do now is certainly different in terms of antiracist work or ally work than it was back the 70s.
MC: Yes, absolutely.
JS: I think gender issues are probably what I felt most immersed in during the early 70s in WRL. And even though there were, as we mentioned, very strong women in the leadership positions, there was not a real feminist presence. When I came into WRL National and Executive Committee meetings, it was still a pretty top-down organization. It didn’t really have a very participatory process and certainly didn’t have a feminist analysis. It was a real struggle to bring that analysis into WRL.
KH: So how did that analysis end up getting inserted into WRL’s work?
JS: I think that WRL West played a really important role in terms of bringing feminism into WRL. The regional offices were fairly autonomous, and they really had a strong group of women out there. There were people like Helen Michalowski, who wrote “The Army Will Make a Man Out of You”—which I still use today. She was doing that kind of analysis, but not as a separatist, which was unique for the time. There were a lot of strong women doing a lot of amazing things, and a lot of them were separatists. My biggest challenge, kind of the way you were challenged, Mandy, on working in a white organization, was “What are you working with men for?” There was a very strong pull and push by other feminists in the early U.S. challenging those of us who worked in mixed groups to get out and work only with women. And I remember WRL West at that period being really at the cutting edge of this in WRL, doing the first feminism and nonviolence packet and making those connections.
But also, at that time WRL West was doing a lot of work with soldiers coming back from Viet Nam and becoming antiwar activists. Dorie Wilsnack, who worked at WRL West, told me that the antiwar soldiers were both the most feminist men and the most macho men that she had ever experienced. On the one hand, they had seen war, and they had to face up to that “be a man” training that they’d gone through. But because of the experience they went through, they let themselves feel that experience, and they had to learn to express that. So there was this intense connection between these groups of feminists at WRL West and this group of new war resisters, men who had gone to war and were now resisters. Both understanding that connection between masculinity and war, between feminism and antimilitarism, feminism and nonviolence.
We were struggling with this in WRL even before the antinuke movement made participatory processes and consensus-based decision making much more popular in grassroots movements. That was another piece of how we helped WRL reorganize into a more participatory process.
KH: How did that play out in terms of some of the actions you both took part in? The Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice in 1976 is one that I’ve heard you both talk about before. How are some of those participatory processes, or really positive things that feminists and women within the organization were bringing, play out in terms of some of the actions that WRL was organizing at the time?
MC: Well, had it not been for two very strong women who said, “Enough is enough,” the Continental Walk would not have even happened. The Continental Walk was to start in Ukiah, California, come across the country, and end in DC. Along the way, we were supposed to meet up with WRL chapters, other sympathizers, and so on. Anyway, I don’t know what the hell happened, but by the time it left Ukiah and by the time we stopped in Thousand Oaks, California, it had gotten out of hand. You had people saying they didn’t care what the demands of the walk were. We had completely lost control of it. I don’t know who made the call to you Joanne, but you flew out and kind of saved the day.
JS: I remember. Gail Pressberg of AFSC, who was one of our partners in the walk, was an experienced nonviolence trainer. She had gone out to do a nonviolence training with the 30 people who were committed to walking across the country so they could learn how to deal with the conflict they might face along the route and to develop the participatory process, set ground rules and so forth. But the group never came to final decisions on some of those key process issues. Part of the reason for that was that there were men in the group—one of them being Fred Moore, a long-time activist who many of us knew—who really didn’t allow that process to come to decision making. As the walk went south through San Francisco, the walkers were taking on anyone who wanted to join them, who didn’t have the ability to participate in such an event, including people who were inappropriate and rude to the local community. This was a huge program for WRL; we’d been organizing it for a year, and there were something like 27 feeder marches that were going to link up with us. We were working closely with many groups who were doing local organizing, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and local peace groups.
As word spread of the difficulties the walkers were causing local organizers, the walk office in New York got calls from folks saying they no longer wanted to host it when it came to their area. Gail was ill and couldn’t go back out, so David McReynolds and I were asked to go out and, along with Mandy, who was organizing in Los Angeles at the time, meet with the walkers. We ended up stopping the walk and explaining to people the crisis we were in. Because they didn’t have an agreed-upon structure, there was a way that people could wield a kind of informal power in the group and use that to their advantage. It was like what Jo Freeman wrote about “The Tyranny of Stucturelessness” in the early 70s. I was called “David McReynolds’ puppet,” not recognized for the skills that I had as an organizer of the walk, but ridiculed because I was a woman who shared the same view of the walk as an older man who was well-known in the movement.
The walk had to be stopped, and the situation had to change. We did not want to come in with a hierarchical process like, “Mandy and I are here now and we are going to make decisions for you.”
Instead we said, “OK, you have to make decisions.” We wanted to keep that commitment to a participatory process alive, and we were trying to foster and facilitate that happening. We wanted to get rid of this tyranny of structurelessness. By that point, they had all these extra people who were not good at the process, to say the least, or who were from the beginning trying to mess up the process, and we had to let that whole group initially try to make those decisions. David left, and Mandy and I continued on with the walk.
So a meeting was convened, and Mandy and I were simply observers. We were not always all in the room at the same time or even always in the room. The meeting went on from 8 pm until midnight. A woman was chosen facilitator, and she did a great job. At about quarter to midnight, it felt like they were actually coming to a decision. All the sudden, Fred got up and said, “I feel a tension in the room. We all have to dance!” Out of nowhere, right? In other words, “Here’s a group actually coming to a decision, how can I mess this up?” So I kind of lost it. (Laughs) I was like, “I have to get out of this room so I don’t have a meltdown right here.” And I just got up and started walking toward the door, and Fred actually ran to the door in front of me and blocked my way—physically blocked my way. And I screamed because I had this anger and this energy, which I did not want to physically use. I managed to duck out between his arms and his legs. So we are talking about pretty heavy stuff here; we’re not just talking about men misbehaving in a meeting. It was seriously destructive and people were not calling him on it. That was the other piece of the dysfunction.
In the end, the group had to collectively cut some people out of the walk. But it continued and was better off with a stronger process and sense of purpose. And Mandy continued on with the walk.
MC: Had it not been for the intersection of myself, Joanne, and David McReynolds, the whole thing really would have fallen apart.
KH: And yet, obviously, that wasn’t the last thing you did as organizers. So how did you take some things you learned from those challenges and apply them in your other organizations? One of the organizations that Mandy co-founded and that I’m now actually a member of, as a younger person in the movement, is Southerners on New Ground (SONG). So, what did you take from that experience that you brought into your current organizing?
MC: Well, in terms of SONG, it grew out of Durham hosting the 1993 Creating Change Conference, which is the largest annual LGBT and allies conference, put on by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. For whatever reason, the original city it was to be held in fell through, and Ivy Young, the Creating Change conference coordinator, knew we were doing good work in the South. She called and asked, “Could Durham, North Carolina, host us?” Five of us southern lesbians organized a workshop that included Mab Segrest, Suzanne Pharr, Pam McMichael, Pat Hussain, and myself. That was the beginning of what would become SONG. It was just an idea—and this is what I’m so struck by with how movements work—it was just an idea, and now it’s in its 20th year. And so to me, and I keep coming back to this, it’s so key to be intentionally intersectional. We thought through what would be the “isms” to connect: racism, classism, sexism. We talked about these isms and gender and sexual orientation and identity and how they are so weaved together in people’s lives.
Also, from the very beginning, we said that we weren’t going to own this. It wasn’t about owning a name. It was about something we wanted to pass on and let go. That was key and also the commitment to the visioning. When we first started, Kimber, we were intentionally three white progressive lesbians and three black progressive lesbians, and in one of our meetings we said, “The South is no longer black and white. We’ve gotta get real about this.” So we opened it up and said it means all the different races. And then we said, “Is it time to let men in?” “Men? What?! Hell no!” (Laughs) Just kidding. We did actually say yes, and Craig Washington, a black gay man, was hired as SONG Co-Director in Atlanta, Georgia, after Pat Hussain had held that position.
If I were to say the two things that would be critical for whatever we do moving forward—and the “we” could be SONG or WRL or whomever—we have got to go to where people are. And it is critical to give people basic tools and training. You can wander into it, stumble into it—or you can be intentional.
With the shifting demographics that will have our country be majority people of color by 2050 and where this country is going internationally, I’m personally thinking a lot about what I want to do next. But I cannot say enough about WRL and the individuals in it, who have played a critical part in my life. I feel humbled and honored to be part of this movement.
KH: On that note, how has WRL changed since you started out in the organization? And in what ways has it stayed the same?
JS: We’ve got a big challenge because people in the movement today are not joiners in the same way that people were when Mandy and I first got involved. We could say it’s because we don’t have as many ways to bring folks in, such as nonviolence trainings and the WRL Organizer Training Program, which Mandy and I were both involved in. And WRL-identified trainers were training people for massive nonviolent direct action. So when we did the Listening Process in 2007, a lot of people said, “I got my first training from WRL. I use this organizer handbook from WRL.” Those skills that WRL gave them helped feed them, and they felt a kind of relationship with WRL. We don’t have that as much anymore, and maybe that’s because the movement has shifted in some ways.
For me, one of the exciting things in the present movement is with the staff we have at WRL: People aren’t throwing away the old history, but there’s actually a thirst for it. I think that’s really important. I think that the fact that we’re having this conversation with younger staff is a good indication of that fact. And that gives me a lot of hope. It gives us an ability to do a lot of the analytical and strategic conversations that we have to have in order to say, “How do we move forward? Where do we go from here?”
Mandy Carter has a 45-year movement history of social, racial, and LGBT justice organizing since 1968. She worked for WRL regional offices on both coasts from 1969–1977 and 1982–1988 and has served on WRL’s National Committee, 50th Anniversary Committee, and 90th Anniversary Committee. Mandy is currently the national coordinator of the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemoration Project of the National Black Justice Coalition in this year’s 50th anniversary of the historic August 28, 1963, March on Washington organized by Rustin, a black gay pacifist. Today she lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she co-founded Southerners On New Ground (SONG), whose purpose is to build transformative models of organizing in the South that connect race, class, culture, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Joanne Sheehan co-founded the New England Regional Office of WRL in 1984 with her partner Rick Gaumer, where she is still staff. Joanne was active in War Resisters’ International from 1983–2010, as a council member and WRI chair from 1998–2006. She is chair of Voluntown Peace Trust, the former Community for Nonviolent Action where she lived in the late 70s after she left New York City. She sees the role of “chair” as a facilitator and coordinator in a non-hierarchical structure. Her main passion is nonviolence training, including strategic development of nonviolent campaigns and preparation for action.