Peace, love, and acceptance; these are all terms that seem like a pipe dream to some of what we are facing in society today. Humans are scared and desperate for any sign of relief or security. To some of us, it is just a hope that this wild concept of “peace” will someday be achieved. And then, there are the forces behind the movement; those who have set their life goals on that exact idea. Kate Alexander is one of them. Involved in activism since the age of twelve, Alexander has worked in peace activism and community organizing for ten years and is now Director of Policy and Outreach at Peace Action New York State. Alexander’s passion for peace is something that anyone could admire, especially in present day where the fight for justice is more eminent than ever. Alexander’s voice gives us all hope that “with a strong group of activists, anything is possible: peace included.”
YHM: What inspired you to get into peace-building and public policy?
Kate Alexander: Peace is essential because war is unparalleled destruction. War keeps children, and teachers, out of schools. War destroys the roads that deliver life-saving medicine. War creates security vacuums that leave the most marginalized—women, ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities—on their own. I live in a peaceful community because I happen to have been born in the United States, but why am I more deserving than a girl born in Kabul? Baghdad? Aleppo? What gives me the right, when my government’s policies are impacting her life so directly, to do nothing?
I have the power, as a citizen of the United States, to shape the policies that impact immediately the lives of people all over the world; people, not combatants. People, who are musicians, and students and single mothers and promising entrepreneurs. They are suffering from my government’s policies. They don’t have a voice to shape those policies, but I do. I want to live in a world that is better for all of us, so I use my voice to reshape our world so it is better for all of us.
YHM: What kind of work does Peace Action New York State do? How specifically does it work to create peace?
KA: Peace Action New York State works with communities across New York, on college campuses and in local areas, to organize for a more peaceful world. These communities pressure their elected representatives to pursue peace and diplomacy as a matter of policy. War is supposed to be an absolute last resort, but more and more, we see it as the first proposed solutions to today’s crises and no one seems to have plans to end the wars we are entrenched in.
We’ve been in Afghanistan for fifteen years, and we’ve been in Iraq for thirteen years. How can we support our troops if we are sending them into conflicts we have no plans to end? These wars have cost us $4 trillion to $6 trillion, and we’ll be paying off the debt from these wars through 2054. That’s about 5x more than all the student debt in the U.S., by the way, so don’t believe people when they tell you we don’t have money for education: we do, it’s just tied up in weapons.
We’ve also seen rampant Islamophobia and increases in hate crimes as politicians use fear-mongering rhetoric to demonize Muslims so broadly. Those are just some of the effects of war for the U.S., but the most devastating consequences happen in these conflict zones. The U.S. military makes mistakes in war: we kill civilians, even hitting a Doctors Without Borders hospital. Only a few weeks ago, a U.S. weapon was used in Yemen at a funeral home, while a funeral service was in process. We owe it to our own military, and to the lives of innocent people around the world, to make sure our military is held to rigorous standards, and that we use diplomacy first. That’s the message Peace Action New York State chapters take with them to their elected Representatives.
YHM: What kind of challenges does PANYS face with trying to create peace?
KA: There is a sense that war is inevitable, and people are disillusioned by the political process. A lot of people have checked out from the peace movement for these reasons, which makes their reservations a self-fulfilling prophecy! If we don’t have a strong community nationally objecting to war, then war will look inevitable. If we don’t have concerned constituents engaged in the political process, then their voices were left out because they sat out on the most important decisions we make as a country. And you know: peace does win.
In 2016, the last American producer of cluster bombs—which are banned by most countries in the world because they are so inaccurate, with shrapnel from the bomb hitting areas larger than several football fields—stopped production. The company, Textron, cited “increased regulatory scrutiny” and “lowered demand.” Do you know why there were lower demand and more scrutiny? Activism!
Prior to this decision, peace activists pressured former President Barack Obama to stop selling cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia because of their ongoing war crimes in Yemen, and that’s exactly what happened. The outcome is that the U.S. is no longer producing cluster bombs. There are millions of stories like this, from the peace movement and the movements for Black lives, climate justice, women’s rights, and civil rights. Over and over, in the evolution of U.S. policy, we have seen that people do make a difference, and we have to tell these stories and defend our power and our voice whenever we are told otherwise.
YHM: As a woman, did you experience any hardships or challenges in the past getting involved with law and public policy sector?
KA: If you have confidence in your voice, you’ll find that a lot of the self-doubt and diminishing of your voice becomes intolerable, and you make a space for your perspective. I’ve found that, when I’m the only woman in a room of men, that I represent the perspectives and experiences of women. That, if I don’t demand a gendered lens in our work, it might not happen. That gives me the courage to use my voice broadly and loudly, because in the iconic activist sentence: if not me, who? If not now, when?
YHM: Throughout your career, did you ever have any experiences that were eye-opening, particularly inspiring, or life-changing?
KA: Yes; I was working in Bosnia in 2011 with a local NGO, researching sentencing trends in the prosecution of war crimes and crimes of genocide. I would read, case after case, about the worst crimes of the Bosnian Genocide and how they were adjudicated: what were the war criminals sentenced to? What lowered their sentences, and what made their sentences significantly longer? There was one case that haunts me to this day. A woman, raped repeatedly during the conflict, came forward and her case was tried by the War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Which is already exceptionally rare, that a woman would report her rape in these circumstances, and that it would get to the trial stage.
A man with whom she had consensual sex prior to the conflict, held her hostage and repeatedly raped her during the conflict, over a period of about 2 months, and she became pregnant. At the first trial, he was sentenced to one year and six months in prison. He appealed and was acquitted. His sentence was so low, and ultimately void, because the court cared more about these factors than about the kidnapping and abduction of this woman: that he had promised to care for the child born of rape, and that they had consensual sex prior to the conflict. At this human rights tribunal, her sexual history with him, and his promises made in court were more trustworthy than her history or evidence of captivity and repeated rape. No woman should be silenced by a tribunal, or transitional justice mechanism, that was built to protect human rights.
YHM: What lessons has this taught you?
KA: One person can—and does—make a difference. When I was in Uganda and paying attention to the perspectives of women in [Romogi War Victims Association’s] larger work, their experiences will be documented in their community history book, produced by the NGO I was working with. Also, legal institutions are limited by the societies in which they were created and perpetuate the biases—racism, sexism, xenophobia and LGBT-persecution—of their societies.
The War Crimes Chamber in Bosnia, and the NGO I worked with in Uganda, and their treatment of women are all part of a deeply-rooted patriarchal system. In the United States, the racism of our society is clear in how our laws are applied in our legal and policing systems. We have to change these systems of justice so they don’t perpetuate injustice, and we have to change the society around these systems of justice so we can re-define what justice means for all of us and ensure that justice includes all of us.
YHM: Do you think it is possible for us to achieve global peace? If so, how?
KA: Peace is not only possible, it is inevitable. Whenever we are faced with a clear moral decision, a right and wrong, we inevitably, ultimately choose the path of right; the path of justice and of peace. But we, as a community, have to move the conversation and all of its complexities, to the point of a moral decision, and that requires activism. For peace, it requires centering the perspectives of those most affected by conflict and building community with the people impacted by conflict, and people with the power to call for an end to the conflict.
It requires sharing the often unseen outcomes of conflict, for our troops and our economy and for civilians and services in conflict zones, to broaden the awareness of the consequences of war. It requires diligence, patience, and kindness, to ourselves and to strangers and to people living with the consequences of our policies thousands of miles away. And, most importantly, it requires all of us, working together to build a better world, and demanding that world now.
YHM: How can everyday people work to obtain/create peace?
KA: Your Representatives cannot represent your voice, or listen to your concerns if you are not speaking to them; they don’t check your Facebook page! Use Facebook to build a community around issues that matter to you, but then there’s another step we take together: directing outrage to direct action. Find petitions and sign them and send them to your Representatives. Call your Representatives directly, or write them letters, and tell their offices how they should vote on an issue that matters to you, or that you are happy or disappointed with a recent vote or political stance. Visit their offices, make sure they know you, and that they are being held accountable. Find people to do this work with and take care of each other, because this work is hard, and the subject matter is dark. Keep working, taking note of your successes and celebrating everyone.
YHM: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned throughout your time at Peace Action New York State? What kind of work do you believe has made the most impact?
KA: I have learned that there is a real kindness in peace work that makes everyone accessible and eager to work with people, especially with young activists. I connect my student organizers with guest experts, including Kathy Kelley of Voices for Creative Non-Violence, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a leading voice in the movement for Black lives. From their enthusiasm and my own youth in this movement, I have learned that young voices are needed and celebrated in our work for peace. We have real power to shape these large movements, and in doing so, to shape our world. We just have to recognize our voice as power, and never stop looking for, creating and seizing opportunities to use that power for good.
YHM: What is something you think is important for young women who want to get involved in public policy and law to know?
KA: I just want to tell them what I wish I had been told at the start of my activism journey: you are as powerful as you believe you are, and as impactful as you work to be. Own your space, as small or large as it is, and use your voice to make it better. Expand your space, or sphere, of influence as much or as little as you want. But, never doubt: you are powerful, you are needed, and if you demand to be heard, you will be.
By Tori James | Photos: Courtesy of Kate Alexander