Oregon Peaceworks, situated in Salem, was founded in 1987. It emerged from other groups of those years concerned about war and weaponry. The longing for peace and the commitment to achieving it through nonviolent means are still at the heart of the organization.
“But it’s necessary for a group to reinvent itself over time,” says Peter Bergel, executive director for the last eleven years. Bergel, an activist, journalist and educator, is speaking of a seminal transition; Kerry Topel, who emerged from the ranks of the Move to Amend movement, is now assuming the position of leadership at Peaceworks.
“I’ve done more than my stint,” Bergel says. He’s been the leading force of both the organization and the peaceworker, an important news source for the movement for years. Bergel is not retiring, but becoming the group’s Program Director.
The stated mission of Peaceworks is “to educate and activate people to work for peace, justice and environmental sustainability.” Its principles are based on The Earth Charter, an international declaration of sustainable, equitable values which Bergel and Topel use to craft the future of the the organization.
Topel is eager for the challenge. “I call the Earth Charter a ‘road map’ towards an equitable world, and a way to maintain that world for at least seven generations.” Her and Bergel’s vision is to knit the local and state community together through collaboration, and move outward to effect changes in the larger world.
To do so they’re reaching out to groups like CAUSA, Move To Amend, the Rotary and Jubitz Foundations, Occupy, Beyond Coal and others. They’re also learning principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) from local coaches/writers Tim Buckley and Elaine Hultengren who’ve taught NVC successfully to prison inmates. After this training, Peaceworks itself plans to pass these principles on to others in the movement.
“NVC and civil resistance prepares our community to take action,” Topel says. “We expect people to not want coal to come through our town. We want to prepare them to oppose it in ways that will be nonviolent.”
Topel is excited by a new program, Earth Champs, “like scouting, but following the Earth Charter,” as a way to involve youth. She also hopes to incorporate “transition town,” values into Salem, making it “a place that is self-reliant and resistant; what we want the world to look like.” Transition Towns is a grassroots movement of international localities working to reduce their dependence on petroleum and corporate food sources. With all these efforts, Peaceworks hopes to serve as a hub, and a networking center for positive change.
“Our vision of bringing these programs together on so many levels excites me,” Topel says. “It embodies a huge direction towards peace and putting power back in the hands of the people. And with NVC we can establish a true democracy.”
“All these pieces,” Bergel adds, “also work together to undermine the militarization we started out so concerned about. We need to see the network of people who hope for peace as our allies. We need to see we’re all connected to each other, because that’s how hope survives.”