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Student Activism and Organizing on Nuclear Weapons

Posted by Tova Fuller, PhD on November 3, 2009

What follows is a speech given by Tova Fuller on Monday, October 26th, 2009, at the International Youth Dialogue on Nuclear Disarmament, which is put

on by the Project for Nuclear Awareness.

 

Tova Fuller speaks at the International Youth Dialogue for Nuclear Disarmament (top right on the videoconference).  Photo by Project for Nuclear Awareness.

Thank you to Dr. Blix for your lifetime commitment to peace and disarmament, and a big thank you to Emily Gleason and PNA for inviting me to speak.

My name is Tova Fuller, and I serve as one of two national student representatives for Physicians for Social Responsibility.  I am also secretary of the Los Angeles PSR Board of Directors and a member of PSR-Los Angeles’ Nuclear Ambassadors Program.  If you aren’t familiar with our organization, we are a group of physicians, medical students and health professionals that believe we must prevent what cannot be cured.  This work earned us the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Much has been said regarding this unique window of opportunity for nuclear abolitionists, and certainly this crowd is aware that the stars are aligned for our movement.  In the post-Prague speech era, there have been real signs of commitment to abolition, such as the cancellation of the missile shield in Eastern Europe.   I am not a wonk, and I’m not about to give a wonky speech.  What I would like to talk about briefly is the special responsibility our generation has, and give you my best advice for youth activism and organizing.  Now, let’s state the obvious.  It would seem as if we had no reason to fight for disarmament.  After all, we didn’t live through the dropping of fat man or little boy, and we don’t remember the cold war.  We didn’t create these weapons of mass destruction or set the stage for their use.  Plenty of other causes such as climate change and universal healthcare appear to be competing for our attention.  Hopefully I don’t have to convince you that we inherit the problems of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation and the responsibility that creates as a group.  But I would like to impress upon you that you are at this dialogue because you have self-elected yourself as a youth leader.  That carries tremendous personal responsibility.

Internalize it for a moment that because you have committed to the first steps – or maybe many more – on the path of activism or advocacy, or whatever you want to call it, you are personally responsible for continuing.  One of my mentors says this: leaders are not perfect people.  They are not imbued with charisma and extreme intelligence and perfect poise all at once or all the time.  Well, maybe Hans Blix is.  But most of them are normal people, with bad habits, poor posture, bouts of self-doubt and above all, they don’t know everything.  You may think because you know someone who knows more than you, or who is a better public speaker or a better organizer that you can just follow their lead or let them do it.  Well, imperfect members of the crowd, needless to say, if we all felt like that, nothing would ever get done.  Even if the lobby visit you just did was a trainwreck, you were unable to convince so-and-so that complete nuclear abolition is what the world needs, if you stammered over policy or lost the impetus for a short while to stay involved don’t indulge yourself with the feeling that you are not the right person for the job.  Learn from it and do it again.  We have yet to reach critical mass as a movement, and so we need all of you, and we need your very best effort.

At the end of the year the Nuclear Posture Review will be finalized and it will guide US policy over the rest of this term and perhaps much longer.  This NPR must have abolition as a goal if we are to fulfill article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  It is essential that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty be ratified. We do not yet have a START follow-on treaty. These are pretty large concrete goals and we have our work cut out for us.  It doesn’t help that our opponents – if we were to call them that – have their feet firmly rooted in decades of deterrence theory that undermines the call for disarmament.  What needs to happen is both a paradigm shift and a rapid amplification of support for abolition.  The youth voice is crucial as this cause is quickly aging.

So, while it is up to you to decide what you can personally do, these are my ideas of how we should proceed:

1. First and foremost we must self-educate.  This may seem trivial, but nuclear abolition is not for the uninformed.  At the same time that you will never know it all, nobody cares if you are too busy to know what is going on, and your lives will likely only get busier so forget that excuse. If you don’t read a newspaper, please do.  Some excellent sources of information on the web are the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the Arms Control Association, the Council for a Liveable World, Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and of course PSR’s and IPPNW’s sites [some student PSR resources may be found here].

2. Second, you must be able to convince those you are in direct contact with that this is a cause worth fighting for.  If you cannot convince your friends, or are unwilling to broach the subject with classmates, what makes you think that you can convince strangers in your community?  At the very least, it is good practice.

3. Third, we must be active in our communities not only to affect legislation but on a larger scale, to raise the profile of our movement such that we can reach critical mass.  Perhaps all of these ideas are obvious, but just to review what can be done:

- write an Op Ed

- tweet, blog or post on social networking sites about what is going on in the disarmament world and engage others in this conversation.

- lobby and/or write letters to your representatives and senators.  This is imperative. If you live in Maine, Tennessee, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, Alaska, Indiana or Utah, you are especially needed for CTBT ratification.

- Hold educational events, or get disarmament into your curriculum if you are a student.  At PSR we have held national webinars that to be replicated, only necessitate only a speaker, powerpoint, and conference call line.  Some of our chapters have started medical student electives integrating social justice themes and nuclear abolition into the curriculum.  PSR Los Angeles assigned different doctors to give talks on The Medical Consequences of the Iraq War around the city to civic groups and churches.  These things are easier to set up than you think.  Give a talk at your school if you have one.  Plan a conference or dialogue such as this one.  Host a debate.  Have a movie night.  You get the point.

- Participate in public forums or professional conferences in your field.  Do not think that because you are young that no one will listen to you.  In many cases, it is the opposite.

- Hold a demonstration or culture jamming event: If you live here [in Santa Barbara], make sure you know about the Vandenberg protests.  We at PSR and our international affiliate IPPNW have held Target X installations in over 40 many major cities around the globe, wherein medical students wear their white coats and lay out a large red X representing a missile target.  These visual displays grab the attention of passersby, and one can engage them by simply asking what they think about nuclear weapons.  The very question may be jarring to individuals and provoke interest or further thought even if they walk away.  The white coat seems to work to draw attention for med students, but any schtick will do – whether it be big visuals, art and/or performances.  It may sound quaint, but you could do a peace march. I have found what works best in such demonstrations is to simply have a conversation.  Do not alienate people by forcing abolition down their throats.  Expect that the individuals you talk to may already have an opinion.  Ask them what it is, and respond respectfully.  Also expect the possibility that they know nothing about the topic.  Be prepared with informational flyers and take home materials for those whose interest has been sparked, but don’t overwhelm people with an amount of information that they cannot digest.

You can do this with a small group of people, but of course a large group helps.

Do not be afraid to think big: In 2006 I participated in IPPNW’s Baltic Bike Tour through Estonia, Russia and Finland wherein we held demonstrations and spoke with members of parliament.  By the way, an upcoming Bike Tour, the Biking Against Nuclear Weapons (BAN) Tour will take place ending in Basel, Switzerland in August of 2010 If you are interested, please submit an application form to ban2010@gmx.net.  UC students held a hunger strike to raise attention to the UC’s involvement in weapon production and their work over the years won them a student oversight committee.  A group within IPPNW’s student movement called the Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project travels around the globe to nuclear weapon states and engages them in dialogue.  A small committee of children started the Children’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – a movement that resulted in thousands of letters being sent to the White House in 1981 and 1982.  These sorts of campaigns attract media attention even if the number of participants is not immense.

Then some amorphous advice:

Consider how you can uniquely leverage your own talents, expertise, organization or image to promote change.  For example, PSR educates others about the medical effects of nuclear war and the complete inability of the healthcare infrastructure to respond to the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.  The emphasis on our area of expertise de-politicizes an issue that has been falsely framed as partisan rather than what it rightfully is: an issue of human rights and environmental import.

That said, clearly identify what your message is and think about how best to frame it.  Towards this goal it is helpful to consider not only your talents or expertise, but how your community or the population you are speaking to is affected by nuclear proliferation.  Are you near nuclear silos?  Is your city a potential target?  If nothing else, you can frame the issue from a diversion perspective.  Bob Dodge, a doctor from our organization, has calculated the amount of money spent in his community alone on nuclear weapons.  Consider what this money could go towards.

This is also obvious but it bears repeating.  Use the media to your advantage — both for advertising and for post event coverage.  Get media trainings for your group, if you have one – it’s worth it.  If you are unsuccessful at getting radio, tv or newspaper coverage, or even if you are successful, take pictures, video and/or audio recordings and post the information online at the very least.  These days if it isn’t documented in print or online, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, JOIN AND FORGE COALITIONS – THESE ARE THE STRONGEST MEANS FOR EFFECTING CHANGE.

On a citywide level, the Los Angeles Area Nuclear Disarmament Coalition is a recent network of local organizations that has monthly conference calls, a monthly activists’ meeting and an online dialogue.  They are planning a large event at City Hall in conjunction with the 2010 NPT conference, and have a world cities dialogue to coordinate similar events around the globe.  They also hope to elect a message to the 2010 NPT conference from the cities of the world.  Consider your own involvement in creating such a coalition if there is none in your community, or joining one if there is.

On a statewide level — and it is of particular importance here — UC Nuclearfree has been a coalition that has been active in the efforts to demilitarize the University of California.  If you are a student of the University of California, know that there are students who may be active at your university on this issue.  Find them.  If you are here, take the “UC and the Bomb” class if and when it is offered.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has just launched the Peace Leadership Program – which is an all ages program intended to train individuals to wage peace using online and in person trainings.  You can find out more about their program at www.wagingpeace.org.

The Think Outside the Bomb network has a conference every year.  Consider attending this conference, or joining one of their working groups.  Contact them.  Their email is totbapply@gmail.com.  Come to one of the Student PSR conferences.

Other groups you should know about include the Mayors for Peace, which is composed of cities around the world that have formally expressed support for the former Mayor of Hiroshima’s Program to Promote the Solidarity of Cities toward the Total Abolition of Nuclear Weapons.  Information on how your city can join, if it isn’t already a member, is on their website.

The Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World is a coalition of over 100 organizations calling on Obama and congress to make a world free of nuclear weapons a priority.  Individuals and organizations are free to join, but note that this is a US organization.

Finally, I urge you to use this dialogue to make at least one networking connection and to form concrete goals for yourself that you can keep yourself accountable to.  Write down your ideas now so you don’t forget.  Too often these conferences bring a surge of energy and excitement because you get to see others like you – and this is great – but the point should not be a sense of personal reward for participation, but greater ability to effect change.  Consider what your role in this can be.

Please feel free to email me at msmudphud@gmail.com.

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