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Interviews with Oregon PSR and Washington PSR Staff Highlight the Power of Coalition Work

Coalition work is a vital part of PSR and PSR chapters’ efforts to connect our core work on nuclear weapons issues to broader social justice issues and social justice work in communities around the country.

PSR spoke with two key coordinators of coalition work from Oregon PSR and from Washington PSR, who each shared their insights into the importance and value of their engagement with coalitions, what they hope will result from that engagement, the specific projects they’ve worked on with coalitions, and the ways that justice forms a component of their work.

Kelly Campbell is the Executive Director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Would you say it is important to work with other social justice focused organizations in coalitions and link nuclear weapons issues to other social justice issues?  If so, why?

I think it’s imperative to look at nuclear weapons as a social justice issue. From the mining of uranium on indigenous land to the testing on people of color such as the Marshallese to the deliberate use of nuclear weapons against the Japanese,  the nuclear waste that impacts future generations, and the fact that women’s bodies are more susceptible to ionizing radiation, nuclear weapons are an injustice that impacts people of color, indigenous people and women the most. Linking these issues to intersectional movements for justice is the only way we are going to make progress on these issues. They will not be solved by the people who created the mess in the first place, but a broad movement for justice led by the people most impacted has the power to transform society, including bringing about nuclear disarmament.

What are you hoping to see happen in the coming year as a result of your work with these coalitions? 

Deepening our understanding of the intersection of all these social justice issues, and making progress on them collectively. One specific thing we are bringing to partners is  city council resolutions in Portland and potentially other cities in Oregon that support the nuclear ban treaty as well as diplomacy with Iran and possibly divesting from war profiteers.

Tell us a bit about the project you worked on last January with the Oregon Just Transition Alliance regarding S.J.M. 5. How did you earn the coalition’s support, and what made this project so successful?

The coalitions we work with, including OJTA, use a Just Transition framework and acknowledge that militarism is inextricably linked to an extractive economy. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate expression of this militarism, but it manifests locally in many ways, even down to spending more money on fare-enforcement policing on public transit that targets people of color. So for example, we have supported Organizing People, Activating Leaders (OPAL)’s work on demilitarizing transit, and brought a public health voice to that fight.  We work through the OJTA coalition on environmental justice and climate justice legislation and when we approached them and OPAL about a forum on nuclear weapons and social justice they co-created the event with us, bringing new ideas to the table and attracting people and organizations from the broader movement to also support our joint work for nuclear justice. The forum was not a “panel speaking format” but an interactive learning stations model that featured local activists and artists exploring different justice issues as they related to nuclear weapons and nuclear power. This led to embedding nuclear justice into the broader framework and attracting coalition partners to support the state legislation which explicitly talks about the injustice of nuclear weapons.  For example, OJTA member groups such as a local NAACP chapter signed on to support SJM 5 through the relationships built through authentic coalition work over the years.

What would you say is the justice component of Oregon PSR’s disarmament work?

I would say all of our disarmament work is rooted in a justice-based approach. Over the past few years we’ve been intentionally shifting all our program work to an equity and justice lens. And really, nuclear weapons are the ultimate injustice; the threat posed by the nuclear weapons states that are mostly wealthy, white, male-led countries who hold the power to wipe out poor, majority people of color countries around the world is staggering in its injustice. That’s why I love the TPNW which was led by the non-nuclear weapons states pushing back against the injustice of it all and hope to do our part here in the US to promote the treaty as a justice-based vision for a world free of nuclear injustice.

Carly Brook is the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Organizer for Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Would you say it is important to work with other social justice focused organizations in coalitions and link nuclear weapons issues to other social justice issues? If so, why?

Yes, group think is very important. Given the kind of political moment that we’re in at this point with the rising threat of nuclear war, and seeing the modernization of  nuclear weapons arsenals, there are a lot of strong intersections with other community fights, whether that be environmental or indigenous sovereignty, economic justice, racial justice—these intersections are really strong, and we’re just not at the same place that we were in the ‘80s with the disarmament movement, where it was a central focus for so many organizations.

So, us learning how to be strong partners and how to make the connection and raise/tie the issue of nuclear weapons to related issues, to the militarization of black and brown communities, to tie this fight to the environmental and climate struggle on native land against big infrastructure projects, and even in the foreign policy arena, the role that nuclear weapons policy plays in shaping broader U.S. foreign policy. I think these are all opening ramps and on-ramps for organizations to also consider the impact of nuclear weapons. So, building a coalition across issues and having that work also be mutual is really, really critical at this time.

What are you hoping to see happen in the coming year as a result of your work with these coalitions? 

A few things—I hope that our organization, like I said, becomes a strong partner in lifting up the demands for justice of frontline communities. One example is in partnering with local Marshallese organizers. We’re working with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to establish a stronger network of care for people back in the Marshall Islands who are facing really high rates of cancer due to the nuclear legacy of the U.S. And so, we’re using our entry point as a physicians’ organization to build physician and physician-based relationships with cancer care providers in the Cancer Care Alliance and hoping that we can establish that strong network of care for folks dealing with the nuclear legacy.

So, I hope we have concrete victories, that people are actually able to get treatment in ways that they haven’t been able to before, and in so doing, I hope that weaves together our struggle for reducing the number of nuclear weapons, cutting low-yield, passing a No First Use policy, and that the mutual support is really strong. I hope that in the next year we also start to learn or keep learning how to tie our community’s struggle to other communities’ struggles and really be a resource.

One of the recent projects Washington PSR has worked on is to draw attention to health justice issues faced by people of the Marshall Islands, who have been directly exposed to health impacts of nuclear weapons. Can you tell us a bit about this effort, and your role in it?

It is mostly led by Marshallese organizers. We have a task force member, Dr. Holly Barker, who is a member of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Nuclear Commission, and so she’s deeply involved and embedded in communities of the Marshall Islands and also the government of the Marshall Islands. She’s been a really key link for us to start building authentic relationships, and the work that the Marshallese have been doing in their own fight for healthcare, whether it’s passing their healthcare bill in Oregon or passing it in Washington [State], and now the fight at the national level to get access to Medicaid. It’s really driven by their organizations, including RIGNE, the COFA Alliance National Network—they’re really the center of that struggle, and the role we’ve played is making sure to include their demands in our lobbying efforts, so talking to Members of Congress about the possibility of including Marshallese healthcare in Medicaid and COFA and people under Medicaid and COF, and then really leveraging also our network of relationships with hospitals and physicians to open the door for these  conversations to take place about expanding the system.

Then when we’re doing community events on nuclear weapons, it’s making sure not to leave out that struggle and not to leave out that part of the history. We found that, especially with young people, they’re really concerned to learn about a part of U.S. history that they were never told, to learn about the impact that our nuclear legacy has in the Marshall Islands.

What would you say is the justice component of WPSR’s disarmament work?

I think there are a few levels to the work that we do that are related to justice. I think when we’re talking about—I’ll speak from my own perspective—I don’t know if this is WPSR’s perspective—when we talk about nuclear weapons and the level of destruction nukes can cause and the way that they seem to threaten and terrorize the world and the looming threat of nuclear war, our fight to contain the U.S. arsenal and to put sane policies in place to promote diplomacy, is a type of justice work.

When we’re identifying that the U.S. uses these weapons and uses the entire military apparatus to economically and geographically control the rest of the world, and when we see conflicts between nuclear nations, what we’re always seeing is the competition between these great powers… we’re seeing a competition between the U.S. and Russia or the U.S. and China over territory, and of course that has a military and nuclear component. The entire conversation about nuclear weapons, once framed that way, is a conversation about justice. And then I think, also, the other piece is making sure that as we do this work, we’re also lifting up the people that are living day to day with these impacts.

One sobering example is this: one of our colleagues from the Marshall Islands whom we’re partnering with for the People’s Town Hall on Nuclear Weapons, won’t actually to be at the event, because he’s flying to the big island for a family member’s funeral. And that family member worked on the Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands, where the nuclear waste is contained, and he died of cancer and kidney complications. So, it’s about not losing sight of the people who are dying from these weapons now, while we strive toward a future without nuclear weapons, while we address the issue of our arsenal and the future use of these weapons. I think there are folks now who still have called for justice that have yet to be answered.

This is WPSR’s perspective: that the main thrust of our work is to build strong anti-nuclear coalitions at the grassroots level with organizational membership across the state. So, some of our main goals in the coming year are also to expand geographically, so that we have three member organizations of the Washington Against Nuclear Weapons coalition in each [Washington State] Congressional district. So that when it comes time to lobby and call on our Congressmembers to take the right position on nuclear issues, we have a constituent base active, and that that base doesn’t only represent physicians, but actually represents people from different sectors of society. So, youth, labor, faith, a broad participation across different organizations. So, we’re building that mass movement to change nuclear weapons policy by linking with all of these different organizations and formally structuring those partnerships in the coalition.