During the 100 years since WRI's foundation, many activists and groups have worked together and inside WRI's network, as executive and council members, affiliates, close allies and so on. On this occasion, we wanted to highlight the experiences of some of the previous staff members, who for several years worked at the WRI office, organising events, meetings and different actions, creating friendships, alliances and good memories. These are their testimonies!
I wasn’t just new to WRI – I was a novice in the peace movement. In 1980s Geneva, where I was studying translation, the USA and USSR were playing war games with missile numbers, and first I chose those ‘peace talks’ for a student project. Disenchanted with them, instead, I explored pacifism, which led to the peace camp in Comiso, where I discovered nonviolent anarchism and direct action. A women’s roadblock led to deportation from Italy, then a year campaigning, mostly from home in Ireland. And then, a friend said WRI was advertising.
Preparing for the interview I was keen but nervous. This worldwide organisation had impressed me when, amazingly, its London HQ had helped a motley bunch of activists in distress. (It was similarly unfazed later when one deportee from Denmark was, inconveniently, staff. Respect, WRI!) Meanwhile, the ‘Wanted’ ad specified ‘a projects officer’. A brand-new position... Would they expect me to come up with projects?!
I plunged into a new life. A gigantic city, a cramped office, but a network stretching across the planet. Tiny staff, never-ending tasks, long days. Correspondence, magazines, appeals, meetings, reports, visitors from all over. Dawes Street was normally hectic, sometimes hilarious, and I learned so much. About WRI’s member organisations, of course: issues, campaigns, internal disputes and individuals (thanks Myrtle!). Practical skills: carefully aligning cut-out paragraphs for the Newsletter, sticking them down with disgusting Cow Gum; drafting minutes (envying Howard’s adroitness); organising conferences from scratch. Overall, absorbing how a large organisation works. An insight that’s handy now: working freelance for NGO clients, I can imagine their staff’s working lives. And as an interpreter I’ve been amused to see other bodies, even companies, adopting peace movement methods for lively, egalitarian, effective meetings.
I was forced to shake off my shyness. Representing WRI at a meeting, I had to approach people. Which meant preparing! As my colleagues discovered, not only was I not political, I was naïve. But Howard – astute, encouraging, giddy – was my mentor: who would be attending, who should I talk to, with what aim? Sometimes I even had to address a meeting myself. Or, if a participant was struggling to keep up, I’d whisper in another language (never guessing I’d end up as an actual interpreter). I grew to love this networking.
Perks included fortnights camping on International Marches and ‘field trips’ to sections in Germany and the State of Spain. Other highlights: being WRI’s witness at the trial of Greek CO Michalis Marangakis, and a thrilling trip behind the Berlin Wall to meet Eastern European pacifists.
WRI and sections’ meetings were always high points – exec, council, triennials, women’s gatherings (Ireland, Bangkok), social defence, tax resistance, AGMs...
From the mind-blowing Vedchhi Triennial, one nugget I treasure is Ellen suggesting that WRI should examine all its statements: where they said ‘people’, did this really include women?!
Stand-out moments in Dawes Street? The phone-call telling us Jean De Wandelaer had been kidnapped in El Salvador, leaping into action, rejoicing on his release. The winter the office was flooded: Myrtle and volunteers to the rescue, mops and buckets, cold and wet, all of us shivering and despairing and giggling. An exec meeting where knitting appeared with the arrival of two American strangers, their remarks perceptive, sound, constructive – Dorie and Joanne were needle-sharp, and warm with it.
So many wonderful, inspiring people from so many countries. I could begin, but I wouldn’t know where to stop naming them. Deep gratitude goes to those I worked most closely with: endearing exec and council members, colleagues John, Will, Howard, Pajo, Oili and Chris, our stalwart volunteers (notably Martyn and Martin, Pippa and her three friends who kept me sane), and of course WRI Women and the gathering organisers, especially Ulla, Trui and Casha.
WRI showed me that, everywhere there is repression, there are also determined people resisting nonviolently; that everyone can do something, and even a small act can spark a change. Whatever the issue, from toys to taxes, patriarchy to Prisoners for Peace, teaching nonviolent social defence, toxic-waste incinerators, climate justice, poverty, social justice, rights, rights, rights... Nonviolent action is empowering!
These convictions, and resisters worldwide I came to know, encourage me when situations seem dire. With all I learned from WRI, I’ve been emboldened ever since to take initiatives, e.g. around migrants.
WRI and its people made me wiser, more confident, more useful, happy. Gave me lifelong friends. Pushed me to use my voice. I’m proud to have worked for WRI, and forever grateful.
Cork, Ireland, September 2021
The little story of a (would be) article
When Natalia wrote to me more than a month ago to ask for an article about my experience as a WRI staff for this very special Broken Rifle, I put the e-mail on hold for a while. I was tired, I was going on vacation. But when I returned, the e-mail came back to my mind, never to leave it. So, I wrote that yes, I was going to write something, that I owed it to WRI in some way.
And after a few days of fruitless thinking, when I was already warning Natalia that I was very sorry, but could not come up with anything relevant, it occurred to me to simply write the following:
Why don't I manage to write this article?
Because there are senses of responsibility that sometimes stifle, rather than liberate. So, I have to convince myself that whatever comes out now, it will make some sense for this commemorative Broken Rifle.
Because 100 years inspire respect. I start counting, and I calculate that after 5 years as staff and 7 years as an executive member, I have had a direct part in 12% of this history! Well, something is better than nothing. And above all, it was worth the effort, worth the pain.
Because there was pain at times. On a personal level, surely the saddest moment was the sudden death of Howard Clark, with whom I shared the London office and long days of executive meetings all those years. I still get emotional when I think of that day, that sudden sense of finitude, the interrupted stories, the pacifist history that he could still have analyzed, written, recounted… I have a bird´s memory, and it is in his elephant´s memory that I used to fish from time to time: he reminded me of names, events, places, anecdotes from my own time at WRI. He was my external memory.
Because I would not know how to summarize my experience as Staff and Treasurer. There was a little bit of everything. Starting with regular bouts of frustration, for all kinds of reasons. There was a fair amount of stress. There was a lot of routines, a lot of unglamorous-but-indispensable tasks. And at the same time, there were completely surrealistic situations at almost every Council or Triennial. There were many decisions to be made. There was a lot of inventiveness – few networks know how to stretch the value of a banknote so much. There was also a lot of humour (the sinew of resistance), contagious laughter (or nervous giggles!). And there were comforting achievements, at the political, solidarity or organizational level. Whether big or small, ephemeral or more durable, they kept us going.
Because I would be unfair to a lot of people. I do have lasting memories associated with some of you, I remember atmospheres populated by the silhouettes that were familiar to me in those times. But why go into detail, if WRI is a much more collective effort than what I can describe here? Sometimes, let´s be honest, at the London office, we felt a little bit too much like the (euro) centre of the world. You called us to attention from other continents. But we experienced also a real bond of solidarity, and it was a luxury as staff to be able to touch it with our fingers.
So why did I write to you in the end?
Because WRI is the reason why I live where I live now. In addition to generating surprising migration movements, pacifist love stories have pulled many militant strings and probably guided more than a few political decisions. Now, that would be interesting! Who is willing to take up the task of writing a Political-Sentimental Herstory of WRI?
Because I wanted to tell you that despite the years, and the distance that I have kept after leaving the Executive in 2015, I do not forget the community that WRI has been since its inception.
Because you are a very stubborn kind of people, infuriating at times, insistent, persistent, demanding, exhausting. And yet, you are some of the best people I have ever met.
Because I owe a large part of who I am to my passing through WRI, to the steps I took with you through the many places we crossed all these years.
Because I still feel very proud to have been a drop of water in the sea of people that helped that polymorphous monster to move forward.
Because what I keep from my WRI time is a network of caring friends and a sense of gratitude that make it impossible for me not to write you something today.
Roberta Bacic, London office, 1998 - 2004
It is significant to look back at my arrival from Chile to London at the end of January 1998.
It felt extremely cold as I had left at the height of summer in Chile. Dominique Saillard was waiting for me at Heathrow airport with a bunch of flowers and took me to a flat where I was to stay while I settled. The next day I came by tube to WRI’s office at 5 Caledonian street.
It has been even more special to remember what it felt like, and the impact of a total change of life, landscape, language, culture and human environment, as we mark 100 years of WRI this 2021. Whilst not much can be said in one page, the core gets reflected in what stays forever and I have tried to capture when curating the exhibition Nonviolence in Action: Antimilitarism in the 21st Century (http://cain.ulster.ac.uk/conflicttextiles/search-quilts2/fullevent1/?id=227) launched on the 25th March this year.
I have very happy memories of shared conversations, lunches, struggles and discussing ways to confront wars and engage in active nonviolence. This extended beyond WRI, to “Peace News”, “Housmans Bookshop”, and “Conscience: Taxes for Peace, not War”. We were surrounded by volunteers and supporters and often we disagreed and challenged each other. We lived and experienced a very different way of life: horizontal relationships, dedication beyond office hours, always being short of cash, always full of projects and most got done with or without budgets. Many of the relationships established then still endure; the bonds we created transcend the time I was at the office and regenerate and express through what we continue doing. Another important element was the trans-generational and transnational dimension of the community we lived and experienced.
A very important and central work during my time in the office was to work on the archives. Important documents, photos, magazines, badges, minutes of meetings, etc., - kept in boxes over decades - were prepared for sending to the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, where they are stored and accessible to study.
I would like to finish this succinct account by sharing the image of this sticker that embodies what WRI stands for and what my first project was; to prepare for WRI’s 22nd Triennial Conference that took place in Poreč, 6 months after my arrival. My son designed the badge, Chilean activists and friends joined us in Croatia, a country just emerging from a bloody war. It also took me to my father’s homeland.
12 July 2021, Benone, Northern Ireland
Back in 1983, when, in my mid 20s, I was offered work with WRI many friends advised me against taking a peace movement office job - long hours, low pay etc. - but I wanted to do a something that fitted with my beliefs at the time (I’d recently completed an MA in Peace Studies at Bradford University in the UK) and I don't regret it. I would still say if you get this kind of opportunity take it - you will learn a lot about yourself and the things you believe in and how such organisations work in terms of people and power structures. It will be hard and there will be struggles but you will meet some great people on the way and hopefully get to do some small things to make the world a better place.
My work consisted mostly of fairly routine office administration (someone has to do it!) but I was involved with running the prisoners of conscience annual campaign which really resonated with me. It was a very down to earth, people-centred type of project and linked very much to the reason why I became interested in pacifism – a friend's soldier brother was killed whilst fighting in the Vietnam war. I was also full of admiration and in awe of the women’s campaign at Greenham which was very active then. At that time (the mid 1980s) we were still very much in the midst of the Cold War, never dreaming that the Berlin Wall would fall in 1989. Since then with the growth of the EU (and despite Brexit) it seems that some bits of the peace movement's work might almost be done. Not that this has put an end to wars/conflicts – rather merely shifting focus geographically and to the underlying neo-colonialism, racism, economic exploitation etc. which fuels these conflicts nationally and internationally.
I mentioned meeting and working with some great people - fellow workers and WRI Council members. What struck me most about this group, the WRI ‘team’, was the generational and political (albeit left-wing) diversity of the people, but all somehow mostly, but not always harmoniously, united and coming together with purpose. In my opinion it’s the people that make an organisation and build its success or otherwise. The WRI has had more than its fair share of talented individuals to draw on. For example, Pietro Pinna, a slender man with dark wavy but thinning hair, and who always used to wear a suit or 'smart' clothes (but not a tie) which seemed rather odd in the peace movement. He seemed very old to me back then but was probably only in his late 50s. Quiet but articulate, self-contained and serious, he stood out from other more extrovert Council members. Myrtle Solomon, the chair at the time, in her mid 60’s, a tour de force, with a passion and commitment to the work which was completely infectious; and Howard Clark, in his mid 30s, running the office with such great energy and insight coupled with his lovely humour and wit. Pietro, Myrtle and Howard are, sadly, no longer with us but their legacy is huge and I hold their memory, and that of others far too numerous to mention here, dear. Without a doubt during my time with WRI I learnt much from all these people and gained skills and experience which has stood me in good stead throughout my subsequent career working for the British Council in international cultural relations.
As I reflect on my time at WRI, I decided to go back to look at the book with photos of my time as a WRI staff and it makes me realise how lucky I was to spend all those years at Cale Road. The images show a recurring theme, which is people gathering together. For me, these were the moments that marked me the most, as these were when our network came alive. I remember my first WRI event in 2003 (before I joined the staff) in Israel for International Conscientious ObjectionDay. It really hit me to the core that as I was coming from Chile I was meeting people as far as South Korea, Turkey, Spain, etc. and that even if we came from so different places we had so much in common, in our struggle against militarism. This feeling continued throughout my time at WRI.
I remember when I joined the staff I was tasked with two “small” projects, to produce an international handbook on nonviolent campaigns and to launch a global campaign on war profiteers, under the newly set up Nonviolence Programme. I was like, oh shit, what did I get into! Luckily, quickly I realised that even if we were a very small office, there was a whole network out there extremely committed, I was not alone! I think that is the biggest power and magic of WRI. With few resources, we manage to accomplish so much. Throughout my time at WRI, my main goal was to keep that network active, promoting the development of regional networks and uniting people around common goals. Even if I was coordinating at the time the Nonviolence Programme, it was the network that made it flourish.
As WRI celebrates its 100th anniversary, I wonder what the future looks like for a network 100 years old. Is what was needed 100 years ago still needed today? What role does a global network like WRI plays in today's world? I do believe there is a need but I am also convinced that it is important to look deep into what role it plays in this extremely interconnected world we live in today.
Finally, as I recall my time at WRI, I think of so many friendships, many of them that I keep until today. But inevitably, I think of Howard. I miss you!