Changemaker Chat: Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer is a New York-based educator-activist-author, co-editor of the two volume Africa World Press series Seeds of New Hope and co-author of Guns and Gandhi in Africa, and editor of PM Press’ Let Freedom Ring. He is the War Resisters International Africa Support Network Coordinator, and UN ECOSOC representative of the International Peace Research Association. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his introduction to Guns and Gandhi in Africa, wrote: “Sutherland and Meyer have looked beyond the short-term strategies and tactics which too often divide progressive people . . . They have begun to develop a language which looks at the roots of our humanness.”

How did you first become interested in social change?

Growing up, my dad was a teacher and teacher’s union chapter leader, and my mom was active in community-based social service projects. But neither were very activist oriented beyond that; they gasped as the television images of the war in Vietnam were blasted across the screen, but attended no demonstrations. For me, when I was a senior in high school, and co-editor of my school newspaper, I began to look at some of the political issues facing my age group. Foremost amongst these was President Carter’s re-institution of registration, the first stage in the process of drafting people into the military. We ran a poll of students (who were, of course, overwhelmingly opposed), and an editorial, and then – when my high school sweetheart broke up with me the day before graduation – I plunged into the only thing I found consoling: political work! That summer, the Democratic National Convention was held in my own home town of New York City, and I volunteered to help get a four-star mother (someone who husband and son had been killed in Vietnam) nominated for vice president, just so she could give an anti-registration speech. We got enough delegates to sign, then on the final night the organizers somehow got some press passes so that those of us who had worked the hardest could view the convention from the inside. On that fateful night, it did not matter that I was sitting in the far-away seats at the top of Madison Square Garden. The sitting President of the United States was right there before me, giving his acceptance speech to run for a second term. When he mentioned his policy of registration, a grouping of us booed him, an act heard by millions on national television. The idea that after only a few weeks of social change activism I could boo the President on national TV seemed too good to be true. I wondering what I could do if I remained active for a bit longer!!

How do you define social justice?

For me, social justice is defined by people’s empowerment–a constructive space filled with equal opportunities and equity, with a communalism that suggests not simply that people should “live and let live” but rather “live and help to live.” I was taught that by an old leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, so I guess it is important to say that social justice includes an end to all colonialism and neocolonialism, and end to imperialism, an end to racism, sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy. But for me, it also means an end to militarism and the violent ways in which we treat one another–both personally and structurally through poverty created by capitalism and the drive for unchecked profits.

What has been your most exciting experience as an activist?

This is a tough one; I have had so many. Could it be when, weeks after the above-mentioned experience, I decided to become a public draft resister, refusing to register when I turned 18. At the press conference, I was greeted by a sweet little lady who was feeding me apple strudel and asking how I was. Turned out this woman, who emceed the press conference, was none other than celebrated author Grace Paley! I met Abbie Hoffman within the year, and ended up doing some secretarial work for him. It became clear that the “left” was much smaller than I could have imagined, and I would end up meeting many very inspiring people over the years: from Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, to Assata Shakur, in exile in Cuba; from my mentors Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party leader Mawina Koyate, and Puerto Rican human rights elder Luis Nieves Falcon; from my partner and companero Meg Starr to all my comrades in Resistance in Brooklyn; from so many icons of the War Resisters League and peace studies communities…I am always excited about meeting the wonderful people also working so hard to re-shape the world for the better. Perhaps the experiences I’d have to rate as most exciting are the countless creative demonstrations, from when the huge puppets of Bread and Puppet Theater led one million of us into Central Park for an end to nuclear power and arms in 1982, to when hundreds of us blockaded the Liberty Bell to demand that the jailers Let Freedom Ring for death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, to just a year ago, when I went with my 11-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to a street action in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street. They are all my most exciting, along with all the ones still to come.

What is the most interesting project in which you are currently involved?

I spent three weeks in South Africa this past July and August helping put together a new network, now calling itself the African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network. Along with the War Resisters International and other groups, we will be putting together a major Pan African gathering in 2014. Building up for that, across the African continent and throughout the Diaspora, is the most exciting thing I am currently involved in.

ALSO, I am proud to be part of growing efforts to shine special attention on two prisoners who deserve and demand immediate release. One is Russell Maroon Shoatz, serving close to forty years behind bars, with over thirty of them in torturous solitary confinement. If the US is to even come close to living up to its image of “justice for all,” it must unconditionally release old men who are in prison largely due to the fact that they joined the Black Liberation movement (Panthers, etc) in the late 1960s. Though he is convicted of various “criminal acts,” no common criminal spends this long in solitary or behind bars. The fear is that, once prisoners like Maroon are released, they are going to do what Mandela did when he was released: lead revolutionary movements for massive and radical change. We know, of course, that movements are made by more than just leaders, and our social justice movements must be at least string enough to help these warriors of past struggles get out of jail before they die.

Similarly, the case of Oscar Lopez Rivera, in jail for the thought crime of “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the US government’s control of his Puerto Rican homeland, must be given full immediate attention.

What are your plans for the future?

A book I have been working on for six years, as co-editor and contributor, is about to be released. We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America contains a foreword by Cornell West, after-poems by Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez, and a host of amazing essays by scores of activists. So I will be doing some work to promote that book, which Maya Angelou has graciously said “is so needed” at this time. More information about the book, including how to order it, is here: https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=433

I am a full-time teacher, and also a full time (or as much as is left) father, and I take those two responsibilities very seriously, as a central part of my commitment of working for a better world.

Changemaker Chat: Diana Balot Frank

Diana Balot Frank is a recent graduate of the MSW program at Kutztown University, an activist since her student days at N.Y.U., a writer, and an amateur chocolatier. She publishes a blog called The Foot of Mount Olympus.

How did you first become interested in social change?

I was always interested in history and politics. In high school, I could not understand how the holocaust happened. I didn’t understand how one man (Hitler) could do so much harm. It wasn’t until I was in college and working at my summer job as a maid in a hospital that I met some people who were involved in the anti-war movement. My political education and activism started then. I was attending NYU at the time and the president of the university was on the board of directors of Union Carbide which had holdings in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. As a student I was active in anti-apartheid work, keeping ROTC off campus and supporting the Iranian students who had fled the Shah. It was a very exciting time. Also, the women’s liberation movement was occurring and that influenced me as well.

How do you define social justice?

Social justice is economic justice: freedom from want, decent housing, healthcare, education; work that is meaningful and helpful to the people of the world and to the planet. Social justice is democracy defined as regular people having influence on and control over issues that directly affect us in our neighborhoods, our state, our country, our world.

What has been your most exciting experience as an activist? 

My most exciting experiences so far have involved demonstrations in NY and Washington DC through the years. Living in a small city and working at a mainstream job for most of my life, there have been many times when I felt isolated and powerless. Being with hundreds of thousands of people who have the same passion for ending war and demanding economic justice reinforces your faith in humanity. Taking someone with you or meeting someone there who has never been to a demonstration before, seeing young families with babies in strollers, older activists, people in wheel chairs, with oxygen tanks, young people with nose rings and tattoos – allows you to see the continuum – the timeline of struggle. It reassures you that people will not stop speaking up when they know something is wrong. Sometimes you bump into people you haven’t seen in 20 years, and that’s nice too.

What is the most interesting project in which you are currently involved?

I just got involved with the Allentown Community Benefits Coalition. Although I just attended my first meeting, I see this group of people as dynamic and creative. I believe we will have a positive impact on how the Neighborhood Improvement Zone can benefit all the people of Allentown.

What is your vision for a better world?

I see so many things. I think the main thing is that people – regular people – from the day we are born until the day we die are an asset to this world, not the burden we are made to appear to be in this time of unemployment and incarceration. We have to stop waiting for the “job creators” to appear with minimum wage part time jobs and no benefits. We have to get together, see what our community needs and create our own work with cooperative ownership.

What are your plans for the future?

After being laid off from my job as a purchasing manager, I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in social work. I graduated in May, took the summer off and am currently looking for a position working with a community organization, older adults or hospice. I am also researching the private prison industry. If a state contracts with a private prison corporation, the contract calls for the state to maintain a 90% occupancy rate. That is a little frightening. Here are a few facts from a recently published post on my blog, The Foot of Mount Olympus http://tfomo.blogspot.com/.

•Between 1990 and 2009 the number of people in private prisons increased by 1600%.•6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and, according to one report, nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government are housed in private prisons.

•The federal government is in the midst of a private prison expansion spree, driven primarily by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency that locks up roughly 400,000 immigrants each year and spends over $1.9 billion annually on custody operations. ICE now intends to create a new network of massive immigration detention centers, managed largely by private companies, in states including New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California and Illinois (ACLU, 2011, p. 5).

I am also collecting information regarding food safety with the purpose of pointing out the amount of waste that exists in the way agribusiness manufactures food. I receive daily updates from foodsafety.gov, sometimes as many as 5 a day announcing recalls of thousands of units of food for reasons including possible e-coli and listeria contamination to undeclared ingredients. It’s mind boggling, the amount of waste.

Changemaker Chat: David McReynolds

David McReynolds is lifelong Socialist Party activist, a pacifist who worked with the War Resisters League from 1960 through 1999, an author of essays, a speaker, and an organizer, with more than a few arrests during actions. He was also the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1980 and 2000 and the chair of War Resisters International for one term. You can learn more about David by visiting www.edgeleft.org.

How did you first become interested in social change?

I suspect I became interesting quite early, in high school, partly as a result of the teachings of the Baptist church I attended, and partly as a result of following events in World War II very closely, and the aftermath of the war.

How do you define social justice?

Social justice would be a society in which, without trying to “level everyone,” there would be no massive concentrations of private wealth and the general population would have decent housing, medical care, and access to education.

What has been your most exciting experience as an activist?

Perhaps the demonstration in Moscow in 1978, opposing both the Soviet and American arms races. Our group demonstration in Red Square as the same moment as fellow pacifists walked onto the White House lawn and unfurled a banner.

What is the most interesting project in which you are currently involved?

Probably trying to sort through the thousands of negatives and prints in order they can be useful to pacifist and socialist historians (photography having been a hobby of mine).

What is your vision for a better world?

Less emphasis on “nation states,” more serious work on disarmament to a police level.

What are your plans for the future?

At 82, there are no extensive plans for the future