With homegrown, kitchen-table wisdom, social change activists Fran Peavey and Tova Green take risks in thought and action that most of us could never imagine. Fran Peavey, former “Atomic Comic,” is known for many projects, local and international, including cleaning up the Ganges River. about their work with the women of the former Yugoslavia. She has authored a number of books, including Heart Politics (New Society Publishers, 1986) and By Life’s Grace: Musings on the Essence of Social Change (New Society Publishers, 1994). Tova Green is Buddhist Peace Fellowship president and coauthor of Insight and Action: How to Discover and Support a Life of Integrity and Commitment to Change (New Society Publishers, 1994). In November 1995 Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker interviewed them about their work with the women of the former Yugoslavia.
Inquiring Mind: You have both worked on a range of social change projects. How do you decide what to work on? Do you hear some piece of news and find it calls you? For instance, how did you decide to go to the former Yugoslavia?
Fran Peavey: I have had a lifelong interest in what I call social hysteria. I could see that what was going on in Yugoslavia was one of the worst examples of current social hysteria, and I felt intuitively that what was happening there was important in the long-term picture of social hysteria during my generation. So I wanted to go. That was the head approach. But there was also a heart approach.
For the past fifteen years, most mornings I have sat and meditated and asked myself what I could do to help the world. What is the work of today and what is the work of this time? In doing this meditation, I try to get in touch with my best wishes for people to be happy and healthy and for their goals to be achieved. Sometimes I focus on individual people I know and sometimes on groups of people I’ve read about in the newspaper or seen on TV. Then I roll the globe around inside of me. I have an image of rocking the globe, just holding it and loving it like you would a child. It’s kind of a teary part of the meditation. After doing that for however long I can find to do it, I ask the question, “What can I do to help the earth?” I just sit with that question. And ideas come to me.
Based on my interest in social hysteria and deep concerns about ethnic conflict, I wanted to find out what was going on in the former Yugoslavia, but I didn’t want to go empty-handed. I had to take something. In one of these morning meditations, the idea came to me of making small bundles of sweet-smelling soaps, shampoo, makeup and scarves for the women in the former Yugoslavia who had been raped or lost their homes. Maybe it could help them remember some of the wonderful things about being a woman that a rape tends to erase. Maybe they could feel the connection of women from other parts of the world who sent those packets.
I don’t know where that idea came from because I never use makeup or some of the other items I imagined for those bundles. Those things wouldn’t make me feel good as a woman. It must have been some higher power got the idea because I don’t think it would have come through my brain otherwise.
To further this idea I sent sixty-seven letters to friends in the U.S. and twelve to Australia. I invited them to copy the letter and send it to their friends.
IM: What do you do to further investigate such a wild intuition and how it might be received in a culture with which you are only superficially familiar?
FP: After I have an initial idea, I talk it over with my friends. When I got this idea, I talked it over with Tova. I have the gift of imagination, but she has the gift of discernment. Imagination needs discernment and discernment needs imagination to discern. Between us we have a system!
I also consulted two Yugoslav women who happened to be speaking here. When I asked them if they thought it would be a good idea, their eyes got misty. “That’s a lovely idea,” they said. I asked, “What should we take?” They said, “These women don’t have anything, so everything you bring them will be wonderful.”
But the secretary of the woman to whom we were shipping the bundles said, “I’m not going to be a part of this project. These are Muslim women and you are taking things to them that will destroy their culture!”
So I did further investigations to find out who the women were in the refugee camps. Were they in purdah? I was told, no these were Europeanized women.
IM: How did your friends and friends of friends respond to your letters?
FP: I had no idea that this little idea would create an outpouring of packages—over six thousand in the U.S. and two thousand in Australia! Such thoughtfulness and love were evident in the items we sent, the way they were wrapped, the letters enclosed. When anyone tells you that the U.S. doesn’t care what is happening in the Balkans, tell them about the employees from Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Ingris, ask who got together on their lunch breaks and made beautiful bundles to send to women so far away. Many churches, synagogues and sanghas responded to the call. School children and senior citizens’ groups sent boxes and lovely letters of hope.
IM: What was it like to give out the packages?
Tova Green: Sometimes it was difficult. In order to make sure that every woman in a refugee camp got a package they would do a roll call. The women had to line up and we would hand them the packages. At first I was very embarrassed. Who was I to be giving something to someone who had lost so much? But then we saw the women go off with their packages. Later when some of them invited us into their rooms, they might be wearing a new scarf or perfume and we could see that they were very happy.
They always wanted to give something back to us. Sometimes all they could do was offer us a squeeze on the arm or a cup of coffee. Sometimes they offered us a handmade doily or a partly finished macrame plant holder, whatever they had.
A few times I had a chance to sit in a room with a woman and her friends or children. Often she would be dressed in black, grieving for those she had lost. She’d show me a photograph of a loved one. Sometimes we didn’t speak enough of any language that we both knew, but even if there wasn’t someone there to translate, it was still possible to understand that this young man in the photo was gone and would never come back.
FP: We hadn’t thought so much about how it would affect us to give so many thousands of packages to people who had nothing. We were just involved in the giving and in the sitting down and talking to these women about how they understood what was happening to them, and what people on the outside could do to help. I was particularly interested in what they saw as the first signs that a war was coming. What did they see happening between people that allowed the situation to develop as it had?
So while on one level we were giving the packages, on another level we were asking questions that would lead to responses that could change our own hearts. Then we could turn around and send a report to all of the people who had sent the packets and change their hearts as well.
When we got these eight thousand packages from friends who wanted to help with this project, we knew that there was a deep well of caring in this country and in Australia. We knew that if we could find things that people could do to help, then they would do them, and so we came back and published a list, a two-pager of contact phone numbers. For example, if you want to send books, send them to this organization. We had a list of volunteer organizations who would welcome help.
TG: We tried to be very concrete about things people could do to help. Several people actually did volunteer to work in refugee camps in Croatia. But there were so many things people could do short of actually going there. One of the requested items was embroidery thread. We collected a duffel bag full. Now we’re marketing embroidered bracelets from Dubrovnik made by a group of refugee and displaced women there. Each bracelet has a little tag that says, “Remember the women of Yugoslavia.” We are also marketing footies that were knit by Bosnian refugee women living in refugee camps in Serbia. This is one way they can earn a little money.
FP: We have a medical committee that gathers medical samples, cuts them up and puts them into little baggies. To get people through the winter, we’re taking medicine, vitamins and condoms as well as diaphragms.
IM: Amazing! A lot of people just assume that the Red Cross and other international organizations do this work. Why would any two ordinary people say, “We’re going to go there and do this”?
FP: We only do what they ask us to do. This is the level that you can see but this is not all of what we’re doing. These concrete things we’ve discussed are the visible manifestation of the real work that we’re doing: building bridges and opening hearts in a situation full of fear, suspicion and hatred.
TG: And a fundamental principle to which we have been committed is seeing what’s happening on all sides. On our first trip, we went to Croatia and Serbia; if we had been able to get in, we would have gone to Bosnia also. We met many refugees from Bosnia. As we built relationships with Serbs as well as Croatians, we could see that a lot of the propaganda, a lot of what we read here about the Serbs as the enemy, was an overgeneralization, like saying, “All Germans are Nazis.” We saw that there was an anti-war movement in Serbia.
Once we had met some of the people working against the war and some of the people working with refugees, we really wanted to go back to continue our bridge-building, including people from all sides. This time we didn’t want to bring things that took so much time, energy and money. Riding on a train, I had an idea that it would be nice to go back with some performers to visit refugee camps and do some performances. So when we returned to the refuge camps for our second visit, we had formed the Doves, a group of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, four performing artists, two visual artists and the rest of us organizers and stage managers. After working in Zagreb and Split, we were in Dubrovnik (all Croatian cities) about to leave for Belgrade, the capitol of Serbia. The women we worked with in Dubrovnik, many of whom are very patriotic Croatians, were furious with us. They said, “How can you betray us? Dubrovnik was bombed by the Serbs for fourteen months!” We tried to explain why we were going, that there were Serbian people who really didn’t want the war. One of the women from Dubrovnik came to visit us in the States last year. She still didn’t understand why we would “go to the enemy.”
When we went to the Beijing Women’s Conference this past fall, our friend from Dubrovnik was there. One afternoon we saw her sitting in a public area with women from Serbia and all the other parts of the former Yugoslavia. I said to her, “Jany, how is this possible?” With tears in her eyes, she said to me, “I’m changing; I had to change.” Something had been able to shift inside her, and I would like to think that the bridges we had built played some small part in that. I don’t know if they did or not. But maybe they did.
IM: There’s an openness in the way you approach people in this work, Tova, which seems to allow for change. Fran works with a similar openness through the techniques she has developed in strategic questioning.
FP: Through strategic questioning, I am trying to learn how to change my way of thinking or to change our way of thinking because I think there is something built into the logic of the American language and mind, a kind of necrophilia, that allows us to let human possibility on earth die. The question in my meditation is a strategic question.
Our culture is a fear-ridden culture. Progressive people use fear as a motivator. So we’re part of the necrophilia. Armageddon thinking is closed-end thinking. In reflecting on this, I wanted to find a way to think that was not closed-ended, that was not attached to death.
I started looking at the way I thought, and the way I talked and listened to other people. And I saw how in our language we try to dominate each other through proselytizing. “I want you to think like I think so I can be OK. “ This whole dynamic is so involved in domination, and domination is necrophilia in action. So I’m trying to see how we might talk in creative, open, life-affirming ways that allow other persons to have their existence entirely intact even if they don’t agree with us.
In trying to figure out how to clean up the Ganges, I invented strategic questioning. When I went to India I had no idea how to go about cleaning up this river. I figured I’d have to find the ideas right there in Varanasi. So I just started asking questions. What would you like to do to help the river? How do you see the river? I would write down the most opening questions I could think of. Then I would go out and test them. I’d find that a question wasn’t exactly right. I’d rephrase it so it would be more and more optimistic, more and more validating of the place and the person, with no assumptions on my part as to what the answer was.
I saw how so often we’ve been taught to ask questions where the answer is known, whereas we’re facing a future that is unknown. We have to be able to ask questions in a way to elicit answers to the unknown future rather than the known past.
IM: This is where strategic questioning begins to sound to me like a dynamic interpersonal mindfulness practice.
TG: I think this is why it appealed to so many people at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Institute this past summer, because it is consonant with some of the practices Buddhists do. Strategic questioning is grounded in the present; it is open and allows for change. Sometimes a question needs time to grow inside. With a good strategic question you may not know the answer; it could come later.
IM: Like a koan.
FP: A lot of times the way we ask a question actually inoculates people against generative thinking. If someone says, “I don’t know” and then you somehow punish them for not knowing, they are never going to revisit that question again freshly and with delight. So it is really important to be nonattached to an answer, or to the identity of the person being encapsulated in the answer. Every answer is only a momentary answer; the next moment is a new situation and another answer will come. I’m using this Buddhist language just so you’ll be happy. [Everyone laughs.]
Strategic questioning is a developmental philosophy that is aimed at trying to keep people creative and open to change. So much of the way we talk keeps other people from thinking imaginatively. The most important thing is that the river keeps flowing, that we see that we’re constantly changing, and that the same question can be asked the next day with a new answer.
IM: You seem to draw often on the imagery of rivers. Have rivers become a strong teacher for you?
FP: You must be psychic. I’m hoping to take a sabbatical next year to study water as a metaphor. Water is the new metaphor for emerging concepts of social change. Without any seeming angst, water moves from liquid to gas; it moves through transformations constantly with no resistance. The more I see water as the great mediator, the great dissolver, the great lubricator, the more I want to learn to think like water.
I’ve been playing with this metaphor in a piece I am writing. Think of the page that this print is on. If you turn the page, you can see the tree falling. Then you can see the water that rushes down and becomes a flood because this tree has fallen. You can see all the suffering of that river as it flows to the ocean in flood state. Then, if you look carefully, you can see the new seedling coming up, and life continuing in this page as you turn it.