Tana Hartman is a political activist, a student of history and a fighter. She's also an ex-Democrat who's disgusted with both political parties. "Both parties have sold out to the corporate interests," she says flatly. Pick a problem, Hartman says, from war to fracking to the toxic sludge being spread on farmland, and you'll discover that it's so hard to stop because corporations are making a buck by perpetuating it.
But as much as Hartman wanted to say the hell with politics, four words convinced her that walking away was not an option: "My children and grandchildren."
So as her retirement as a program administrator at UNC-Chapel Hill neared, Hartman was thrilled to find a smart, scrappy organization that was "connecting the dots," she says, between the widespread problems and the cause that is common to all of them—the growth of multinational corporations and their suffocating effect on American democracy.
Actually, she didn't find the group—the local chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organization started in The Hague in 1915 by a group of anti-war suffragettes—as much as it found her. The first U.S. president was Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House and the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
WILPF in the Triangle today, Hartman says, "is a diverse organization of women and some men who really believe in self-government, are well-informed on the issues and they're also ready to get their hands dirty" walking a picket line, mounting a protest or in some other way agitating for positive change.
They believe in networks, coalitions and local initiatives that, if well chosen, may catch fire and help fuel a movement.
The small Triangle branch of WILPF, based in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, isn't a household brand even to rank-and-file progressives in the region, but its members are also leaders of such better-known groups as N.C. WARN, N.C. Peace Action, the Green Party and the N.C. Progressive Democrats, among many others. They have a weekly radio show on WCOM in Carrboro.
And if you've ever heard the local chapter of the Raging Grannies belt out an anti-establishment tune, just about all of them are WILPF members too.
In two weeks, the local WILPF branch will host a national congress of about 100 members from 28 states at UNC. It's the 31st such meeting in the group's 96-year history and only the second in the South, where WILPF branches are rare.
It comes at a time when North Carolina, especially the Triangle, is on the front lines of a national battle over education issues (school funding, resegregation, privatization) and the conservative assault on government programs of all kinds—the military excepted.
"End War" is the name of the congress, but the fundamental subject, WILPF members say, is building a coalition strong enough to counter the conservatives and turn the nation's attentions to social and economic justice. A second subject: how to attract the younger people who weren't alive for the last great wave of social movements?
The Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, will be among the featured speakers.
The Triangle branch of WILPF has long been in the vanguard of the civil rights movement in North Carolina. Lucy Lewis, who's been a member for 43 years, remembers that her parents refused to attend the segregated movie theaters in Chapel Hill. That issue and their opposition to the Vietnam War brought her parents into WILPF; Lewis' mother went on to be a national officer of the organization and, in the '70s, a leader in the civil rights cause as co-chair of the Coalition to Free the Wilmington Ten.
Today most WILPF members are also NAACP members, Lewis says, and many in the NAACP, including Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch president Michelle Cotton Laws, are in WILPF.
When Lewis was coming of age, WILPF organized anti-war vigils on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill every week from 1968–1973, with crowds sometimes filling the block in front of the post office (now called Peace and Justice Plaza).
That period marked a high point for the WILPF branch, whose membership has swelled and ebbed over the years with the fortunes of the women's, civil rights and peace movements. Lewis says the membership stands now at about 200 and has increased steadily, if not rapidly, for several years. One reason, she says, is WILPF's support for the union workers who went on strike at the Moncure Plywood plant in Chatham County in mid-2008. A WILPF member, Dick Paddock, was among the first from outside the union to join the picket line; for the next nine months, until the strike was settled, he helped organize WILPF members and non-members so the line would be manned (and woman-ed) around the clock.
"It was an important struggle," Lewis says, in which WILPF reached out successfully to local politicians and a reluctant international machinists union leadership.
As a result of that effort and some others with workers at UNC-CH and the Chapel Hill sanitation department, Lewis says, WILPF cemented its ties to labor and added new members.
Miriam Thompson was in Raleigh last week for an organizing meeting at the N.C. Justice Center. The purpose was to help the Rev. Barber turn out a crowd next Tuesday at the General Assembly in opposition to proposed Republican budget cuts. It's what WILPF members do, she says. They make alliances. They chip away.
Thompson, one of the key WILPF congress organizers along with Hartman, Paddock and Lewis, is a retired union official at City University in New York who moved here four years ago to be with family. "WILPF," she says, "is a little nest here" compared with what she left behind in New York. Still, she's impressed by WILPF's ability to instigate and mobilize. "We have friends all over the state," she says. "It's not so much our numbers but connecting the dots and bringing people to the conversation who wouldn't be there otherwise."
Connecting the dots is a phrase a lot of WILPF members use. It means, among other things, moving people from inaction to action. And it raises the question of what it will take to move people from worrying ineffectually about Medicare, for example, to caring enough about the political forces trying to dismantle Medicare to rise up against them.
Vietnam, civil rights and women's rights had that power 50 years ago. But today? Thompson thinks Hartman's onto something with her advocacy of a constitutional amendment to strip corporations of their personhood. Such an amendment would make it clear that Congress has the power to curb corporate spending in political campaigns, for example.
To that, Thompson would add a campaign in favor of worker's rights and collective bargaining. Without a strong labor movement, she says, the power of capital cannot be curbed.
In Chapel Hill, "Whither WILPF?" is on the agenda for the final day. Thompson says it won't be a theoretical discussion.
"The disconnect between what the people want and their elected officials is a huge problem, and it's the worst I've ever seen it," she says. "This isn't a conversation piece. It's a problem of how to instigate, and get others to instigate and have people take actions to build a just society."
And what if the movement doesn't come?
"I think we just have to be in the struggle," Thompson says. "It's existential. You climb the mountain because it's there. So I don't look at outcomes, though I'd like to have them. For me, the work is just a moral and personal imperative."