Wanderings through life, landscapes, and occasional loopiness. So pull up a log and have a bit of a sit-down ’round the virtual campfire.

Untapped Resource: The Nashville Peace and Justice Center

By Ev Schlatter (Andi Marquette)

Originally published in Church Street Freedom Press, Nashville TN (March 23, 2006).

The Nashville Peace and Justice Center (NPJC) sits at 1016 18th Street, part of a neighborhood that borders Vanderbilt campus. It’s a nondescript reddish-brick 3-story building that faces the street, with an early 1970s-era look to it. At one time, it may actually have been an apartment complex. A small black sign stuck into a patch of a lawn advertises the center in neat white block letters. I drove past it once, missing the sign, and had to double-back.

To some, appearances are deceiving. I, on the other hand (full disclosure!), have spent many years volunteering for various social and political causes and I’m used to finding gems of progressive activism in bland buildings that have been converted from something else. Like other organization centers with which I’m familiar, the inner offices of the Peace and Justice Center have been carved out of a variety of different-sized rooms. Inside the main office, which is through the first door on your left as you enter, is a hodge-podge of desks, computers, and tables serving some of the communication and organizational functions of a group of incredibly dedicated and talented people.

I spent a Wednesday night at the beginning of March sitting at one of those tables with some of these people, representatives of a small sample of the groups who utilize the Center’s facilities and how the NPJC has encouraged and sustained them. What I discovered is that the issues that all of these groups are working on may seem unrelated on the surface, but as Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in 1963, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I was struck by the interdependence but flexibility of the groups working through NPJC. Each has its independent issues, but all work together for larger goals.

Jen Cartwright, director of education, put the whole meeting together. She exudes competence though one of the assembled people ribbed her about her youth. Cartwright is a native Nashvillian, though she spent 8 years out of state doing popular education work in Maine and southern California. She returned to her roots and says her work with NPJC has shown her parts and populations of the city she never knew existed. Keith Caldwell, grassroots coordinator, is also a Nashville native. He came to NPJC via his work with the Ad Hoc Committee for Equity, which addresses inequities among African Americans. The group began focusing on healthcare with the TennCare cuts in 2005. “The TennCare sit-in,” Caldwell told me, “is the greatest thing I had ever done to challenge the establishment.” He calls it an “epiphany” and thinks that it brought him to the NPJC. Caldwell is working to build a base of activists and volunteers to channel into local movements.

Matt Leber, outgoing executive director, has helped mold the Center since 2002. During his tenure, a strategic plan was put in place and the NPJC expanded from an organizing base of 300 to over 6000 and from one part-time staff person to three full-time staff, in addition to work-study students and summer interns. The Center has organized over 100 public events since 2002, including marches and vigils. It has also launched a nine-week leadership training program, which fits in nicely with the community partnerships and coalitions the Center has built across race and class divides in its work on healthcare, homeless rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.

During my visit, I got the impression that the Center will continue building on Leber’s work, maintaining financial stability and increasing staff and activists. I also got a much better sense of what the Center actually is. According to the mission statement, the NPJC is a “community based coalition of individuals working to promote equity and to create a peaceful, just and sustainable society through reflection, education, and non-violent action.” Formerly known as the Nashville Peace Alliance, the Center re-defined itself in the early 1990s, influenced by a series of brainstorming sessions and the outbreak of the Gulf War. The NPJC began offering a central location for a variety of social justice groups to meet, thus becoming a connection point for an array of organizations to build alliances and networks with local, national, and even international groups. Currently, the Center is operating as a coalition of member groups that are involved in long-term sustainable social change on a variety of local issues while they respond to local needs as they arise.

As I listened to members of various organizations explain their work, the word that kept coming to my mind as a descriptor for the Center was “empowerment.” A major theme of all present was the attempt to get community members to realize that they, too, can have a voice in larger issues and can approach government officials and develop working partnerships with them. This was made abundantly clear by Howard Allen, director of the Nashville Homeless Power Project (HPP). Allen is himself homeless, and speaks directly to the need for homeless people to have a voice in the city and county policies that will affect them. Allen was involved with the TennCare sit-in at the statehouse in 2005 because healthcare is something that directly affects homeless people. Leigh Ann Martin with the Grassroots Organizing Committee to Save TennCare (GROC) chimed in about the sit-in. Most GROC members are current or ex-TennCare enrollees and they concentrate on organizing town hall meetings to educate Tennessee state legislators on how the cuts are affecting their constituents. GROC is currently involved in developing the TREAT (TennCare Reform, Ethics, Accountability, and Transparency) bill, which focuses on reforming TennCare management.

Allen and HPP have also built coalitions with the Criminal Justice Center and the Sheriff’s office. Through these inroads, police cadets now participate in a seminar that teaches them how to work with homeless people. “The Center,” Allen said, “is about real issues, real people, real lives. This is the best reality show there is.” Allen continually stresses education and direct action, not only with elected officials, but with homeless people—it’s important, he feels, for those on the street to know how to access government and build partnerships that can lead to better policies in the future.

Bruce Wood, a representative from BURNT (Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today) echoes Allen’s position with regard to education. BURNT formed in 1988 as the first group to oppose the downtown riverfront incinerator (the Thermal Transfer Plant, or Thermal). As a result of BURNT’s efforts, Thermal closed. BURNT has also worked with Metro schools to develop less toxic pest control through integrated pest management. The group also works, in conjunction with No Spray Nashville and the No Spray Campaign, to stop Metro’s haphazard and unregulated use of toxic pesticides in mosquito control. Wood notes that one of the most important things BURNT does is educate citizens about the links between environment and personal health and to help them understand how government works so they can get involved to pass on clean air, water, and sustainable living to their children and grandchildren.

Elizabeth Barger of the PeaceRoots Alliance supports Wood’s call for sustainable living and future generations. The Alliance, based on The Farm in Summertown, works to create “a peaceful, just and sustainable world for future generations” through promoting common humanity, advocating non-violence, and removing the roots of war. Thus, the invasion of Iraq, as Barger terms the military operation in that county, is a major source of activism for the Alliance, which began posting peace and “bring the troops home” billboards all over the country in the wake of 9/11. Barger explained the connections between war and local economic disruptions and told me about the “Farms Not Arms” project, which seeks to organize people involved in agriculture to oppose war and convince governments to invest resources in things that reduce hunger, poverty, and disease.

It’s connections like these that also inform the National Organization for Women. Cynthia Bennett, the Nashville NOW representative with whom I spoke, explained that the Nashville chapter works on issues that deal with economic, political, and social equality for women and girls in all aspects of society, including support for all forms of reproductive freedom. NOW opposes racism and discrimination against GLBT people and works to end violence, especially against women and girls. Bennett told me that NOW also works with many international women’s organizations because the issues women and GLBT people face aren’t limited to one locale. Nashville NOW is currently working with the Tennessee Equality Project to oppose the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment” (MPA), which would bar GLBT people from marrying in Tennessee, and to oppose a pharmacists’ “conscience” bill, which would allow pharmacists to withhold birth control on the basis of personal beliefs. Bennett is quick to point out that what affects one group of people invariably reverberates across other groups, which is why NOW is involved in a variety of campaigns.

Like NOW, the First Unitarian Universalist congregation in Nashville has traditionally been involved in peace and justice work. Suzanne Reed, vice-chair of GLBTF (…and Friends) along with Victoria Harris, who is a congregant and director of education at the HIV clinic on Charlotte Pike, explained the congregation’s involvement with opposition to the MPA as part of the Unitarian Universalists’ overall mission in affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but also as “the right thing to do.” Reed, who is married and identifies as heterosexual, shook her head with bemused frustration when discussing the amendment. She then quoted Jack Senterfitt, senior legal attorney at Lambda Legal Southern Regional Office: “It’s about civil rights, not religious rites.”

Beau Hunter, with WRFN radio in Nashville (98.9 FM), lent his voice to the discussion as well. He says that the NPJC supplies the activists and Radio Free Nashville “puts it all to a beat.” Hunter and WRFN are committed to social justice and education; Radio Free Nashville offers on-air training to aspiring DJs and activists. He stresses the importance of media access to inform people about issues that could affect them. Ideally, Hunter says, he and the station “spread the word, every day” about grassroots activism.

My evening at the NPJC and subsequent conversations with Center staff left me both galvanized and humbled. Grassroots activism is demanding, tiring, tedious. It can be difficult to build bridges between disparate groups, though it’s worth the effort. It takes infinite patience, constant diplomacy, and an unswerving desire to make life better for everyone. Advances may be slow and you may not see results right away. But those who come after you will, and the NPJC will continue to lay foundations for them, provide meeting space and organizational tools, and offer a welcoming chair at the end of a long day.

Untapped Resource: The Nashville Peace and Justice Center

Post navigation