By Meghan Conley
I was recently honored to receive the 2018 Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance Peacemaker Award, alongside four other women who work for peace in our community.
The truth is, though, that I find it very hard to feel like a peacemaker these days. I find it hard to understand what it means to make peace during these times of war. And I do feel that we are at war right now—we are at war over ideas, values, and meaning. And maybe we always have been. A few years ago, Ai-Jen Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that “we are in the fight of our lives for the soul of this country.” I believed that then and I believe it even more strongly today.
In my work with AKIN, I wake up every day and bear witness to this war. Not as someone directly affected, because I am one of the privileged few who through no fault or doing of my own happened to be born in the United States. No, I bear witness as a bystander to the chaos of our immigration system, to its indifference to pain and suffering, and to the injustices of a global system built on vulnerability, exploitation, and racism.
I call myself a bystander because that’s all my effort amounts to these days, at least in terms of outcomes. I get a phone call from a woman who is eight months pregnant, and her husband has just been detained by immigration for driving without a license. Or a colleague whose undocumented friend was arrested for drinking in public, and now he’s in ICE custody. Or a father whose eighteen-year-old son was arrested for pot, and now he has an ICE hold. Or a neighbor who received notice that she needs to return to Mexico for her immigration hearing, and she’s terrified that if she goes they won’t let her back into the country to be with her US-citizen husband and three US-citizen children.
And all I can do is take down their stories and tell them everything I know, which is never enough, and which is hardly ever good news. And I’m not sure it gives them any peace.
I am humbled by how easy it is to create havoc in people’s lives, and how hard it is to help people feel safe and welcome and valued. This point has hit home for me in the last few months as I have worked with others to respond to the hateful words and actions of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a group that desires a white ethno-state free of people of color, immigrants, Jewish people, LGBTQ+ identified people, and non-traditionalist women. Now the truth, I think, is that very few people support the blatant bigotry of groups like TWP; their numbers are very few. But it’s heartbreaking to realize how much chaos so few people can create, and with such little forethought or insight. It’s devastating to know that their power to create chaos is magnified through the rhetoric of those who wield real political power – people in our local, state, and federal governments who implement policies that can and do cause harm.
In contrast, it takes an entire community to affirm the existence of peace and justice and mercy. And we must affirm this constantly.
For those who work for justice and peace and mercy, I believe that our greatest strength is our commitment to community—and to people. After all, that is what we’re here for, broadly speaking: the desire to build community, to care for one another, to transition—in the words of the Reverend Dr. King—from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. We who work for immigrant rights, for example, must believe that birth certificates, immigrant visas, and national borders are just things, and that these things are not more important than the people they represent.
This is just one reason of many why I am proud to be a member of AKIN. Because even during times of war, when I am at a loss for how to make real peace, to alleviate real suffering, I feel grateful to be part of a movement that is dedicated to building a community where one day everyone will feel safe and live with dignity.
Meghan Conley is a co-founder and steering committee member of AKIN.
A version of this letter was published by the Knox News Sentinel on March 14.