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Paquetta Palmer: Working Toward Social Justice

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AGENDA will be periodically publishing a new column called Honorable Mention. We hope to recognize some of the individuals and groups whose work may not get the recognition it deserves and to illustrate the fact that, although our ranks are small and we have differing views, this community has plenty of positive role models! Got someone in mind we should know about? Send us a postcard marked: Honorable Mentioned, P.O. Box 3624, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. 

Paquetta Palmer: Working toward social justice
An interview by Karen Klein

Local activist Paquetta Palmer is the Assistant Coordinator of the Detroit Branch of the National Lawyers Guild. She serves on the Board of the Alternatives to Violence Project. She is an active member of: The American Friends Service Committee Peace and Education Committee; the Ann Arbor Housing Commission; The Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corporation; the Washtenaw County Coalition Against Apartheid; the Black Women's Support Group, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Ann Arbor National Lawyers Guild working for a just Supreme Court. 

The following interview is in Paquetta's own words. Headings were added for organizational purposes. 


Getting Politicized 

The system we live in is so brutal, I don't feel I have a choice. If I don't participate in the struggle, if I didn't need to talk about me, and other women like me, people of color or like me, if I just sat back, it would be easier. We have to educate ourselves. For me, doing social change work has been a personal, social education on many levels, both in terms of local interaction with the Ann Arbor community and on an international level. 

People think of themselves as apolitical but after awhile they realize that ultimately, they are political; they just never though of themselves in that way. A woman I know asked me to help her because her mother's medicaid was being cut off. She didn't think it was a political act to question and confront Medicaid. To me, it's a political act anytime a person is empowered enough to get their needs met without hurting other people. 


Questioning the Status Quo

I think we have to ask why it is that people in this country can be comfortable and have every technical advantage possible and yet be unable to see that it is at the expense of others? A lot of white middle class people don't feel like they are responsible but when people don't do anything, they are a part of the problem. I think a worry free life is attractive to people. They don't question where the need comes from to consume. Where does the need come from for kids to want $80-90 tennis shoes? For a lot of these families, that's half the money for the month. The saddest part is that all we have could be used for peaceful means. This country could set an example to the entire world by redistributing the wealth for human needs; it is a possibility here. 

Yet five out of ten people in this country don't have health insurance. There is virtually no plan on which you can get a pair of glasses or get your teeth cleaned. That's considered extra. And this is in the wealthiest country in the world.


Becoming Involved 

I think it's hard to take responsibility for world issues and world problems, but just because you aren't working on every issue doesn't mean you can't be effective. In fact, I wouldn't advise anyone to do political stuff just to be doing it. You can hurt lots of innocent people if you're not sincere. It's always striking to me that there are so many male chauvinists in the movement. I expect them in society, but it's always hard for me when I see them in the movement. 

We have to make sure we have a vested personal reason to be involved. It's hard being in the front line of the attack on oppressed people. We have to be willing to have compassion and stop and think and see that someone is suffering if we want the common results we say we do. You can't come into the movement thinking you can change the world tomorrow, thinking that this is going to be fun. Sure the victories are fun, but if you're working with people it's hard. It's hard because when you decide to accept responsibility for some of the world's problems, you want people to change. You want people to do what you want them to do and it's hard when they don't. 

I mean we have curbside recycling. So why doesn't everyone do it? You can't let that stuff get you down. You need an attitude of perseverance. We have to recognize that confrontation and conflict are not obstacles but a part of life. 


Building a Multi-Cultural Peace Movement

One thing we have to do is decide if we really believe in the thing we are doing. I mean, why can't we build a strong multi-cultural peace movement? I discussed this at the National Conference on Non-Violence in June in South Dakota. What came out of that study group was that some predominantly white groups never sat down to think: Do we really want minorities and are we really going to work to get them? Are we willing to have our meetings in places where minorities are? Do we have an resources or any reasons why minorities would be interested in our group? Are there any particular things we want from them to meet our needs?

A lot of liberals get caught in a trick bag when they try to recruit minorities because they think the minority person will be a push over. If they have a minority person in their group, they may always ask that person to speak, taking advantage of the fact that the person is a minority, rather than asking if that person can speak to the issue. They may burn that person out while trying to make their group look good. A minority in a predominantly white group can be easily be set up for failure. When liberals don't criticize a minority person for fear of being call racist, they are expecting less of that person, and that's racist in itself. They have to try to make a bond with that person, just as they would with any person. It's hard for these liberals. They never have to know people of color or deal with them with any kind of respect and then they wonder why they don't know how to deal with people of color?


Connecting Women

In 1985 I was lucky enough to attend the International Women's Conference in Nairobi as a WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) delegate. To me, there is no more dramatic example of a strong woman than one who spends five hours of her day getting water, or growing her own food. 

I went to the non-governmental conference (the fact that Maureen Reagan was the representative of the US women at the governmental conference was embarrassing to me) and there were women representatives from all kinds of social service agencies, human resource groups, sororities, YWCAs. It showed the tremendous power of women to organize. That power is amazing but it requires a vision of what the world can be when we realize the connections between women. We have to really educate ourselves enough to see feminism in every woman. We have to struggle to get beyond our biases. Misogyny has done some weird stuff to us as women. It has affected men. It's important for us to develop feminist philosophies within ourselves and to make connections between ourselves and Third World people. 

The situation for kids in this country has deteriorated under the Reagan Administration. The infant mortality rate here is comparable to some places in the Third World. Here, like in South Africa, the cervical cancer rate is higher for Black women. And here, like there, our domestic workers are non-organized women of color working for affluent people who can afford domestic help. It's not like these women don't have children of their own to take care of. In South Africa between 2-3,000 children have been detained since the State of Emergency. Parents don't know if kids are in jail; they're just missing. The effects of torture on detained children linger on. 


Working Toward a Better Future

I think it's discouraging for young kids to see how people are suffering. I tell kids I work with not to beat on each other to solve problems. I tell them to talk to each other with respect. They tell me stories, I ask them what they are thinking about; how they feel about things; what they want to be when they grow up. When they try I tell them that's good and when they do something well, I tell them that's wonderful and I try not to get frustrated when they do beat on each other. 

Working with kids is the same as working with any disempowered person. I try to speak to what is inside of them that can bring some power to them. It is especially frustrating for kids because people don't want to talk to them about what's going on. It's painful to talk to kids about stuff that can hurt them but I think it's better to talk to them about it than not to.


Accepting the Challenge 

There are things we can do, if we have a real desire to accomplish our goal. It isn't easy working in a system that's really screwed up in a society that's really sad. 

I think we have to be very realistic and open minded and willing to feel some of the suffering coming out of the situation that exists today. We have to become involved and experience some of the pain ourselves. The more removed we are from the people pay-ing the highest price, the less successful our movement will be.

For those of us who hold ourselves accountable, we have to work with the vision of hope that what we are doing will make a better world. Even though Reagan did fund the contras, we still have 44 sister cities with Nicaragua!

I think we need to make a personal commitment that we feel proud of. We must accept the challenge to ask ourselves: Why this injustice? Why discrimination? Why racism? What can I do to stop it? We aren't just doing this because we are Nobel or better than other people but because we see the earth continuing to revolve.