It was more than two decades ago that Lee Sims rolled into Albuquerque to visit a friend she'd met at a peace march. "The day I was here, she took me down to the office and said, ‘Here she is. Use her.’ ”
The office was what would become the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice. The friend was Sally-Alice Thompson, who helped found the center about 26 years ago. It started as a group of women in an anti-nuclear organization called WAND. "I don't remember what it stood for," laughs Thompson. "Later we branched out to more peace and justice, because if you don't have justice, you don't have peace. And if you don't have peace, you're going to have nuclear bombs."
They had rented a one-room office on Silver in the fall of 1983, and the operation rapidly outgrew its tiny space. Dorie Bunting, Blanche Fitzpatrick and Dorothy McMurphy oversaw the place and staffed it. The center's foremothers organized meetings, wrote letters, and pulled together public demonstrations and sit-ins.
But as that little room showed signs of becoming a hub for a variety of peace- and justice-seeking groups in Albuquerque, it was soon time to move up the street into a bigger space. It wasn't until 2003 that the center bought the comparatively spacious University Area-digs on the corner of Harvard and Silver.
Judith Kidd is a former coordinator who describes herself, over the protests of her colleagues, as "just an old member." She says the center serves as a rallying point when international disasters are brewing. "When there's a crisis, Peace Center gets all the calls," she says. "What's going on? What's going on?, everyone was asking on the day Bush announced we were actually going to invade Iraq."
“We flow with times, and when there's crisis or more of a need, we're here. We're ready for it.”
Longtime member Judith Kidd
The early group of founders was mostly elderly, says Sims. "Sometime around the invasion of Iraq, we got an influx of young people—in their 30s and 40s and 50s," she laughs. "It made a very good signal of change."
Volunteer David Lopez says he remembers going to Vietnam demonstrations as a kid and seeing throngs of participants. During the run-up to the Iraq War, interest in protests increased in Albuquerque, he says. "Since then, they've gotten smaller. It always seems to be the same core group of folks that show up," he finishes.
The center is responsive, says Kidd, to need. "We flow with times, and when there's crisis or more of a need, we're here. We're ready for it."
There's always work to be done, and one of the goals of the center is to connect activists in Albuquerque—
To date, there are 56 groups in the larger collective of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice. The roomy building at 292 Harvard SE, equipped with a kitchen and peace hall, makes the spot ideal for screening films, hosting fundraisers and talks, feeding the homeless, teaching yoga classes and presenting live music.
As we speak on a weekday afternoon, co-coordinator Mary Nakigan's baby roams the floor and explores lower bookshelves. Strains of piano can be heard coming from the hall, and people are laughing in the kitchen. A homeless man drifts in, maybe to use the phone or the restroom—both of which are always available—or to find food.
Food is donated to P&J every day. And every day, Nakigan is glad to say, meals are moved back out. "Everyone's embraced and welcomed," Nakigan says. She's one of two part-time staffers at P&J; otherwise the collective rests entirely on the shoulders of volunteers. "The fact that we're able to keep this wonderful space moving forward is a testament to how much people contribute their time and their efforts."
The center also stands on a strong philosophy of nonviolence, Kidd says, that shapes the Coordinating Council's decision making and communication. "We're looking at being peaceful ourselves and knowing how to interact with each other in a nondominant way."
“We were just month to month. We still are, for that matter. Each month just leads to the next.”
Volunteer Lee Sims
How the larger community sees P&J is dependent on political perspective, says Kidd. "There are some segments of the community that think we're doing very important work. And other segments that think we're troublemakers, maybe, or not in touch with reality."
Thompson, who is one of the people who chartered the center all those years ago, says she's thrilled this collection of activists has been able to spread its influence. P&J sponsored another center in Las Vegas, N.M., and there's also a nascent peace community in Farmington, she adds. Albuquerque's peace network has linked to communities in other states. There's also an ongoing effort to connect with activists working on hyper-local, city-centric issues.
Sims says she had no idea the center would last for so long. "We were just month to month," she says. "We still are, for that matter. Each month just leads to the next."
The group is acutely aware of its failings, too. "We want people in their 20s to become the peace activists in the future," Kidd says.
"We haven't been successful in broadening the ethnicity as much as we'd like," Thompson chimes in.
"We haven't been awfully successful in banning nuclear weapons, either," says Sims.
"Or stopping wars," Kidd finishes. "That's what we've been trying to do, but so far, we've been banging our heads against the walls."
Still, all agree there's a comfort in the camaraderie of rubbing elbows with people of similar value systems. "I like the community," Thompson says. "I'm not alone."
And so the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice labors on. Sims tells a story to illustrate this point. She used to take her youngest daughter to protests, demonstrations and picket lines. During one winter action, Sims remembers, "She said, ‘Mama, it's cold. Remember when you used to bring the cold soda in the summer?’ And I said, ‘Just keep walking. It will be summer again soon.’ ”