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Peace Weavers

Alumni activists work toward peace and social justice in communities at home and abroad.


by Terry Stephan

In 2000, attorney Steven Austermiller (WCAS89, L92) seemingly had it all. After working eight years at a midsize business law firm in Chicago, he made partner on New Year’s Day. He enjoyed his work and the lifestyle it allowed him, but something was missing. “As the years passed, I began to feel more and more that I was going to stay there for life, and that didn’t sit well in my gut,” he says. “I just felt like I would have missed an opportunity to do something different and meaningful — meaningful to me.”

He resigned in September of that year and within two months was working in Zagreb, Croatia, with the American Bar Association’s overseas legal assistance program. He helped mentor young lawyers and judges, developed legal clinics at local law schools, trained prosecutors and judges in the practice of mediation and on subjects such as human trafficking and war crimes.

Today he is doing similar work with an ABA program in Cambodia. “I actually feel like I am making the world a little better place,” he says. “I have no illusions that I am substantially changing any of these societies. I learned early on that the best I can do is to influence some people on some matters. This can lead to some positive changes over time. That’s good enough for me.”

Austermiller is one of a number of Northwestern alumni, at home and abroad, dealing with issues of peace and social justice. They are working in the Peace Corps, law enforcement, grass-roots organizing, government service and conflict resolution. Some are working alone, and others with large organizations. Some see immediate results from their efforts, and others recognize the sometimes slow and steady nature of their progress. But they share a deep satisfaction from the work they do.

Andy McDermott (C98) spent seven years playing professional soccer after starring at Northwestern from 1994 to 1997 and now is a patrol officer with the Phoenix Police Department. “When it came time to stop chasing the soccer dream and move on and get a real job, my next dream job was law enforcement,” he says. “I have always been impressed by capable people who consistently put themselves in harm’s way to help others.”

His work ranges from mediating domestic violence disputes to dealing with gang activity and serving as a translator for other officers who work among the large Mexican immigrant population. He even finds time to play a little soccer with the local kids. “The best way I know to describe my job is a front-row seat to the best show on earth,” he says.

For Rodney Davis (G55, 61), a commitment to peace was put to an early test when he was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He filed as a conscientious objector. “My conscience objection was based on having been reared in a historic peace church, the Church of the Brethren,” he says. “I believe that participation in war and violence is sin.”

Now retired and living in La Verne, Calif., Davis is active in the Laverne Church of the Brethren, a progressive church committed to inclusion, peace and social justice. He works with his church’s Task Force to Stop Violence and the Coalition to End the War in Iraq, sponsoring conferences, organizing an essay contest on peace and fundraising for local students to travel to seminars on these issues.

“A new approach is needed in response to the ‘winds of change’ that buffet our world,” he says. “There is hunger, AIDS, poverty, poor health, rejection of colonialism, ethnic cleansing, global warming, addiction to oil and the need for clean air and water that urgently need to be addressed. We either solve these problems together for the benefit of everyone or we will ultimately suffer along with everyone.”

Charles Casper (KSM69) retired earlier this year after spending the past 15 years in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Peacekeeping, Sanctions and Counterterrorism. He and his colleagues were responsible for briefing Congress and developing policy positions on United Nations peacekeeping operations and securing funding for the U.S. contributions.

His work took him to global hot spots, including refugee camps in Angola, villages in Croatia, outposts in the Sahara Desert and other peacekeeping spots in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.

“I am disappointed in some governments and officials who, in my view, place narrow advantage ahead of concern for those suffering and their basic human needs,” Casper says. “I have also been amazed at the cruelty that humans inflict on others, especially women and children.

“But I feel that I’ve contributed to making the world a better place by working to have peacekeeping operations that save lives and sometimes move countries toward a better life.” 

Rev. Elizabeth Stedman, chaplain at Canterbury Northwestern, the University’s Episcopal campus ministry, believes that students at Northwestern take a broad view when it comes to helping others. “I see a desire to do work that, yes, will allow them to live decent lives, but that also advances the ability of other people to have their basic needs met,” she says. “Northwestern students and alumni are an empowered group. They really can do anything with their lives, so it’s no surprise that many choose to take risks, to seek something more from and for their lives than a big paycheck. It’s important to understand a life of service not as a sacrifice but as a way to live richly and deeply.”

Debbie Wilber (McC96) finds that satisfaction in her work as the youth ministries director with the Salvation Army in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. The San Francisco Lighthouse Corps facility provides housing for parents recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and gives them a safe haven where they can reunite with their children, who in most cases had been put in foster care, and work on rebuilding their lives together.

“My goal is to provide an environment where the children feel safe and experience something close to unconditional love,” she says. “I help them discover their unique gifts and talents, and to build their self-esteem in the hope that they will make different choices from their parents. When I see children who grow and change as a result of the love and encouragement we pour into them, it reminds me why I signed up for this crazy profession!”

Matthew McCallum (McC95, GMcC02) believes that if people — and nations — want peace they must first find it within themselves. For the past eight years McCallum has studied and taught Buddhist meditation. “I lead a discussion each week with some readings on a particular topic of Buddhist philosophy or a meditation on something like patience, compassion, equanimity, inner peace, wisdom and so on,” he says. He works with groups at the Quaker Meeting House in Evanston and a Buddhist temple in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.

“I think that I can help people touch that deeper place of calmness and peace within their minds, so they realize that they have those things within them and that they have a choice about how to live their lives in the world, how to respond to difficulties and how to relate to others,” he says. “We need to realize that there are alternatives to responding to a stressful or painful situation with anger, hatred or violence, and we need to personally contribute to the growth of healing and peace that we want to see in the world around us.”

While serving on the faculty of North Carolina State University in Raleigh for nearly 45 years, Slater Newman (G51) devoted his volunteer energies to promoting a host of human rights activities. He was a co-founder of the local Committee to Reverse the Arms Race and also the Human Rights Coalition of North Carolina. He chairs the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina's Committee on International Human Rights and a state organization in support of U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. He is an active member of Amnesty International.

Due to government secrecy in some nations and an overall lack of interest and understanding, “human rights do not get enough attention,” Newman says. “I think a very small percentage of people in any country know what ‘human rights’ are. I have had the satisfaction of knowing that by taking a stand, change can be effected.”

Northwestern sociology professor emeritus Bernie Beck finds that while social activism is always present in society, emphasis on it tends to ebb and flow. “After the activism of the 1960s there was a backlash. There was the ‘Me Generation’ of the 1980s, for example,” he says. “An ethic of activism started, went away and now has come back. And there’s been a rebirth of a new kind of activism, not on the level of the mass demonstrations of the past but of lower-level, small-scale volunteerism involving individuals and small groups.”

The war in Iraq has been the catalyst for Priscilla “Lolly” Grierson Voss (WCAS62) and Sarah Klinksick Maxwell (GMu81). Through her involvement with the DeKalb (Ill.) Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice, Voss and other members have conducted a peace vigil in their town every Friday for the past four years. “We’re trying to combat the tendency on the part of many to ignore the war,” she says. “We hope to honor the memories of our loved ones by exploring ways to promote peace rather than advance war.”

For the past two years on Veterans Day, Maxwell has organized an event in her rural northwest Ohio community where participants read the list of all the military personnel killed in Iraq. The first year they cited the more than 2,000 who had lost their lives since the war began. Last November they honored those who had died in the previous year. Though intended as an event to unify the community, Maxwell says,  “It is a job-threatening, friendship-breaking activity for me. But that fact has not deterred me from bringing the idea of peace to the community’s, county’s and region’s forefront.”

Helen Harnett’s activism began in high school in the 1980s when she became interested in the plight of refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America. “These were men, women and children fleeing horrendous persecution, torture and death,” she says. But the U.S. government refused to grant asylum to people trying to escape countries that were allies of the United States.

“It would have embarrassed our allies if we granted asylum to their citizens,” says Harnett (WCAS91). “Due to that policy we refused to grant basic rights protection to people who literally had fled for their lives — a violation of basic international human rights.”

Her interest in refugee rights continued at Northwestern and after getting her law degree from American University’s Washington College of Law, Harnett developed the Immigrant Rights Project as part of the University of Baltimore School of Law. She helps direct students who assist low-income immigrants with legal services ranging from representation in cases of unpaid wage claims to assisting those seeking asylum. She has also organized public events to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa and immigration issues, including activities of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The media has heavily covered fringe groups, and I think people are hungry for more information about what is actually happening,” she says.

Northwestern’s Beck says people, like Harnett, who choose to devote their time and effort to issues of peace and social justice find satisfaction in their work.

“It takes a special kind of person to stick with that kind of work, because we don’t always make it easy for them,” Beck says. “But the need is always acute. We’ve always relied on these people. Without altruism, society would absolutely collapse. We’ve always counted on them to pick up the pieces after us when society isn’t far-sighted enough. They are a Delta Force for social problems.”

Editor’s note: Northwestern magazine would like to thank all those who responded to our request for information on alumni peacekeepers. The people mentioned in this story are just a few of the many alumni working in such endeavors.

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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Steven Austermiller, center, with law professors Hor Peng, left, and Khim Kiri, right, at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Steven Austermiller, center, with law professors Hor Peng, left, and Khim Kiri, right, at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Photo by Duch Phary
Rodney Davis at a peace vigil in Claremont, Calif.
Rodney Davis at a peace vigil in Claremont, Calif. Courtesy of Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Lolly Voss protests the war in Iraq with the DeKalb (Ill.) Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice.
Lolly Voss protests the war in Iraq with the DeKalb (Ill.) Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice. Courtesy of Lolly Voss
Sarah Maxwell reads the names of fallen U.S. troops at Memorial Park in Archbold, Ohio.
Sarah Maxwell reads the names of fallen U.S. troops at Memorial Park in Archbold, Ohio. Photo by Thomas Born/The Crescent-News