From fall 2017 through spring 2018, peace scholars Betty Reardon and Zeena Zakharia led a seminar series on the role of alternative thinking in the quest for nuclear weapons abolition. Joining them for the investigation were fifteen students from 8 Boston-area universities. With Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s 2009 nuclear abolition proposal as a guide, the facilitators and students tackled the challenge of abolishing nuclear weapons and how to engage, empower, and inspire civil society to take action on one of the world’s most pressing issues. In this article, Mitch Bogen reports from the April 2018 event that culminated the project.
When faced with an especially large challenge, it’s tempting to start somewhere other than the beginning. But shortcuts, as we know, never work. Embracing this truth, student-leaders from the Ikeda Center’s 2017-2018 seminar series devoted to nuclear abolition have been focusing their initial efforts in support of this goal on asking the kinds of questions that will both raise awareness of nuclear issues among regular citizens and increase their motivation to take action toward the ultimate goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
On April 21, they reported on their activities at the Ikeda Center’s first-ever student-led public peace dialogue, called “Nuclear Abolition: Claiming Your Right to Live.” The six student-leaders were: Lizzy Buechel and Catrina Whitman from Northeastern University, Gladys Chu and Yvonne Kloiber from Hult International Business School, Akshita Desore from Lesley University, and Melissa Loza of Wellesley College. During the three-hour afternoon event, they shared ideas, based on their recent research and actions, on how all of us can contribute to a revitalized international nuclear abolition movement.
Their findings represented the fruits of two seminars, one held last October, and one this February, both led by peace educators Betty Reardon and Zeena Zakharia. During those seminars, Reardon and Zakharia led a shifting group of twelve to fifteen local students in a close study of the nuclear abolition writings of Center Founder Daisaku Ikeda, as well as of figures such as Ira Helfand, a steering committee member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace. They also looked for inspiration to the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In particular, students were invited to consider the “alternative modes of thinking” demonstrated by these leaders. Thinking of this kind refuses to accept the “realism” that is resigned to the nuclear status quo. It also places human wellbeing front and center and is committed to the exploration of creative action steps to achieve full nuclear disarmament.
Welcoming Remarks: Expanding Ikeda’s Legacy
In his welcoming remarks, Ikeda Center Executive Advisor Jason Goulah discussed some core attributes of Mr. Ikeda’s sixty-year commitment to this cause. First is something Ikeda learned from his mentor, Josei Toda, who in 1957 said, “Although a movement calling for a ban on the testing of atomic or nuclear weapons has arisen around the world, it is my wish to go further, to attack the problem at its root. I want to expose and rip out the claws that lie hidden in the very depths of such weapons.” Reflecting on this statement, Mr. Ikeda has emphasized that “the fundamental solution to this problem requires challenging the root thinking that enables and justifies possession of nuclear weapons” in the first place. Indeed, says Ikeda, with their devastating potential, “no greater outrage against the spirit of humanity can be imagined” [emphasis added]. With this motivation, said Dr. Goulah, Mr. Ikeda has devoted himself to “speaking, writing, launching initiatives and institutes, and traveling far and wide to convey and actualize Mr. Toda’s cry for peace and a world free from nuclear weapons.”
Ikeda Center program coordinator Lillian I also offered welcoming and contextualizing remarks. She focused on the need to overcome the apathy and sense of helplessness afflicting so many of us, especially her peer group of young adults. She shared a trenchant quote from Mr. Ikeda that identifies what is at stake.
Peace is a competition between despair and hope, between disempowerment and committed persistence. To the degree that powerlessness takes root in people’s consciousness, there is a greater tendency to resort to force. Powerlessness breeds violence. But it was human beings that gave birth to these instruments of hellish destruction. It cannot be beyond the power of human wisdom to eliminate them.
When she first encountered this quote, said Lillian, she realized that this same sense of powerlessness “underlies all the other issues we face in our society today, gun violence, abuse in every form, wars, climate change, the list goes on.” Overcoming this paralysis is at the heart of our task, she suggested.
She credited Reardon and Zakharia for leading a process designed to do just that, framing the issue in such a way as to truly empower the participating students. Summarizing their method, Lillian said, “first and foremost, we must have a vision. What would a world without nuclear weapons be like? Then the next step is to ask questions, and rather than jumping ahead to answers, to use those questions to deepen our thinking.” The questions should also encourage us to think inventively in such a way that “disrupts the status quo mentality that simply nothing can be done” about the nuclear threat.
She closed with a tribute to the students, who exemplified for her what is perhaps the key element in peacebuilding endeavors, that of attitude: “If I were to embark on this great challenge with anyone,” said Lillian, “it would be with these incredible and bright students who have shown me that the fight towards nuclear abolition can be joyful, full of laughter, and invigorating, and that when young people unite towards a common goal, they can bring forth unbelievable power and creativity.”
Asking Strong Questions
After these introductory remarks, event participants watched a brief video introducing the topic of nuclear weapons abolition. Produced by ICAN, the video was at times difficult to watch, presenting as it did the hard truth that nuclear weapons inflict horrendous human suffering. The video also raised several thought-provoking points, such as the fact that a nuclear weapon cannot distinguish between a building and a baby, and the reality that we simply don’t have the capacity to deal with the devastating after-effects of nuclear weapons. Following the viewing, participants broke into small groups to engage in dialogue on the topic: What does nuclear war mean to you?
After that brief generative discussion, another video was shown. This one was produced by the students, and featured interviews recorded in Harvard Square with people going about their daily business. The questions they responded to had emerged from discussions held during the February seminar. Their intent was 1) to start to build a baseline understanding of where regular people are in relation to the nuclear threat, and 2) to stimulate thought about the desirability and possibility of nuclear disarmament. The three questions were:
- What would you say if I told you it only takes one person to launch a nuclear war?
- When was the last time you were worried about nuclear war?
- Do you think abolishing nuclear weapons is possible in your lifetime?
The brief interviews with a diverse collection of people proved efficient and effective in reflecting the range of thoughts and feelings attendant to our nuclear reality. Not surprisingly, interviewees found the reality of one person launching a nuclear war profoundly disturbing. Perhaps more surprising was that many said they had thought about nuclear war as recently as the day before, suggesting that concern for the issue outpaces the attention it currently receives. Question three produced conflicting views. Some among those who find nuclear weapons disturbing believe that the nuclear nation-states derive such a sense of power from their possession of these weapons that they will never relinquish them. One man said he hoped disarmament was possible, since he wants to see his grandchildren grow. A few people suggested it actually was possible, since we as people, especially the young, have the power to make it happen. Poignantly, a woman who identified herself as 85 years old, said she had little faith that abolition could be achieved in the remaining years of her life, adding that she often feels powerless about the issue. But she also added an encouraging note, sharing how when she was a young woman she lost several high school friends in a polio epidemic, and decided to participate in the March of Dimes campaign to eradicate it. Today, there is very little polio.
Following the video presentation, participants gathered into small groups to discuss the video and its implications for abolition. A number of concerns and findings emerged.
Group One. This group focused on the vexing issue of trust. Can the nuclear nation-states trust each other enough to eliminate their nuclear weapons? Even with legislation, would governments prove reliable enough to honor their obligations? At a more basic level: Is humanity ready to trust?
Group Two. The spokesperson for this group was a man representing Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. He offered their brainstormed list of relevant thoughts, including: people do have the power to lead, and they needn’t rely on experts; fear might be beneath the apathy that surrounds the issue of nuclear weapons; the UN Treaty in and of itself is not sufficient for a world free of nuclear weapons; and because nuclear concerns are recently more prominent in the media, now is the perfect time to raise awareness,.
Group Three. The focus here was on the importance of detailing the chain of command for ordering a nuclear strike. It’s important to know exactly how nuclear authorization works so we can know how to institute appropriate safeguards against impulsive nuclear action.
Group Four discussed the use of social media to engage more people in conversations around nuclear weapons abolition. For young people and many others, social media is integral to daily life.
Group Five talked about the role of education and what kind of sparks will ignite needed conversations. They posed a few questions. Who are we educating, and what exactly are the core components of an education campaign? What can we learn from the Parkland movement? Could a student essay contest be fun and effective?
Panel Discussion: People Do Care
The next phase of the event, the centerpiece really, featured a panel discussion with the six student-leaders, moderated by Reardon and Zakharia. Before launching the discussion, Dr. Reardon offered some reflections on ways today’s event represented a “continuation of the focused energies we had for two Saturdays in this room in October and February.” Those seminars, she said, were about “thinking differently about a major, major issue,” with these modes of thinking being applicable to all the “major issues we face.”
The need for creative, alternative thinking, said Reardon, derives from the fact that all of us, and most especially the young, find ourselves participating in social, political, and intellectual structures that “in large part” we ourselves have not been involved in making—though we all have inherited worldviews prominent in these structures. As a response to this situation, explained Reardon, the seminars balanced three objectives: First, learn from Daisaku Ikeda’s mode of “thinking outside the box,” second, “to become aware that nuclear devastation is indeed a real possibility,” but also that “it doesn’t have to happen,” and finally, that it will be prevented through “the informed, committed action of the people.”
Before moving to the panel, Dr. Reardon summed things up with a heartfelt tribute to the student-leaders.
I have to say that I have been teaching for a number of years, and one always hopes that the result will be that those whom we are teaching become aware and engaged in a way which enables them to have more power over their own lives and their own future: claiming their right to live. And I’ve never worked with a group that has claimed their right with such vigor and such inspiration and I’m delighted to have them share with you some of their insights and learning, and I think we all hope that those in the room will also become part of this learning action process.
The first half of the panel discussion featured students responding to topics posed by Reardon and Zakharia. Here are some highlights.*
On student awareness coming into the project, and how it has changed
Catrina Whitman: I came in at the second seminar. I really did not have that much previous background knowledge on the topic, and what I did know was from headlines and newspapers and things. I didn’t have a formed idea really, but after the seminar I came out with a completely new mindset. Before, it seemed unachievable, so it didn’t feel like I could do anything. But after speaking with the other students it seemed more possible and more achievable, and not only that, necessary. We are so young we don’t really know about the direct impact of it, because we were not alive when nuclear weapons were used during the war. But I feel like because it’s in the news, we will have more of an impact and I am very optimistic—more than I was before.
On surprises that emerged from the seminar process and engaging with people on the topic
Yvonne Kloiber: Coming into this, I didn’t know too much about the topic. I was really surprised by the facts we’re presenting to people, for example, how it only takes one person’s decision to launch a bomb. And when I spoke with people from my university and my friends and colleagues at work, I was surprised by how many people wanted to share their thoughts. And I got a lot of similar responses to what we saw in the video. I was extremely surprised that so many people, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, worry a lot about nuclear weapons. I did not think people would actually really think about this in their day-to-day lives.
Akshita Desore: I’m studying art therapy, so my classes don’t talk about these things. Yet, it was an issue I was really concerned about. But I didn’t know if there were any concrete, tangible ways for me to participate in abolition. The seminar actually helped me realize as a grad student, and as an individual, there are so many things I can do. After the seminar, I ended up talking to my classmates at my university, and I realized that, yes, people are interested in talking about nuclear weapons, but that they also don’t know what to do about it. They just saw it as an issue that’s out there, but that they really are powerless, and can’t do anything about this. And so the seminar helped me to actually connect them to the issues. It really surprised me how people want to talk about the nuclear threat but don’t know what to do about it.
On becoming more hopeful
Yvonne Kloiber: This process definitely made me more hopeful, because I thought that there would be almost nobody out there who cared, but there are so many people that do. So I’m definitely 100% more hopeful, and I do think we can do this and we can abolish nuclear weapons.
Melissa Loza: As you said earlier, Betty, the fact is that we have a choice. We can take action. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t taken that first step, if I hadn’t looked at this as an opportunity, and said to myself, “This seems cool. I don’t know anything about it, but we’ll see what happens.” And it ended up becoming something I’m very committed to. And the fact that all you lovely people came here today speaks to the fact that taking those first steps is a very positive move forward. So there’s definitely hope there. And it’s also the case that Trump’s actions are creating more room for this dialogue and bringing it into the public’s consciousness. As long as we can react positively to it and take very proactive steps, I think it’s a good way to move forward.
On looking back on the experience in ten years
Lizzy Buechel: In ten years, I’ll remember the process itself: the fact that I did it; the fact that I took the time to prioritize this challenge. That’s what I’m going to remember. And, as Akshita said, once you start asking those questions, once you pique someone’s interest and prioritize this topic, it’s crucial to provide outlets to take action.
On connections with other crucial issues
Gladys Chu. Certainly it really does connect with other social issues we have right now. In the US there’s gun violence and global issues like climate change, and ultimately we have the same goal, which is human survival.
Catrina Whitman. And to build on that point, I think what’s so unique about this issue is that it relates to all issues; not only does it affect humanity, it affects the environment—it affects everything. I remember one thing from the seminar that Betty mentioned, which was that she related it to ending apartheid, and how that change came from human actors. People gathered around a cause, and they advocated and pushed for change, and they were successful. And if we could apply the same mindset to this issue it will be just as successful. I’m very optimistic about that. Similar to the #MeToo movement, once it builds momentum it can become this global issue that everyone cares about and works towards.
On the unique characteristics of the alternative mode of thinking
Melissa Loza: I remember seeing those cheesy Cold War duck-and-cover videos and giggling and thinking, “Oh that’s far off, that’s a relic from the past.” But coming to the seminar brought to my consciousness the fact that, no, there literally is this existential threat hanging over our heads at all times, but at the same time not wanting to become paralyzed by that fact. I appreciate that Daisaku Ikeda lays out very clear and realizable steps toward needed changes. The question then is do we have the power and the mobilization and the commitment to take those steps toward making those changes? It’s empowering to know we have agency as individuals, and even more so when we come together like this to formulate real steps forward.
Lizzy Buechel: Initially the way I thought about it is how Betty described it at the beginning of this panel. She mentioned that reality is created by someone. And for me, I initially thought that the nuclear weapons reality is created by our governments, and that our government is our most powerful institution. But the way that my thinking shifted, is to see that the government is not the most powerful institution—because the government serves us. And if we are able to organize as a community in a more humanistic way, we can then look at the nuclear reality in a more humanistic way instead of an institutional way. All of us as humans think that nuclear abolition is important, because all of us want to live. So if we prioritize that truth, we can reframe the challenge and we can bring those powerful institutions to our level—our individual, humanistic, wanting-to-live, everyday level.
Wrapping up this portion of the panel discussion, Professor Zakharia said, “I’m struck in this time of learning with all of you and learning with Betty in the process of preparing to be with you, just how deeply this issue intersects with so many aspects of our lives—because at the core of it is the question of humanity.”
For her wrap-up comments, Reardon wove together themes not only from the panelists’ thoughts but also from the opening Ikeda quotes and earlier group discussions. In particular, she meditated on the nature of power and its relationship to personal and social change. First, she said that one thing she has learned from Daisaku Ikeda’s long commitment to civil society actions for peace is that “empowerment is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” such that “when we believe we can do something then it is quite likely that we will be able to do it.” Then she contrasted the power of the Parkland students’ “#NeverAgain” movement with the notion articulated during the Harvard Square interviews that nation-states are reluctant to relinquish nuclear weapons because they are instruments of power, saying:
What has been demonstrated here, what the young have demonstrated over and over again, and what women have demonstrated throughout history, is that power is not the ability to coerce and destroy. Power is the ability to achieve positive change, to achieve what you want to achieve in a way that is consistent with your goal. Power is your ability to realize our hopes. And I must say, I feel very powerful with this panel.
Panel Part 2: Audience Dialogue
Audience dialogue with the panelists opened with a woman recalling her involvement with the “No Nukes” movement that was such a force in the US of the 1980s. She speculated that a “reawakening” of the movement could be helped along by finding common cause internationally with all the movements whose missions are at heart “to protect sacred life.” She also wondered why we have gotten to the point where reawakening is even needed at all. Yvonne Kloiber responded by observing that during her experience as a public school student in Germany every student was taught that the Holocaust is something that absolutely must never happen again, yet there was no effort at all made to help students see the nuclear threat in the same light. She said this is an example of why the simple act of just starting a conversation, as she and her fellow students are attempting to do, is so important.
Also speaking as an attendee, Anna Baker noted that she pursues the related causes of nuclear abolition, environmental protection, and violence prevention through her work as executive director of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. She wondered how best to promote youth engagement and how social media can be employed effectively in that process. Lizzy Buechel weighed in here, saying that the most critical thing is to use social media to make person-to-person connections. These can achieve what links to fact-laden articles cannot, she said. In conversation, people can be themselves and find their way into the issue. Listening to Lizzy, said Melissa Loza, brought to mind the way the Ice Bucket Challenge has taken the very serious issue of ALS and placed it in a context that is actually fun and accessible for people.
Another audience comment triggered a complex discussion about ends and means and the best methods to achieve actual nuclear disarmament. In this attendee’s view, the most critical act toward abolition is to draft proposed legislation. This forces legislatures to get involved. He suggested that without this, most talk on the topic amounts to wheel spinning.
Yvonne agreed the legislative component is crucial, but said that getting people to talk and inviting them into a larger movement will make legislation inevitable. Dr. Zakharia added that “ultimately those legislators are not going to move unless people think it’s important, because they want to keep their positions. They will keep their positions when they support the things people are pushing on. So to get a mass of people to push on them, there first needs to be a conversation and I think this is what our students are thinking.”
Dr. Reardon’s significant experience as a peacebuilder includes strong components of both education and activism, and she offered contextualizing remarks reflecting that history. Her own journey, she said, started with her involvement with the Student Federalists, who during the 1940s and 50s advocated for federal world government. So “I do think that law is very powerful,” she observed, “but law is only powerful when it comes from, speaks to, and speaks for the people.” Among the important legislative actions presently achievable are “to enforce or to adopt toward enforceability the recent  treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons,” as well as a “number of other international standards of that kind.” She also mentioned the option of local ordinances prohibiting the movement of nuclear weapons thorough a given state or municipality.
But still, Reardon said, the work must proceed through non-legislative actions, especially since the deepest work is “the ongoing building of a new reality.” In this, she has gained much inspiration from Mr. Ikeda’s persistent dialogical commitment to the cause. If you read his work, she said, you will see that “he doesn’t just once in a while say something about nuclear weapons,” rather he “consistently speaks to it” with “an evolution of thought” that responds to changing times. Always, the goal is twofold: to think about what it is that we want, and what is the nature of the reality we find ourselves in.
And this brought her to the root activity: “If you also remember, when the students went to Harvard Square, they asked questions. And you don’t get people to think by talking at or to them, but if you ask the right questions you might get them to think. So a lot of it comes down to asking the right questions.” Addressing the student panelists directly, she added, “and I hope you continue to ask those questions for a long, long time.” Then, expressing her deep happiness and pride over “what we have been able to do,” Dr. Reardon said that now the seminar would “segue from the question to the action.”
Melissa Loza and Lizzy Buechel offered thoughts on what it means to take action and reported on group research into the range of possible action steps toward nuclear abolition. As Melissa framed it, they are presenting a variety of options, “because some actions are more realistic for your situation than others. But there’s always something you can do, and we want to share some of those possibilities with you.” Lizzy added a note of encouragement, saying that “everyone has the ability to change social norms,” and that with young people, especially, it really is possible “to change friends’ opinions,” or if not to change them, to develop new perspectives together. So, even if the challenge of nuclear abolition seems institutionally intimidating, we always have the power to connect and grow with others around this issue.
Once you’ve made personal connections around this issue, said Melissa, it’s important to let people know about “the plethora of organizations you can reach out to” that are doing great nuclear abolition work. These organizations exist locally, nationally, and internationally and they offer numerous modes of interaction and involvement. Through newsletters and social media they present how different campaigns have been progressing, and many, such as Council for a Livable World, will also let you know about bills that are being developed or are up for legislative approval.** Many organizations can share research and offer educational materials that you can adapt and in so doing become a “catalyst yourself” in your “universities or social spaces.” There are also many volunteer opportunities, and always petitions to sign.
Lizzy added that these organizations have done a great job taking this complex topic and making key points “bite-sized.” They also have speakers who are happy to present at any event you might organize, she said. Melissa added that she worked with a professor of hers in the Peace and Justice Studies department at Wellesley to bring in a speaker from Reaching Critical Will, the “disarmament and abolition component of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.” Lizzy chimed in, saying that these organizations are genuinely excited to hear from young people and working with them is a breeze.
Also, there is the financial component, which takes a few forms. As with other movements, said Lizzy, divestment is a time-honored strategy for “stigmatizing companies that invest in or produce nuclear weapons, or that produce nuclear weapons parts.” She identified Don’t Bank on the Bomb as an excellent divestment-oriented website. One can always donate money to nuclear abolition organizations, or, said Melissa, if you are a “broke college student” you can always participate in fundraising activities. The main takeaway from their research, she said, is that if you are interested in nuclear abolition “there’s a support system, and you don’t have to figure it out on your own.”
For the final activity of the day attendees gathered into small groups to discuss ways that suggestions from the presentation inspired their own ideas for actions toward nuclear abolition. After a brief reporting of findings from these conversations, Yvonne Kloiber introduced a social media campaign/contest encouraging participants to create their own versions of the Harvard Square video, and to post their videos on social media (#OurRightToLive) to help raise awareness around nuclear abolition. Winners for most “likes” and highest quality will be selected at our next Dialogue Nights event on Friday, May 18.
Conclusion: The Road to Hope
When we talk about the alternative thinking modeled by Daisaku Ikeda, it’s easy to overlook or undervalue the most crucial aspect of that thinking: hope. Perhaps this is because the notion is so simple that even the most committed idealists among us are worried about being perceived as naïve. The centrality of this quality was not lost on Dr. Zakharia, however, when she offered these observations earlier in the day: “For me, and I think for Betty too, when we engage in teaching and learning through dialogue we find the road to hope, and we renew that hope every time we are with young people.” And the experience of the student-leaders, which they shared so capably throughout the event, demonstrated a related truth: We don’t need to start with hope to take action. When we come together in solidarity with others to act, even when the action is as simple as asking other people how they feel about nuclear weapons and our prospects for abolition, hope appears.
* Comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.
** Promising legislative areas include requiring congressional authorization before presidents can order military strikes, something the last three presidents have done unilaterally. Currently, House Bill HR669 and Senate Bill 200 would require a congressional declaration of war to launch a nuclear first strike.