NOTE: This story is the second in a two-part series following the Nuclear Age Peace foundation’s Community Peace Leaders Program, which was launched in January 2008. The initial story can be found at independent.com/napf.
Once a month, on a grassy bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, rows of tombstones appear, transforming the postcard-perfect view into a considerably more somber one. These markers jut from the same spot where then-presidential candidate Barack Obama stood in September 2007 and spoke to a crowd of 3,000 about hope and the end of war, and they represent the American teenagers who have died in the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every month, the number of gravestones grows.
The man responsible for setting up this memorial is Gilbert Robledo, a war veteran and retired SBCC teacher and counselor. His aim is simple: to raise awareness of the cost of war, and to work for peace. On the third Friday of each month when SBCC is in session, you’ll find Robledo sitting at a table near the teen memorial, speaking to passersby, and answering questions. Many of his visitors are students 18 and 19 years old-the same age as the young men and women whose lives those gravestones represent-and many are eager to stop and talk. “It has been very effective,” Robledo said of the memorial. “We’re making war more personal to them.”
Robledo is a member of Veterans for Peace and an active supporter of the Iraq Moratorium. He’s also one of 18 men and women who have volunteered, during the past year, to serve as community peace leaders in Santa Barbara. It was just last July when Robledo read an article in The Independent about the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Peace Leaders Program, and saw another opportunity to work for peace. Since then, he has been speaking to various community groups, both in English and in Spanish, about the importance of nuclear disarmament. Beside him when he tables at SBCC and with him at every talk he gives is a petition calling for the next president of the United States to make nuclear disarmament an urgent priority. The petition briefly explains the rationale for doing so, and makes a series of specific requests, including a plea to halt all research and development of new nuclear weapons, and a call to ratify a comprehensive test ban treaty. For most people Robledo speaks to, signing on to the appeal is a no-brainer.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Santa Barbara and dedicated to a world free of nuclear weapons. It’s been around for nearly 30 years, but the Peace Leaders Program, and the presidential appeal, are both new initiatives introduced by Steven Crandell, hired just last year as the foundation’s director of development and public affairs. At well over six feet tall, and a sharp dresser with a megawatt smile, Crandell comes across as a man with a mission, and the charisma to make it happen. But underneath his crisp enthusiasm is a kind of soulfulness; when it comes to this cause, at least, Crandell seems to be a mixture of humility and ambition.
In early 2008, Crandell set out his goals: 30 Santa Barbara peace leaders by the end of the year, and one million signatures for the presidential appeal. To date, there are 18 peace leaders, and approximately 25,000 signatures on the petition. Crandell is unapologetically optimistic. “I have an orchardist’s point of view,” he explained over a latte at Coffee Cat. “I’m raising trees that will bear fruit.” He’s also working alongside his volunteers; a few months ago, he began collecting signatures during his lunch hour, standing on the pier, outside Lazy Acres, or at Trader Joe’s, and speaking to passersby about nonproliferation. Crandell acknowledges that it’s an uncomfortable issue for most people. Nuclear weapons, when deployed, lead to death and destruction on a massive scale-not something most people want to think about when they’re picking up groceries. But he’s heartened at the responses he’s had from many Santa Barbarans, as is Sherry Melchiore, one of the Peace Leaders Program’s first volunteers.
Melchiore is a retired psychologist and a member of the Rotary Club. “Peace is my middle name,” she likes to say. Like Robledo, Melchiore has integrated this work into her life, keeping the petition in her car so it’s always handy. “Every social event I go to, when I go to church, or the chiropractor, I take it with me,” she explained. “I even had a wonderful response from my car repair guy; he signed it and said, ‘Do you have another one? I know some people who would sign that.’ He filled up a whole sheet for me.”
It’s stories like this one that Crandell points to as successes for the program-to him, they mean the grassroots campaign is working, even if its spread is slower than he had initially hoped. In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s successful bid for the presidency, Crandell points to campaign methods that inspire him and serve as models for the program’s future, from the infiltration of social networking sites to the neighbor-to-neighbor approach. He’s careful to explain that his admiration of the Obama campaign is nonpartisan. “It was the best campaign for a mile, strip away the politics,” he said. “One of the things we liked is that it tended to say, ‘You matter, you can volunteer, and your work will create change and make a real difference.'”
That message is exactly the message Crandell hopes to convey to all Santa Barbarans committed to a peaceful community and a peaceful world. In his mind, Santa Barbara is the staging ground for the development of what he calls “a peace community,” and the ultimate goal is for our city to serve as a model for communities around the world. In late January, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation will deliver its petition to President Obama, but for Crandell, that’s just the beginning. “I’m very pleased,” he said of the program’s first year. “It was a complete experiment, and we’ve had a great start.”
The next Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Community Peace Leaders meeting will be held at 1622 Anacapa Street on Tuesday, January 20, at 6:30 p.m. Those interested in attending should call 965-3443. To learn more and to sign the presidential appeal, visit wagingpeace.org.