Nancy’s speech at Give Us Wings Award Event
“Many Strong and Beautiful Women Award”
February 12, 2009

Thank you for giving me this beautiful award! I’m honored to be a recipient alongside Grace and Ann. And it’s especially gratifying to be here with Give Us Wings because I worked with Mary Steiner the year before she first went to Africa when she was the editor of two of my books. Mary worked with me in the most wonderful way—she is deeply collaborative. She listens. She helps you do what you want to do; she works with you—supporting, guiding. I know this is the way Mary is working with all the women involved in the projects of Give Us Wings.

There are so many millions upon millions of strong and beautiful women all over the world who hold up this planet with their hard work and their loving kindness and their wisdom—all of which are helping to guide us in a new, more nonviolent direction.

Last week a good friend I hadn’t seen in a long time gave me a lovely button from the UN that said, Teach Peace. Just two little words--easy to say......but not so easy to do. To teach peace and to be peace, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh would call it, is a project for a lifetime—one we never really complete.

I remember vividly when I was a young girl, I was sitting alone one afternoon and I had a powerful realization—it hit me hard. It was this: when people and nations can’t agree, when they can’t resolve their differences, they kill each other. I sat there trying to take this in.

The small, homogeneous, middle class town I grew up in was not a place where I could find expression for the interests and passions that were growing inside of me. What good fortune, I think now, that I came of age in the 60’s because through the social movements of that time, I found lifelong friends and discovered ways to express myself through political activism.

Emerging from within me was a calling to contribute to the world through education. I believed, as Nelson Mandela has said, Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

I wasn’t yet thirty years old when I started graduate school in education—I was already a single mom with two little boys and very little support of any kind. I struggled to get my degree, begin teaching, and to manage our little household. I faced many challenges in those days. I needed the quality, affordable day care we don’t provide children in this country; I needed the national, quality after school programs that don’t exist; I needed the government-paid caregiver to come to my house when my kids were sick so I could go to work. When I learned that other wealthy countries provided these things, it made me angry and it still does. Out of 168 nations reviewed in a recent study, the United States was one in only five that does not provide paid maternity leave.

But despite the hardships of being a single, working mother, I loved parenting. There was a lot to learn. I remember thinking one day when my children were young: children have a profound need for self-determination; they don’t want to be controlled by too much parental power. This is the same self-determination we see in people all over the world who resist dictatorships and political domination. I thought: I want to work with this powerful human impulse in children—learn to share power with them, to negotiate and teach through give and take. I saw that my young sons could feel empathy and develop compassion through experience—that they could understand someone else’s hurt or how their actions had affected another if I pointed this out not as a critic but as an ally.

These insights that arose from the everyday experience of parenting were building my foundation as a peace educator. That foundation would deepen later when I joined human rights delegations to El Salvador during that country’s bloody civil war. The children I knew there—who had lived with so much terror and death (many had lost their parents, all had lost many family members)—had the most unyielding core of inner resilience I’ve ever seen in children. Through stories and drawings, they told me what they had lived through. I began to understand their resilience—it stemmed from the unity in their community and the sense of security it provided; and also, these children had an unshakable belief that peace would come.

My sons were getting a little older and influences from outside the home were beginning to filter in. We were renting an apartment in a 2-family house that was located in a prosperous suburban town. Children there had the best of everything and acquiring more was part of the fabric of their lives. I became concerned that as a single mom I could not compete against the tide of materialism that was rapidly gaining traction over my children. I made a decision: We would move into the city and find another way to live.

We joined with five other families, bought a dilapidated old house and formed an intentional community. Our neighborhood was richly diverse; we all knew the realities of homelessness and street life outside our front door. We learned how to put up dry wall and install sinks and make decisions by consensus. My sons thrived in close connection with the other families and still maintain close relationships with the children they grew up with. They went to progressive public schools that were rooted in values of diversity and community and were strong in the arts. In our new situation, my sons Kyle and Matt were learning about the world and their place in it.

And I was learning too. Making decisions in our cooperative house with 9 other adults was instructive and humbling. I began to understand something that I will be exploring for the rest of my life: Peace is a state of being within ourselves; it’s not all “out there” in the conditions we create in the world; peace is internal too. Peace is staying open and listening with compassion to someone even when you have a different opinion or feel threatened. Peace is letting go of judgments of others: thoughts about them—what they should or shouldn’t do; peace is non-resistance to what is happening in this moment. I am still only beginning to understand that we can’t create truly peaceful circumstances “out there” unless we can find inner peace and create an unbroken flow between our inner state and our outer actions.

Each of us can change the world for the better right now by nurturing our inner lives. When we find peace in ourselves, we bring more peace out into the world--wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

I’m still teaching peace, something I think I will always have a passion for doing. But I spend more time now in reflection and meditation, and in my own imperfect way, I try to walk that difficult path of true peace.

There is a way to end a meditation that I would like to share with you. I’ll say it once and if you’d like to, you can join me in saying it twice more:

It starts with two hands over the heart:
(spread our hands out and open them up for the second line)

As we work for peace within ourselves
May we bring that peace out into the world