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Durham activist is one in a thousand

Mandy Carter's grassroots work on anti-war and social justice fronts is gaining global recognition.


Last week, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Mohamed ElBaradei, who runs the organization, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But they had competition from a woman from Durham: Activist Mandy Carter was one of 1,000 women from 150 countries whose name was submitted for the prize by a group called 1000 Peace Women as a way of bringing attention to women involved in peace and social justice organizing around the globe (www.1000peacewomen.org).

Carter, a founder of Southerners on New Ground, has a long track record that includes work on Harvey Gannt's 1990 Senate campaign, N.C. PRIDEPAC, the War Resistors League and the Democratic National Committee's Gay and Lesbian Caucus. In her writing and organizing, she confronts hot-button issues of race, class, gender, and sexual identity. She's spoken out against anti-gay organizing in the black church, for example. The 57-year-old New York native received the 1999 Bayard Rustin Award for Political Activism. We spoke with her July 1 while she was en route to a National Organization for Women conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Independent: How did you hear you'd been "nominated" for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Carter: One day I get this interesting e-mail from a woman named Margot. It said something like, "You don't know me but I know you. It sounds like you have a fascinating project and we want to nominate you. Here's a three page form--would you mind filling it out?" Time went by and I didn't really think about it. The next thing I know, about a week and a half ago, I'm getting a congratulations e-mail telling me about the 1000 Women.

What does the nomination mean to you?

It's very cool. And there is this whole infrastructure around it--exhibits, press conferences. I feel humbled and honored. If you think about the Nobel Peace Prize, it's a very short list of women who've ever gotten it. There are thousands of women doing this work and they wanted to find a creative way to acknowledge it.

Why are women so often the ones active in peace work?

It's an interesting question. I've always wondered the same thing. I hate to go into that kind of stereotype about women. I just think we are more apt as women to try to empower other people, more likely to organize in a collective way. There's an organization called the War Resistors League. It's not a coincidence that it was started by three women. I don't want to say that women always or only care about peace. There are other kinds of great social change work going on--union organizing, for example. But it just seems that women are the ones out there doing this every day.

Your roots as an activist go back to a stint years ago with the War Resistors League in San Francisco. Tell us about that.

My first ever job was with WRL. I was making $80 a month. There was a couch in the office that I slept on and I think I got free dental. This was in 1959. They had a regional field office there in San Francisco. I was a little too young for Civil Rights stuff but like a lot of our generation, for me, it was Vietnam.

Who were some of your role models at the time?

Bayard Rustin, especially after I found out he was gay. Everyone had heard of the "I Have a Dream" speech, but finding out there was a black, gay pacifist involved really had an effect on me. And then I think of some of the strong women in New York. Cora Weiss is on that list of 1000 Women [Nobel nominees]. I think probably what it was, too, was realizing that this society is obsessed with personality. There was a series on PBS, Eyes on the Prize. When I saw that, I was struck by not necessarily all of the people we naturally recognize, but all the day-to-day people who committed their lives to that struggle.

How are things different now from what they were like during Vietnam in terms of the anti-war response?

I think one of the most amazing things that happened with the Iraq war is that unlike every other war, we can see right away how there are people saying, "Don't do it!" Early on, one of the options was for North Carolinians to get on a bus and go to New York [to protest]. A lot of us said, No, let's stay home. So thousands of us showed up at the state capitol in Raleigh. We were all trying to do this before they really got started with the invasion. One has to wonder about the power of the Internet and activism. Also what's interesting to me is the fact that one out of every five soldiers in Iraq is from North Carolina. When Bush gave his speech at Fort Bragg--why there? It's interesting he would use that back yard. You have Iraq vets against the war, military families against the war--just a lot more opposition among the military community than with Vietnam.

You've talked a lot about the importance of gender and sexual orientation in broader movements for social justice. What are the connections between those issues and war?

Well, I try to talk about it. When Clinton got elected, one of the first things he wanted to take care of was gays in the military. And we all said don't go there, that's not what we want. Here's what's interesting: A lot of the lesbian and gay progressives came out of the anti-Vietnam movement. What they didn't count on was really a moral dilemma for those of us who are gay and oppose militarism. So we didn't get behind it [Clinton's push]. It's one of those interesting wrinkles--probably the first time that an issue like anti-militarism popped up among gay and lesbians. The quality of justice is about the quality of justice, but we don't want to support the war machine. The only other time I can remember another issue like that was after the murder of Matthew Shepard. A lot of gays and lesbians were saying the perpetrators should go to gas chambers. But a lot of us were anti-death penalty.

You're a former leader of the Democratic National Committee's Gay and Lesbian American Caucus. What do you think Democrats need to do to win?

You know what I think it is? I think the two-party system just ain't working in this country. There's a new drive for proportional representation. I like that better. Some counties are actually trying that. It has been successful. And campaign finance reform--hello! Now, this is me on a personal level: I think we get more done locally being a Democratic activist than the further up you go. You can actually see more of an impact on the local level. Here's the reality--how do you explain Jesse Helms getting reelected five times in a state where a lot of people didn't like his policies? Republicans go out and vote. I can't tell you how many people I run into that say, "Oh, Jesse Helms this, that and the other." Then when I say, "Are you registered?" they say no.

How do you feel about Howard Dean's leadership of the Democratic Party?

Well, where is it? I'll give him a chance. Certainly he has riled people up. As a former member of the Democratic National Committee, it's hard for me. I'm not as actively engaged at that level. You have the House, the Senate--all that is Republican [dominated] and when you have that, it's just hard no matter who happens to be the leader.

You've been a tireless activist for so long. What keeps you going?

I have to thank the American Friends Service Committee and WRL. When I first got involved, one of the things they impressed on activists was A) you are in it for the long haul, and B) there are no guarantees about nothing--you are doing this because it's the right thing to do. They also made an impact on me by saying that if equality and injustice are the focus, you have to be consistent in what you believe. One of my favorite tag lines now for my work, especially with LBGT stuff is, "Are we about justice or are we about just us?" When you make that comment it's like a light bulb going off for people. I wake up and I'm just glad to be alive doing this work. I can't imagine doing anything else. On other hand, I'm thinking I would like to have a porch with my name on it someday--just to kick back and relax.

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