Co-directors hope to expand peace group’s visibility, involvement
The Chico Peace and Justice Center opened its doors downtown in 1983, but the organization traces its roots back more than five decades to 1960, when a local woman named Wilhelmina Taggart began praying in protest outside the gates of a Titan I nuclear-missile silo under construction near the Chico Airport. Taggart was soon joined by two other women, Helen Kinnee and Florence McLane, and the trio began the Chico Peace Endeavor, a weekly vigil at the corner of Third and Main streets that continues to this day.
While she’s proud of the organization’s roots, Olivia Schmidt—new co-director of the CPJC, along with Aramenta Hawkins—said history can sometimes be a hindrance to progress.
“From an organizational perspective, it can be hard to honor the history and support the existing community while also creating space for new energy, new ideas, new people and new issues,” Schmidt said during a recent interview at the CPJC’s headquarters.
Attracting new energy and younger faces—while still serving the old guard’s long-running efforts—ranks top among the new leadership’s goals: “We want to strengthen our ties with the community and become more visible,” Hawkins said, “So we’re doing a lot of community engagement and creating ideas to pull people inside the building, then make them more aware about who we are and what we do.”
The CPJC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting nonviolence, social and economic justice through education, community-building and direct action. It also partners with and supports other like-minded local organizations and hosts classes, discussions and action groups. The co-directors are the only paid staff, with all other work being done by volunteers.
Schmidt began working with the CPJC last September as a coordinator. She assumed the role of director when Chris Moore-Backman, who’d held the position since late 2012, departed in January to focus on other projects. She suggested the CPJC board employ a co-director to create “a less hierarchical structure,” and Hawkins filled that position in March.
Both women trace their activist leanings to childhood. Hawkins grew up in Los Angeles, working with a nonprofit outreach organization her family founded for inner-city youth called Sports Spectacular. She came to Chico in the 1990s and has worked with several local activist-oriented groups, including Frack-Free Butte County. A communications graduate from Chico State, Hawkins is in the process of revamping the CPJC’s online presence, and said she hopes to take advantage of modern tools like social media and crowdfunding to bolster the organization. She also said she wants to build stronger relationships with student social justice groups at area schools.
Schmidt is a Chico native who lived in Portland for more than a decade before returning two years ago. She said that an early bilingual education among mostly first-generation Americans made her aware of “social injustice toward non-white, non-English-speaking people” early in her life. She worked with several environmental groups in Oregon, including an organization that successfully stopped a number of fossil fuel developments along the Columbia River.
While Hawkins’ focus is on spreading awareness about the CPJC to help inject new blood into the organization, Schmidt said her attention is on the group’s programming. She noted the center has been running a study group on institutional racism and the American justice system called “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow” for the last three years, and it has gathered steam in light of recent mainstream media attention to racial issues.
“What we’re getting [in the group] is not the same old characters we see all the time,” Schmidt said. “We’re seeing younger people, people of color, and people who are actively trying to understand their own part of living in a white supremacist society. That, to me, is thrilling.”
To better meet its goals, the CPJC recently expanded office hours to remain open on weekends for the first time in several years.
“Part of being a peace and justice center is creating a comfortable space for everyone,” Schmidt said. “People come in distressed about poverty, war, censorship, homelessness; the span of issues brought to our door is immense.
“It’s important to have staff and volunteers here as much as possible to create the space for these conversations, because people need that dialogue to feel like peace and justice is possible in our world.”