The RNC is coming to town. The action inside the Xcel Energy Center is predictable. But what about outside, in the streets? As the Republican National Convention (RNC) approaches, the Minnesota Women’s Press sat down with three Minnesota women who are using the RNC as a framework for peace. These are their stories.
Top and bottom photos by Lisa Peterson-De La Cueva; middle photo by Amber Procaccini
Marie Braun: Women Against Military Madness (WAMM)
Peacemaking is not a passing phase for Marie Braun. Her “Say No to War In Iraq” lawn sign is still standing, unscathed by the elements, even though it’s been there for more than five years. She has protested wars through humid summers and biting winters on the Lake Street Bridge most Wednesdays for the last nine years. And she has spent the last few months organizing and networking around peace activities during the RNC as part of the Coalition to March on the RNC/Stop the War.
The Iraq war
Much of her energy in the past few months has gone to supporting her friend, Iraqi-American and former Minnesotan Sami Rasouli, and managing his upcoming speaking tour. He returns later this month after living in Iraq for five years.
Braun hopes that the combination of RNC peace activities, anti-war protest, and speaking engagements such as Rasouli’s will further unite and energize the anti-war movement. Braun herself visited Iraq 10 years ago, and spoke to about 300 different groups about what she saw there.
“I believe in the concept of formation through action. The more actions people get involved in, the more things happen,” she said. Along with energizing anti-war advocates and informing convention goers, Braun hopes that media and politicians will take notice. “We want the Republicans-and the Democrats-to see that the majority of people in this country don’t support this war and want to bring about an end to it.” she said.
Braun, a longtime member of Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) and its Twin Cities Peace Campaign-Focus on Iraq, has connections to and knowledge of virtually every peace organization in the area. “It’s in my blood. I can’t do anything else!”
If social justice is not literally in her blood, it’s been part of her life since before she can remember. Her father’s union activity at a St. Paul packing plant exposed Braun to ideas of struggle and justice from an early age. That’s partly what led her to get involved with social justice after high school. She became involved with the Young Christian Workers (YCW). “We weren’t just a study group. We used the ‘observe, judge, act,’ technique,” Braun said.
She was eventually hired by the YCW in Chicago, and was even more involved in social justice work. Most significant to her was her participation in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. “It had a big impact on my life in terms of social justice and race relations in the United States,” Braun said.
Missing the RNC
Braun is surprisingly sprite, given the pain she’s in. She walks slowly, but steadily, using her cane only slightly for support. In late August Braun will have hip replacement surgery and is scheduled to come home on Sept. 1, the day the major RNC anti-war march is planned. “I’m going to miss it all!” she cried, momentarily covering her face with both hands and laughing.
That’s somewhat misleading, though, since it doesn’t seem like surgery can slow Braun down. For one, Braun and her husband are hosting two Peace Island conference speakers-an alternative “solutions driven conference” at Concordia University the weekend of the RNC. She’ll also be watching the events unfold on TV and listening to the radio. “I can do all the scheduling [for Rasouli’s speaking tour] and the organizing on computers nowadays and I’ll have my phone,” she said, referring to her most pressing role relating to the RNC.
Just as Braun’s lawn sign has withstood more than five years of Minnesota winters, not even a hip replacement can deter her commitment to peace and justice.
Random kindness and eggs over easy
Lisa Cotter Metwaly: The Kindest City in the World
It takes a packed schedule to make St. Paul the kindest city in the world. Lisa Cotter Metwaly has busy days ahead at the Q Kindness Café in downtown St. Paul. Along with serving up eggs and pancakes, she dispenses kindness, participates in interviews and holds business meetings.
Cotter Metwaly spoke to business owners and city representatives from other cities that have hosted national conventions, and realized that many people didn’t think about what kind of messages they’d like to convey during the political conventions. That’s when she got to thinking about making St. Paul the kindest city in the world. “What if we had a vision and could throw it out there to other people and be an example?” she asked. “We want people to look at St. Paul and kindness and take ownership of it.”
As she finished serving a customer, Cotter Metwaly traded the coffee pitcher for a glass fishbowl filled with inspirational quotes. With the kindness fishbowl in hand, she was completely at home among the café’s party-like décor: the “wheel of kindness,” the cheerful wrapping-paper rolls, and the confetti squiggles on the carpet.
Transitioning from server to interviewee, she doled out one “act of random kindness” story after another with bright eyes, laughs and even a knee-slap. She talked about the time a regular customer paid for another customer’s coffee for a month. Another time a group of teenage cheerleaders cheered a customer, and sometimes the servers have left dollar bills laying around for high school students at the school next door to find.
“When you give out kindness-and it doesn’t have to be material, it can be anything-it comes back to you.” Cotter Metwaly paused, then added, “Not always, and not always soon. But it comes back to you.”
The café is part of a broader mission to spread kindness through community and connectedness. “It’s so important to bring people together at the grassroots level instead of from the top. So it’s about inviting them in and making them part of something, because we all long to belong,” she said. “Really, it’s about connecting the pieces of a puzzle,” she added. She hopes that her restaurant is a place where that happens, even during unlikely times, like during the Republican National Convention. Throughout the convention she is hosting conversations about current events with a “kindness twist,” and handing out “kindness fans” with messages of kindness that she’d especially like to give to protestors.
Measuring the kindness of a city is somewhat ambiguous, so Cotter Metwaly relies on anecdotes and clues. It made her happy to hear that one local florist began offering free “kindness bouquets” (a bouquet one keeps for an hour before passing it on) to anyone who bought a bouquet. The city of St. Paul is also taking the idea and running with it. Mayor Chris Coleman has just proclaimed that the first week of every month is officially “Kindness Week.” Referring to the new official week, Cotter Metwaly said, “It’s exciting, the kindness thing is starting to catch on.”
With a background in financial services sales, as a flight attendant, and as a life coach, Cotter Metwaly has a lot of experience and inspiration to draw from. It’s mostly personal challenges that have induced her positive outlook on life. “You appreciate the mountain when you’ve been in the valley,” she said, shaking her head slowly.
Her parents divorced when she was 15 years old, which led to a rebellious adolescence. Cotter Metwaly’s sister then died in a car accident in 1990. “A lot of people can focus on holding onto sadness instead of hope,” she said, but she chose to remain positive.
“You just have to put the roadblock up,” she said, making a “T” with her hands and shaking it. “I mean once in a while you have to go back there and go through the mourning, but then you have to switch gears, and it’s all about what you focus on.”
It was her father, Cotter Metwaly said, who guided her throughout her life. “My dad always said, ‘I trust you, I trust you, I believe you and you can do anything.’ And that has influenced everything I do. I mean, give a person a reputation and they’ll live up to it.” She says she uses this idea to influence the kids and teenagers who hang around the café.
As Cotter Metwaly spoke about her father, her voice wavered and she stopped mid-sentence. Eyes cloudy-a stark contrast to her ease when telling tales of kindness-she glanced around the room. “Instead of mourning for him I mourn for the people who didn’t get a chance to know him,” she said before adding, “He died a month ago.” She stopped, took a breath, but didn’t continue. After 30 seconds she had collected herself. She looked up, cocked her head and smiled again.
A folder of business plans, flyers, pamphlets, articles and kindness quotes sat on the table beside Cotter Metwaly. One bright orange strip of paper is partly tucked into the folder. It reads, “Feelings are everywhere. Be gentle. -J. Masai.”
Katherine Wojtan: Peace Team
Katherine Wojtan never thought of herself as political. Raising a family and a career in corporate organizational development kept her hands full. But 30 weeks of studying Catholic social justice changed her.
In 2002, with kids gone to college, Wojtan found herself with extra time on her hands for the first time in years. She filled it with “JustFaith,” a program that focuses on Catholic social teaching and the systemic nature of injustice. The program coincided with military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fifteen books, plenty of conversations and a couple of American wars later, Katherine Wojtan found herself becoming a peace activist.
“The point of the program isn’t to make activists out of everyone, but activism just naturally comes out of it,” she explained. The program changed Wojtan’s understanding of her role in the community. “It deepened my faith, and it really deepened my understanding of injustice in the world.”
Culture of peace
That understanding led her on the path toward Peace Team, a group of 11 Minnesotans striving to create a culture of peace at the Republican National Convention. As talk of potential violence at the convention heated up this spring, individuals from various Twin Cities peace networks came together with the purpose of keeping the event peaceful.
“This is really a group effort by one of the most well connected group of people that I’ve ever worked with. Anytime you need something, someone comes up with a name and a contact,” Wojtan said.
Before they had a name or an official mission, they heard about a training program in Detroit put on by a group called Michigan Peace Team. Two members of Minnesota’s Peace Team attended the training, which helped shape the Peace Team mission and strategies in Minnesota.
A separate peace
There are several peace organizations in the Twin Cities, but the Peace Team wanted to create a separate entity. “As a Peace Team, by definition you are unbiased about the outcome of an event,” Wojtan explained. “We really want to provide a service to the people-to protect people’s safety and human rights-and we hope to continue to be useful in this beyond this event.” Their intent is not to stop civil disobedience, but to help keep people safe if it should occur.
By the time the RNC comes to town, Peace Team hopes to have a cadre of members who have attended its 10-hour Saturday trainings this month. Wojtan said that the response during the registration for the trainings has been overwhelmingly positive. “People are really happy that someone’s doing this from a positive perspective, and it’s gratifying to hear that.”
Wojtan expects the training will also give the participants transferable skills, particularly regarding nonviolent communication. “Hopefully people can use the nonviolent modes of communication not just at the RNC, but also in their daily lives, at the grocery store, with their families,” she said. It’s the belief in nonviolent communication that Wojtan believes helps lead to peace. “I’ve always had a calling or compassion for people who are struggling in the world,” she said. “It just became clear that you have to understand other people’s perspective.”
Wojtan, an active listener and articulate speaker, communicated an aura of peacefulness. She is mild mannered, speaks with her hands in slow and deliberate movements and thinks before saying anything. She chose to meet at St. Joan of Arc Sanctuary, a church with which she has no formal affiliation, in preference to a bustling coffee shop or an office. “It’s just such a comfortable, peaceful space,” she said, passing through the exit and into the gardens, a statue of St. Joan of Arc in the background.
She glanced at the time after our interview. She had one hour before she had to pick up a Peace Team trainer from Michigan at the airport and wondered out loud whether that was enough time to pick up a flip chart at Office Depot.
“This is just the beginning!” Wojtan said. It seems that flip charts, trainings and airport runs will be taking up most her time as she and the Peace Team get ready for the RNC.