Jo Vallentine and Gerry Yokota both spoke at the Webinar organised by the FWCC World Office in November 2020. This is the text of Jo’s presentation.
Perth Western Australia
(FWCC Asia West Pacific Section)
Greetings to everyone, wherever you are!
Firstly, I want to acknowledge that I’m on Whadjuk-Noongar land in the south–west of Western Australia, paying my respects to the first nations people of this country, who’ve looked after it so well, for so long. We are indeed blessed by their generosity in sharing it with settlers/colonisers from other places.
Thanks to FWCC for arranging this series of conversations with Quakers and others, and recognising that our Asia-West Pacific section, which covers a vast area of our precious little planet, is a bit thin on the ground with numbers of Quakers – but we’re here, and I’m in “down under” land, which is just the right place for me to be! And being in membership of the Religious Society of Friends, is also exactly the right place for me to be.
So, What is Mine to Do? This is a great question – thanks to Gerry in Japan for the title of our talks, and yes – there are some moments in a my life when I can identify that I felt a calling to do something a bit unexpected, out of the ordinary.
Becoming involved with Friends, back in 1972, was quite a journey, having come from a conservative farming background and Catholic boarding school education, for both of which I’m very grateful. Travelling after teaching for a while, really opened my eyes to look beyond my family boundaries. Seeking another religious tradition led me to the Meeting House in Mt. Lawley, where I still attend, and where I found a most engaging and inspiring group of “elders” – probably younger than I am now. But they were encouraging and questioning, and active in the world seeking justice, guided by the Inner Light, …. It was all quite exciting and challenging! Two Friends in particular, Nancy Wilkinson and Cyril Gare, seemed to mentor me into activism and a deep search for something to replace the Catholicism of my growing up years. I loved the silence of Meeting for Worship, from the beginning of my contact with Quakers – so different from the hierarchical and theatrical religiosity to which I’d been accustomed, and from which I sought escape!
Simultaneously, I met my life partner Peter Fry, a great-great-great grandson of Elizabeth, famous Quaker prison reformer, and although his family wasn’t connected with Quakers anymore, the prison theme kept recurring!
Becoming parents was by no means a given in our partnership….. in our travels we’d seen poverty, over population and pollution in so many places. It was very sobering, so before parenthood happened, I pledged to myself that I’d work for peace and justice for the rest of my life. Strangely, the nuclear industry seemed to have me in its sights – I didn’t choose it – who would? But this powerful global network with its tentacles everywhere somehow intrigued me, and once I knew about its dangers, there was no going back. I became an anti-nuclear activist, standing with Quakers on a street corner in Perth on a monthly basis with our huge banner declaring “Disarmament East and West” – we were labelled unilateralists or Soviet stooges among other unsavoury labels.
Two children later, and involvement in many activist groups, such as Community Aid Abroad, which morphed into Oxfam, the Aboriginal Treaty Support Group, the Council for Civil Liberties, and the Campaign to save Native Forests, led me to being the right person in the right place at the right time for the December 1984 federal election – one of the rare moments when being a mother with two small children seemed the right fit for running for office. To the astonishment of nearly everyone, I was elected to the Australian Senate on a nuclear disarmament platform. I determined to take my nonviolence training and my belief that there was good in everyone into the Senate.
Canberra is a long way from Perth – my time in the Senate was only possible because of the generosity of my husband, who left his job, working for people with disabilities, to care for our two little girls – which quite unusual for a man to do, in those days. I was labelled the “accidental Senator” which I didn’t mind at all – having had no ambition to end up as a politician. Being an independent in the Senate was difficult, but also a gift in some ways. I was determined not to get bogged down in the rules and regulations of the place, so was often castigated for doing things differently. It was often extremely frustrating, but thankfully at times, also very funny! I quite enjoyed upsetting the pomp and ceremony of the place, without causing harm, except possibly to inflated egos. As a peoples’ representative, I considered it my privilege and duty to open my office to the community and to build networks throughout the country of people opposed to violence, and in particular to the threat of nuclear warfare. This sometimes involved getting arrested, committing “holy obedience” as I called it, and serving time in gaol, much to the annoyance of my fellow Senators from the major political parties. This stand also involved challenging the military alliance with the United States, which is something of a sacred cow in mainstream Australia.
After eight years, and three successful elections, my body, my soul and my family indicated that it was time to leave. It was a relief – the third term was for six years, which at the time felt like a prison sentence. The getting out of the Senate was planned much more carefully than the getting in!
Along the way, I’d helped create the Greens W.A., a political party of which I’m immensely proud, which has had representatives in the State and Federal parliaments ever since. Also along the way, I’d come in contact with Joanna Macy, a Buddhist theologian and anti-nuclear activist, whose workshops in deep ecology spoke to my condition.
Joanna’s “Work that Re-Connects” is an ongoing inspiration and sits very comfortably for me, with Quaker testimonies. At one of her workshops here in Western Australia, the idea for a Pilgrimage around Australia, taking Chernobyl survivors to meet with indigenous communities suffering from the nuclear industry – either from nuclear testing, or uranium mining, was developed. It was an amazing journey in connectedness, and in appreciation for the wisdom of Aboriginal Australians, and in deep respect for those still dealing with the ghastly legacy of the Chernobyl disaster.
Having heard Steven Angell speaking about the Alternatives to Violence Project at the Tokyo gathering of FWCC in 1985, another idea was sparked, but it had to be put on a back-burner until I’d got out of the Senate. So in 1994, with a couple of other local Quakers, a start was made, to bring AVP to Western Australia. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in my life. We have a very strong AVP community here, mostly focussed on the core business of offering workshops in prisons, which has the potential for transformation to all those who participate ……. Thousands of inmates have benefited from those workshops, and it’s wonderful that inmates and outmates work together in a flat structure, and sometimes inmates become outmate facilitators on their release from prison. It was also gratifying for me to share that community work with Peter Fry, who became a greatly appreciated facilitator.
The climate crisis, which I first spoke about in parliament in 1987, which was then referred to as greenhouse warming, has taken a great deal of energy too. Working with various community groups to bring awareness about the possibilities of renewable energy, as well as of the risks to intergenerational justice if we don’t take strong action now, is a matter of conscience for me. So Extinction Rebellion has great attraction, especially now as I’m a grandmother. In fact, just yesterday, there was a mass closure of the main road from the city to our state parliament, where I led the Elm Dance, learned from Joanna Macy – a spiritual activity, which I’ve taken to many places, and which usually has the authorities stumped, because they can’t quite figure out what’s going on…. It’s delayed many an arrest!
During the COVID lockdown, I became very engaged in lobbying for de-militarisation: I could see the potential for the global community to be changed by the pandemic, to be more community focussed, to understand what’s really important in life. It seemed self-evident to me, but obviously not to most people, and certainly not to mainstream commentators, that if we challenged continued and increasing militarisation, we could solve many of the world’s problems. The United Nations’ seventeen global Sustainable Development Goals could all be met if we weren’t squandering more than three trillion dollars per annum on weapons and warfare. To me that seems a matter of basic justice, of acknowledging the needs of the world’s poorest countries, which as we know, are also the ones to suffer worst from both climate change and COVID 19. Along with that, the call for a Guaranteed Basic Income for everyone seems to me to be an idea whose time has come.
Sadly, the nuclear threat has not gone away, but there is hope with the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons before the global community. It enters into force on January 22nd next year – just two days after the swearing in of the U.S. President. However, with so many nuclear weapons still on high alert, i.e. ready to be launched at a moment’s notice, the nuclear threat is the third leg of the trifecta of crises, but not talked about nearly as much as the other two aspects: covid 19 and the climate crisis.
It seems that there is still a great deal of What is Mine to Do! With all of these issues swirling in my mind, the quiet relief of Meeting for Worship is a welcome re-charger of spiritual energies. I am so grateful to the community of Quakers, for our steadfast witness towards peace and justice.