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June 12 2014

Peacebuilder Series

Maxine Phillips, Guest

Maxine Phillips, guest in a peacebuilders Living Room Dialogue, is a former co-editor of "Religious Socialism," retired executive editor of "Dissent" magazine, and current volunteer editor of "Democratic Left." True to the format of the peacebuilders series, Maxine opened the session by telling the story of influences in her life that led her to put social change in the center of it.

Maxine was born in Pennsylvania. She was early introduced to the ethic of caring for other people by her social worker parents and the family's active participation in their Methodist Church. Neither parent was politically active, although her father was committed to the ideals of socialism. Her mother immigrated to this country from Italy at a time when Italians were despised, and along with most Italians, she had been terrified into silence by the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. These Italian-born anarchists were executed for a murder committed during an armed robbery. Most people around the world believed they were innocent of the crime but convicted because of their political beliefs. Her father was later made fearful by the McCarthy era and worried that he could lose his federal job if a long ago contribution to the Lincoln Brigade was exposed.

During World War II, Maxine's father was drafted and sent to Louisiana in the southern U.S. Her mother went along and got a job as a social worker for the Red Cross. Both parents were shocked by the segregation and abuse of black people they saw there. For example, her mother was instructed to call her black clients only by their first names, and never, as with other clients, by the more dignified Miss, Mrs., or Mr. She abided by this rule until she could talk to people in her office with the door closed.

In addition to the values of social justice she learned at her parents' knees, Maxine witnessed news reports of the Freedom Riders on TV and went to a college that had been founded by a pacifist sect. Her parents would not allow her to leave campus for the demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, but she attended civil rights rallies in the college town and in D.C.

For her junior year abroad, she went to France. For the first time, she saw how the actions of the U.S. looked to people outside the country, which at the time was deepening its involvement in Indo-China. "You should get out now," she was warned in a teach-in. The new perspectives she encountered there transformed her understanding of U.S. culture. The teach-in was organized by a fellow student from a Mennonite College who wanted all the Americans in the program to understand what was going on in Indo-China.

Although there were many pacifists at her college, there was no overt anti-war activity. When she graduated in 1967, a classmate who lived near her hometown phoned to invite her to an organizing meeting for Vietnam Summer. She said that her main interest was civil rights. He told her that Martin Luther King had preached a sermon at Riverside Church saying that there would be no progress on civil rights until the war was ended.

She went to the meeting and took part in door-to-door education and in weekly vigils at the state capitol building.

After completing a master's degree in journalism at Syracuse University, where she continued to be part of anti-war vigils at football games, Maxine came to New York City, where she found a home at Judson Church, a place that has provided a spiritual base ever since. In addition to learning about and becoming involved in the welfare rights movement there, she later participated in a group studying corporate capitalism, where she not only deepened her understanding of the systemic roots of social injustice but met her husband-to-be, Tom Roderick.

Mark Kesselman, co-author of the book being studied, spoke to the group and said that socialism was the only way forward. Maxine objected that third parties had no future in the United States. The same person who had told her about welfare rights now told her about a socialist group within the Democratic Party.

She began volunteering at the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, an organization recently founded by Michael Harrington, the author of the acclaimed book "The Other America," and that led eventually to a job as managing editor of the organization's monthly newsletter, "Democratic Left." By the time she went to work for "Dissent" magazine after the birth of her first child, she was national director of the organization (which had merged with the New American Movement and was now called Democratic Socialists of America). She worked for "Dissent" for 28 years, first as managing editor and then as executive editor.

After Maxine's presentation, participants in the dialogue were invited to reflect on any aspect of Maxine's story that resonated with their own lives. Several people spoke about how their families' perspectives influenced them and their willingness or reluctance to expose their political views. There was some discussion about the importance of community, either in a church congregation or elsewhere.

The atomization of our present society where so many are caught up in their cell phones and tablets to the neglect of people around them was seen as a major problem today. People also spoke of despair and hopelessness induced by the events showcased in the news media.

As the meeting ended one participant offered some guidelines for creating peace that she and a friend had developed. They were:

Tools for Peaceful Living: Start with the Self

  1. What is being threatened – am I truly in danger?
  2. Is this about a past wounding?
  3. Acknowledge my fear.
  4. Suspend judgment hold space for differences.
  5. How can I be of help?

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