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May 2014

Living Room Dialogue May 6, 2014 Peacebuilder Series

Guest: Priscilla Prutzman

In the peacebuilder series of Living Room Dialogues, a guest is asked to talk about turning points in their lives that led them into their work building peace. Our guest for this meeting, Priscilla Prutzman, chose to tell the story of her experience as an adolescent who turned away from the values and politics of her family through a radical act.

Priscilla grew up in Western Massachusetts where her main interests as a youngster were horses, skiing and theatre. Her perspective on the world began to diverge from that of her conservative parents when she went away to boarding school at Northfield Seminary, a school with a long history of valuing social justice. There she met Rev. William Sloan Coffin, a believer in the power of civil disobedience to bring social and political change who was arrested as a Freedom Rider early in the 1960's and was an early admirer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Coffin talked to students about the civil rights movement and she felt contributing to this was something she ought to do. After she learned of the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Alabama, she and a friend decided to go to Selma for the subsequent march without telling their families where they were going. Members of Priscilla's family were opposed to the civil rights movement and regarded Dr. King as dangerous, but she had enough money in her savings account to get her there without her family's help.

New experiences that she and her friend had in Alabama included being the only white people in a congregation of black folks and meeting some pacifist Quakers. These encounters were life-changing for her. It was not until her ride back to New York with some of the Quakers that she learned of the shooting of Viola Liuzzo by Ku Klux Klanners and realized how dangerous this adventure had been.

Her parents were appalled when they found out about it and her relationship with them was strained for many years afterward.

Her experience at Northfield and in the civil rights movement provided a grounding for the rest of her life. Her study and practice of non-violence led into her the development of conflict resolution and bias awareness programs for schools. She can identify how persons of color can feel unwelcome, while her experience with her family lends her an understanding of the conservative point of view. She is able to keep in mind all the time an awareness that people come to experience with different perspectives.

After Priscilla's talk, members of the group were asked to share the thoughts evoked by her recollections.

Everyone appreciated the courage Priscilla exhibited in her early life and since then. A woman who had worked with her in a conflict resolution program for children appreciated her as a mentor and visionary. Several people in the group recalled the politics of their families, the context of their growing up, and whether they resisted or conformed to social expectations at different points in their lives. Several recalled moments when they received a call, an intuition or a dream that led them into new and challenging pathways.

At the end of the meeting, people expressed appreciation for the sense of community and trust present in the group which made it possible for people to tell stories about their lives, sometimes in new ways. As always, good listening is the basis for good dialogue.


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