Recovering WRI's history: storytelling with a purpose

IssueSeptember - November 2002
Feature by Mitzi Bales

The idea behind this project was to link storytelling - the theme of the 2002 WRI Triennial - directly with the history of the WRI. How, then, to do this? The answer, to WRI worker Roberta Bacic, rested in the large collection of old, dusty, unsorted photographs in the office files.

Why not invite activists and former staff members of the older generation to a working session to identify people, places and times caught by the camera long ago? This group activity would stimulate recollections and stories from us participants as well as provide basic information. Then the idea was taken another step further by Roberta's colleague Andreas Speck.

Why not make a video of the session? It would record the stories as they were told, catching the spontaneity and excitement of people as our memories were jogged by the photos. The video could also present interviews with each of us in which we explained how we became involved in the WRI and what the peace movement means to us.

And so it came to pass that on the weekend of 22 March, in a pleasant room of the Mary Ward Centre in Central London, a group gathered to begin “Recovering WRI's History”.

Some background

It can be said to have started in India in 1999 with the Nonviolence and Social Empowerment Conference. People told their stories, personal and political, to great effect. This planted the seed for an oral history of the WRI as its own entity.

Why an oral - storytelling - history? Why a history at all? There are several strands to the answer.

First, the WRI has the distinction of being one of the world's oldest and longest lasting peace organisations, having been founded some 80 years ago. We should value its history for its own sake, but also for the example it has set and for anything we can learn from its past.

That is a philosophical and inspirational reason for preserving and recording its history. The more practical reason lies with the mass of unclassified, unidentified photographs already mentioned. Here is history forever preserved by the camera - but lying useless and unused through lack of knowledge of their details. “We want to `rescue' this valuable cache of historical data,” says Roberta. “To do this we needed to find a way of identifying the photos: sources, names, dates and other details. Then we could think about finding a good use for them, the first and most obvious being to make them a living part of our archives so that students, academics and activists interested in the international peace movement can use them for their research.” This mini-project linked in with Roberta's larger, on-going project, Dealing with the Past, just as it linked in with the Dublin Triennial theme of storytelling.

“That reminds me of something”

Eight of those invited to the March event were able to attend the two-day gathering. We represented activists and former staff members who were around in the years 1945 to 1979. (Some, even among those going farther back, are still active.) Facing a huge pile of very old photographs, we carefully scrutinised each one and, where our knowledge permitted called out names, times and places. Michael Randle was the champion in this exercise on the Saturday. To our wonder and pleasure, he would look at a group photo and rattle off name after name, anecdote after anecdote - and often remembering the event and date. Just as the planners had hoped, work on the photos stimulated more stories and helped everyone to recall many names and events.

In addition, there was a constant flow of conversation and discussion of issues relating the past to the present and future. It seemed that every photo led to

Who was there...

  • Mitzi Bales. She is affiliated to WRI as an individual, having joined in 1968 not long after coming to Britain from New York. She volunteers her editorial skills and is one of the four interviewees on the video.
  • Albert Beale. He has been active in WRI since the early 1970s. Currently, he is instrumental in producing Nonviolent Action and runs the Housmans Peace Resource Project.
  • Maryatta Bryan. She worked a the WRI office when it was located in Enfield in the 1960s, having come from Finland for a conference and staying in Britain after marrying another peacenik.
  • Geoffrey Cooper. He worked part-time a the WRI office in the early 1970s. He is currently a subeditor on the publication Resurgence.
  • Marion Prince. She was a volunteer in the early 1970s. Her deep commitment to the Committee of 100 led to a prison term.
  • Michael Randle. A lecturer in peace studies at Bradford University. He is WRI's model of an academic-activist. His connection with WRI spans some 50 years. See him on the video.
  • Helga Weber & Wolfgang Zucht. Both have been active in WRI since the 1960s and are regular visitors to the WRI and PN offices. Both Helga and Wolfgang act as financial agents in Germany for PN and WRI.
  • Julia Guest, professional filmmaker.
  • Daniel Caray, staff member and AngelaMcCann, volunteer
  • Roberta Bacic and Andreas Speck, staff members who organised the event.

another story, each contributing to the store of information that would “rescue” the photographs and the history that they contained. The pile did get smaller, but even the concentrated efforts and wide experience of those of us there could not demolish it. Some photographs stubbornly retain their history.

And a video, too...

Another important aspect of the two-day gathering was the making of a video titled, like the project, Recovering WRI's History. Part of the purpose of the video is to provide a source to be used for peace education as well as a research tool on the history of the international peace movement.

To this end, each of us was interviewed in-depth during the afternoons of both days. We tell our own stories of our commitment to peace and our activities related to the WRI. No two interviews are alike, not only because the people are different but also because the interview questions vary in order, to cover many topics and draw out specific information.

A story about emotion

I think we all felt emotional at some point in the gathering. I myself felt my first surge of pleasure bordering on tears when I met Helga and Wolfgang for the first time after some 30 years. Then, when I saw a picture of Myrtle Solomon, I felt a hint of tears welling up, recollecting how she had enriched many lives and realising her loss anew. Of course, this led me to tell everyone about my own small tribute to her by editing the book, Opening Doors to Peace, published in her honour.

Others too spoke of how much it meant to them to meet old friends and comrades and to offer their stories to the project.

A story about joining WRI

It was particularly interesting to find out how people came to ally themselves with the WRI. For example, Albert Beale told how he had a kind of “revelation” when he attended a meeting at WRI headquarters in the early 1970s. The meeting was about coordinating worldwide actions against NATO; at the time he was involved in a local pacifist action group in Brighton in southern England. “It has seemed a lonely and very local undertaking,” he said. “Then at the meeting, I suddenly realised that there were people with the same `bizarre' ideas about peace all over the world, and many of them networking through the WRI. It brought home to me the importance of international work and the vital role of the WRI in that work.”

Unveiling at the Triennial

The link to the Triennial is a congenial one, for the Dublin conference is based on storytelling: Stories and Strategies - Nonviolent Resistance and Social Change.

What delegates to the Triennial will see is a pilot film, a 15-minute, unedited video with four interviews. It will convey a little of our history through the voices and faces of activities with long memories. It is also an acknowledgement of these activists, say Roberta and Andreas.

Topics: Culture