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Unwavering Clarity of Purpose

(Juanita Morrow Nelson. Photo by Ed Hedemann, 2010)

I've been thinking of Juanita Nelson lately. What would she think of the state of the world right now, our relationships to the earth, to one another. What would she say about how we are living?

Juanita was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who truly lived her values. Fill in the latest buzzword for community engagement and social justice work—relational, transformational, liberatory—she embodied it. She embodied these principles with ease because they were part of everything she did. And she did it without the ego and arrogance that can often consume those of us who strive to be authentically part of social justice movements.

Over the past thirty years, I have worked at the intersection of community organizations, social movements, and higher education. From 1992-2022, my paid work was in the area of community engagement for two different colleges, mentoring students to work in partnership with community organizations.

I met Juanita in the mid ‘90’s, early on in my work life. I was being mentored by activists who saw the potential for community engagement within higher education to create transformational change. Starting out in higher education as a young staff person, I found it challenging to create equitable community partnerships and navigate the power structures within academia. I wondered how to realize the potential of community engagement to open the eyes of young people and support them to be part of social movements.

I am writing this blog as a way to share a few stories of Juanita’s influence on me and generations of young people—and also as a reflection on the state of campus-community partnerships. I want to hold this work up to Juanita’s light and wisdom and see how it measures up.

It was August of 1995, and I entered Juanita’s small cabin on Woolman Hill in a whirlwind state of action and stress. I was running late to drop off a few students who would spend a couple of days working in the Bean Patch—the Nelson’s small farm—as part of a first-year student pre-orientation trip.

As I entered her cabin in a rush, Juanita’s expression said it all. She stood calmly and said, “Mary, why don’t you sit down.”

“No, I don’t have time,” I said.

She put her hand on my shoulder, “yes—you should sit down.”  She didn’t lecture or say much. She offered me the space to calm down for a bit. “You shouldn’t be running around like this. You can rest for a minute.”

In that moment, awareness transpired. What was I doing?

Earlier in the summer, the college I was working for had asked me to increase the pre-orientation trip from 12 to 50 students without additional staffing. Newish to my job, I didn’t think I could say no, and I saw it as a chance to introduce more students to local organizations and activism. I worked with some fabulous student leaders to make it all happen, placing fifty students with different organizations and activist groups around the area.

But the whirlwind I had become and the rationale I was using were running me into the ground. If I worked faster, harder, and did more, I thought, I would reach more students, contribute to deeper partnership work, and fulfill what the institution expected of me. That last piece—what the institution expected of me—was getting especially tough to navigate.

Now, sitting in her presence at her kitchen table, having a glass of cool well water, with the students looking on—all the conversations and time she and I had spent together reflected back to me. I still had so much more to learn and unlearn about sustaining oneself for long-term movement work.

I often think back on that moment. I was working to educate students about the power of social movements and social justice. It was transformational work, yet at the same time it was always a struggle to keep a balance. Community engagement work in higher education was always on the edge of exploiting communities. I was learning more about this historic dynamic. I thought if I did more, I could tip that balance toward reciprocity and better. I was part of organizing groups both locally and nationally, working to make this shift.

In Juanita’s essay, “Cancel My Order for Everything Connected with the Violent U.S. Economy,” published in the book Downwardly Mobile for Conscience Sake, she writes about simple living: “I was in pursuit of a life that holds up to the light practically every breath that one breathes in terms of nonviolence, in terms of how the practice matches the preachment. Beyond demonstrations, conferences, tax refusal, on-going though that was and disruptive of ‘normal’ existence. Wholeness.”

The question I wrestled with then (and continue to now): How does one keep a foot in the door of an institution—working to transform systems from the inside—while also showing up authentically and sustainably to movement work?

I first met Juanita in Spring 1994 when I was creating a pre-orientation trip for first-year students at the college where I was directing a community engagement program. I was working with local activists and community organizations to place students in what was known at the time as a “community service trip.” The trip I was organizing would also offer a critique of community engagement, historic power dynamics, and the wisdom of being part of community-led initiatives. I wanted students to look at different types of organizations and institutions and their alignment with power and justice. At that time, it felt subversive to be talking of such things within the world of community engagement on a college campus. The mainstream conversation was about creating minor fixes, with some student reflection, and it focused on the value of our talented students and what they were doing “for” community projects.

I had heard about Juanita and Wally Nelson and their work in Western Massachusetts as war tax resisters. They were living in a cabin on Woolman Hill, on land owned by the Quaker community, and were making a small living by selling vegetables from their garden and participating in local movement work. At the time, I didn’t know about their historic involvement in the freedom rides, CORE, and all of their activism over the years.

In order to get in touch with them, I had to leave a message on the office phone at their neighbors, Traprock Peace Center, also on Woolman Hill. The Nelsons didn’t have a phone of their own.

At an arranged time, Juanita and I spoke over the phone, and she invited me to visit. While we talked about the possibility of her hosting a few students on her farm, I asked if there was something I could do to help out. She suggested we pull weeds together as we talked.

I drove up to Woolman Hill, located on a beautiful little knoll that the college van had trouble climbing, due to the ruts in the dirt road. Their small farm was on the side of the hill in front of their cabin, and Juanita was standing outside to meet me, in a long-sleeve cotton shirt.

“Hello,” she greeted me, with the warmest smile. Then she began to show me around the place. She described how they had come to live on this land, in their cabin made of reclaimed wood—an upcycled tiny house well before the latest trend of tiny houses. The cozy cabin was lined with posters, photos, cards, and a row of beautiful tiles along one wall—all signs of the relationships she and Wally had built and the movement work they were part of. There was also a wood stove, comfy chairs, and a desk with papers where organizing work was clearly ongoing.

She showed me their “running water,” which was a large container above their sink. When you opened the spout, water would run out. We laughed together at the joke. She took me outside and showed me the well out front where they pulled the water up by hand. Then she showed me the outhouse, commenting on the difficulties of finding her way out there at night or in the cold. She told me how her mother lovingly wondered why her daughter chose to live such a hard life.

All around were conscious choices. A way to live sustainably and in right relationship with other people and especially the earth. The simple life, as she referred to it in our conversations and in her writing:

"Equal distribution of resources–that’s part of what this simple living attempt is about. I have come to understand that in truth the product of our common labor belongs to all. To me that means that, at the very least, only that which one could, or does, produce by oneself, with help from no other, could conceivably be said to be 'mine.' So it’s all common property–who in this society produces anything solely on their own?"

We had a slice of some bread a friend had brought over and a drink of that cool well water, and then we started to weed in the Bean Patch, the name for their small plot of land—"too big for a garden and ludicrously small for a farm”—that sustained them. As we pulled weeds, Juanita shared more of the story of how she and Wally came to live on Woolman Hill, their activism, and how they met.

As we continued to weed and share stories, Juanita talked about a book she was reading about consumption, trash, and all the waste we produce. She talked about how much waste is created by our use of computers. This was the mid ‘90’s, when most of us were really just beginning to make the internet part of our lives. In response, I talked of the potential of the internet to keep us connected. The Zapatistas had recently been able to use the internet and computers to communicate with the world. Surely she could see the importance of computers and the internet for connecting people and social movements.

Juantia was not convinced. “Look at all the organizing we did without the internet. We found a way to communicate. And I’ve heard people print out so much on paper from the internet or documents—it isn’t really saving paper.”

Every conversation was filled with this open-ended, thoughtful offering of another way to look at an issue. Never shaming or delivered with self-importance. Always with the possibility of deep awareness. The principles she and Wally had chosen to live by were present in these conversations and all around us.

I knew it would be such a gift for any student to spend time with Juanita. And also a way to support their work in the Bean Patch. And indeed, the students who spent time on their farm that year returned each day with a calm presence and knowledge of organizing, systems, and simple living, through spending time with the Nelsons.

Over the years, Juanita and I stayed connected, and she would come to speak to a class or at an event we were hosting. I would refer students to her, and they would each be profoundly impacted by their time with her. When she spoke to a class or presented at a gathering, we had to be creative about compensating her for her time, to respect her wishes that the compensation not involve taxes. We got very creative.

We laughed together when Juanita told me of the reaction of a bank manager after she said she didn’t want the interest from her savings account. Couldn’t he just not give her the interest? I wish I could have seen his expression. Once again, a teachable moment. She offered a different perspective on something that is rarely questioned: “I have come to the firm conclusion that money doesn’t earn money–any added value comes from labor. Just as it seems clear to me that the only source of wealth is labor applied to natural resources.”

The Nelsons needed the bank account to maintain the Bean Patch—they had come to terms with this—but they knew accepting interest would come from someone’s labor or the exploitation of a community. And they didn’t want to participate in exploitation.

The last time I saw Juanita was about twenty years after we first met. I was connecting a professor colleague and her students to Juanita. They were studying what it meant to return to college after working in the community, and a trip to talk with Juanita seemed like a perfect fit.

Juanita welcomed us to her cabin on a chilly fall afternoon. The cabin was as cozy as ever, with her desk still filled with correspondence, writing, and organizing projects. She offered us tea and pumpkin bread. As she talked of her work, the students listened, captivated and in awe they were meeting someone who had been involved in so much movement work, still going strong. When it came time to snap a photo, she sprang forward to sit in the front row on the floor. 

I still think back to that moment when I came rushing into the Nelson’s cabin. Of the time we spent together talking and weeding. Of Juanita’s words about the goals of striving for simple living: “I was in pursuit of a life that holds up to the light practically every breath that one breathes in terms of nonviolence, in terms of how the practice matches the preachment.”

Community-campus partnership work has come a long way since then, thanks to individuals both within and outside institutions pushing for change. Yet it seems to me that administrative decisions are increasingly driven more by marketing optics than by the principles of social justice and community engagement. If the work can be done in a transactional way that costs less and still has marketing appeal, then that is what will be done.

Over time, working in higher education came to feel like being on a hamster wheel. There was the consistent pressure to do more and produce more, which was really more about the institution's self-interest than about transformation. Churning out work for the institution's benefit but not creating change within communities. It became more difficult to practice the principles many of us have spent years cultivating. To honor the commitment to both student and community efforts for justice. It seems that, more and more, institutions of higher education are shifting staff priorities away from the cultivation of deep community partnerships, while still using all the right language in mission statements.

During the last few years of my work, it became nearly impossible to carve out the time needed with local community partners to establish the kind of reciprocity that I once built with Juanita. The college had different priorities for my time. I was eventually told, after twenty-four years building deep community partnerships, that my work was redundant and I’d have to go. This layoff felt like a higher education version of downsizing and a turn away from the vision of reciprocal and transformative partnerships.

As I reflect on my downsizing and push from the academic hamster wheel, I imagine myself back in the Bean Patch with Juanita, doing some work to prepare for the cold weather. I imagine that she might congratulate me for finally slowing down a bit. For giving myself the time to find what my contributions might look like without the spinning and pressure from the institution to serve its priorities.

I’m so grateful for the time I spent with Juanita and Wally and for all the wisdom they shared with us through their pursuit of simple living. Their values and the way they lived their lives each day tell us so much about how we could be living as a broader community.


Note: All quotations are from Juanita Nelson's essay, "CANCEL MY ORDER FOR EVERYTHING CONNECTED WITH THE VIOLENT U.S. ECONOMY,” published in Downwardly Mobile for Conscience Sake, edited by Dorothy Norvell Anderson, Tom Paine Institute, 1993.


MARY BOMBARDIER lives in Western Massachusetts with her twelve year old son and continues to be involved in education and community organizing.

JUANITA MORROW NELSON (1923-2015) was a radical pacifist and a pacifist radical born in Cleveland, a child of the Great Migration out of Georgia. Three of her works are featured in the Fall issue of the Massachusetts Review.

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