In a world crowded with more than 6.8 billion people, each of whom faces some kind of human struggle, it might seem like a lofty ambition to have sights set on solving some of humanity’s most formidable, age-old problems.
But for the last 25 years, the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) has courageously taken on this task by collaboratively working, educating and advocating social issues in pursuit of justice and peace worldwide.
The foundation for IJPC was laid by a group of Roman Catholic nuns who responded to various social concerns by committing themselves to the principles of peace and justice.
Their mission was received by other religious communities across the United States, giving rise to other groups that are philosophically aligned with the founding sisters’ mission.
“In some communities, one sister took charge,” says IJPC Coordinator Alice Gerdeman. “But here in Cincinnati the movement began to grow so that one organization would serve as an educational component and also a place where people can conduct activities for justice. We started out with five communities of women and we now have 17. Each community is completely independent.”
Although these communities are independent, they work collaboratively to uphold the IJPC mission outlined a quarter-century ago.
“That mission is to maintain awareness that justice is integral, not optional, to our faith response and working with other communities is the best way to make that happen,” Gerdeman says.
She explained that although the mission is still rooted in Roman Catholic teachings, the IJPC is open to anyone who is philosophically aligned with their understanding of justice and peace as necessities in the Greater Cincinnati area, the nation and the world.
“We collaborate with people from universities, different unions, different church groups, mosques, synagogues, civic organizations — all across the board,” adds Kristen Barker, who originally became part of the IJPC as a member of AmeriCorps and currently runs the peace program. “The Roman Catholic sisters remain a vital part of everything, but (the center) is also open to young people of all faith traditions or no faith tradition.”
In addition to making membership more inclusive, the IJPC developed six main focuses over the years — peace, human rights, anti-racism, economic justice, ecology and the needs of women, children and the poor. As a coalition of faith-based organizations and individuals, the IJPC essentially works to educate about justice issues and take collaborative action on local, national and international levels.
Gerdeman’s work led to her selection as CityBeat’s “Person of the Year” in 1999.
On a local level, the center is doing immigrant rights work and pushing toward ending destitution in Ohio. They host workshops open to the public that focus on racial tolerance in the Greater Cincinnati area in an attempt to inspire a peaceful community shared by people of varying ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Also, they use skill sets to teach people how to nonviolently handle uprisings in case something like the riots of 2001 were to happen again.
On a national and international level, they are working towards ending the war in Afghanistan, in part by helping the Cincinnati Peace Team organize nonviolent protests in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.
“We believe that you have to have peace in your heart to find justice,” Gerdeman says. “When you let the circumstances change you so that you’re no longer peaceful and you’re no longer just in the way you handle the problem, you have just added to the problem. We work very hard to be nonviolent and successful.”
One of the center’s smaller but most visible campaigns is the “Women in Black” peace vigils, held on the third Tuesday of each month on Central Parkway during the evening rush hour, to protest the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A testament to the success of IJPC’s philosophy took place on Fountain Square several years ago, when the Ku Klux Klan showed up for Christmas with a burning cross and members were sent to neutralize the situation.
“As long as the KKK was there, we were there,” Gerdeman says. “We didn’t want our city to be connected with groups that are racially violent. When we were there, it was always peaceful. If you go with a peaceful spirit, then your spirit is powerful and catching.”
Peace obviously plays a crucial role in the IJPC initiative, but staff members strongly as sert that peacefulness does not mean passivity.
“Peacefulness involves very strategic, savvy organizing,” says Eunice Timoney Ravenna, another IJPC organizer.
Organization is perhaps the center’s strongest component. The humble IJPC headquarters on East 14th Street in Over-the-Rhine serves as a meeting place where people can learn, ideas can be generated and people can work collaboratively on a project.
“We aim to make people aware and give them the option to make a difference, to have a place where people in the Greater Cincinnati area know they can come to say ‘I have an idea, I think this might work and I know some people who are interested in helping too,’ ” Timoney Ravenna says.
Looking back over the past 25 years, Gerdeman believes that the IJPC’s greatest accomplishment has been creating a larger awareness of the connectedness of local, national and international justice issues to the people of Greater Cincinnati.
“When you do the kind of organizing we do, you don’t exactly have a list of success stories,” she says.
“You have the things that you were a part of that brought people to the next level of awareness and hopefully will bring justice about in a stronger way … I think people are more aware now and we have a lively community of people who are willing to collaborate to make sure the world becomes a better place.”