As a high-school sophomore in 1986, I became a punk. I cut my hair, tore up my cloths, and was into self-destruction. Disillusionment with what I had accepted as stable and inherently good – – this society, government, authority, and economic structures—was almost too much to handle. And on top of it all, I was having nightmares about being blown up by my own government’s nuclear weapons.
That’s when I took the steps that would change my life forever. I decided one day at my kitchen table to become an activist. I joined the STOP Nuclear War club at my high-school, eventually becoming its president and broadening its focus to become Students for Social Responsibility. We formed similar chapters at other high-schools, formed a network, and had events together, Many future activists were introduced to activism through these high-school activities.
In college at the University of Texas, I worked in a bi-racial and bi-national anti-apartheid group and learned volumes about racism within leftist circles, as well as within the university system. After visiting El Salvador in 1991, 1 moved to New Yolk to work as paid staff for a Salvadoran solidarity organization called CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). Although CISPES focused on El Salvador, the group worked to dismantle militaristic and greed-based U.S. foreign, as well as domestic, policy. CISPES worked on its piece of the pie within the broader scheme of breaking down an economic and political system that is unjust and deadly for a majority of people in the world.
CISPES taught me organizing skills which I have carried into several other phases of activism and jobs. 1 briefly took a position with the Texas Abortion Rights Action League (TARAL) but soon quite in solidarity with the firing of one of the women who worked there. We had both spoken out about the strict hierarchical office structure and its severe lack of effectiveness. Student activism at the University taught me more than classes ever could. Struggling alongside South Africans for university divestment, coalition-building against the Gulf War, campaigning for the first black female president of the student body who was also a lesbian and a leftist, protesting the University’s racist curriculum and pushing for a multicultural agenda, working with the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), and writing my dissertation for an honors program on the university as a Capitalist tool all shaped my outlook on the larger world beyond the University microcosm and prepared me with the working skill to make some changes in it.
In 1992-93 I began substantive work with the Foundation for a Compassionate Society. Although I was hired as a receptionist, I was able to work my way up the work ladder to be able to organize and participate in Foundation protects and events. After completing support work for several staff projects, I was hired as a co-manager of the Grassroots Peace Organizations Building. The Grassroots Building is an important Austin resource. The Building offers low-cost and free office space to local progressive social change groups. Some of the long-standing tenants are the United Farm Workers, the Texas Civil Rights Project, La Pena, and The Foundation. A diverse sampling of groups have called the Building home, from ACT-UP and CISPES to lnforme SlDA and Okay (an African-American weekly). Meeting space is also available for groups not housed in the building.
As soon as the staff al\t the Foundation learned that Texas has offered itself, against the will of the citizens, as a national nuclear dumping ground, a loose collective was formed to work with other environmental groups from around the State and Mexico to expose the dangers and racism of such a dump. The dump is scheduled to be built 16 miles from the Rio Grande in the low-income and mainly Chicano town of Sierra Blanca, We brought in scientists to explain the serious health effects of emissions from nuclear plants and from radiation leaked into the air, soil, and water from dump sites. We were surprised to learn the direct link between the skyrocketing incidence of breast cancer, mortality rates and nuclear radiation.
We eventually sponsored an international conference entitled, ‘The Breast Cancer Epidemic and Nuclear Radiation- Women’s Action for the Environment.” Partially in conjunction with WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization) from New York and national Green peace, and in close consultation with several local citizens’ and environmental organizations, the conference brought together scientists and activists from around the state and the nation. The conference was a huge success in terms of building coalitions and unity amongst groups working on similar issues, educating politicians and citizens about the health threats posed by the continuing operation of the nuclear industry from uranium mining to waste dumping and hearing the testimony from indigenous people and other people of color, and women with or recovering from breast cancer. It is clear that people of color and low-income people are the recipients of a disproportionate amount of society’s toxic and nuclear waste, and the strains on physical and menial health that come with it. These are the groups whose voices must be heard and who, as the directly affected, are the leaders in the environmental movement
Currently, I and several Change of Heart staff members are continuing to follow up the conference in several ways, including coordinating grassroots events and inter-group communication and strategizing on several anti-dump fronts; legal challenges, electoral politicking, education and letter-writing campaigns, as well as protests and direct actions. The foundation and Change of Heart have become an integral part of the statewide opposition to the proposed dump, in terms of material support to other groups and as networking, educational and and labor resources.
The Foundation and Change of Heart has offered me a very special opportunity to work with incredibly competent, intelligent, and powerful women, while at the same time getting paid a living wage to do what I consider the most important job in the world: make small, but significant structural changes toward building a sustainable, healthy, economically, politically, and socially just way of operating on this planet while at the same time dismantling the oppressive and entrenched capitalist and military complexes.
Suze Kemper is Co-facilitator of The Grassroots Peace Organization Building. With her co-worker, Erin Rogers, she works to keep the building a warm and workable haven for the many grassroots organizations which use the space to work for peace and justice.
The Grass roots Peace Building has a long and magnificent history of its own. Presently, Kemper and Rogers are gearing up to make the changes to convert the building to a solar powered facility and present it as a viable model for other downtown locations. Also, Kemper and Rogers organized an art opening and reception and presented the transcriptions and video documentation from the Breast Cancer Conference sponsored by the Foundation.
Kemper’s association with the Foundation for a Compassionate Society has been both as a volunteer and paid staff since 1990. Kemper began by working with Sally Jacques on performance-pieces such as Inside the Heart, Inside the Springs, BodyCount, 64 Beds and several others. She performed with her Hard Women performance partner Rachel Martin-Hinshaw at several events sponsored by the Foundation.
Since August 1991 Kemper has worked on several FFACS projects including The Four Directions, a cause-related marketing retail store which supported the efforts of cooperatives and indigenous groups and returned a portion of each sale to a particular group.
She also worked as Studio Manager for Let The People Speak!, a feminist and human rights public access video program. As part of her work with LTPS! Kemper also served as camerawoman and helped to produce a catalog for distribution of these tapes.
In November 1993, Kemper partnered with Jacques on Project Bosnia and continues to work on gathering humanitarian aid for the people of the former Yugoslavia. Together Kemper and Jacques created the Foundation’s Austin to Bosnia drive that led to shipments of nearly 7,000 pounds of medical and material aid donated nationwide. From Austin these shipments were routed to organizations such as Children in Crisis, Project Bosnia and Tresnejvka who in turn provided transportation and distribution into the former Yugoslavia. The work continues as other organizations have joined the humanitarian efforts throughout the United States and Europe.
As an artist, a performer, printmaker and visual artist, Kemper is drawn to the exploration of language, process and a love of the mundane. Kemper believes in art and humor as tools for activism. Kemper passionately embraces the human spirit and lives for the briefest of moments when connection is made whether through similarity or difference.