Since the 1960s, the Town of Woodstock has had a reputation for being a hotbed of antiwar activism, as a corollary to its role as an arts colony steeped in the counterculture. Some local promoters of nonviolence are hard to miss – such as Gloria Waslyn and her vibrantly colored Parrots for Peace, a magnet for kids at practically every outdoor community gathering in the area. Others, however, keep a lower public profile. Among them is a retired attorney who helped craft the language for an international agreement set to take the United Nations’ Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to a more comprehensive level, once ratified: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Her name is Mary Yelenick; she has had a house in Woodstock since 2009, and has been living here full-time since the COVID-19 shutdown.
Designed to address deficiencies in the NPT, this new treaty is the first legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons comprehensively, with their total elimination the ultimate goal. It will prohibit each ratifying state from the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance to those activities. It will create a mandatory timeline for countries that already possess nuclear capability (all of which, including the US, boycotted the negotiations that drafted the treaty) to eliminate their stockpiles altogether.
TPNW was formally adopted by the UN in July 2017 – a world peace milestone that Yelenick ruefully notes “only made it to page 12 of The New York Times.” Passage required 50 signatories, and 122 countries voted Aye. But in order for the treaty to have the force of international law behind it, more than 50 countries’ legislatures need to ratify it (much like an amendment to the US Constitution). “So far we have 39. Fiji just ratified it last week,” Yelenick reports. It will be considered binding international law upon ratifying nations, and become an ethical yardstick for the rest that’s difficult to flout with impunity, comparable to UN policies against land mines, chemical and biological weapons.
The 2017 vote earned a Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organizations from 103 countries, based in Geneva. Mary Yelenick is the main representative to ICAN for the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi: one of the most active and influential groups in the coalition, with 120 member organizations on five continents. Pax Christi was founded in 1945 by French Catholics who had shielded Jews from deportation to concentration camps by the Vichy régime, with a goal of reconciliation between Catholics in France and Germany. It quickly spread around the globe. Pax Christi International has held special consultative status with the UN since 1979 in New York, Geneva and Vienna, as well as with UNESCO in Paris, and meets with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and institutions of the EU in Brussels.
Yelenick came to Catholic activism at an early age, profoundly influenced by the progressive nuns who taught her in school in Colorado. “Catholic sisters have always been heroes to me,” she says. In a way, she seemed destined for a lifetime of involvement in peace and social justice work. “I was born the same day as Brown v. the Board of Education. I grew up in the first integrated neighborhood in Denver. When my parents were looking for a house, they deliberately went with the only real estate agent who had a policy against redlining.” Representing Colorado and Wyoming in the National Spelling Bee in eighth grade meant an eye-opening trip to Washington, DC while the Poor People’s Encampment was in progress. “I was really changed by that. My family was staying in the Mayflower Hotel when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.”
Yelenick was majoring in Political Science with a focus on Latin America at the University of Colorado when a mentor told her, “You’d make a good lawyer.” She ended up getting her JD at Georgetown and doing a clerkship in DC before moving to New York City to pursue a successful 36-year law career with a high-profile firm, Chadbourne & Parke, LLP, eventually becoming a partner. “It was a very interesting practice, mainly tort work. I did a lot of traveling,” she recalls. Product liability was her area of specialization, and she became an internationally recognized expert on detecting bribery and corruption.
She retired from her law practice in 2016, by which time she was already deeply engaged in the peace movement. The US invasion of Iraq prompted her to hold up signs at street demonstrations, at one of which she met veteran Catholic peace activists Daniel Berrigan and Liz McAlister, the widow of Philip Berrigan and a former nun. “Liz and I became close friends,” she relates. Yelenick got involved with Pax Christi of Metro New York’s direct actions, including a demonstration at the aircraft carrier Intrepid, where she let herself get arrested for the first of many times. In jail, she discovered, “These are the people I need to meet.”
Soon Yelenick was involved with Pax Christi USA, joining the National Anti-Racism Team, where she’s still active, frequently publishing essays on the organization’s website. Recent Black Lives Matter actions prompted an eloquent piece on the responsibility to acknowledge and dismantle white privilege, titled “It’s OUR Racism” (https://paxchristiusa.org/2020/06/16/its-our-racism).
“My obligation as a white person is…actively to engage with and challenge other white people; it also means changing my own behavior as a white person…being conscious of the opportunities, relationships, access to power, presumed competence and credibility, freedom to live, work, speak and travel wherever and however I choose – the ‘free passes’ that I take for granted, and have never been called to account for, simply because I am white…. We may not have actively worked to institute policies or practices of white supremacy. But every day that we as whites benefit from them, without actively seeking to dismantle them, we remain complicit in them.”
Yelenick also plays active roles in Pax Christi International’s working groups on Syria and the Security Council, but her primary focus is on nuclear disarmament and what she likes to call “creative nonviolence.” COVID-19 has put a stop to her frequent trips to Manhattan to negotiate at the UN, and she’s spending more time these days tending to her garden and her cats with her longtime partner, Elizabeth Broad, an artist who’s on the board of the Woodstock School of Art. But the peace work continues unabated via remote technology. “The Zoom meetings make it possible to have deeper conversations,” Yelenick says. “The coronavirus is making us understand our shared vulnerabilities.”
She cites the heightened impacts of the pandemic on the poor, people of color, immigrants, refugees, made inevitable by systemic inequities (https://paxchristiusa.org/2020/04/07/pandemic-privilege-u-s-policies-and-practices-condemn-our-sisters-and-brothers-to-death-by-coronavirus). “It’s a terrible time, but a tremendous opportunity. It’s forcing us to examine the question, ‘What is security?’ The world we built was really shaky.”
Yelenick is enthusiastic about encouraging people who “want to be doing something” about making the new normal, post-COVID, better for everybody than the old normal. “There are a lot of interesting things happening,” she says, citing such examples as the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, founded during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, whose New York State chapter now organizes regular bus trips to Albany to lobby the State Legislature. “It’s the most interracial group you’ll ever see.” On the issue of nuclear disarmament, there’s also a new iteration of the Ribbon Project, which in 1985 encircled the Pentagon with a ribbon of panels depicting “things that we would miss if there was a nuclear war.”
Ready to grapple with your white privilege? She recommends, as a jumping-off point, reading Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About and Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The Pax Christi website hosts a blog in which peace activists share personal experiences, furnishing plenty of ideas for ways to take a stand on the local level (https://paxchristipeacestories.com). Writing your elected representatives to sponsor ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a simple step that anyone can take. “A big issue coming up is that we’ve got to make sure they don’t suppress the vote,” Yelenick reminds us as well, looking forward to November.
“We have to be brave. You have to take a chance, get out of your comfort zone,” she urges. “Fear can transform you into doing something you would never have done at any other time.”