About Margaret Swedish

margaret-october-2008

Let’s start at the beginning:

I was born in 1949 in a small community hospital in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The same doctor and nurse delivered all of my parent’s seven children, all of us born within nine years of one another.

Our home was in the suburb of Wauwatosa, which, when I was a little kid, was considered ‘the sticks.’ It was about as far out as you could go before hitting the woods and the farms. Our street was a dead-end then and the empty lot at the end of the block was known as ‘the field.’ From there, it was a straight shot to the Menomonee River and Hoyt Park.

Then the first shopping mall was built a mile to the west. Around the same time, the freeway was cut through a mile to the south. Then they cut through our dead-end, creating a throughway for the traffic headed from the growing suburbs to the freeway. And the suburbs just kept spreading out, more roads and highways, until there was hardly a family farm left in Milwaukee County.

Still, it was a glorious place to be a kid. We played wiffle ball in the alley with tar marks for bases and home plate, trying not to hit a ball into the yard of the mythical crabby neighbor next door (who also didn’t want us to mess up her new snow). For a dime we could spend our summer days at the Hoyt Park swimming pool.

Leader of the Band

Leader of the Band

My Father was a famous musician in Milwaukee, famous especially for his big band. He met my Mother, Mary Rose Reichard, when he hired her out of high school to sing with his band, which she did for a decade. Mary Rose Reichard as Maureen RosayThey married in 1944 and she only stopped singing when the birth of the second of us in 1946 made it too hard to go out every weekend on those gigs. Music in my household was as much part of us as breathing, and we kids lived in the limelight of the city’s local star. It put the pulse of the city in our very blood.

I went to grade school at our Catholic parish, taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, graduating in 1963.

From there, I went on to high school at Holy Angels Academy, an all-girl school in downtown Milwaukee that belonged to the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). My Mother and her three sisters all graduated from HA back in the 30s and 40s, and the oldest of them, my Aunt Kay, the much beloved Sister Kathryn Marie  Reichard, joined the BVMs in her 20s. She died in September 2007. One morning she awoke, greeted the day, and then left this world. She was 93 and a beautiful soul.

My years at Holy Angels were tumultuous, the usual teenage hysteria mixed with a rising anti-war movement, a civil rights movement reaching its peak, and a church in the throes of its most profound changes in centuries. The sisters at our school reflected the tumult, some remaining in full habit while others were out in the streets marching with Father James Groppi, Milwaukee’s local civil rights hero.

I was raised in a staunchly Republican household. My father was a friend of Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose name was always mentioned with a certain reverence and awe. But the 60s changed things in communities across the country. I was merely another manifestation of those changes.

In January 1968 I joined the Young Republicans. In the ensuing months, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, cities exploded in riots, Robert Kennedy, who was beginning to win me over, was assassinated, and then that August, I found myself sitting alone in front of the TV watching live as the Chicago police went on a rampage against anti-war protestors at the Democratic Party Convention.

By the time National Guardsmen gunned down several students on the campus of Kent State University two years later, my life had been turned in another direction.

While in college, first at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, then at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I became active in campus ministry, which in Boulder had a decidedly progressive, activist bent. I marched against the Vietnam War, partied when Nixon announced his resignation, was teargassed in the protests that followed the US decision to mine the harbors of Hanoi and Haiphong, participated in events in solidarity with striking farmworkers, and visited prisoners at a federal correctional institution outside Denver.

I received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1973 and stayed on in Colorado for awhile after that. After a brief return to Wisconsin, I found myself in Montreal, Canada, where I was invited by a friend to spend some time at the Benedict Labre House, a street shelter and soup kitchen for homeless men. I stayed for two years.

This was the late 70s and a good number of political prisoners from Latin America were finding their way to Canada, released, often through the efforts of Amnesty International, from the torture centers of the military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and elsewhere. This was the beginning of my political education regarding the Western Hemisphere and the role of my government in propping up dictators, training police and military forces in repression (including torture, nothing all that new about Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay), and being in league with the economic elites and in the repression meant to keep the masses from rising up.

But rise up they did and they were met with savage repression. In 1979 I moved down to Washington DC having met a community of people living and working together in solidarity with the poor and oppressed people in Latin America. The community was called, Tabor House, and folks there helped lay the foundations of faith-based solidarity work in the DC area. In early 1980, a group of Catholic religious leaders and former missioners, including folks from Tabor House, founded the Religious Task Force on El Salvador, a gesture of solidarity with the church and prophetic witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

archbishop-oscar-romero.pngRomero was assassinated just weeks later, on March 24. It was one of many acts of repression that year, culminating in the assassinations of the entire political leadership of the country on November 27 and the brutal slayings of four US church women on December 2: Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan.

Romero and the women became the spiritual anchors of the RTF. Eventually, that organization expanded its agenda, becoming the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico. I was hired to work there in September 1981 and stepped down as its director in June 2004.

It was an extraordinary journey, many trips to Central America, countries at war, countries whose people welcomed our solidarity with open arms as we sought to make our most important contribution to their struggle: to change the policies of the US government. We contributed to a burgeoning grassroots movement that changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of US Americans who saw the reality of the so-called ‘third world’ for the first time, and then measured the relative comfort and privileges of their lives in relation to that experience.

By 2004, having seen the ruin of war exacerbated by economic injustice and environmental devastation from generations of abuse, I had come to realize that not only the region, but we, all of us, were headed down a path towards ecological ruin. The issues on this blog are issues I have cared about since the first Earth Day in 1970. The vantage point of Central America was an instructive one. An example: El Salvador is a ruined land. Every water source is contaminated, less than 5 percent of its forest remains. The population is too dense for the needs of campesinos, and unemployment is very high. Add war trauma and families torn apart by violence and you have the ingredients of a malfunctioning nation. Unable to support its population, about a third of the country’s people have left since the 1980s. There is no way they will ever go back, that choice is no longer viable.

From there I looked at the condition of our world. I began to realize that the problems we face cannot be solved through individual solidarity projects or by addressing the needs of one nation at a time.  Our most serious economic and ecological crises were deeply intertwined and interconnected. The global economy was now dependent on an economic model that required more and more ecological destruction in order to function, and that destruction was leading us towards an abyss.

As I pondered the multiple crises facing this planet, one inescapable challenge kept presenting itself. It was a challenge deeply related to, and relevant to, the experience of US Americans who from the vantage point of the poor of Central America began to question our affluent way of life. Now it was clear that those lifestyles were undermining the ecosystems of the planet itself. Unless we in this nation are willing to drastically down-size and simplify our lives, the majority of the world, us included, is headed for a very painful future.

I realized that there could be no justice, no dignified life, for the poor of our world if we continued to live as we do here in the US, if we continued our patterns of consumption and waste, our fossil fueled mobility, our inordinate demands upon the Earth’s carrying capacity.

And so I took up this project. At its heart, we pose the question: As the world goes through this most difficult transition, as the combined crises of climate change, living beyond the means of the Earth, rapid population growth over the next few decades, depletion of resources, more war and tension as a result of these crises, as we begin to run short of water and energy, as we move into a time of food scarcity, as these drivers combine to bring our world to the brink of disaster —

What kind of human beings will we be here in this affluent nation as we go through the crisis?

This is not just a political, economic, or personal crisis; it is also deeply, deeply spiritual. It became obvious to me that we must not only live differently, we must be differently.

And that’s why I took up this project; that’s why I created, Spirituality and Ecological Hope.

Books by Margaret Swedish »

A little more about how I see my world:

For a longer audio interview, click on this link and in the right side column, look for my name with the date, 10-31-11: http://www.pantedmonkey.org