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Indianapolis mom marks 10 years working for peace and justice

Indianapolis mom marks 10 years working for peace and justice

Published: March 11, 2013

Erin Polley first encountered AFSC in the months after the Iraq War began. She was soon deeply involved in the Eyes Wide Open exhibition. 

The day the U.S. invaded Iraq was the day the peace movement recruited Erin Polley.

In March 2003, Erin was working in Chicago's service industry, having moved from Indianapolis two years earlier in search of a sense of purpose.

"I had never been politicized before, but seeing all these stories coming out about the Bush administration wanting to start a war in Iraq, I felt like I had to do something," she says.

The day after the U.S.-led military campaign known as "Operation Shock and Awe" attacked Iraq, 22-year-old Erin joined friends at a huge rally in Chicago, where alongside over 1,000 others, she was arrested and held in jail.

It was that day, inside a small jail cell, that she found “her people” in the form of a group of 30 women. They were nuns, young activists, and longtime protesters who remembered the wars in Vietnam and Central America.

Through the course of the 16 hours they were held together, she heard their stories and sang protest songs, and gradually realized she had found what she'd been looking for when she moved to Chicago. "I didn't know it until I was surrounded by them," she says. 

After that experience, Erin got involved with the antiwar movement by raising awareness of the war in Chicago neighborhoods. A fellow activist invited her to a meeting in the city’s South Loop neighborhood, where there would be a discussion about a new project to expose media and government propaganda leading up to the start of the war.

The meeting was at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the project they were discussing would later become Eyes Wide Open, the widely acclaimed exhibition on the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which featured a pair of empty boots honoring each U.S. military casualty. After volunteering with AFSC for a year to get the project off the ground, Erin was hired to help coordinate the exhibit's national tour. 

Standing at the helm of the emotional exhibit as public opinion fluctuated throughout the war, Erin was often the face of what many people considered ­a political critique. Her patience and composure helped her through difficult conversations that started with people yelling at her and ended with them knowing that the exhibit was a memorial, not a political statement.

"I think I have always approached the work in a Quakerly way, even though I don't have that religious background of being a Quaker," she says. "But I try to approach our messaging and advocacy in this way so as not to alienate people, but help them come to their own conclusions."

One day in Bloomington, a young man interpreted the display of boots as "using soldiers' names and deaths in vain for political gain," and started yelling at the student volunteers who were setting things up, provoking one volunteer to yell back. Erin intervened, and explained that the exhibit was a memorial, telling him how many soldiers from Indiana had died, and that visitors are asked to be respectful because there might be veterans or military families there.

"He just softened with every word that I was saying," she recounts. "By the end he was in tears, and he was walking around all of the boots. He ended up staying with us the entire day and helping us take down the boots at the end of the day."

"Just in one conversation, he understood," she says.

Working for a better world

In Erin's years in Chicago, she got an education as an activist from seasoned AFSC women—she names Mary Zerkel, Darlene Graminga, Jennifer Bing, and Margaret Jackson as people who have "been the model for me as an activist, a woman, and as a mom now that I'm a mother."

But as U.S. public opinion increasingly supported troop withdrawal from Iraq, and Erin's personal life was calling her home, she moved to the next phase of her life.

She returned to Indianapolis in June 2008 as program coordinator for AFSC's revived Indianapolis peace-building program and national coordinator of "If I Had a Trillion Dollars," AFSC’s national youth film festival now in its third year.

These roles keep her grounded in Indianapolis' local conversation on economic justice and involved in the national conversation on federal spending priorities; she works with everyone from sixth graders to college students to peace activists in their 70s who are counting on Erin's generation to carry forward the torch for peace and justice.

At 10 months old, her son Jack is getting an early education in the ways of nonviolent change and activism, accompanying Erin to meetings with coalitions and partners. "He really will be exposed to a village of people who want to make the world a better place," she says.

"I want to raise him to be a productive and giving member of society, I want to make a good example for him," says Erin. "I feel like when I was growing up I didn't know it was possible where one could have a job where they could do good in the world and make change.

"I want him to see that it is possible to be an agent for change and I want him to be exposed to the ways to do it."