On Deadline: Global Community disappears from Palo Alto | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline: Global Community disappears from Palo Alto

Uploaded: Feb 26, 2011

A major component of the Palo Alto area's history for more than a half century came to an end on New Year's Eve when the Foundation for Global Community officially dissolved itself, ending a six-year process of winding down.

Assets are now being dispensed to other organizations, including some spinoff groups, that fit criteria that align with the Global Community's beliefs and mission -- see www.globalcommunity.org .

Yet the organization will endure in the memories of literally thousands of persons it touched, sometimes deeply and sometimes without their knowledge, or negatively -- including me and my wife over several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s and in light incident when I was a young reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.

For 60 years, the organization went through a dynamic process of shifting its focus and creating spin-off efforts that focused on what some involved saw as an attempt at unification of science and religion, following in the philosophical footprints of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest-theologian and a geologist-paleontologist of a century ago.

Among other things, the organization is credited with ending the construction of nuclear power plants, primarily on the grounds that long-lasting and highly poisonous plutonium was simply too dangerous to the health of the world to continue creating with no fail-safe way of storing nuclear waste.

Promoting world peace and disarmament has been a continuing theme, based on the empowerment of individuals, a belief that the world, and the universe, is a single integrated system that encompasses both physical and spiritual/intellectual realities.

The organization evolved into an activist network that stood for promoting "life choices" over "death choices" from the individual/family level to global change.

Jim Burch, former Palo Alto mayor and a 40-year leader in the organization, joined with Palo Altan Don Fitton in outlining a detailed history of the group at a close-out event Dec. 31 that was featured Friday night in a Midpeninsula Community Media Center program. It was repeated Saturday night (Feb. 26) and will be repeated in future showings not yet scheduled.

That history, as could be expected, includes a heavy dose of controversy that peaked when it tackled nuclear power, stirring up leading nuclear-power advocates such as PG&E and Southern California Edison Company. Burch traveled the state debating Michael Peevey, now the president of the California Public Utilities Commission with a long history of promoting efficient energy usage. But at the time, Peevey was president of Southern California Edison, which was pushing nuclear power hard at the time.

The controversy also included some persons who were convinced by the early 1980s that it was a cult bent on infiltrating community organizations, from PTA chapters and school site councils to local government. The Palo Alto Weekly even ran a cover story about the group, then known as the Creative Initiative Foundation, an evolution from a confusing name, National Initiative. The organization was known earlier as Woman to Woman Building the Earth, and later designations included Sequoia Seminar, a major conference center in the Santa Cruz Mountains; Project Survival, the anti-nuclear-power effort; Beyond War; and finally Foundation for Global Community.

My personal experience with the group was overall positive. Starting a new family in Los Gatos while commuting to Palo Alto, my wife and I became hungry for some kind of intellectual discussion beyond baby talk. One night we attended a presentation at Los Gatos High School, our alma mater, called "Challenge to Change."

That outreach program for Sequoia Seminars included an impressive multiple-projector slide show that interspersed images of health and peace with war scenes and nuclear explosions, and powerfully presented the life-choices vs. death-choices scenario. We were invited to attend a discussion group of the same name. Our first group was led by a delightful couple, Ed and Barbara Thomas, now residing in Grass Valley.

They led us gently through a series of topics, using the powerful tool of group dynamics to lead us to conclusions that in hindsight were fairly obvious. I jotted down notes in a small leather notebook, a practice I started as a memory-assist in late grade school.

Then my family moved to Menlo Park, and two or three years later my wife and I decided to participate in another Challenge-to-Change discussion group in the area. Ah, but now there were printed handouts with an attractive design on rich brown paper. I found out Friday that Burch, formerly in marketing, designed the materials.

As such they were impressive, but the seven tenets we'd arrived at by discussion in Los Gatos were now listed in print -- and I noticed some changes. I dug out my old notes and at the next meeting noted that one tenet, "Accept Authority," had moved from down the list to number one. In our initial discussion, "authority" was defined as knowledge-based. But now the meaning had a connotation of following orders, and the fact that the young couple moderating the group had German accents didn't help.

We progressed through another layer of more personal discussions in a second group, and finally attended a weekend event at the Sequoia Seminar center in the redwoods. It was a deeply moving weekend that got into some valuable areas of couples interactions. But at the end I raised an objection that the organization clearly had an underlying layer of being religious -- yet that was never indicated in the materials or Challenge to Change presentation.

"Why not just admit it?" I asked.

I later exchanged letters with early co-founder Harry Rathbun about that point, in a polite philosophical dialogue. The group had not yet launched its major anti-nuclear and antiwar efforts.

A second connection was when the group formed one of the most impressive demonstration teams I've ever seen. That involved hundreds of women, mostly upper middle class, who dressed in polyester pantsuits of pastel colors, representing all the colors in the rainbow. The women in various colors would march or circle together.

One demonstration was aimed at Palo Alto city government, and they expected the Palo Alto Times to cover it. They seemed to take it personally when reporter Mary Fortney (who died in January) didn't show as expected. Someone suggested that the group of a couple dozen women take the demonstration to the newspaper, which they did.

This freaked out the building manager, a pretty conservative fellow, and a cluster of management and staff gathered inside the lobby, uncertain how to (or whether to) respond or call the police. I recognized some of the women, and on my own went outside and chatted with them in a friendly fashion. Mary showed up by then.

Then I asked if any had ever seen the backshop of a newspaper, still featuring large Linotype machines for typesetting and its own three-story high press. So I invited them all for a walk-through, further freaking out the building manager. At the end they thanked me and dispersed.

Burch recalls another demonstration that had an odd twist. Someone noticed that there were a group of official-looking men closely watching a demonstration in San Francisco and surmised (possibly from the short-brimmed hats and dark glasses that were the "FBI uniform" at the time) that it was the FBI. When they informed the women they said they knew that, and that three of the agents were husbands of women in pantsuits.

It was a unique organization that left a deep mark on the Palo Alto area, and far, far beyond.

AN INVITATION: Those who have been involved with or touched by the organization or its spinoffs, or concerned or critical of it, may comment below with personal accounts and memories.