What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Nothing, of course – but sometimes it seems hard to find any of the above. Fortunately, Ann Arbor resident Chuck Warpehoski makes it his job to pursue all three as executive director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ).
ICPJ started in 1965 as a response to the Vietnam War. The group began by focusing on a few core program areas such as nuclear disarmament, Latin American solidarity, the Middle East, and racial and economic justice.
"At the time, people in the Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist faiths realized that they all had a calling to address peace issues and it was more effective to work together," Warpehoski says. "The very process of working together for a common goal was an act of peacemaking."
Warpehoski has served as director of ICPJ since 2003, and he is one of three part-time employees who organize programs and run day-to-day operations. These days, Warpehoski says, "we zero in on a moment or an issue, look at the response it calls for, and then focus the energy on that issue." Currently such issues include affordable housing (especially as it relates to racial and economic justice) and attempting to make sense of a "political reality that in many areas is an assault on peace and justice."
This includes putting a lot of energy into helping volunteers and other community groups build skills that can be used to influence decision-making.
"We hope some folks will be active in ICPJ but we also want them to take the skills that they have learned and use them elsewhere in other settings," Warpehoski says.
One such skill set comes with training in bystander intervention, which ICPJ started offering in response to the new Trump administration. About two weeks after the election 130 people attended one such training session. The training addresses how to disrupt and positively change situations involving aggression towards members of at-risk groups.
"It's not just intervention as in physical intervention," Warpehoski says. "It might be building an awareness, learning how to verbally deescalate, or helping other people have the courage to stand up."
Warpehoski also stands up for locals in a different arena — city politics. He is in his third term as an Ann Arbor city council member, representing the city's fifth ward. When Warpehoski first decided to run, the city was gearing up for the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's 2014 millage vote and he thought it was important to have a "strong voice on council" for environmental and economic justice issues.
His focus remains on those topics, but these days it also includes the hard work of getting different units of local government to implement more inclusionary practices.
"We have 11 different law enforcement entities in our county," Warpehoski says. "(Council has) to work with other elected officials and community partners to keep separate local law enforcement and (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) … and learn what policies we can enact so that local governments are not asking about immigration status. I do not want someone who is undocumented to fear deportation and therefore be afraid to call his or her local police department when they witness a crime or a victim of crime."
To this end, Warpehoski seeks to be a bridge-builder around police-community relations.
"I'd like to think that my ability to bring groups together has helped improve policy and relationships," he says. "But this is bigger than just city council. We need a network of community voices, civil rights activists, and local leaders working together. This is where I've spent much of my time and the issues fit both hats that I wear."
Warpehoski suggests that becoming an involved member of the community is a "good response to the despair that some of us feel tempted by."
One simple action that many in the community have cottoned to is displaying the "One Human Family" signs produced by ICPJ and the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County, which advocate for support of local refugees and Muslim residents. Inclusion and tolerance of different faiths is one of ICPJ's core tenets, although Warpehoski acknowledges that the word "faith" can sometimes deter people who don't adhere to a religion. While this can be a challenge, Warpehoski says his view of "faith" includes "everyone who believes that a better world is possible. You don't have to be part of an organized religion to do this work."
When asked what his typical day at ICPJ is like Warpehoski smiles and says, "There really isn't one. But that's okay because the coolest thing about my job is that I am surrounded by people giving time, money, energy, and themselves to making the world a better place. While I turn on the news and see our country at its worst, on a day-to-day basis I see our community at its best."
Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.
All photos by Doug Coombe.