Author Sharon Tennison discussed the extraordinary acts of “citizen diplomats” during the Cold War in a Nov. 26 appearance at the main library, co-sponsored by Los Altos Voices for Peace and the Los Altos Library.
Tennison, author of “The Power of Impossible Ideas: Ordinary Citizens’ Extraordinary Efforts to Avert International Crises” (Odenwald Press, 2012), described how in 1983, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R., when each country was armed with an arsenal of nuclear weapons, she and a group that included Los Altos residents resolved to visit the Soviet Union to “meet the enemy.” They were highly motivated to take action to defuse the potentially catastrophic situation.
The book chronicles the unorthodox, unsanctioned, extraordinary brainstorms that local citizens conceived to reduce tensions between the two superpowers and how they brought a message of peace to the Russians, including their inevitable interactions with the FBI, the CIA and the KGB.
In a PowerPoint presentation, Tennison documented many of the trips made by the group, from their initial journey to introduce themselves to their ultimate success and the creation of the nonprofit Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI) to handle the expanding program.
In one example of the group’s advocacy, Tennison shared how alcoholism was rampant in the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s and how American citizens persuaded the authorities to allow them to introduce Creating a Sober World, a program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. Los Altos resident Barbara O’Reilly was part of the influential program, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
One of CCI’s initiatives trained women to start their own businesses and another involved American cardiologists helping to establish hospitals and train doctors to treat children with heart problems.
Within two decades, Tennison’s group of citizen diplomats brought Russian entrepreneurs to meet with members of the U.S. Congress and speak with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Eventually the group arranged for the Russian alumni to visit the Kremlin on three occasions to make recommendations to President Vladimir Putin.
After Tennison’s presentation, many in the audience who had traveled with her as citizen diplomats shared their experiences, emphasizing that their trips were as meaningful to them as to their new Russian friends. Los Altos resident Kate Brophy recounted the trip she led that brought several police officers, including former Los Altos Police Chief Lucy Carlton, as a gesture of peace.
Donna Poulos is a member of Los Altos Voices for Peace.