Like most in this community, Mark Nykanen was distraught by the events of Sept. 11 and what's come since. Never one to sit on the sidelines, the former NBC News investigative reporter decided to do something about it.
Though he'd never been involved with the group before, Nykanen attended a meeting of the Columbia River Fellowship for Peace and pitched them an idea: bring together noted speakers and community members for a stimulating forum about America's new war.
The group bought the idea; what's taken place during the past few weeks is a feat of organization, perseverence and community building by a loose-knit group of citizens from around the Columbia Gorge.
The result is "Making War, Waging Peace: A Day of Discussion." The forum is Nov. 3 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Hood River Valley Christian Church. (See schedule for details.)
"I felt pretty strongly that having a day of discussion, a day of analysis for the community would be really good," Nykanen says.
Though he bowed out of the fast-paced world of television journalism a decade ago and now spends his working hours as an author, Nykanen pulled out his well-worn skills in networking, interviewing and generally getting-the-job-done and went to work.
Armed with suggestions by members of Fellowship for Peace, as well as his own ideas about who would make compelling guest speakers at a forum, Nykanen began working the phones.
"In a lot of ways, it's like producing television," Nykanen says. "I just called up and said, `We're doing this event, we've got this great community here and would you like to come be part of it -- and do it for absolutely nothing?'" Nykanen laughs, but he says nearly everyone he approached was flattered to be invited to speak.
The line-up of panelists would rival any forum of similar nature. Zaher Wahab, a professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland and a native of Afghanistan, has spoken at several events since Sept. 11 and has been a regular on National Public Radio offering expertise on his native country.
Similarly Jon Mandaville, director of the Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University, is a sought-after expert on Islam and the Middle East.
The keynote address will be given by Elizabeth Furse, former three-term United States congresswoman and co-founder (with Senator Mark Hatfield) of the Oregon Peace Institute.
"These are people who have very serious schedules," Nykanen says.
Nykanen and Paul Woolery of Fellowship for Peace, as well as others in the group floated possible panel discussion topics and decided on three: "Why Do They Hate Us?"; The Religion of Islam; and Making War, Waging Peace.
"It seemed obvious we had to address why there's so much resentment that it could generate this horrible event of Sept. 11," Nykanen says. "It also seemed obvious we had to discuss Islam." The third panel, he says, came together as "a look at a number of related issues."
After Nykanen lined up the panel speakers, Woolery stepped in to head up the complex issue of logistics. By then the number of people involved in Fellowship for Peace, which has been around for 20 years, had swelled. Word got around about the forum and by the second meeting after Sept. 11, attendance had tripled. Many were newcomers who, like Nykanen, had never been involved before but felt compelled to "do something."
Together, the group has organized an Afghanistan photo exhibit -- a stunning display of portraits of people and the landscape of a devastated country (taken over the years by Zaher Wahab and his brother, Ebrahim), on-site childcare, live music before the panels begin and during the lunch break, and lunch itself. The latter was inspired by group newcomer Peg Lalor, founder of the Gorge Games.
"Peg said that when people break bread together, they come together as a community," Woolery says. Several group members got together and organized a menu of Central Asian and Middle Eastern food -- from Morroccan salad and couscous to African curry. The food -- enough to feed 300 -- will be cooked Friday at the Mt. Hood Towne Hall and served during an hour-long lunch break between panels on Saturday.
Woolery obtained two "emergency" grants to help cover costs so that the day could be offered to the community for free. In addition, individual and organizational donations have been streaming in just through word-of-mouth about the event. All donations beyond those covering expenses, including those accepted at the door on Saturday, will go into a fund to be given to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to refugees and emergency relief efforts in Afghanistan.
Nykanen's goal in organizing the Day of Discussion is to provide a broader context of information for the community.
"We want to provide solid, in-depth information people can use to help evaluate the actions that are being taken on their behalf," he says.
Woolery hopes the day will encourage people to become active -- "to know that they do have a voice," he says.
"We're hoping the event will get more people interested in community events and community activism," Woolery says.
Both organizers have been pleased with the community support that's been shown for the event -- from individuals to organizations to churches.
"There's been a tremendous amount of support within the mainstream religious community, which is gratifying," Nykanen says. The Gorge Ecumenical Ministries (GEM) is a financial sponsor of the day, and its president, David Duncombe, has been involved with planning the event.
"I would like it if, as a result of the day, people went away better informed," says Duncombe. He says GEM's sponsorship -- both financially and with the venue -- is a natural extension of its involvement with things "in the area of social justice."
Nykanen says the grassroots nature of the Day of Discussion speaks to the notion of "democracy from the bottom up."
"This day will give people information to evaluate on their own," he says. "They may re-evaluate their views on some of it, or maybe it will reinforce positions they already have."
Woolery says he doesn't expect miracles from the day, but hopes it will encourage people to be more active.
"This kind of grassroots action is important," he says. "Some of the most extraordinary events in history have been a result of grassroots action."