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Mary Pipher on Activism : Applying our Healing Skills in the Wider World

By Ryan Howes

Should therapists be activists? To be sure, we’re typically more at home waging our battles against defense mechanisms, irrational beliefs, dysfunctional family systems, and, when we’re at our bravest, insurance companies. Rare is the therapist who openly takes on political causes or corporate conglomerates. Many of us think those battles are reserved for people who studied in a different building in grad school.

Not so, says activist Mary Pipher, retired therapist and bestselling author of Reviving Ophelia and Writing to Change the World. In fact, she believes therapists are perfectly equipped to organize communities for a common cause. A keynote speaker at this year’s 35th-anniversary Networker Symposium, she took a moment to describe her own reawakening to activism as part of the battle against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, designed to bring new supplies of oil down from the north of Canada to America’s heartland with—what its opponents argue—potentially devastating environmental consequences.

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RH: Tell me about the evolution of activism in your life.

PIPHER: I remember when I read Anne Frank as a child and realized the great injustice in the world. I found I was someone who cared about that. I have a long history of involvement and of trying to make things better. I was an activist in Berkeley in the ’60s, but like most people, I’ve been pretty quiet for the last 20 or 30 years.

RH: What brought you back to activism?

PIPHER: This last year, I’ve worked to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from tapping through, and potentially destroying, our state of Nebraska. Our state is poor. All we have is land and water. The people who make a living do it primarily by farming and ranching. So if we have an oil spill, or if the rivers are polluted or the aquifer is polluted, all of our livelihood disappears, not to mention our drinking water. And, as one rancher said, you really can’t afford to give cattle bottled water. For me, it’s been a new activism. The trigger was realizing that I wasn’t doing enough, and that if people like me weren’t doing more, this world was really in trouble.

RH: What kind of trouble?

PIPHER: In my opinion, things are very, very dark right now, and we’re about to lose control of our democratic process in this country. I don’t think we can look to politicians to change things. I don’t demonize them, but I think politics has become so corrupt that good people with good intentions are ultimately faced with the choice of “compromise your principles and be corrupt, or be gone.”

RH: You see it as a systemic problem.

PIPHER: Absolutely, and if anyone is going to help, it’s going to be people normally outside the political process—like those of us in this profession. And that’s really the great discovery that I’ve made this year, as I’ve worked to stop this pipeline. Nobody’s going to save us but ourselves, and even though we’re up against arguably the most powerful, richest corporation in the world, with all this money and all these attorneys and PR groups and lobbyists and so on, a very small group of us, probably no more than 20 people, has managed to stop this pipeline for over a year.

RH: How did this happen?

PIPHER: Basically, feeling powerless becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t think you have power, you don’t have power. If you decide to empower yourself and to act, and decide to do something, you have power. For example, almost all of the actions I’ve planned in the last year started out in my living room, talking over the situation and deciding what we can do to have an impact, given what’s happening at the current moment.

RH: How did your own sense of helplessness turn into an empowerment?

PIPHER: The tipping point for me was realizing that people are going to come in and mess with my state. My great-grandparents homesteaded this state. All my grandchildren live in this state. As a mother, a grandmother, and a person who’s grown up here, this really felt like an assault on me. So I just said to a couple of friends, “I really think we ought to do something about this. Come over to my living room and let’s talk about what we can do.” And before we knew it, we had a little network.

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