BANGOR, Maine — Ilze Petersons, who is perhaps best known for her work as a social activist, is stepping down from her longtime role as leader of the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine.
Later this month, Petersons will accompany her partner, University of Maine philosophy professor Doug Allen, to India, where he will be involved in a five-month sabbatical at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in the city of Chennai.
Allen said that while in India, he will be doing research, lectures, participating in conferences, and working on another book.
Petersons said that she will spend her time learning about peace, justice and sustainability efforts in India.
“There so much organizing going on there,” she said Saturday during an interview at UMaine’s Memorial Union. “The issues are the same there as the ones we face here, but in some ways they’re more intense.”
Allen will return to his teaching post on the Orono campus next fall, he said. Petersons said that she will continue to be involved with the peace and justice center in some capacity, though not as program director.
Stefano Tijerina, who grew up in Colombia and teaches history and political science at UMaine and business courses at Husson University, has been named Petersons’ successor.
Petersons and Allen were part of a small group that founded the center in the late 1980s. Allen chairs the center’s education committee and Petersons has served as program coordinator, the part-time position that Tijerina is stepping into.
“The mission of the center has been to support groups and individuals working on peace, justice and sustainability,” Petersons said. “We’ve been doing linking of groups and individuals for 25 years,” she said.
Petersons said she decided to retire so that she could go to India with Allen.
“I thought I wanted to go with him and I thought it’s time for me to step aside,” she said.
“It’s time to bring new energy and new perspectives into the center in order to keep it growing and responding to the world the way it is now,” she said. “I’m excited about the change and I’ll be back. I’ll be involved in different ways but I’m looking forward to Stefano’s leadership.”
Tijerina said Saturday that he’s been part of the local nonprofit scene since he moved to Maine in 2001. Among his first associations in the area was with the Bangor-based grassroots organization Power in Community Alliances, or PICA, which works for economic justice and human and worker rights.
“And now the [peace and justice center] opportunity came up because that’s the way that good Karma works. Things go in directions and you don’t look for them. They look for you,” he said.
Petersons and Allen said the center is being left in capable hands, pointing out that Tijerina has experience in managing nonprofits and marketing and has worked for large banking firms. He’s also an artist and is fluent in Spanish.
“He has a sensitivity to diversity and these issues we have in Maine now about immigrants [who have moved here in recent years],” Allen said, adding that the atmosphere in Maine sometimes can be racist. “I think Stefano will be great in that way in terms of inclusiveness, diversity and because people really like him.”
Tijerina said he wants to play a role in rejuvenating the organization.
“I have been identified as young so I will bring in new demographics to the organization,” he said. “Also, I already knew a lot of the community in some way or another, therefore, it will be easier to transition.”
“So we do have those connections already that Stefano can build onto, so this is exciting. And I think Stefano also brings a different perspective, coming from Colombia. I think he has a global perspective,” she said. “Like he said, he’s interested in exploring the global-local connections that we have and I think that will be really important in terms of the future of the center.”
According to Petersons, the center has a mailing list of about 700 people and about 400 paying members.
“They are the ones who really sustained us,” she said. “We’ve never really relied on grants. The fact that people have been supporting the center for all these years shows there’s a real need in the community. And also active volunteers have kept the center moving.”
As she sees it, the center’s work is needed “more than ever. Growing inequality, endless war, environmental destruction — all these things are continuing. And I think people can feel powerless when they see these things happening.
“The wonderful thing about being at the center is that we know that individually we may not be able to have a great impact but when we join forces, then we have strength. And that’s the whole function of the center, to help people realize that they have power when they join together with others and that these issues are interconnected,” she said.
The annual HOPE Festival and Martin Luther King Jr. observances and teach-ins and peace vigils are some of the activities the center organized to bring people together, she said.
Tijerina believes there’s a need for ongoing social activism, even in Maine.
“One of the things that I teach my students is [the reality of] global-local connections because more than ever, we’re in a global economy. We are turning into global citizens. The idea is that we’re all in this together,” he said.
“It’s important to understand that whatever happens to us globally — thousand and thousand of miles away from here — affects the Old Town mill, the Bucksport mill” and other once strong Maine industries that have fallen victim to the actions of large corporations.
“And those are impacts from away, not even from here and so connecting those two is important for the center as an education initiative,” he said.