Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.
They were wearing black, and they carried coffins. This is Carolyn Bninski's strongest early memory of political activism, a lifestyle she would later take up and pursue for more than forty years, and it's an understandably fuzzy one. After all, it was raining.
As she stood at the Lincoln Memorial, the anti-war protest at the height of the Vietnam War struck Bninski as powerful and dark. These coffins were intended as symbols, but most were not, and the point connected with the audience immediately. So did the rain.
"From the time I was a teenager, I remember these huge, overwhelming events designed to change the world," Bninski says. "I would go down and watch all the time, before I even understood what I was watching. They were fascinating."
Born in Malboro, Massachussetts, the longtime community organizer for the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center moved at least once every three years until college. Her father worked in the U.S. State Department as a foreign service officer, a career that guided Bninski's geography but not her politics. In a family of eight children, Bninski, the third eldest, veered farther left on the political spectrum than the rest. The clan did not discuss politics at the table. When she did become interested in the topic, it was a direct result of current events, which she followed to rallies and marches against the war and in favor of civil rights.
Although the family lived in Germany, Austria and Sri Lanka during her father's travels, it was in the nation's capital where Bninski cemented her career plans. At Trinity College, she majored in political science with the intention of carving a niche in social justice with a focus on resource distribution. "I wanted to learn how to change our priorities," says Bninski, now 62. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the topic frequently, and she listened to his speeches. "From a young age, I knew things were basically unfair and some people had more than they could use in many lifetimes, while others had not even the basic necessities."
So immediately after college, Bninski entered that arena with positions at the National Archives and then the Civil Rights department of the Justice Center, where she assessed the enforcement of related laws. But marriage led her to New York, where she worked on a smaller scale, accepting her first community organizer job of many through a neighborhood organization focused on tenant issues.
"At the neighborhood level, I learned that if people organize and put pressure on the government, they are forced to respond," says Bninski. There, she took on the Saul Aulinsky model of community organizing. "If you force a huge amount of people to come out in front of public officials and make demands on the system, something has to happen."
When she moved back to a larger focus, it was an ill-fated one. Her next job, promoting a nuclear weapons freeze for an organization that no longer exists, has still not garnered results to this day. So in 1986, a newly divorced Bninski moved to Colorado, where she quickly became enamored of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.
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Founded only four years, earlier, the Denver-Boulder institution follows the consensus model in all of its decisions. In her time at the Center, Bninski has shifted focus from Rocky Flats and the war in the Middle East to fracking and economic politics, including corporate personhood and homelesness. Last fall, the center pushed for the anti-personhood initiative to appear on Boulder's ballots, and she calls the city's vote to support it the most significant moment of her career.
But the idea continues to scare her. "We work in a system that has really tilted away from democracy," Bninski says. "We've really lost our capacity to govern because of the ability of corporations to buy our public officials. This is no longer the world I grew up in, but the fact is, other people still have to grow up here."
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More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."