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Lay down your arms: How one couple is fighting to ban nuclear weapons

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Tim Wallis work at their home in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timmon Wallis works at his home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A flow chart in the home of Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A white board where Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis keep track of the work they are doing and how many countries have signed the treaty. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timmon Wallis looks at a white board where they keep track of the work they are doing and how many countries have signed the treaty. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson looks at a white board where she and Timmon Wallis keep track of the work they are doing and how many countries have signed the treaty. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timmon Wallis and Vicki Elson work at their home in Northampton, as celebrated activist Frances Crowe (pictured on mantle) looks on. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vicki Elson and Timmon Wallis work at their home in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • NuclearBan.US campaigners at Austria’s UN mission, congratulating Austria on being the ninth country to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Courtesy Timmon Wallis and Vicki Elson

  • Vicki Elson with her granddaughter Juniper Lee. Courtesy Vicki Elson

  • Vicki Elson with her granddaughter Juniper Lee. Courtesy Vicki Elson

  • Timmon Wallis with colleagues in Sri Lanka when he was Country Director for Nonviolent Peaceforce, 2009. Courtesy Tim Wallis

  • Vicki Elson and Tim Wallis at the St. Pat's for All parade in Queens, March 2018. “The theme was the Treaty,” Elson says. “Ireland played a big part in the negotiations and has signed the Treaty.”  Courtesy Tim Wallis and Vicki Elson

  • The BADGER explosion on April 18, 1953, as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, at the Nevada Test Site. Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office. Wikimedia Commons

  • United Nations Headquarters, in New York City, where Timmon Wallis and Vicki Elson had their third date.   Getty Images/iStockphoto



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Friday, May 25, 2018

Vicki Elson remembers running down a long hallway in a friend’s house, exclaiming, “Tim! Tim! You’re not going to believe this!” Elson had just received a text from a friend of congratulations  —  it was the first that she heard that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), based in Geneva, Switzerland had won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Elson’s partner, Timmon (Tim) Wallis, worked with the Quakers in Britain, as part of ICAN, to develop a treaty banning nuclear weapons from 2013 to 2017.

Today, both Wallis and Elson, who live in Northampton, work with ICAN. The organization facilitated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty, which was adopted by 122 countries in July 2017, winning ICAN a Nobel Peace Prize. 

Since then, 58 of those countries have already signed the treaty, which prohibits the production, development and testing of nuclear weapons, and also forbids nations to use nuclear weapons or threaten use of them. As of mid-May, 10 countries, most recently Vietnam, have ratified the treaty. Once 50 countries have ratified the treaty, it will come into effect and be implemented into law in the respective countries. The United States is not one of the participating countries; in fact, the U.S. boycotted the July 2017 negotiations, along with 30 other countries, including the U.K. (A promising sign, though: Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia, recently became the first U.S. Congressperson to sign a legislative pledge, a commitment by legislators around the world to urge their government to join the treaty.)

As it happened, the momentous adoption of the treaty also marked Elson and Wallis’ third date. Wallis brought Elson to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City for the July negotiations. “You can’t top that,” she said recently. At this stage in the courtship, another couple might have opted for dinner and a movie, but not these two. When Wallis found himself in the U.N. negotiations without an earpiece to translate the proceedings, Elson came to his rescue from her seat outside of the room, sending him rapid text messages to translate the proceedings as she followed along on her computer. After the adoption, “the ambassadors stood up, they clapped, they hugged each other,” Elson recalled on a bustling Saturday morning at Northampton’s Haymarket Café. “They’re supposed to be very formal, but they broke the rules — the room erupted in joy.” 

Since that day at the U.N., Elson’s been hooked, both on Wallis and on working to ban nuclear weapons. “We’re in as much danger as we’ve ever been, and people don’t talk about it,” she said. As for the recent nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea, Wallis said, “It’s complicated because North Korea has been willing to get rid of their nuclear weapons all along. They want security promises that they won’t be attacked. North Korea is the only country with nuclear weapons that voted in favor of having this treaty at the U.N. and was willing to negotiate before Trump came in. Trump slowed things down.” 

Elson, a longtime doula and birth educator —  she worked independently for 35 years and volunteered at Baystate Medical Practices with the Green River Doula Network and with the Prison Birth Project — now devotes her time to activism. And while it’s a big leap from birthing babies to working to ban nuclear weapons, she sees a connection. With her work as a doula, “the purpose of that kind of work is to give everybody the best possible start — to give babies the best start in life, to give parents the best start in parenthood. That’s been my mission my whole entire life,” said Elson. “I realize that abolishing nuclear weapons is an even more important way to help people have a shot at a healthy life.”

As for Wallis, he’s been an activist since high school — he attended Northampton High School, where he was involved in creating the Northampton Recycling Center and in protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s. At the time, he was mentored by the iconic Northampton activist Francis Crowe, who’s still a close friend. “I was very involved because of her guidance when I was still in high school,” Wallis said of Crowe.

In the 1980s, Wallis lived at a peace camp, on and off for seven years, outside of a U.S. air force base in England that was being built to house nuclear weapons. He later earned his Ph.D. in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in England. Over the years, in efforts to protect civilians from violence, he has spent time in eight different war zones, including Georgia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and south Sudan.

“On the first date, I realized that he was not just an ordinary guy,” said Elson, who first met Wallis online in June of last year. As it turned out, they would have met anyway — the following week, they both attended a meeting for the Resistance Center for Peace and Justice, an organization based in western Massachusetts that has served as the supportive base for getting NuclearBan.US off the ground, and that is now also a partner of ICAN.  

Also on that first date, at Cafe Evolution in Florence, Wallis gave Elson a copy of his book, “Disarming the Nuclear Argument: The Truth about Nuclear Weapons,” and signed it, “To Vicki on our first day together.” 

“We have been inseparable ever since,” Elson said.

A united front

In November 2017, Wallis and Elson launched NuclearBan.US, an organization that is based in Northampton, with the goal of getting people to comply with the treaty nationwide, even though the U.S. government has not yet signed the treaty. NuclearBan.US aims to gain the support of individuals, faith organizations, schools, communities, towns and cities to comply with the treaty themselves — creating a groundwork that will draw the attention of the U.S. government. Elson proudly notes that one of her granddaughters, a high school freshman in Wisconsin, has joined the movement, taking charge of making her school and town treaty-compliant. “I’m stoked that my oldest granddaughter is already an activist,” she said. “We want this to be something that everybody can do.”  

As Elson explained, “You can’t sign the treaty unless you’re a nation, but you can be treaty compliant” by upholding the principal guidelines outlined in the treaty. NuclearBan.US urges people to hold accountable the 26 companies known to help make nuclear weapons, many of which are based in the U.S., by boycotting and divesting from these companies. “All of these companies are directly involved with the production of nuclear weapons in one way or another,” Wallis said. “The nuclear weapons are then put together by government facilities.” 

For example, Honeywell International, which produces thermostats and air conditioners, also manages and operates a facility that makes 85% of non-nuclear parts for U.S. nuclear weapons, according to the ICAN report “Don’t Bank on the Bomb.” “Honeywell is [our] main target because they make other products for consumers — people have Honeywell doorbells and thermostats,” Wallis said.

“We’re not asking people to tear their thermostats out of their walls,” Elson added. Instead, NuclearBan.US asks that consumers boycott and write to the company, explaining that they won’t buy from them until they stop making nuclear weapons. Another possible step people can take is to divest their finances and investments from those 26 companies.

When they can, Wallis and Elson travel to the U.N. Headquarters in New York to talk with foreign ambassadors, urging them to sign and ratify the treaty in their respective countries. They also travel around the country offering workshops to educate people on the very real threat nuclear weapons pose. “We focus on what people can do about it,” Wallis said. Elson chimed in, “I tell people that we’re going to do a magic trick: We’re going to talk about nuclear weapons, and they’re going to feel happier afterwards than they do now. It’s because we can do something.”

After talks with NuclearBan.US in March, Takoma Park, Maryland became the first American city to declare itself in compliance with the treaty. “We have 200 more cities on our list that already have some sort of legislation in place that prohibits purchasing from companies known to make nuclear weapons,” Wallis said. These cities include Ojai and Berkley, in California, as well as New York City and Chicago, he added. “Once we get the message out, I think we’ll succeed, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The City Compliance Team (CCT) is a local committee working with the city of Northampton to get the city to become treaty-compliant. Although Northampton has yet to become treaty-compliant, last November the Northampton City Council passed a resolution calling on the U.S. to embrace and uphold the U.N. treaty. “Northampton is part of the nation, and we’ve got to do something ourselves,” Wallis said. Next up? “We’re after the state of Massachusetts.”

2018 is momentous for the couple for personal reasons as well. They plan to marry this August in Look Park, a venue they chose in order to accommodate their friends and family. Elson has three children and three grandchildren; and Wallis, who has two daughters, has a grandchild on the way.

“We’ve been alive 120 years between the two of us — we know a lot of people!” Elson said. Their guests will include friends from ICAN and other activists they’ve befriended over the years. “We’re not going  to make our wedding into a campaign,” Wallis added. “It’s just going to be a wedding.”