Peacebuilder Paula Green, founder of Karuna Center, dies at 84

  • Paula Green at her Leverett home. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Paula Green at her Leverett home. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • PAULA GREEN FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/23/2022 8:52:04 PM
Modified: 2/23/2022 8:51:42 PM

LEVERETT — After the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovenia ended in the 1990s, Paula Green ventured to the war-torn country.

Going there as a civilian, Green opted against being in the capital city or meeting with the country’s elites. Instead, she wanted to understand the collective trauma its citizens had experienced.

“She ran to the hardest point of that war,” said Mirsad Jacevic, a Bosnian refugee who is now a professor and practitioner of peacebuilding in Washington.

For Jacevic, Green’s journey illustrates the way peacekeeping and conflict resolution should be done, using similar techniques in Afghanistan.

“Now we call her the pioneering mother,” Jacevic said. “Her work is what shaped me as a professional and as a person.”

Green, who founded the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst in 1994 and more recently spearheaded Leverett’s Hands Across the Hills project that aimed to close political divides over the 2016 U.S. presidential election, died of cancer Monday at the age of 84.

Green’s husband is Jim Perkins, a former member of the Leverett Select Board and pastor at the Leverett Congregational Church.

An inspiration

Much of her work was in the hot spots across the world, including Bosnia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and the Middle East.

“I found myself no longer willing to be a passive witness to the suffering caused by armed conflict and the unbridled misuse of power and privilege,” is how Green put her decision to create the Karuna Center.

It was in Bosnia where Olivia Dreier, former executive director at Karuna who worked closely with Green for many years, first met her. She described Green as indefatigable and determined.

“I was in awe of her capacity to help (the Bosnian people) rediscover their common humanity and to understand how war and politics had driven a wedge between them,” Dreier said. “She created an atmosphere for better futures; it was a gift she brought everywhere she went. Just extraordinary compassion for other people’s circumstances.”

In a tribute posted to its website, the Karuna Center wrote that Green was “a powerful force for change” who “will remain a catalyst for peace, having inspired generations of peacebuilders to build bridges across seemingly intractable divides with compassion, bravery and a profound sense of justice.”

Green was also founding director of the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, or CONTACT, at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. That program has taught aspiring peacebuilders from around the world.

“Paula leaves a rich legacy of teaching and writing that will continue to inspire social change for years to come,” S.I.T. President Dr. Sophia Howlett said.

Karuna Center Executive Director Polly Byers calls Green a groundbreaker who used her psychotherapist background to create a new form of international peacebuilding, working in what at the time was a nascent field, and bringing a more personal “head and heart” therapeutic lens, with healing at a deeper level than others could achieve.

“Her model is to bring people together and try to form some kind of relationship and some kind of trust between people,” Byers said.

Byers adds that Green was a force. “She had an idea of how things should be, and she realized that vision,” Byers said.

‘One of the pioneers’

Dreier said Green was a practicing peace activist before focusing her attention on areas of conflict across the globe, and was also instrumental in bringing the Nipponzan Myohoji Peace Pagoda to Leverett during her 40 years as a resident. But she found her real calling in international peacebuilding.

“I think Paula became one of the pioneers,” Dreier said. “Paula was a brilliant woman, but also brought great heart to the work, and brought capacity to bridge divides”

The Alliance for Peacebuilding, a nonpartisan network of more than 120 organizations working in 153 countries to end violent conflict and sustain peace, honored Green as the first recipient of its Melanie Greenberg Award.

In recent years, and even through the pandemic, The Hands Across the Hills effort drew Green and other Leverett residents to explore social and political differences with counterparts in eastern Kentucky after the 2016 election. The project, which has included visits to both locales and discussions about their disparate political views, received national attention from The New York Times, The New Yorker and CBS News, and news media around the world.

An outgrowth of that has also been the Bridge4Unity, a multiracial dialogue project in the Pioneer Valley working toward racial reconciliation.

Green was even called in to lead a session in Amherst between those who supported and those who opposed the new town charter adopted in 2018.

In a CaringBridge website providing updates on her health and where people could offer well wishes, Green’s last note included an appreciation for being in Leverett for four decades.

“Jim and I love you all and have been cradled in our community for 40 years in Leverett,” she wrote. “You are each part of us.”

Jacevic said that similar organizations to Karuna Center typically operate from Washington or New York City, as it is easier to secure money there, but that Green was always confident in the backing she got from the Pioneer Valley.

“However global she was, she was so rooted in your community,” Jacevic said. “She always looked forward to going back to Jim and her town.”

He added that Green will continue to be an inspiration, especially in the current American political climate.

“Her work is not done,” Jacevic said. “The message of her work is so needed in the United States.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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