by Suzanne Labry
The Boise PeaceQuilt Project
The early 1980s marked a period of massive nuclear arms buildup by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall was a tangible symbol of the ongoing Cold War, so-called because there was no large-scale direct fighting between those two “super” powers.
The threat of all-out nuclear world war was very real, with each side racing to ensure that its stockpile of weapons matched that of the other—the thinking being that whichever side attacked first would also be totally destroyed. In what has to be one of the most appropriate acronyms of all time, this was known as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
It was during this tense political climate in 1981 that two friends from Boise, Idaho, Anne Hausrath and Diane Jones, took matters into their own hands—literally—and did something to help ratchet down the insanity: they made a quilt.
Boise Peace Quilters and members of the community pose with the BPQP's quilt, "Just Us: Stitching Against the Poverty Bias," a joint venture with the Boise Action Council. Photo courtesy of the Boise Peace Quilt Project.
Joined by dozens of others, only a few of whom had ever quilted before, and taking the name of the Boise Peace Quilt Project (BPQP), they created a quilt consisting of 12-inch squares that represented Idaho and friendship. Their quilt, which they named the American-Russian Friendship Peace Quilt, featured scenes of Idaho and of peace and was “a gesture of friendship to the people of the USSR, from 35 Idahoans.” It was displayed at the Peace Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania.
That was the beginning of a quiet activism that continues to this day, attracting a dedicated group of quilters who share the same ethos. Over the next three-plus decades, the BPQP created quilts that are used in a variety of ways to promote peace and raise understanding of problems confronting the world.
For example, in the mid-1980s, their National Peace Quilt (consisting of one square from each state and representing children’s visions of peace and security) was used to gently prod the consciences of politicians. Every U.S. senator was asked to sleep for a night under the quilt, in the hope that doing so would inspire a dream of peace, and over half of the senators did so. The BPQP has also made 44 “award” quilts that honor public figures who have contributed to raising awareness of a range of issues that include human rights, environmental protection, child advocacy, and violence against women.
Anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, folk singer Pete Seeger, civil rights icon Rosa Parks, world peace advocate Norman Cousins, and playwright Eve Ensler are among those who have received award quilts from the Boise Peace Quilt Project.
More recently, the BPQP has been working closer to home, so to speak, creating quilts that highlight issues in their state and honoring individuals and groups that have made a difference in their local area.
One quilt, Just Us, Stitching Against the Poverty Bias, sought to “sew together the powerful and disenfranchised in our community.” Another celebrated the 25th anniversary of an Idaho clinic that provides services to those who face barriers to health care. Still another honored a judge who had established a youth court system in the Boise valley that offers “humane and creative consequences for first time offenders.” The group presented a quilt to the Idaho Commission for the Blind that was not only visually appealing but also accessible to the vision-impaired, as it featured panels with Braille poems.
Of course, using quilts as a form of social activism has a long history in the United States, but rarely has a single group maintained its focus over so many decades. Karen Falvey, a longtime member of the Boise Peace Quilt Project, sums up its ongoing appeal: “I’m always encouraged to be with like-minded people working together to do something positive for others. We may not be able to change the world with our quilts, but we can try, and that’s important.”