Local activist wins Gandhi-King-Ikeda Award

April 11, 2023
Close up photo of a man, Dr. Ira Helfand, speaking into a microphone
Dr. Ira Helfand; submitted photo.

The Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College has awarded the 2023 Gandhi-King-Ikeda Community Builder’s Award to Dr. Ira Helfand, a Northampton activist in the Back from the Brink campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

According to Morehouse, “The prizes is awarded annually to a person who promotes peace and positive social transformation through nonviolent means. These individuals use their global leadership to affirm peace, justice, diversity, and pluralism.”

Previous recipients include Civil Rights icon Coretta Scott King, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela.

“I believe that the Award was given in recognition of the success of the Back from the Brink campaign so far, and the urgent need to grow this effort, rather than for any individual contribution I have made,” Helfand said. “And I am deeply grateful that the MLK Chapel and Morehouse College have chosen to focus attention on the growing danger of nuclear war and the urgent need to take action.”

The Award will be presented at a convocation at the MLK Chapel on April 13 where Helfand will deliver the keynote address.

Back from the Brink was started in Northampton in the fall of 2017 shortly after the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) It grew out or a conversation between Helfand and Sean Meyer, then working for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“We were getting warnings from the experts that the danger of nuclear war was greater than it had ever been—and people were not paying attention,” Helfand explained. “ We wanted to build on the excitement generated by the adoption of the TPNW, and create a campaign that would work here in the United States. Back from the Brink called on the US to embrace the Treaty by starting negotiations with the other 8 nuclear armed states for a verifiable agreement for all 9 to eliminate their nuclear weapons so they could all join the Treaty”

The campaign has grown into a national movement. Congressman Jim McGovern has introduced a Congressional resolution H. Res. 77 supporting the effort. The Resolution is co-sponsored by Congressman Richie Neal and 12 others. Activists are hopeful that Senators Markey and Warren will introduce a companion Resolution in the Senate.

The campaign has been endorsed by over 300 organizations including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Union of Concerned Scientists, Federation of American Scientists, the Sierra Club, the NRDC, 350, the Hip Hop Caucus, the national Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Unitarian Churches, the Islamic Society of North America, and the Reconstructionist Jewish Movement.
It has also been endorsed by 63 cities and towns including Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Des Moines, Salt Lake, and Tucson. Here in Massachusetts Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Northampton, Holyoke, Easthampton and 14 other cities and towns have endorsed as well. Seven state legislative bodies have also passed resolutions.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that we can no longer afford to deny the danger of nuclear war, “ Helfand said. “We have a very short window of opportunity to eliminate these weapons—before they eliminate us. But we can do that. We made these weapons with our own hands. We know how to take them apart. We just need to create the political will to do that.”

Helfand is a member of the International Steering Group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, (ICAN) which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work promoting the TPNW. He is also the Immediate Past President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which started ICAN and which is, itself, the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He is the co-Founder and Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the US affiliate of IPPNW.

He worked in the Emergency Department at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for many years where he served as President of the Medical Staff and Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, and at the Family Care Medical Center in Springfield, an urgent care that also provided primary care and addiction medicine. He lives in Leeds with his wife Deborah Smith, an oncologist at the MGH Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Massachusetts Peace Action is the state affiliate of Peace Action, the nation’s largest peace organization, founded in 1957 as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). Peace Action works to abolish nuclear weapons, promote government spending priorities that support human needs, encourage real security through international cooperation and human rights, and support just and nonmilitary solutions to the conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.

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