Activist Profile: Colleen Kattau

Editor’s note: The PNL will run a year-long series of short activist profiles in conjunction with SPC’s 75th anniversary. We will highlight one activist each month with an emphasis on capturing the breadth of roles people take with SPC. From demonstrating to music-making to maintenance work, there are endless ways for individuals to lend their talents and passions to the peace and social justice movement. With only ten issues for the year, we know we cannot give credit to each and every one of you whose hard work makes everything we do possible. We hope you will enjoy learning about the disparate histories and perspectives of a few of your community members, and know that we value the contributions of every person.

Colleen Kattau originally hails from Long Island. She moved to Central New York to attend SUNY Cortland where she was exposed to activist professors. Their influence helped impact the course of her life.

What sort of work do you usually do with SPC?
My work at SPC has been mainly cultural support, playing at benefits and attending demonstrations, or supporting Plowshares with my music. And I have been active in Latin American solidarity work. It’s also part of the work, too, to help pass it on [referring to Colleen’s partner’s son, Silas Pandori, who designed SPC’s 75th anniversary logo and the Jan. 2011 PNL cover].

Can you identify a source of your activist leanings?
In Cortland, I figured activism is just what college is, but it obviously doesn’t always happen that way. I had a good community of multidisciplinary, activist professors. We criticized American consumer culture, which resonated with me because that’s what I came from. We also did a lot of organizing around Central America. That was the late ‘70s, early ‘80s when I became more politicized, ready to put my feelings into understanding social problems and their root causes.

Can you describe a challenging time as an activist and what helped you through it?
There were big disappointments like Bush getting elected. That was a horror. It tore my heart out. But then I remembered the words of Jolie Rickman [former Syracuse-based activist-musician who passed away in 2005]. When she was really sick she said, “I am the happiest activist alive… because I’m alive.” No matter how rough it gets, we’re alive. It’s better to be positive. That’s partly the message of Harry Belafonte—in the midst of all this there is so much solidarity going on.

Finally, what is your call to action today?
I’m translating the memoirs of Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal, A Lost Revolution. And I’m hearing about everything going on in Egypt and the Middle East. It’s not just the poor—business people and everything. And I smile because that’s what Cardenal talks about in this book—so many people opposed the dictatorship from all walks of life. I’m translating this book so people know that history has largely been censored from us.

My music is definitely a call to action. It’s a calling to see the power of music and art to create a better world. And another call to action is to focus on the local—from growing my own vegetables and supporting local farmers to keeping my students informed about what is happening right here in Central New York. I teach them about the drones, and they don’t know! It’s a tall order, but we keep working together to create alternatives to economies of power, militarism and greed.

– Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre

Karen, founder of the Community Choir, is a mother, counselor, and activist, and believes that everyone can sing, no exceptions!