It's never been about making a difference. It's about doing the right thing

By KEVIN CLAPP Staff Writer, (609) 272-7255
(Published: May 21, 2006)

Norm Cohen was raised in a political world, a product of civics-inclined parents. But this was different.

It was April 1970. America had just invaded Cambodia, and Cohen was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. To protest the military action, students took to the streets for a march to the Liberty Bell.

It was, I guess, empowerment, he says, remembering thousands of young people standing as one, It was kind of exciting to see so many students out.

The experience kick-started a 30-plus-year career of activism for the executive director of the Coalition for Peace and Justice. From the march on the Liberty Bell to a takeover of the university's administration building two years later, Cohen steadily became more active. Although he stepped away from activities for a while in the late 1970s, joining the coalition in 1982 cemented his place as citizen-activist.

Not all of his contemporaries have shared his commitment. Cohen has watched a generation whose members made speaking out as common as rolling out of bed slowly abandon their younger selves with age and shifting priorities.

It might break the spirit of some. Not Cohen.

People change. Maybe they give money rather than time, which is all they had in the '60s. Maybe they have families that preclude involvement. Or maybe ” gasp!” they grew up to be Republicans.

Not long ago, Cohen tracked down a handful of former college friends with whom he'd lost contact. One former surfer hippie, he says, found religion. Another, who was never very political, moved to Texas and is a fan of President Bush. A third is a doctor in Buffalo, N.Y., working with the poor.

Life goes on, he says. People change and get going in different directions.

He can relate. With daughters ages 11 and 14, family dictates Cohen's involvement now. Days once dedicated to protesting are now spent watching soccer games or plays. It doesn't mean the commitment isn't there; he just has to pick his events.

More troubling than participation in the coalition, which has gone up since the nation sent troops to Iraq, are matters of succession. As a stay-at-home dad, Cohen can pour time into organizing the coalition that others don't have. What will happen when he is gone? He wonders.

America has become very short term, instant gratification, he says. A lot of people will come into our movement and they don't see anything happen in six months or a year and they move on. Unfortunately, the issues of peace and justice are long-term. If you don't come in looking at it that this is a long-term thing that may or may not be achieved in your lifetime, you're just going to get frustrated.

So he continues, pleased that members of the baby boom have had an impact in areas such as establishing equality for women and speaking against nuclear weapons.

After all, things could be worse. He returns his thoughts to that first march in Philadelphia. It was not, he says, about making a difference. It was about doing what was right, a philosophy he holds today.

My involvement with peace and justice work has always been from the moral perspective, that you've got to do something to make the world better for your kids, not ˜We're gonna win,' he says. We're taking on forces that are very powerful. It's important to do the right thing so you can look your children in the face and say, ˜Yeah, I tried to make a difference and set an example.'