If you see Sally Milbury-Steen smiling under the wide brim of her hat, she might be working for peace."Peace starts with a smile," says the Newark resident, quoting Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
As one of Delaware's best known peacemakers, people expect her to have not just a Mona Lisa look about the lips, but a sense of what would lead to greater fairness say if the world were to be a more perfect place.
"She's a very bright and wise woman and Delaware is blessed to have her as a key leader on peace and justice," says the Rev. Bruce Gillette of Limestone Presbyterian Church.
As executive director of the Delaware peace organization Pacem in Terris since 1985, Milbury-Steen has worked with a revolving pool of 80 volunteers, and the occasional staff person, on an array of projects.
They include responding with peace and activism to the events of Sept. 11; teaching conflict resolution skills to elementary students and offenders; working to abolish the death penalty in Delaware; and helping ex-prisoners prepare to speak before the Board of Pardons so barriers to housing, education and jobs can be overcome.
She calls the latter effort restorative justice, says Mary Starkweather-White, coordinator of the pardons project which helped 35 people obtain pardons last year.
"Real restorative justice is looking at each person as more than the worst thing they've ever done," says Milbury-Steen.
In some ways, she says, the peace movement has done a poor job of explaining that peace is about relatedness and feeling connected to others.
"War is disconnecting from people and relegating them to the dumpster," Milbury-Steen says.
She jokes that only a fool or a person destined for the asylum could be as busy as she is. Though when people come to her with a goal of bringing more awareness to an issue, she enjoys trying to make it happen.
"Hope is an orientation of the spirit," she says, quoting the Polish activist Vaclav Havel.
In the last two years, she's helped launch Wilmington in Transition, a grassroots movement that seeks to build more awareness around the high cost of oil, climate change and the economic crisis.
But not everyone understands what Milbury-Steen does or why she does it. "And some days I don't either," she jokes.
Her friend June Eisley says Milbury-Steen is the epitome of a strong Quaker woman. She's able to hold a quiet center -- and inspire others."She is like an ant that can carry 40 times its weight," says Starkweather-White, the pardons project coordinator.
Milbury-Steen is especially active in July. On Monday afternoon, she was part of a small group standing on Delaware Avenue in Wilmington to protest the continuing bombing of Libya.
On Tuesday, she traveled by bus to JFK Airport to be part of a welcome for 18 Catholic and Protestant teens (and four adult leaders) from Northern Ireland who will stay with local families for a month. By Thursday morning, the group was floating down the Brandywine River for one of their first fun events.
"It's great to see young people break down barriers," she says.
The reconciliation effort is 36 years old and is the nation's oldest continuously active Ulster Project.
"What I do is what I love, so this is nirvana," Milbury-Steen says.
And there's more activity in the days ahead.This Tuesday night, she will serve as projectionist for a Pacem in Terris film series beginning its six-part run at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1506 W. 13th St. in Wilmington.“Not everybody goes away for the summer and we draw a crowd,” she says. The first film is “Inside Job,” a look at Wall Street’s role in the 2008 financial crisis. Showing the film is one of the ways that she reminds Delawareans that the world is not yet as it should be. It’s a film that won a 2010 Academy Award.“I think people want to understand how Wall Street became so powerful and what went wrong,” she says of the film. “It also has something to say about what deregulation does in a democracy.”
OnJuly 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. she’ll attend a Pacem in Terris fundraiser in the church hall at the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew, Eighth and Shipley streets. Harry Spencer and His Jazz Ensemble will perform. Admission is $10 and children under six are free.The event is one of the ways the nonprofit, which was started in 1967 as an interfaith response to the Vietnam War, puts together its $100,000 budget. Grants and support from religious groups help, too.
“I try to go to everything,” she says of events. “I remember hearing an old activist say if you end up with two things on the same night, stay a little while at each. If you have three things on the same night, stay home – you’re doing too much.”She credits her husband, John, with much of the stability in her life. Drawn together by a love of literature and language, they served in the Peace Corps in West Africa and lived for a time in England where John earned a doctorate and their daughter, Blythe, was born.“When I was off running around, John was there with Blythe,” says Milbury-Steen, adding that her husband likes to garden and write poetry when left to his own devices.Milbury-Steen got to know Pacem in Terris in 1981 after returning to the states and being drawn to Quakerism. She likes sitting in silence, a counterpoint to the busyness of life, and the Quaker commitment to peace and optimism. Her late father, the Rev. F. Douglas Milbury, was a Methodist pastor who served around the state. Both he and her mother, Lillian, modeled caring for others and the importance of a purposeful life. “I was blessed by a happy childhood and it makes a difference,” she says. “I had a button once that said ‘Happy Childhoods last a lifetime.’”
It has for her, and at 68 she hopes that it will carry her into retirement in January 2013, having announced her intention to step down. It’s a way for her to get the Pacem in Terris board to think about what’s next and for her to think about it, too. “It’s important to see the glass is half full,”
she says. “I like to say no energy for good is ever wasted.”