Jim Kleissler is used to protesting in the forestlands of central Pennsylvania. But as incoming head of the Thomas Merton Center -- the organization at the head of the local anti-war movement -- the causes he supports are about to get a bit more attention.
Kleissler, 33, spent 10 years in Clarion, Pa., as co-director of the Allegheny Defense Project, which opposes what it deems anti-environmental moves in the Allegheny National Forest by the U.S. Forest Service. In 1997, for instance, Kleissler's group successfully sued the government over the largest timber sale in an eastern national forest. The group alleged that the Forest Service had violated national forest-management rules by managing the forest for the production of black cherry trees. The case is still in federal appeals court.
Kleissler sees himself continuing outgoing executive director Tim Vining's legacy of increasing the group's membership while managing its more than 30 projects. "A lot of them are doing such good work, it's a matter of maintaining our momentum," Kleissler says of the group's various efforts. But environmentalism, he allows, is one area "the Merton Center maybe hasn't been so strong [on] in the past." Ecological issues may see renewed emphasis under his leadership.
Kleissler, who took office on Aug. 1, isn't ready to say where he sees the Merton Center going, but Tim Vining doesn't hesitate:
"We're going to continue to oppose this war," he says of the occupation in Iraq. "We are going to see more organizing out of the center [involving] more groups who are being directly affected by the war, particularly young people who are being recruited for this war. You're going to see even more connections between the federal budget issues and the obscene costs of this war.
"My hope," he adds, "is that if you come back four years from now ... the Merton Center will become a more multi-racial organization -- truly, not just cosmetically."
Hiring a new director in both the racial and gender majorities -- Kleissler is a married white guy -- doesn't address that dream, but "it's a chicken and an egg, to bring people in who express who you want to be," Vining allows. "To be honest, your leadership has to reflect who you are. I would never bring in someone of a particular gender or race and give them the burden of making the Center reflect [that]. In extreme situations you get into tokenism. Jim [Kleissler] would not be qualified ... unless he knew how whiteness impacts him, how privileges are open to him that aren't even open to his wife."
Kleissler attended the Ruckus Society's first human-rights training camp in Virginia in 1999, learning, among other lessons, "tree climbing and banner dropping." But, he adds, "what was interesting was to hear what people have done in other cultures, where they don't have a Bill of Rights." Having been under surveillance by law enforcement during his days protesting in the forest -- he witnessed photos of activists being taken from a car, he says -- he is prepared for the police- and media-relations issues so crucial to his new office, as well as the "life-or-death issues" that are the group's daily concerns.
"Unfortunately," he says, "in the current political climate, American citizens doing what they ought to be doing [are] being shadowed."