Helping Others Around the World Becomes Life’s Work for One Woman

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Nearly 30 years ago, Donna Baranski-Walker took a stand to change the world by helping oppressed people in far-off

Communist Poland. What she didn’t realize then was that changing the world would become the focus of her life.

From helping people living under Communist rule, to advocating for peace in times of war, to now helping rebuild communities torn apart by war, Redwood City resident Baranski-Walker has always worked in one form or another for peace.

Baranski-Walker’s first efforts were recognized August, 31, 2010, when she was awarded the Medal of Gratitude from the Euporean Solidarity Committee. Nobel Laureate and former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, presented her the medal in front of a crowd of approximately 25,000. Poland celebrated the 30thanniversary of the creation of the Solidarity Movement that week.

Baranski-Walker was 25 and a newly graduated electrical engineer when she stood up at a university lecture in Chicago and proposed forming the group Support of Solidarity (SOS) – Chicago. The group supported the Solidarity Movement during the years it was outlawed by the Communist government in Poland. The non-violent movement contributed to the collapse of Communism in Europe in 1989.

Now executive director of the Rebuilding Alliance, a San Mateo non-profit dedicated to rebuilding war-torn communities, Baranski-Walker has continued to work for peace and reconciliation throughout her life.

“I didn’t realize when I was right out of college that this would become my life’s work,” she said the day before leaving for Poland last week.

Baranski-Walker is a second-generation Polish-American who spent her junior year with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying in Communist Poland. She said she thought she was going to learn language and art, but instead her professors risked arrest by explaining to the foreign students why the Polish society was collapsing around them.

Soon after her studies in Poland ended, Walesa and others famously declared a strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Leaders of the strike created the first independent union in a Soviet-bloc country, which went on to become an anti-communist, non-violent social movement of an estimated 10 million members.

In 1981, martial law was declared in Poland, and the union was outlawed. There were widespread arrests of leaders and supporters throughout Poland.

Back in Chicago, where Baranski-Walker was in her first engineering job, she was invited by a friend to a lecture at the University of Chicago about the events in Poland. Sitting around the room were doctors, engineers, professors and mathematicians. Baranski-Walker said it was a very academic conversation, but no one was talking about possible solutions.

That is until she stood up to speak. While the young woman could have been intimidated by her older, more experienced colleagues, she instead urged the group to organize in support of Solidarity.

“It really felt right,” she said of the moment. “The right people were in the room.” SOS – Chicago was born, and Baranski-Walker found herself organizing weekly meetings and raising money in her spare time. “It was just amazing to work with these people.”

The group sent funds and care packages to dissidents in Poland, they also smuggled shortwave radio communications equipment to the underground Solidarity network. In addition, the group advocated for U.S. policy change in favor of the movement, and even influenced a major world mathematicians’ conference to change the venue from Poland to elsewhere. By 1986 SOS – Chicago had more than 2,000 members.

Baranski-Walker left Chicago and the committee to earn her masters in agricultural engineering from the University of Hawaii, completing her research in Mainland China. She and her family returned to the Continental U.S., where she pursued an engineering career. Her efforts to pursue peace continued as a volunteer.

In 1990 she organized an effort to promote peace during the build-up to the first Iraq War. Using an idea from the Solidarity Movement during the Czech Velvet Revolution, Baranski-Walker encouraged people to light candles in their windows at night as a message of peace. Radio and TV news people came to her home in New Hampshire to interview her, and the New York Times published her essay, “Small Lights in the Darkness”, on Christmas Eve.

Finally, after years of what she called her “after my babies went to sleep” peace work, she left engineering in 1999 to pursue peacemaking full-time. She founded Rebuilding Alliance in 2003.

According to the organization’s website, Rebuilding Alliance is “dedicated to rebuilding war-torn communities and making them safe. Its vision is a just and enduring peace in Israel and Palestine, founded upon equal value, security, and opportunity for all.” Group organizers raise funds, organize details of rebuilding projects, advocate policy changes, and have even taken cases before the Israeli High Court. Current projects of Rebuilding Alliance include working with other organizations to build a second playground on the West Bank, helping to install lights for a soccer field in Gaza in time for a tournament, and helping to create a birthing center in a rural village.

Baranski-Walker said her work almost 30 years ago to help Poland taught her that local problems can be helped by others at a distance.

“There are models to draw upon that really make a difference in finding solutions to intractable challenges,” she said. “When people are stuck locally, that’s when the people far away have to help out.”

Young volunteers come to the Rebuilding Alliance’s San Mateo headquarters from all over the world to work as interns. And Baranski-Walker tells them from her own experience that they can accomplish big things, despite their youth.

“I have confidence they can make a difference in our work,” she said.

 

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