In the Pursuit of Peace

Gail and Tony Dimitroff


When it comes to inspiration, Gail Dimitroff is never at a loss. Emotions range from pride to confidence to passion when the women’s rights advocate talks about female leaders like The Philippines’ peacemaker Bae Liza Saway. “She’s a tiny woman, but very strong. She’s known as a ‘Mother of Peace’ in her country,” Dimitroff says. “She’ll go out there with the other grandmothers and address people on the government’s side, asking, ‘Why are you doing this? This is our land. You shouldn’t be fighting here; you shouldn’t put your landmines here. You’re hurting our people!’ Then she’ll go talk to those on the other side, saying, ‘My Muslim brothers, why are you doing this? This is our land. You should not be doing this. Why are you here?'”

Dimitroff marvels that Saway faces people with automatic weapons and landmines. “Her only weapon is the truth and she’s not afraid.” Stories like this renew Dimitroff’s faith in the value of the pursuit of world peace.

“I think female leadership is the answer,” says the one-time San Diego College for Women student and former chair of the San Diego County’s Commission on the Status of Women. “The male patriarchy, for generations, has taken the lead on shaping our interactions, and the answer has been violence.”

While the University of San Diego – home of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies and the Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice – showcases hope on a year-round basis, since 2003, its most visible and poignant example takes place in the fall. That’s when the Women PeaceMakers Program brings together four women from around the world and different levels of conflict for a two-month stay in San Diego. Here, women such as Saway, a 2009 program participant, are encouraged to share their story, have it documented by a peace writer and bond with other women to network and enhance their own peacemaking skills.

“I think we really have to be serious about a woman’s ability to change the world,” Dimitroff says.

Thanks to the San Diego-based Fred J. Hansen Foundation, of which Gail’s husband, Tony, is the trustee, USD’s Women PeaceMakers program has thrived. Four more women will participate this fall, bringing the total number of participants since inception to 32.

“As a result of his extensive travels around the world, Fred Hansen felt strongly that the way you bring about peace is through world understanding, which then builds trust,” says attorney Tony Dimitroff. He took over as foundation trustee in 2000 when his friend and law firm partner Rik Henrikson passed away.

Though the Dimitroffs never met Hansen, who died in 1974, they can draw on knowledge about his wishes courtesy of Tony’s connection to Henrikson, who managed the foundation for 25 years. The Dimitroffs’ other link is a friendship with Ron Cady, a 1965 graduate of the San Diego College for Men. An immigrant from Denmark, the self-educated Hansen was Cady’s grandfather.

Throughout his life, Hansen saw the world’s problems up close. “He wanted to promote international peace among all types of people,” Cady explains. “He told me that if he ever developed wealth, this was how he’d want that wealth spent in his absence. I know he’d be very happy today, as is all of my family, to see where Tony’s taken the foundation and how he’s diversified the program.”

Bringing USD into the foundation’s sights wasn’t difficult; the 2001 opening of the IPJ gave Tony all the initiative he needed to set up a meeting with then IPJ executive director Joyce Neu about a potential partnership. Neu and current IPJ deputy directory Dee Aker created the Women PeaceMakers concept, met with Dimitroff and the connection was made.

The foundation provides an annual grant that funds the program as well as an annual conference held during the Women PeaceMakers’ visit. That conference attracts experts on women’s rights and human rights, legislative updates, work through the United Nations and more. “What I like, on behalf of the Hansen Foundation, is that USD is truly a partner in this endeavor,” Dimitroff says. “We enjoy that relationship, and as a partnership, it makes the program what it is.”

Tony sees Gail’s involvement in the Women PeaceMakers Program as a boon. She aims to make the visiting peacemakers’ two months as comfortable as possible. “It’s important to let them know on an individual basis that we’re interested in each and every one of them,” Gail says.

Another highlight of the program is the relationship that develops between the women and USD’s female students.

“When they hear these stories, and I hope they do, how can they not respond?” Gail said. “Their intentions are good, they’re intelligent students and they have good hearts.”

Even though superficial differences between students and visitors – such as short-shorts and ubiquitous cell phones – might strike the Women PeaceMakers as culturally dissonant, common ground can be found, especially when the goal is world peace. — Ryan T. Blystone

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