Faculty Member Emerita Dr. Helena Meyer-Knapp: Supporting Imagination and Courage
Community members and Evergreen students lead a march on the Capitol in protest of the Gulf War, April 1, 1991. Photos courtesy of The Evergreen State College Archives.
With all the conflicts going on in the world right now, it’s hard to remember that less than 15 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement brought considerable peace to the parties in the conflict in the North of Ireland, and less than 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, ending more than 300 years of colonization and apartheid. For faculty member emerita Dr. Helena Meyer-Knapp, these developments mean one thing: There is hope for peace in our world.
A teacher and scholar, Meyer-Knapp joined Evergreen in 1972, spending the next few years building the college’s original academic advising program. She co-taught her first program with faculty member emerita Nancy Taylor in 1976, focused around adult women returning to college, and continued her commitment to women and historically underrepresented students by helping to build and sustain the college’s Evening and Weekend Studies program. She was honored with emerita status in 2008.
Meyer-Knapp has taught programs in peace, politics and ethics, and Asian and women’s studies, and she has done extensive research on peacemaking and strategic studies. After a yearlong fellowship at Harvard’s Bunting Institute (now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study), she authored the book Dangerous Peace-making (2003), which examines peacemaking in seven of the world’s war zones, and offers tools for resolving complex conflicts. She was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 2009, spending a semester teaching at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea.
Her interest in peace-related issues began when she was a small child growing up in England in the aftermath of World War II. “The ‘atom bomb’ terrified me, and I identified with the marchers who tried to stop the buildup at the annual Easter campaign in the UK,” she recalls. “I became an adult activist when our eldest son Alex was born in 1977. It’s hard to remember now how terrifying some of the Cold War political rhetoric was. I knew I had to add my part to those trying to end it.” Later in her career, she decided she wanted to explore peace studies as an academic area, asking serious questions about the Cold War and why peace movements weren’t answering them. “I took a step I highly recommend, the mid-life Ph.D., which I completed in 1990,” she says.
Having arrived on campus just in time to sit in on the college-wide evaluation of that very first year’s work, Meyer-Knapp has worked closely with her colleagues through Evergreen’s sometimes painful and sometimes exhilarating development. As she watched the college grow and state support decline, she and her husband, faculty member Rob Knapp, both realized that faculty and students would need financial support to continue to examine and experiment.
They made a number of joint decisions to support the college, including naming Evergreen in their wills. “We are committed for the long term because Evergreen has done and continues to do important work innovating in the substance and processes for higher education and doing so in the public realm,” she explains. “We put our investment and commitment behind the students and people working at the college right now, and it’s our strategy to make it useful in the largest possible way.”
Having studied conflict resolution all over the world, Meyer-Knapp continues to critically evaluate Evergreen’s growth as an institution, and she encourages her colleagues to do the same. Problems and solutions often come with conflict, she explains, but even the most intractable come to an end sometime. “We had an Evergreen program once called Problems without Solutions: Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa,” she says. “And now, two decades later, two of these three regions have been radically transformed by something one can only call ‘peace.’ All kinds of peacemaking entail people who were once hostile becoming ready to work together to cross over the bridge to peace, and that takes imagination and courage.” It’s that kind of imagination and courage that she and Knapp hope their gifts will support and inspire at Evergreen.
“My life these days is rich beyond belief,” says Meyer-Knapp. “The fact that it is so owes a lot to the support Evergreen has given my strong sense of curiosity, my commitment to community building, and to the groups of colleagues and students with whom I have been able to work. I have been very lucky to have been a part of the place for nearly 40 years.”