Earth Run

Circling the globe with a torch of hope

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 27
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

The First Earth Run was a remarkable worldwide event and celebration that took place last fall. The torch carried by the relay runners began its journey at the United Nations on 16 September 1986, lit from a flame created in a sunrise ceremony by native Americans. During the next 86 days, 57 countries were involved in this global relay. Fifteen runners from the major geo-political regions of the world ran with the torch in teams of four, while millions of people took part in ceremonies connected with the coming of the runners. The teams were led by David Gershon and Gail Straub, long distance runners and founders of this event. David and Gail can be reached at 449A Route 28A, West Hurley, NY, 12491, USA; 914/331-1312.

– Robert Gilman

What was the First Earth Run? What did it accomplish?

David: The First Earth Run was an event whose purpose was to bring people together around the world in a spirit of cooperation, with the torch being the symbol that united people. It also was to shed light on the best projects supporting community co-operation from around the world. And thirdly it was to support the neediest children in the world through generating money for UNICEF, our global partner, and to use children as the vehicle for people to begin to recognize why they wanted to create a better world, because peace is a very abstract concept.

Robert: What sort of relationship did you have with UNICEF?

David: Several months before the event was scheduled to launch, we formed a formal partnership, where they helped us in a variety of different ways, with their structure and their contacts with heads of state and in various types of office space and what have you. It was a good working relationship.

Robert: You had worked on this for a number of years before the event actually took place, hadn’t you? How long was that?

Gail: It was about three years in totality before we launched the relay itself, which started September 16, 1986. The intensity of the organization and the level of activity obviously increased as we went along. We were a very small handful of people in the first year, and then it increased to a large international organizational by the last year.

Robert: Were there other international groups like UNICEF that worked with you?

Gail: One that was particularly outstanding, along with UNICEF, was the International Jaycees. In about a third of the countries, the Jaycees were the major organizers. We gained a very high regard for that organization and are continuing to do some work with them now. It is also important to say that, along with the efforts of major international organizations, a lot of the work was very grassroots. It was individuals or small organizations which drew together because of their belief in the vision. It was a very interesting combination of high-level, large international organizations like UNICEF and many, many individuals and small grassroots-type groups.

Robert: What was the spark – if you can go way back to the beginning – that set it off for you?

David: It began, actually, ten years prior. It was the culmination of another relay that I had organized, the Bicentennial Relay, which went through all 50 States. At the culmination of that event, there was the sense that the torch, as a symbol that could unite people in its fire in a non-denominational, nonsectarian, universal way, could be taken around the world as a catalyst for peace. And that’s when the vision was born, in August of 1976. It took ten years to manifest it.

It then went through another incarnation, which was the Olympic Torch Relay, which I organized in 1980, and then several years after that… well, let me back up one step. Prior to the Olympic Torch Relay, we started this event in ’78, ’79, to see if we could pull it off, but the timing wasn’t right, and the skill level was not there, at least in me. So I put it on the back burner. And then the Olympics came along, we did that event, created the quality, the credibility, and then three years ago it came back again. It manifested through someone phoning me and saying, "Do you think the time is right for the global torch relay?" I said I’d like to consider it for a little while before I answered that question, and I asked Gail, "What do you think? We could really make a difference if this event were to work, and I feel that it could work, if you will join me in it," and she said, "If we can make a difference, then we should give it a try." So that’s how it got born.

Robert: It’s certainly a wonderful success story.

David: I think that it’s an important story, for several reasons. One of the reasons is that it shows that ordinary people can make a difference, and at a large level. So I think it has the potential to spawn other activities, where people just need to feel, "We can do something." It was also successful at another level, for it generated a sense of hope at a mass level. Beyond the people that directly participated, our estimate was that about half a billion people – 10% of all humanity – were made aware of it. At some level of their psyche, they sensed that something positive was happening in the world, something hopeful, We feel that has an effect, and somewhere, someone, in their deepest level of their psyche, is thinking more hopefully.

Gail: There were so many different levels of participation, from the core staff, who worked for many years to bring it about, to the level of a small child standing in the street or maybe holding the torch for a few moments. Those who worked on it at an in-depth level, I think, were forever changed by working on the event, just because of the intensity of putting something like this together, as well the kind of global training ground that it offered. So it touched people at many different levels.

Another of the questions you asked was the kind of contribution we felt the event made, the legacy it might have left. I think one of the most important things, particularly in the developing world, was a kind of dignity that came forward that our colleagues in the UN and UNICEF said was quite rare. I’m speaking specifically now of the many countries in Africa we went through and the ten cities in India and parts of southeast Asia where we had massive, massive participation, millions of people, and the most extraordinary kinds of dance, art, poetry and representation of the cultures themselves. What many people said, from watching the videos as well as having spoken to the organizers in those countries, was that the images of dignity that came forward during the event were very special. I mean, you think of Africa and so much of what we’ve seen, of course, is the image of the suffering, which is very important to see, but this was a balance, a counterpoint.

Robert: What did you learn about with working with people of other cultures?

Gail: Oh, so many things! I think the earliest and most important lessons, which seems so simple, but perhaps many of us have to go through it, was the concept that, while the vision was born in America by a handful of hopeful people, yet that vision had to be given away to all the other cultures, so that they could nurture it and manifest it in a way that was theirs. Though we provided the skeleton in a very pragmatic way – we developed a training manual and went around the world doing a kind of training, which said, "This is what the vision is, this is what the logistics entail and what we hope the ceremonies will look like and so on and so forth," but there was a critical time in the organizing when we had to realize that we needed to just give it away and trust that each of the countries’ organizers would translate it in a way that was both meaningful and unique and true for themselves.

Once we were able to do that, the gifts we got back were just remarkable. Each country was so touched by the vision and so much believed in what it represented that they really gave it their all. The people in the socialist countries had this deep, deep yearning for peace that’s come from their history, and then in countries in Africa, there was this tremendous joy that came forward, through the dance, the songs, and the poetry. In India, there was a deep spiritual impact that I felt there. They took the symbolism of the flame quite seriously and you could feel its spiritual significance. It was as if each country taught us something new about what the flame meant and about what peace meant to them. So it’s like we had 62 chapters in a saga, if you wish.

David: One of the things that we began to notice was how uniquely each country would express their sense of the same thing. It was so interesting to see the same manual, or same basic list of ideas translated into 200 events, in 200 communities.

Gail: Another lessons for me was a seeming paradox that I felt during the 86 days. The common denominator was the tremendous yearning for a more peaceful world, and that was everywhere we went, from the most elaborate ceremonies in huge cities, like a million people in Shanghai, to these tiny poignant ceremonies in small little villages in India or Africa – the emotional tone and yearning was common – and yet the creativity and the way the vision manifested was totally unique. So what happened for me was a combined feeling of this common thread and this absolutely amazing uniqueness at the same time.

Robert: If you were giving advice to people who wanted to be useful in an international milieu, what other lessons would you want to pass on to them?

Gail: Well, I think this is well-known, but I’ll say it anyway, because I think it’s so important. As Americans, we have so much to learn. We have a lot to offer, for sure, but …

Robert: What are some of those things that you sense that we both have to offer and have to learn?

David: We’ve designed a workshop with many of these questions as focus points, so we’ve done some thinking about it. I think I’ll start with my process. I started by making most of the mistakes that one might imagine. The primary mistake that I made, and which I notice a lot of Americans seem to be making, is the sense that we know the answer. That’s how I started off, thinking that I knew the best way to create a global vision. What I soon found out was that, in spite of my most inclusive and expanded thinking, I was still seeing everything through an American lens, and until I truly let go of having a sense of what was right, even in a large sense, there wasn’t an ability to really have true cooperation. So one lesson is to truly let go and trust the process, trust that everyone is equally as concerned about the state of the world, and that indeed, to a great extent, other cultures and other countries which are more globally oriented, have a lot to teach us, more than us to teach them. A student attitude was very helpful.

My experience here in America is that we have a sense called "planet" which we really don’t understand very well. It’s more like a spiritual term than it is a practical term. As one begins to flesh out what planet means, that really reshapes one’s perspective on things. So one of the major lessons for me was just how much I had to learn, and how much we Americans have to learn, which includes travel, includes a variety of ways to educate ourselves.

Gail: I was thinking back to your questions about what we have to give and what we have to learn. Some of the qualities that come to mind most immediately that so many other parts of the world offer are things like humility, in the most authentic sense of the word, openness, adaptability, the ability to listen and hear other ideas. I just saw these time and time again in other cultures in the organizing phase. Also a kind of ability to enjoy the simple things of life we saw time and time again, both in the event itself and in the organizing phases.

What I felt we offered, as an American part of this team, was the dynamism that we have, the kind of can-do spirit, the aspect of being the visionaries who dare to think a big vision – that’s the good part of our arrogance, I suppose. But it was also my impression, after the three years and going around the world a few times, that we Americans are not as in touch with the rest of the world as the rest of the world is. I had read and heard that, and it was reaffirmed in real life experience for me. I found the journalists in most other parts of the world much more expansive in the kinds of questions they ask, in their sense of globalism…

David: Their level of information, just basic information.

Gail: Yes. Both the radio and the TV, as well as the newspaper media people. Both in the socialist countries as well as the developing countries. That was something striking for me. I really re-evaluated our media when I came back.

David: In that same respect, one of the things that I think that the third world and the socialist countries have to offer us is a sense of idealism. Not only in the United States, but in the West at large, in our sophistication, we have gotten cynical and don’t really believe in higher ideals. Now that’s not to say that the communist and socialist stuff is pure, but the average person has a sense of idealism, if you will. They’re not tainted. They’re not cynical. This was probably the hardest thing we discovered. As we looked at all the different parts of the world, the different cultures, the different geopolitical regions, we began to get a deeper sense of what they were thinking and feeling. We spent quality time with the people, running with them, eating with them, just organizing with them, and we really got a strong sense of their great idealism. This is not to say that aren’t people like that in this country, but by and large, it is not part of the general culture. So we, interestingly enough, can draw that gift from these other parts of the world. We have the dynamo, we have the energy, if it’s created in America, people will believe it can go, we’ve got those gifts, and they have many gifts to give us that we have no sense of, such as a sense of idealism.

Gail: I think it might be important to say that there seem to be, from all the press interviews we had (and we had hundreds and hundreds of press interviews and press conferences), a deep caring and questioning about why there was such apathy in America, and a looking to America for leadership and feeling that it was not forthcoming.

Robert: Right – "Why are you Americans so schizophrenic? You send out these wonderful idealists and yet the rest…"

Gail: Again and again the journalists would ask that, and it wasn’t even asked in a confrontive or negative way, but in a way of, "Why?"

Robert: Perplexed.

Gail: Yes, very perplexed. And for me, personally, there was a disappointment in coming back, because it seemed to me that the level of caring that’s needed was not apparent in this country. I had experienced that kind of caring in many other parts of the world. So I think that one of the biggest lessons for me was to now take quiet time to consider what we can do about that. We’re all aware that the apathy is a serious problem, and what are the most creative, effective ways that we might work with that?

Robert: And what are you coming up with?

Gail: Well, this has to do with a new project that the Earth Run is involved in. I believe that, with education, there’s a level of activism that can be tapped in our country, and I think that the concept of "Think global, act local" can be cultivated. We’ve developed a pilot project here, in Ulster County, to be run through the local community college. It’s supported by our Congressman Matt McHugh; he’s very keen on it. The community college has already started to do massive research on the most effective local projects – the best environmental projects, the best peace projects, it doesn’t matter – any kind of projects that are helping the community to be a better, more effective place. What we do is a training, which would be the thinking globally part. David and I have developed a two-day seminar about thinking more globally. And the idea is that we would match the people coming through the training with those local projects in the spirit of once you’re thinking more globally, you act locally.

David: The idea basically is taking care of your piece of planet. If we each take care of our piece, the piece that we live on, that we begin to get the planet to work better.

Robert: So many of the empowerment training programs have become little more than middle-class entertainment because there has not been good follow-through and concrete places to take that energy and that enthusiasm.

Gail: Yes. I think that what you’re saying is perhaps the next step in a lot of the work that we’re all doing. The vision and the inspiration need to be grounded in action so that people have projects they go into, projects that are meaningful to them. David and I have been thinking a lot about the need for social action to be linked with personal growth, with the kind of personal fulfillment that the 60s and 70s have offered so much. We need to present social activism in a way that people understand that it is also personally meaningful.

David: We’re evolving another concept, and none of the labels quite speak to it, quite the way that I would like them to, so I don’t even have the words for it. The heart and the juice of this new approach is what I would call an initiation process to the planet, to its people, its cultures, the ways of the different people who walk the earth, the earth itself, and your power to be someone who can do something, to forward the piece of the planet that you live on.

Social activism doesn’t excite me. It never has. What excites me is my spirit expressing itself in a way that I’m spiritually nourished. So what I need to do and what I’ve attempted to do, what we’ve attempted to do in this work, is to find a way to connect people to a very abstract concept known as "planet" in a way that is spiritually nourishing, that is almost like an initiation, or a rite of passage, to a deeper way of being and acting, in relationship to something called home. And the actions that grow out of that connection are very different from actions that grow out of something that we’re supposed to do because that’s responsible.

What we’re trying to do is to create another way of relating, which we found worked with the Earth Run. We got people to stop what they were doing, re-prioritize their lives, end up in some cases giving a substantial amount of their own financial resources, as was the case with Gail and I and many of the organizers, for a vision. And it was not out of responsibility that we did it. It was out of an attraction to something that truly excited our spirits. It’s visionary action that comes from a place of connection and feeling part of something much larger that we’re speaking towards.

Robert: If I can be somewhat perverse, I would say that it was not out of responsibility, but out of an ability to respond.

David: Yes, that’s definitely what we’re attempting to do.

Gail: What I experienced in every culture I was in, and they’re so extraordinarily diverse, was this yearning towards the feeling of family, of the human family. I think that the inspiration for all these people to work such long hours and give up their regular jobs was the feeling that they were connected, through this flame, to the whole family. At some level, that was the deepest impulse.

David: In that vein, you could say we had one global action with 200 local actions. One of the things that was really a strong turn-on for the people that got involved was the sense that they were part of something much larger than themselves, and if they did their piece, they would be part of a big thing. In discussing this concept with a lot of people, and there were other global events that were attempting to, or did, get off the ground at the same time that we were doing our thing, the one common thread that I noticed that made an event able to generate support was this sense of being linked to a larger context.

Robert: What advice would you give to Americans who are trying to get themselves out of the North American cocoon?

Gail: There are so many ways. Some are well-known. Just have the impact or the feeling of another culture in your life, whether that be through taking the language or having exchange student programs, or any of the different ways that communities have to do cultural exchange right in their own back yards. It can be through courses at universities or community colleges, different kinds of cooking classes, or language, or art, or folk dance.

David: Join an international organization.

Gail: The most powerful way, for people who are lucky enough to be able to do this and have the opportunity, is to travel. The whole idea of citizen diplomacy is beginning to be respected and really honored for what it is now, and for how life-changing these exchanges are for people. So I would say that the best level is to actually go and be with another family, with another culture. At a simpler level, just within your own community, reach out and open yourself to the different cultural modes.

David: In the action arena, if you’re doing something, look to see what other people are doing in other parts of the world in the same arena. So if you’re taking care of a polluted river, find out what other people in other parts of the world are doing about the same problem. Join international organizations, international environmental organizations, international social organizations. Go to international conferences in your profession, things where you actually begin to collaborate with people from other cultures. One of the richest things for me, and I think for all of us in the Earth Run, was that we didn’t just visit a culture. We literally had to work with people from these cultures, so like I would be working with someone from Japan, and we would have to solve a problem, such as raising money for the Earth Run, real practical considerations like that. And how do we work together, and how do we solve mutual problems? We both want to come to a good way of resolving it. And that was extraordinary, because people have a lot of different cultural ways that we have been inculcated to think and act and do things.

Gail: Even at the simplest level. I was an exchange student and we also had an exchange student in my family when I was growing up, and just on the day-to-day basis, being exposed, in the most mundane ways, to the ways that another person thinks from someplace else in the world, is enormously expanding.

David: If you don’t have the opportunity to do it by travelling, there are people in your own community that you can seek out, generally. Most of the places in this country have international focuses of some sort or another. Foreign movies are great. But the thing that intrigues me, in either local action or national and global action that in some way enhance the well-being of the earth, is how the actions that you do get tied into what other people are doing. Get more aware, translate that awareness into ways that excite you, and then start making things happen. The sense of empowerment you get when you do this is truly impacting.

Gail: We saw time and time again that, if a person becomes engaged, where they take on an activity or an action, no matter how simple or grand it is, they get a sense of hope. The sense of despair – that it’s too big, I can’t make any difference, the problems are too big, so what difference does it make – all of those games that the mind plays seem to just go away once a person actually is engaged. They’re much more able to feel a sense of hope once they’ve chosen to make a commitment to take an action.

Robert: It’s interesting the way that, once you are participating in a large process, it makes it easier to do small things.

David: Yes. One of the things that was the most moving for me, probably on most of the levels that one can be moved on, was when we came back and went into the United Nations. The journey was over, the dream that had taken 10 years to manifest, and thousands and thousands of hours of so many people around the world, was over. The UN called a special session to honor the flame and what it had come to stand for, and the representatives of the different countries then spoke about what happened in their part of the world. The UN was transformed for that time into a place of hope. These people, who basically just reach various levels of despair because the dialogue just continues to go around and around and not very much happens, were filled with a sense of hope – and that has long term implications. I had the opportunity, at a social gathering shortly afterwards, to speak with a person who works very closely with the Secretary General and he said that the Secretary General and so many people who spoke with him were very deeply moved. It was an extraordinary moment.

Robert: It’s certainly an impressive example of what we can do. I know very well that there was lots of perseverance that was needed along the way, but still the end result came through.

David: I think that if there’s any gift that the Earth Run offers, it’s that we can make it happen. And the first step is to clarify our vision, to be bold enough to get clear what we want our world to be like – we know what we don’t want – and now we need to think what we do want. How do we want to live on this earth? And to be willing to think at that level. If more of us begin to own a vision, a personal vision of how we want to live in this world, that will begin to radiate as more and more people have a strong sense of their larger purpose, their planetary or their earth purpose, not so much their life purpose in the personal sense, but the larger sense of how their actions contribute to the well-being of the larger whole.

That is an important contribution you’re making in your journal. Unfortunately there are not that many journals that are thinking globally, and it’s such a critical issue.

A few days ago we were listening to McFarland during his testimony, and he used the opportunity to share some of his opinions. He had said that our foreign policy was in shambles, and he was directly asked at one point, "What can we do to change that?" His response was that the nature of where we are right now is so complex that in effect you can’t help but get the results that you got, with our present state of global awareness. Indeed, the problem had to be looked at a more systemic level, in that the nation does not have a global awareness. Therefore, the President does not have much of a constituency of people who care what goes on outside these borders. He said let the people of our country begin to have a more global awareness, and then we can begin to have a more thoughtful foreign policy.

Gail: He recommended that the basic curriculum in every primary school would be exposure to other cultures, learning about other cultures.

Robert: I’ve often thought that one of the unwritten requirements for President should be that the person have lived a number of years outside this country.

Gail: Would that ever change things!

David: We’re on the verge of this global era, and America, which is probably the most globally illiterate and the most materialistic major society, has a lot of work to do.