Sallie Shawl on Social Justice, Peace and ‘Best Possible Motives’

The Lakebay resident is an award-winning activist who has been advocating for peace in the region and beyond for nearly 60 years.


Sallie Shawl, 73, of Lakebay, went to her first protest in San Francisco before she graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1964.

“What got me involved in civil rights in many ways, I could say, was Life magazine,” she said. “The photos of fire hoses on people and dogs being sicced on people. I’m Jewish and was raised with a heightened awareness of discrimination and scapegoating, though my family’s been here a while—since the 1840s on my mother’s side and at least the 1860s on my dad’s.”

After studying communications and public policy at U.C. Berkeley, but changing focus and graduating with a degree in the literature of the theater, Shawl moved to New York City in her mid-twenties and got a job at the National Council of Churches. “That began my work with Christian ecumenical organizations that I discovered were doing really wonderful things.”

Shawl returned to the West Coast after two years, found property in Lakebay, and started to build in 1976. She went to work at Associated Ministries in Tacoma and later for the YWCA abused women’s shelter and the Martin Luther King Center, providing housing and services to the homeless.

“There was a period where I was intentionally doing a lot of part-time stuff because I had discovered Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, resisting the Trident submarine homeport in Bangor,” she said.

“For many years that was the total focus of my life; trying to bring people in Kitsap County, especially people in the Navy, to the realization that if we can risk nuclear war, we can risk disarmament.”

"A snowflake weighs nothing but enough of them can bring down a tree."

Every Thursday for 17 or 18 years Shawl went to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton at six in the morning to pass out flyers to people going to work. The flyers might be about the moral dilemma of the defense worker, the environment, or “about how a snowflake weighs nothing but enough of them can bring down a tree,” she said. Not all of the workers were receptive, “but I ended up marrying one of them. It was the epitome of ‘we’re all in this together; we have to talk to each other.’ ”

They started dating in 1985. “Richard wanted to get married, I didn’t want to get married, I had never been married, there was no need to get married,” she said. “But when he got sick, I figured the most radical way I could tell him I loved him was to say ‘yes.’ ”

Shawl’s husband died of cancer in 1998.

Ground Zero also practiced civil disobedience, including trespassing on the Navy base or stopping traffic.

“When we got a trial by jury, we got quite a few ‘not guilty’ verdicts from local people, but not always,” Shawl said. “I ended up in jail a few times and then went to federal prison for six months.”

Shawl and a few others sat down on railroad tracks to block a train. “That was the ‘white train,’ carrying warheads into Bangor,” she said.

“There were three of us who went in together. The other two were nuns, so it was assumed by a lot of people that I was also a nun, and I would get mail to Sister Sallie Shawl.”

Six weeks after her release in May 1990, Shawl returned to Associated Ministries of Tacoma as director of a program called Paint Tacoma/Pierce Beautiful, and stayed for 21 years. 

Shawl raised money for the program, recruited volunteers and created the homeowner selection process. “It was a logistical nightmare full of details, and for some reason I loved it,” she said. “The first year we did 29 houses, the next summer we did 36, the next summer was 57; one summer we painted 126 houses.”

In 2005, Shawl was also at work on the Key Peninsula where she helped create and run the Puget Sound Interfaith Youth Camp, a weeklong program conducted at the YMCA’s Camp Seymour.

“The camp was born out of the Islamophobia after 9/11,” she said. “We had Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Unitarian, Buddhist, a few kids with various earth-based beliefs who were really sweet, and humanists—we had them all.”

The annual program lasted five years. “We had 45 seventh and eighth graders the first year,” Shawl said. “We maxed out at 60 and went up to ninth grade after that first year because the eighth graders begged us, begged us, begged us to let them come back.”

"We’re all in this together; we have to talk to each other."

The program consisted of asking questions about different beliefs and learning to listen to the answers, and was entirely kid-driven, she said. 

“The first year, one of our faith leaders—we had adults from each faith tradition there to answer questions if the kids were stumped—had gold star stickers, and if you wanted you could write the initials BPM on the sticker and wear it. If you did that, you promised to attribute the ‘best possible motive’ to the person asking the question and not put them down or get offended. Everybody wanted one.” 

In 2013, Shawl received the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize, which included a trip to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that year when the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was the prize winner. 

Shawl said that recognition for The Interfaith Camp “was a big part of the award,” though her prize citation also listed her work leading or working with Tacoma Arabs, Jews and Others (TAJOS); Palestinian-Israeli Peace Endeavors (PIPES); Ground Zero Center; People for Peace, Justice, and Healing; United for Peace of Pierce County; the South Sound Peace and Justice Center formed to stop the Iraq war; and founding the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. 

Shawl retired in 2010, but her work continues.

“I’m involved with the southern border now,” she said. 

“We’re making people stay in Tijuana where they can be robbed or kidnapped and trafficked. I was in Tijuana; it’s dangerous. There were people who don’t speak Spanish or English and had an extremely difficult time navigating the red tape—minorities from Russia seeking asylum because of religious persecution, people from Iran seeking asylum because they converted to Christianity. 

“I found a group giving people as much information as possible about the process of coming into the U.S. If they can make it from Guatemala or El Salvador, they can make the right decisions for themselves—they’re survivors.” 

Shawl plans to return to the border. “If somebody speaks Spanish, if somebody is a pediatrician, if somebody can spend a week down there, lawyers are needed and you don’t have to speak Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m going to learn.”