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In Praise of Giraffes

John A. Graham ’64’s conflict-resolution work has taken him from apartheid-torn South Africa to meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, where he helped Palestinian and Israeli delegates find common ground. But the central story in his recent book Stick Your Neck Out: A Street-Smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond concerns something much closer to home: the Island County Citizens Coalition, which spent five years designing a comprehensive plan for the area’s long-term development. “Settling a conflict between farmers and environmentalists in Island County, Washington, is not a whole lot different from finding a solution to the West Bank or the Middle East,” Graham says. “The human elements are the same: getting people to trust each other, getting people to care for each other’s situation, and to treat each other with respect.”

The Giraffe Heroes Project, which Graham has helped lead for 23 years, aims to spread the word that “individual human beings have the power and the compassion to change the world in positive directions.” His circuitous path to Giraffes was also a personal transformation from thrill-seeker to peace-maker. After graduation, he spent a year as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe in Iraq, Afghanistan, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. He then joined the Foreign Service, which sent him into the Libyan revolution in 1969 and later to the northern border of what was then South Vietnam. Today Graham says of this time, “I was so intent on being a kind of John Wayne figure that whatever was gentle and compassionate in me just didn’t have a voice.”

John Graham extols those who stick their necks out.
Photo courtesy of John Graham

Then, in 1980, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations sent him to South Africa, where he met leaders of the antiapartheid movement. He describes Robert Sobukwe, under house arrest and dying of tuberculosis, as “the toughest man I had ever met.” Sobukwe insisted that his country’s real problem was helping blacks and whites to forgive one another. “He was changing the future of his country and yet he had no weapons,” Graham says. “He was just this scrawny, dying little old man.” Sobukwe’s example inspired Graham to risk his career by organizing a coalition of third-world diplomats who successfully pressured the United States to enforce its arms embargo against the South Africa government, one step in the final push to end apartheid.

Graham left the Foreign Service in 1983 to work with his future wife, Ann Medlock, the founder of the Giraffe Heroes Project, whose seemingly simple goal was to publicize stories of people who were sticking their necks out on behalf of their communities. The couple began by writing and delivering scripts of such stories to small-town radio stations, but within a few years they were covered by Time magazine and were recommending guests for morning talk shows. More important for Graham was the passionate response of the local communities they worked in. “I began to see the power of this approach of telling stories,” he says, “working with the heart part of a person instead of just the head part.”

No surprise, then, that Stick Your Neck Out, in addition to outlining practical skills such as lobbying, initiating litigation, and attracting media attention, is full of stories. Tales from the Foreign Service years often provide examples of what not to do, while the Island County Citizen’s Commission’s project illustrates the importance of patience and respect for one’s opponents. “For someone who believes what I believe, this is a very tough time. Every conflict seems to be spinning out of control,” Graham admits. “But that doesn’t discourage me in the least. I’m very optimistic when I look out there at all the good conservative people and the good liberal people trying to make a difference. There have to be enough people with enough compassion and courage to solve the problems that are in front of us.”             

~Emer Vaughn