Cynthia Lazaroff is an award-winning filmmaker and founder of NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to catalyzing efforts in US-Russian relations to reduce the escalating nuclear danger, and to working with people in all countries to move toward a world without nuclear weapons. Over the past forty years, Cynthia has been engaged in Track II and 1.5 diplomacy with Russia and the former Soviet Union, and is currently convening an online mentoring program for women to democratize nuclear policy and build a global movement of women and girls working together to eliminate nuclear weapons. She recently spoke with us on her first grant from Ploughshares Fund, her accomplishments and current projects, and what you can do to continue supporting her work.
What was your reaction when you found out that you received a grant?
I was thrilled – and deeply honored to join the company of the wonderful grantees Ploughshares was supporting!
It was February 1987 – 34 years ago when I got word that Ploughshares had awarded me my first grant as an individual – a Women’s Leadership grant. Ploughshares support came at such a critical time for me. I was serving as Executive Director of the US-USSR Youth Exchange Program. Ploughshares had already made a huge difference in our work by generously supporting the Youth Exchange Program. As we were getting started in the early 80s, Ploughshares took the lead and was the first peace and security foundation to fund our program, which inspired other foundations to follow! We were launching an educational campaign, creating and distributing an innovative curriculum to break through enemy stereotypes, and pioneering the first Soviet-American youth exchanges in art, education, theater, film, sports, wilderness adventures, urban leadership and environmental service.
I am ever grateful that my first Ploughshares grant made it possible for me to take my work to the next level and expand all aspects of my work in US-Soviet relations – from educational efforts and public speaking to launching new exchange programs, including one that is still very dear to me because it planted seeds for the work I am doing with women on nuclear issues today: the first Soviet-American Women’s Wilderness Dialogue.
Photo from the first Soviet-American Women’s Wilderness Dialogue in the Tien Shan Mountains in 1987.
This Dialogue took place in the remote Tien-Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan and would mark the first time women from the two countries would spend two weeks together in the wilderness, hiking, climbing and getting to know each other. We talked about many things, our personal lives, hopes and fears, the challenges of Soviet-American relations, nuclear war, the arms race, women’s issues such as balancing family and career, and more. We were honored to have many distinguished American women leaders in our group, including Mayor Lottie Shackelford, the first woman to be elected Mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. Lottie said, “We talked a great deal about the fears that both sides felt for nuclear war. Their fears were just as great as American fears.” In a deep resonance with concerns about military spending today in light of the resources desperately needed to address the existential threats of the pandemic and climate change, Lottie went on to say, “I think it was acknowledged by both groups that both countries would be better able to address their individual problems if the defense budgets were not of such magnitude. If those budgets were decreased, the money could be used in other areas.”
Today such a dialogue might not seem significant. Back then, the Soviet Union was just opening up under Gorbachev, and every exchange like this was the first of its kind. We built new bridges of cooperation and understanding and established precedents for future exchanges.
As a Ploughshares grantee in the 1980s, I had the honor and privilege of getting to know Ploughshares Founder, Sally Lilienthal who became my dear friend and who inspires me to this day. I miss her now more than ever. Sally used to scold me for leaving the field to do environmental work after the end of the Cold War. I wish she were here now so that I could tell her that former US Secretary of Defense William Perry woke me up and that I’m fully reengaged with this work. I wish Sally could see the seeds blossoming today from my first grant with the Soviet-American Women’s Wilderness Dialogue into Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy, an international mentoring program that I’ve just launched with deep gratitude to the Ploughshares Women’s Initiative for making this possible with their generous support.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in this field?
What brings me the greatest joy in this work is playing a role in inspiring and empowering others to act to make a difference. I love awakening people to action, to touch hearts, open minds. I love being a midwife and witness to someone claiming their seat at the table for the first time to change our nuclear story, to transform our nuclear legacy, to work towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. This makes me proud.
Today I am most proud of the young ones like Mahina Alexander, who had never engaged in any kind of work on nuclear issues before. She came to me with tears in her eyes and asked, “Do you really think someone like me can have a voice in this work?” When I answered “YES!” she asked me to mentor her and dedicated herself to learning as much as she could about nuclear weapons. Now she has claimed her seat at the table and shared Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy (WTONL) with her 200,000 Instagram followers!
I am most proud of the hundreds of women like Mahina who have joined WTONL from all over the world, who are awakening to action, who are moving beyond fear and acting with love for life and all we hold dear on this Earth, who are claiming their seat at the table to change our nuclear story and eliminate nuclear weapons.
What are you working on today?
I founded NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth on Hiroshima Day in 2018 and we focus on three areas:
First, we work to awaken the public to nuclear dangers and offer people concrete ways they can get involved in efforts to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe and move towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. I love sharing my story of the Hawaii False Alarm to connect with people and personalize the stakes in the hopes that this can serve to inspire people to act. A driving principle here is the existential imperative to democratize nuclear policy. Our lives are at stake. If nuclear weapons can destroy all of us, we all have a seat to claim at the table to eliminate them.
Second, recognizing the United States and Russia still possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, we work on catalyzing efforts to realize our shared interest in US-Russia relations to reduce tensions and the escalating nuclear danger. We encourage the US and Russia to restore a dialogue on nuclear cooperation and hold the high aspiration that the two countries will once again move to massive reductions in nuclear arsenals as a pathway to the elimination of nuclear weapons, championed by both Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s and mandated by Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Like in the 1980s, we are creating “Track II” citizen diplomacy initiatives in education, outreach, film, music and cultural exchange. I am especially excited to be collaborating on Bering Strait for Peace, a gathering of indigenous peoples from the US and Russia in the Bering Strait, where they will share ceremony, culture, music and dance, with plans to launch a joint marine conservation and climate change monitoring effort in the Bering Strait.
Third, and what inspires me the most right now, is Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy (WTONL), an international program dedicated to women mentoring and collaborating with women to democratize and transform nuclear policy that I launched in 2020, all thanks to the generous support of the Ploughshares Women’s Initiative!
Photo from the inaugural session of Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy, held on September 26, 2020.
At WTONL we recognize that since the dawn of the nuclear age, women have been at worst, completely, or at best, largely shut out of nuclear decision-making and policy-making, and that excluding women – half of the human race – has brought us to the brink of possible extinction. We affirm it is an existential imperative that today women come forward to lead, to transform our nuclear policy and eliminate nuclear weapons.
At WTONL we work to change the game by fostering a new generation of women leaders in peace and nuclear policy-making, by building nuclear literacy, and by catalyzing a global movement of women and girls working together to reduce the nuclear risk and abolish nuclear weapons.
I am heartened and inspired by the hundreds of women from over 38 countries, including 8 of the 9 nuclear-armed states – who are joining WTONL, awakening to action and claiming their seats at the table to eliminate nuclear weapons – from teenage girls to women in their 80s, from newcomers to nuclear issues to women across a spectrum of the nuclear space, those currently or formerly working for the governments of their countries, those working for national, regional or international peace, security and disarmament organizations, and activists.
What drives you to do this work?
This work is personal for me. After the Cold War ended, I thought I could stop worrying about nuclear war, and I shifted from working on disarmament to endangered coral reefs and climate change. That all changed in 2017 when I interviewed dozens of top experts on nuclear dangers for US-Russia Relations: The Quest for Stability, a documentary supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Every person I interviewed reawakened me to today’s staggering nuclear danger. The two people who had the greatest impact on me were former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former US Secretary of Defense William Perry. Secretary Perry told me,
“Today the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger...Because we don't understand the dangers, we make no serious attempt to repair the hostility between the United States and Russia. And so we are allowing ourselves to sleepwalk into another catastrophe. We must wake up.”
At that moment, I realized that I had been sleepwalking since the end of the Cold War. After these interviews, I came home to Hawaii at the height of the “fire and fury” between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in December 2017. Nuclear tensions were high here in Hawaii because we knew we had been marked as a target on North Korea’s nuclear map of death. We were receiving instructions from the state on how to prepare for and survive a nuclear attack.
Then, just a few weeks later, on January 13, 2018, I was one of over a million people across the Hawaiian Islands who got this message on my cell phone:
“Inbound missile threat to Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This is Not A Drill.”
When I got a call from a journalist who told me that our county government officials were urging us to take shelter, I thought, “My God, this is real,” and rushed to prepare, confronting the existential questions of where to shelter, what to take, how much food and water for my family, all the while wondering how many minutes we had left before the missile strike. I didn’t know if it was one nuclear missile from North Korea or many missiles – the beginning of a full-scale accidental nuclear war with Russia, the beginning of the end of everything and everyone we know and love and cherish on this Earth. Like hundreds of thousands of others across the Hawaiian Islands, the moment it became most real for me was when I called my daughter in LA to say “I love you,” and “Good-bye.”
After 38 minutes, we got this emergency alert message:
“There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False alarm.”
Even with everything I knew about nuclear war and nuclear weapons, nuclear war was unimaginable to me—until I went through those 38 minutes.
Cynthia recalls this experience during an interview on our podcast Press the Button. Listen below:
Now the terror, the risk, the need to transform our nuclear legacy, the need to wake up, to realize that we’re in this danger and to do something about it—that mandate, that knowledge, that responsibility, as a mother, as a human being, lives inside of me. It’s in my gut. And it will never leave me – until we eliminate nuclear weapons.
This is why it’s personal for me and this is why I’ve joined forces with many others and started NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth.
How can people help you realize your goals?
In our inaugural session of Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez who presided over the negotiations at the UN for the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, said, “History is made by the steps that people take every day in their lives.”
She planted the seed that each and every one of us can make a difference, can change history, can take steps in our daily lives to impact our nuclear legacy. We’re all in this together, we all have a role to play, we all have a seat at this table because our lives are at stake. And we don’t have a moment to spare.
My prayer, my invitation is for people to awaken to action, to claim their seat at this table, to discover and claim their place in this work. To work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, to change our nuclear story, to make history, like Ambassador Whyte says, by the steps they take every day in their lives. To act as though their lives depend on it because they do.
This is what is most needed to realize our goal of abolishing nuclear weapons.
We would love for people to join us as we play our part in working towards this goal at NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth:
We invite and welcome everyone to join us at Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy, in catalyzing a global movement of women of women and girls to reduce the nuclear risk and eliminate nuclear weapons!
We invite and welcome everyone to join our citizen diplomacy efforts with Russia, to reduce tensions and the nuclear risk, to call for renewed massive reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the two countries with over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, an imperative step towards the elimination of nuclear weapons!
We welcome and are so very grateful for donations to support our work!
When people ask me what they can do personally I say:
“You can start by educating yourself on the escalating nuclear danger so you can act from an informed, factual picture of our highly weaponized world.”
“You can do your part to catalyze a national conversation on nuclear policy. You can spread the word, talk to everyone you know, your family, friends, co-workers. You can wake people up.”
“You can encourage the journalist community to join the conversation and fulfill their ethical obligation to keep us informed at all times about the clear and present existential nuclear danger – like they once did during the Cold War.”
“You can contact your Congressional Representatives, ask them what they know about the nuclear threat and what they are doing about it.”
“You can take a look at The Nuclear Playbook on our (the NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth) website – a ten step action program to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe and eliminate nuclear weapons with recommendations put forth by many nuclear experts, NGOs and activists.
“You can put The Nuclear Playbook in the hands of your Congressional Representatives and compel them to adopt all ten steps. It is up to us to compel our leaders to transform our nuclear policy and adopt The Nuclear Playbook so that we can survive our planet’s most dangerous time.”
“You can engage in creative citizen diplomacy with the peoples of Russia, China and other nuclear-armed states to reduce tensions and the nuclear risk, like we did in the 1980s.”
Ploughshares Fund is proud to have supported individuals and organizations working for over 40 years to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. Since being founded in 1981, our network of grantees and partners have been behind critical milestones in the history of arms control and threat reduction. My First Grant aims to celebrate our historical impact while also highlighting the pathways forward in the peace and security field being made by our current grantees. Follow these stories – past and present – at ploughshares.org or by tracking #MyFirstPFGrant and #PF40th.
Photo: Cynthia Lazaroff with Soviet and American youth in 1986. Photo by Anne Cahn, Vera Kopeiko