In the heart of Bellingham, tucked away in a brick building, is an office plastered with signs that read “love is stronger than fear” and “war is not the answer.” The room’s perimeter is lined with books that make up the Peace Library. Aline Prata, wearing a “no justice, no peace” shirt, works at a computer as people walk by the window.
Prata’s smile is contagious and her presence is strong. She is the executive director of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center (WPJC), a nonprofit organization aimed to foster peace and social justice in the county and worldwide using tactics such as direct action and education. Most of WPJC’s funding comes from individual contributors.
In 2002 — one year after the United States invaded Afghanistan — the concept for the WPJC was born through Bellingham’s Peace Vigil. According to Prata, the Friday Afternoon Peace Vigil on the corner of Magnolia Street and Cornwall Avenue remains the longest-running weekly peace vigil in the country. Those involved in the vigil decided they needed a space to gather and have conversations about the United State’s political climate and what changes they wanted to make.
“We thought that it was important to have a physical space, a diverse board, an agenda, and a peace calendar,” Prata says. “My favorite way to describe the center is that we’re a small, but fierce volunteer-powered nonprofit, a community hub, and resource center for activists of all ages and backgrounds.”
As the WPJC was being formed, Prata was a young girl being raised by three strong women in Brazil. At age 13, while earning her technical degree, she took interest in environmental justice because of an Earth Day celebration. She connected with the event’s organizers and became part of the student’s movement.
“That’s how I became a little bit more politicized. First being just interested in environmental issues, and then learning how they intersect with class, race, gender, militarization,” Prata says.
After studying abroad in 2012 at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Prata finished her undergraduate degree in Brazil at the Federal University of São Carlos. At the time, Brazil was polarized and about to have a coup that would take over Dilma Rousseff, the first democratically elected woman president. Brazil was also a dangerous place for environmental activists, so Prata decided to move to Bellingham in 2015 to attend grad school at Western Washington University.
Prata soon discovered how difficult it was to find a community in Bellingham, a city she says is embedded in white supremacist culture. While earning a master’s in Environmental Studies, she felt isolated at WWU as she was one of few women of color in the program at Huxley College. She returned from her field work in 2016 after the election of Donald Trump.
“I used a lot of the political analysis that I had on the ground through my praxis to also talk about decolonial knowledge production, imperial imbalances, and the neoliberalization of education,” Prata says.
In March of 2021, she submitted her thesis — which focuses on science policies and how they affect user-engaged research in Brazil and Peru — and after an almost three-year long and exhausting application process, she finally received her Green Card in June of 2021.
Amid receiving her master’s and becoming a U.S. resident, Prata began volunteering for the WPJC, helping however the organization needed. She became the executive director in 2019, which she considers a dream job.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to look forward to coming to work and having cool people to learn from and learn with,” Prata says. “It’s a space of envisioning, it’s a space of belonging, it’s a space of so much radical imagination and praxis and education. So, that makes me proud.”
As the executive director, Prata was heavily involved in keeping the WPJC active during the pandemic, a time in which events were cancelled and gatherings forbidden. Prata looks forward to in-person events, as well as reopening the center as a gathering space for community members to learn about and discuss social justice and alternatives to violence and war.
Next year, the WPJC plans to launch a youth award named after Dotty Dale, a peace elder and activist who was one of the center’s original supporters. The center also selects a Lifetime Peacemaker Award, given annually at the International Day of Peace event. This event honors Howard and Rosemary Harris, founders of Bellingham’s Peace Vigil in 1967 — the vigil that would, decades later, inspire community members to create Whatcom’s Peace and Justice Center. 1220 Bay St., Bellingham, 360-734-0217, whatcompjc.org