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Throwing Arms Control a Lifeline (Through Mentorship)

Two experts explain why mentorship and creating space are essential to the advancement of the nuclear field.

Words: Mari Faines and William D. Hartung
Pictures: Stormseeker

Mentorship can be a tough task, and one that many don’t want to do — or don’t know how to do. But it’s a necessity for any field to thrive. For the field of nuclear disarmament and arms control, the use of this tool is both necessary and urgent as current leaders age and younger experts and advocates have yet to be given the space or the responsibility needed to develop into a new generation of leadership.

History takes unpredictable turns, but current trends suggest that repairing the global architecture of nuclear arms control and making progress toward nuclear prohibition will be a marathon, not a sprint. Years, if not decades, of work stand before us. Therefore, our prospects for success are not simply rooted in the now but in the future, one that includes new voices, new ideas, and a more diverse group of individuals working toward these goals. This is a minimum precondition for success. Yet, a quick look at the organizational charts of organizations focused on nuclear arms control and disarmament underscores the urgent need to cultivate a more diverse, younger cohort of experts and advocates and to help them succeed as they join the fight.

At present, there are many examples and forms of mentorship in the field. Our experiences are just one piece of a larger picture, and we share them as a way to underscore the value of the experience for mentors and mentees alike. One thing is clear: current formal programs and informal examples of mentoring are far short of what is needed for the field of nuclear arms reductions to survive at a level that can make a difference.

A Message for Our Future from Mari

As a younger member of the field, I often hear from our more seasoned counterparts that: “Young people just don’t understand or they don’t care.” As individuals, we are constantly berated with reminders that our thoughts and our work aren’t valued because we “don’t have the experience of our older colleagues.” This is getting the field nowhere — except maybe an abundance of cyclical ideas that don’t allow us to innovate or ideate toward our goals. 

There is value in those who have been doing this work for a long time. But there is also value in the lived experience and innovation that is brought to the table by the new and diverse voices. We must stop cycling the same ideas and expecting new results. This is a field that now has the depth and diversity of five generations and multiple backgrounds. This should not be seen as a hindrance but rather an opportunity to innovate. Members of the disarmament field have often complained that “the other side” has more money and more capacity for persuasion. That may be true at the moment — but they don’t have more innovative ideas, harder-working activists and experts, or people-powered opportunities for persuasion. In order to build a resilient, sustainable, equitable, and effective field, we have to tap into these things. 

We need to collaborate across generations, and that starts with healthy and positive forms of mentorship. This kind of cooperation and mutual respect can provide a response the kinds of arguments presented in a July 2023 article in Politico that bemoaned the “disappearance of the nuclear expert” but focused more on the aging out of current analysts than on the untapped possibilities that can flow from training and encouraging a new generation of leadership for the nuclear field. 

“For me, linking racial injustice to nuclear disarmament began during the Black Lives Matter movement. I saw the clear intersection between social justice (particularly policing and militarization) and the need for disarmament. Mentorship encouraged me to engage in conversations with colleagues and peers to explore these and other intersections.”

Mari Faines

An effective future for the field requires acknowledging the lived and diverse experiences of people in the space. We can do that while still acknowledging our past. For me, linking racial injustice to nuclear disarmament began during the Black Lives Matter movement. I saw the clear intersection between social justice (particularly policing and militarization) and the need for disarmament. It was through the mentorship of Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins’ among others that encouraged me to engage in conversations with colleagues and peers to explore these and other intersections. In short, meet them where they are. It was in these interactions that I was reminded that my intersectional fight was multigenerational — one that had been erased and ignored but that dated back even further than the civil rights era. This reminder, among others, proves that there are commonalities in our stories. But most importantly, I felt heard and seen by my mentors. I felt empowered, and now, as a mentor, I continue to see the value in learning from those with different perspectives.

If the knowledge of the “old guard” of the nuclear arms control and disarmament movement is to be meaningfully shared with myself and the younger generations, then mentorship is essential. No longer can we sit in age silos, where knowledge is only shared with “peers,” while others wait while it trickles down to other generations when it behooves us. The knowledge must become equitable engagement where sharing should involve more than just transmitting substantive information and analysis, as important as that is; it should also mean helping to create more seats at the tables where decisions about strategy, funding, and priority activities are made. In other words, innovation is — and should be seen — as an important part of mentorship.

From Bill’s Desk

I have been working on nuclear issues for over four decades, and I believe that the biggest source of hope for progress comes from embracing the ideas and skill sets of a new generation of experts and advocates. By far, my most rewarding work in recent years has come from connecting with younger colleagues for a combination of wide-ranging conversation and concrete advice on issues ranging from how to write and place articles to how to carve out a career path at a time when funding for addressing the nuclear danger is being sharply reduced. 

Mentorship is not a one-way street. Many in the field can learn from younger advocates and experts about how to promote anti-nuclear ideas. ​In my experience, most younger experts and advocates will have a more creative and optimistic approach and, in many cases, also have more ambitious goals for the field than some long-standing members of the community. Also, younger colleagues often have a more holistic political analysis, which is more aligned with why I got into this work in the first place.

Working across generations and backgrounds has allowed me to learn from younger colleagues about the importance of focusing on the human consequences of nuclear weapons development, production, and deployment. These consequences include everything from the impact on uranium miners from southern Africa to the southwestern United States to the health effects of nuclear radiation on people living near nuclear testing grounds to the experiences of groups and individuals displaced to make room for nuclear weapons facilities. These themes connect back to the approaches I took in the earliest years of my social and political development, from solidarity with the Chilean resistance to the US-backed regime of Agosto Pinochet to support for the boycott and arms embargo against apartheid South Africa. In both cases, exposing the human impacts of government policies was a key to recruiting new people to the cause.

Building For the Future

Without more widespread use of mentorship, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build a healthy and effective nuclear weapons reduction field going forward. But even the best mentoring in the world will be of limited value to the field if there is nowhere for those who have been mentored to apply their skills and energy. 

“Many in the field can learn from younger advocates and experts about how to promote anti-nuclear ideas. ​In my experience, most younger experts and advocates will have a more creative and optimistic approach and, in many cases, also have more ambitious goals for the field than some long-standing members of the community.”

William D. Hartung

Without new resources or re-allocation of funds that exist, mentoring alone cannot help fill the “missing middle” in the nuclear field. There is a limited career ladder in the nuclear field, especially among nongovernmental organizations working on the issue. This can have one of two results. In the best case, it creates a healthy flow of committed individuals into Congress and the executive branch to work on nuclear issues. Unfortunately, more often, it creates a “brain drain” in which promising young professionals leave the nuclear field altogether for lack of sustainable, reasonably compensated positions. Perhaps the most important potential outcome of mentorship and increased investment in keeping younger analysts and advocates in the nuclear field is the ability to bring new ideas, diverse experiences, and new voices to the field. There is value in diversity, not just of people but of thought. 

There is a time and a place for a myriad of types of mentorship. Programs facilitated by coalitions or individual organizations have helped create pipelines, but the number of individuals served is small relative to the need. And it’s important to remember that mentorship doesn’t always have to be formal. Informal interactions are just as important, including reaching out to colleagues to get their takes on key issues, finding areas of innovation and collaboration, or simply creating space to have healthy dialogues about their futures. This kind of mentoring can be done without a major new infusion of funds. Whether mentoring is done in a formal or informal context, the best thing you can do is to start engaging with more diverse and intergenerational colleagues. 

So How Do We Get It Done?

All of the above underscores the urgency of promoting mentorship as a matter of survival. No one can live forever. The anti-nuclear and arms control movements will benefit from the increased effectiveness that will come from encouraging new voices to help shape the future of the field. This will provide informal mentoring and relationship building across generations as well as an increase in formal mentoring programs of a kind that a number of organizations have already undertaken. This means a field-wide commitment to making mentoring a priority. It may require a change in how current, limited funds are spent, even as we continue the urgent effort to expand the resources available to organizations working on arms control and disarmament. 

Mentoring and support for individuals entering the field, as well as those in the middle, should be a top priority, not something that is supported by the funds left over when other traditional priorities are met. It might even be worth setting informal guidelines to encourage senior leaders to spend a certain amount of time mentoring younger staff on a regular basis. The concept of mentoring can and should extend to interested individuals and advocates who volunteer time and effort to the cause without being paid to do so. 

A Call to Reflect

This piece is not a call out but rather a call to arms. It’s a moment for people to reflect on where they sit in the hierarchy of the nuclear field. Ask yourself, what am I doing to make this a sustainable, resilient, innovative, and effective space? If you look at your contacts right now, is there a person of a different generation you could reach out to, check in with, innovate, or collaborate on a project with? If the answer is no, then it’s time to think about why.

Far from being a distraction from other priorities or a burden to be taken on in addition to an extremely busy workload, mentoring can be an inspiring — dare we say joyous — undertaking. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s our best chance to build a community of individuals and organizations that can make a real difference. This field will only ever achieve its goals if we create a more equitable space that includes the next generation of voices.

Mari Faines and William D. Hartung

Mari Faines (she/her) is a Senior Fellow at Win Without War Education Fund, a social justice, diversity & equity activist, and former podcast host. Her work specializes in nuclear intersectionality, conflict resolution, transitional justice, and racial and systemic disparities. William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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