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Woman of Conscience : Activism's a 'Very Personal Thing' for Leader of Amnesty International, USA

June 05, 1992|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MORENO VALLEY — Carole Nagengast's desk blotter is filled with jottings: "Iraq team special project . . . police and nat'l guard deportations . . . angry people . . . Center for Victims of Torture." Her office, fitted into a back bedroom of a rustic house in the woods, seems an unlikely place to face the world's ominous concerns and cruelty.

Nagengast, however, chairs the board of an organization that, she says flatly, raises "a big stink"--Amnesty International, USA.

The 400,000-member group is a branch of the worldwide organization that works for the release of all prisoners of conscience, fair and prompt trials for political prisoners and an end to torture and executions. Currently, Nagengast is preparing for the annual general meeting, scheduled later this month in Los Angeles. About 2,000 members, from many of the group's 500 community and 1,500 academic chapters, are expected.

But Nagengast's involvement with Amnesty International has drawn on far more than her organizational skills and ability to run meetings. A member of AI since 1977, Nagengast and her husband, Michael Kearney, a UC Riverside anthropologist, founded the Riverside chapter in 1979.

Their activism deepened their commitment to the point that they housed a former Paraguayan torture victim in that same back bedroom for two years.

In the mid 1980s, Constantino Coronel, secretary general of an agricultural union, had been released from five years of imprisonment and sent into exile. He had been adopted as a "prisoner of conscience" by the Riverside group and, after learning of his release, it found him work with Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers in Keene. However, torture had left him severely damaged physically and emotionally and Coronel couldn't handle a job. He lived with Nagengast and Kearney until the political climate changed sufficiently in Paraguay for him to risk a return, where he remains.

Nagengast doesn't seem to regard taking a stranger into her home as extraordinary. In fact, she repeatedly points out, AI is an organization of very ordinary people:

"We do behave as if Constantino was a member of our family and we do all the things we'd do if he was our brother or sister."

Thus, she says, the letters to the Paraguayan government and Coronel; the contact with trade unions and members of Congress; the demonstrations and vigils:

"That's what we do. It's a very personal thing . . . .

"I value my own freedom so much--it may sound crazy--but I really feel I'm defending my own rights."

In 1977, Nagengast, recently divorced and the mother of three young children, traveled to Poland. A graduate student in anthropology, she explored the possibility of field work in a Polish village. A tour of cultural and historical sites took her to Auschwitz. Her life has never been the same.

"It was a seminal experience," she says. " Human rights abuse is such an abstraction. But all of those photos--those faces of people who are gone, the bins of human hair. They gave it a reality it otherwise didn't hold for me--in my gut."

That same year, Amnesty International, which formed in London in 1961, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Nagengast returned to California and joined the organization through its newly opened Los Angeles office.

A full-time student--en route to a master's degree from UC Riverside and a Ph.D. from UC Irvine--she was not immediately active. Rather, she took her children to Poland and settled into a village for a year's research on rural entrepreneurs in a socialist system.

When she returned to Riverside, however, she and future husband Kearney formed AI Group 163 there in 1979. Since then, they have spent almost every Saturday morning at the Riverside meetings.

"We were both activists involved in various political things," she says, including work with Central American refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.

One thing led to another. Kearney's anthropology and activism intertwined, and involved Nagengast. Kearney's aid to some undocumented Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca in Mexico, in trouble with the law in Riverside, resulted in both anthropologists' long-term relationship with Mixtecs in Oaxaca. It led Nagengast to research human rights of indigenous people and migrant workers.

Phone calls to and from Mixtec friends in Mexico are frequent, and a family of migrant workers from Oaxaca now lives in a mobile home a few yards from their house.

Nagengast shrugs: "They needed a place to park their trailer."

Just as casually, she explains Coronel's two-year residence: "I don't remember ever talking about it. That's just what had to be done."

She laughs: "Michael and I sort of have this lifestyle. We're human rights activists. You never know who you're going to find when you walk through the door."

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