Town Square

On Deadline: Global Community disappears from Palo Alto

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Feb 26, 2011

A major component of the Palo Alto area’s history for more than a half century came to an end on New Year’s Eve when the Foundation for Global Community officially dissolved itself, ending a six-year process of winding down.

Assets are now being dispensed to other organizations, including some spinoff groups, that fit criteria that align with the Global Community’s beliefs and mission -- see .

Yet the organization will endure in the memories of literally thousands of persons it touched, sometimes deeply and sometimes without their knowledge, or negatively -- including me and my wife over several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s and in light incident when I was a young reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.

For 60 years, the organization went through a dynamic process of shifting its focus and creating spin-off efforts that focused on what some involved saw as an attempt at unification of science and religion, following in the philosophical footprints of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest-theologian and a geologist-paleontologist of a century ago.

Among other things, the organization is credited with ending the construction of nuclear power plants, primarily on the grounds that long-lasting and highly poisonous plutonium was simply too dangerous to the health of the world to continue creating with no fail-safe way of storing nuclear waste.

Promoting world peace and disarmament has been a continuing theme, based on the empowerment of individuals, a belief that the world, and the universe, is a single integrated system that encompasses both physical and spiritual/intellectual realities.

The organization evolved into an activist network that stood for promoting “life choices” over “death choices” from the individual/family level to global change.

Jim Burch, former Palo Alto mayor and a 40-year leader in the organization, joined with Palo Altan Don Fitton in outlining a detailed history of the group at a close-out event Dec. 31 that was featured Friday night in a Midpeninsula Community Media Center program. It was repeated Saturday night (Feb. 26) and will be repeated in future showings not yet scheduled.

That history, as could be expected, includes a heavy dose of controversy that peaked when it tackled nuclear power, stirring up leading nuclear-power advocates such as PG&E and Southern California Edison Company. Burch traveled the state debating Michael Peevey, now the president of the California Public Utilities Commission with a long history of promoting efficient energy usage. But at the time, Peevey was president of Southern California Edison, which was pushing nuclear power hard at the time.

The controversy also included some persons who were convinced by the early 1980s that it was a cult bent on infiltrating community organizations, from PTA chapters and school site councils to local government. The Palo Alto Weekly even ran a cover story about the group, then known as the Creative Initiative Foundation, an evolution from a confusing name, National Initiative. The organization was known earlier as Woman to Woman Building the Earth, and later designations included Sequoia Seminar, a major conference center in the Santa Cruz Mountains; Project Survival, the anti-nuclear-power effort; Beyond War; and finally Foundation for Global Community.

My personal experience with the group was overall positive. Starting a new family in Los Gatos while commuting to Palo Alto, my wife and I became hungry for some kind of intellectual discussion beyond baby talk. One night we attended a presentation at Los Gatos High School, our alma mater, called “Challenge to Change.”

That outreach program for Sequoia Seminars included an impressive multiple-projector slide show that interspersed images of health and peace with war scenes and nuclear explosions, and powerfully presented the life-choices vs. death-choices scenario. We were invited to attend a discussion group of the same name. Our first group was led by a delightful couple, Ed and Barbara Thomas, now residing in Grass Valley.

They led us gently through a series of topics, using the powerful tool of group dynamics to lead us to conclusions that in hindsight were fairly obvious. I jotted down notes in a small leather notebook, a practice I started as a memory-assist in late grade school.

Then my family moved to Menlo Park, and two or three years later my wife and I decided to participate in another Challenge-to-Change discussion group in the area. Ah, but now there were printed handouts with an attractive design on rich brown paper. I found out Friday that Burch, formerly in marketing, designed the materials.

As such they were impressive, but the seven tenets we’d arrived at by discussion in Los Gatos were now listed in print -- and I noticed some changes. I dug out my old notes and at the next meeting noted that one tenet, “Accept Authority,” had moved from down the list to number one. In our initial discussion, “authority” was defined as knowledge-based. But now the meaning had a connotation of following orders, and the fact that the young couple moderating the group had German accents didn’t help.

We progressed through another layer of more personal discussions in a second group, and finally attended a weekend event at the Sequoia Seminar center in the redwoods. It was a deeply moving weekend that got into some valuable areas of couples interactions. But at the end I raised an objection that the organization clearly had an underlying layer of being religious -- yet that was never indicated in the materials or Challenge to Change presentation.

“Why not just admit it?” I asked.

I later exchanged letters with early co-founder Harry Rathbun about that point, in a polite philosophical dialogue. The group had not yet launched its major anti-nuclear and antiwar efforts.

A second connection was when the group formed one of the most impressive demonstration teams I’ve ever seen. That involved hundreds of women, mostly upper middle class, who dressed in polyester pantsuits of pastel colors, representing all the colors in the rainbow. The women in various colors would march or circle together.

One demonstration was aimed at Palo Alto city government, and they expected the Palo Alto Times to cover it. They seemed to take it personally when reporter Mary Fortney (who died in January) didn’t show as expected. Someone suggested that the group of a couple dozen women take the demonstration to the newspaper, which they did.

This freaked out the building manager, a pretty conservative fellow, and a cluster of management and staff gathered inside the lobby, uncertain how to (or whether to) respond or call the police. I recognized some of the women, and on my own went outside and chatted with them in a friendly fashion. Mary showed up by then.

Then I asked if any had ever seen the backshop of a newspaper, still featuring large Linotype machines for typesetting and its own three-story high press. So I invited them all for a walk-through, further freaking out the building manager. At the end they thanked me and dispersed.

Burch recalls another demonstration that had an odd twist. Someone noticed that there were a group of official-looking men closely watching a demonstration in San Francisco and surmised (possibly from the short-brimmed hats and dark glasses that were the “FBI uniform” at the time) that it was the FBI. When they informed the women they said they knew that, and that three of the agents were husbands of women in pantsuits.

It was a unique organization that left a deep mark on the Palo Alto area, and far, far beyond.

AN INVITATION: Those who have been involved with or touched by the organization or its spinoffs, or concerned or critical of it, may comment below with personal accounts and memories.


Posted by John
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I remember one of my co-workers, who got heavily involved with this group. He became non-rational, though not irrational. It was clear to me that he had drunk the koolaid. It WAS a cult! It reminded me of Synanon, in the way it used psychological techniques on the serachers (like Jay T., apprently).

This group left a sad legacy of opposing nuclear power, something we dearly need.

It is so good that they are now gone.

Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 1, 2011 at 10:27 am

The article leaves out The Foundation's major contribution to Peninsula humor: inspiring the bumper sticker "Visualize Whirled Peas."

Its final physical legacy may be the signs in the parking lot at High and Everett, near its former HQ: "Visualize Being Towed."

Posted by They-Won't-Be-Missed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

> This group left a sad legacy of opposing nuclear power,
> something we dearly need.

Weren't they influential in the 1988 referendum to outlaw nuclear power in Palo Alto (or some such)?

> It is so good that they are now gone.

Ditto .. they won't be missed.

Posted by Carol Brouillet
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 4, 2011 at 9:46 am

Carol Brouillet is a registered user.

I attended many lectures and events at Foundation for Global Community and learned a great deal from the experience- all very positive which resulted in some serious collaborations which have spanned many, many years. I will always be appreciative of what they did. One thing Jay forgot to mention is the Earth flag or Earth image which they tried to get out to schools and seen widely, to shift human perspective of our relationship with other people outside the United States and across boundaries, to see ourselves as part of a whole. They also had a display of a "Walk Through Time."... which looked at the evolution of the planet, its lifeforms, and the recent arrival (in geological time) of the human species, designed again to get people to think more deeply about who we are and our relationship with the Universe, the planet, all the other lifeforms.

My life has been greatly enriched by their existence; they were a real gift to Palo Alto and the country.

Posted by John
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 4, 2011 at 6:26 pm


I should have mentioned those susceptible souls, sleeplessly seeking solace, sadly searching shallow, shady streams, shrinking and shirking and shouting, seeing shreads of subterfuge.

WT7 Truthers, anyone?

A cult, by any other name, is still a cult.

Posted by Beth
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 25, 2014 at 4:20 pm

I realize that I'm a bit late to the discussion, but wanted to input anyway. My parents were involved with the Creative Initiative Foundation in the 70's, and for our family, it was one of the most enriching, positive, life affirming things they could have done for us. I feel fortunate to have been a part of it growing up and it has affected my own growth as a human being teaching me compassion and care for our planet and the people on it. I am sad it is gone and it WILL be missed.

Posted by Gene F Day
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 7, 2015 at 10:35 pm

My ex-wife and I were deeply involved in this cult from 1967 to 1976. We actually led several,week-long events at Sequoia Seminar along with hundreds of meetings and other events. The thing that is missing from this thread is the central role of Emelia Rathbun, who was the motive force behind absolutely everything. She was the most powerful leader that I have ever known, absolutely remarkable. By the grace of God she had very little personal ego involved and, as a result, more positive things happened than negative ones. The anti-nuclear stance finally motivate me to quit. I am a scientist at heart and reason finally prevailed, but it was a close call.
I am glad that it is finally over. I am glad for my participation; I am a better person for it but it was becoming a negative thing for society as a whole.
Thirty-eight years later am in a good place. I will be eighty next year and I am grateful for my experience with this cult but i am surely glad that it is over.

Posted by Mary
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2015 at 9:09 pm

I'm actually from Colorado, where we had a fledgling organization of Creative Initiative. I think it was wonderful in the things we were taught, learned, and taught to others. It changed my life, promoted my religious beliefs, made my marriage strong, helped me to be a better parent and to develop the potential in my children. Beyond that, I could not go because I was unwilling to spend large amounts of time away from my growing family. I know the leaders were disappointed in me and had expectations that I didn't fulfill. However, there were hidden agendas, revealed slowly, that made me feel manipulated. Leadership here got on a power trip that was most confusing. So we had to leave, but I will always be very grateful for this experience.

Posted by Ted Miller
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Interesting that discussion still pops up after years and years. My late wife and I were very involved with CI for a number of years, attended Sequoia Seminars, participated in the Manna Mart and generally grew from the experience. My background being brought up in a dogmatic religious group left me gun-shy and I remember vividly a personal discussion with Harry Rathbun, who was the intellectual leader of the group, where I voiced my concerns. His response was "search for your personal truth and when you find it, embrace it... we'll never impose a belief system on you". Not long after as Beyond War troops reintegrated the organization with their energy and self righteousness, they introduced the "Book of Life" with the dictum "either sign the declaration (effectively a dogmatic statement of belief for the organization) or leave the organization". I left... sad but wiser.