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A woman of peace The new leader of the Western New York Peace Center gets a chance to continue her lifelong pursuit of social justice

Elea Mihou's graduate school classmates at UB may have gotten it right naming her as "Most Likely to Lead an Urban Revolution."

"After I took this job, a friend e-mailed me to say that now I had my chance," said Mihou, who became executive director of the Western New York Peace Center in August, one of the youngest of its six directors and the first woman.

As the Peace Center marks its 40th anniversary this month, Mihou will face plenty of issues.

Iraq looms large.

There's poverty-stricken Buffalo, obvious from her front office windows at the corner of Genesee Street and Bailey Avenue, as well as international projects.

And locally, the Center has faced sharp criticism from the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group of academic faculty members worldwide who hold that the Peace Center has become a forum for anti-Israeli views.

Seated at her desk in the modest center headquarters, Mihou, 29, will oversee all such concerns and more. And she's doing it as a relative newcomer to Buffalo.

"I can spell Cheektowaga on my good days," she admits, "but I still have trouble with some of the upstate spelling and pronunciations."

What she lacks in local knowledge, she makes up for with home-grown activism and formal education in anthropology, urban planning and international affairs.

As a youngster, in Cincinnati, she accompanied her mother, who worked and volunteered at a Unitarian Church. "I was brought to demonstrations and always around people interested in social justice," said Mihou.

From her father, who fled war in Northern Greece, Mihou acquired a revulsion for violence. "He wouldn't even let us watch a show with any violent acts without sitting down to discuss it later," said Mihou.

For a long time, she said, Mihou harbored a desire to become a Unitarian minister. "In some ways this doesn't feel too far removed," she said. "The membership here is very diverse. We work with faith communities. We share common concerns for social justice. And those all feel Unitarian to me."

>Stirring things up

When she enrolled at Northern Kentucky University, she experienced far less activism than she'd known at home. "I wanted to be in activist circles, but Kentucky just was what it was," she said.

Mihou stirred things up.

After hearing journalist Anne Braden and civil rights leader Julian Bond speak, she felt "very inspired by their call for student leadership."

That led her to found an anti-sweatshop group and an anti-racism group. "In Kentucky, people thought it was really peculiar that a white woman would be so concerned about racism," said Mihou.

After graduation, Mihou worked for a mental health agency. "But I felt I was setting clients up for failure because a lot of what they needed didn't exist," she said.

She decided she'd rather be in a position of making policies that could affect more people, she said. Supported by a HUD fellowship, Mihou enrolled at UB and has been in Buffalo for a little more than two years.

For her graduate work, she collaborated on a report assessing multihazard response efforts -- "one of my deepest interests."

"What I learned was how difficult it is to assess potential disasters. We really wished we knew the worst possible events, but we found that it's about impossible to figure them out."

In part, her interest may have been intensified by a personal tragedy. "Before coming to graduate school I was in a fire and I realize how horrific a disaster can be and how suddenly it can occur," said Mihou, whose boyfriend died in that apartment fire.

>Peace projects

Among projects that she'll oversee are the dental clinic that the Center runs in Chiapas, Mexico; sponsorship of children in Haiti; relief work in Peru and other humanitarian projects.

"We have so many task forces," she said. "I think there's something to be said for doing less, better.

"Also, we have to be better about communicating our victories. To a certain extent, if people don't know about it, it didn't happen."

And she wants to be more thorough in educating Peace Center members on how to communicate with elected representatives. "We have to be strategic in who we are targeting and what we hope to accomplish," said Mihou. "The other side has well-groomed lobbying efforts and we should try to approach that, even if we don't have the kind of pockets they do."

Asked how she keeps up with the myriad issues related to peace and justice, Mihou said that after studying international affairs in college, she continues to read constantly and studies briefings on worldwide situations.

In response to criticism from the Scholars for Peace, she said: "Our goal is for peace and to raise the idea that all life is valuable, that Palestinian life is as valuable as Israeli life. What we want is peace there, to be in accord with negotiations and international peace agreements."

As for Iraq, the hottest issue internationally: "I definitely wouldn't want to leave Iraq in an even worse state, but it'll be a mess whether we leave today or in 10 years. So it's not a question of whether, but of how many lives are lost and how much money we'll spend.

"A part of me fears Iraq might be another Vietnam, where it has to become so clear that it's not winnable and there has to be so much loss of life that it's utterly blatant."

>Learning process

Her qualifications for being executive director of the Peace Center?

Mihou said she thinks her organizational abilities, her desire to develop relationships and a youthful approach all factor into what she brings to the position.

For now, she's learning the ropes about board meetings, writing reports, meeting members, fundraising, press releases. "I have a marathon day several times a week," said Mihou, who enjoys the outdoors, travel and is becoming an appreciator of good food and wine. "I can be very entertained just sitting in Delaware Park, people watching."

Despite her youth and the obvious challenges of the position, Mihou said she has the sense that this is exactly where she should be, bolstered by her background in service, fundraising, activism, social work, public policy.

"It's been a lifelong quest to figure out how to contribute," she said. "A part of me feels overwhelmed by how much needs to happen, but it doesn't matter how much work there is, it has to be done. I think I'm both encouraged and discouraged. It sort of depends on the day.

"I hope to offer a sense that we are a government, we are a system, and we have a responsibility to be engaged in it."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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