Born in Chicago on December 10, 1952, Kathy Kelly earned a BA from Loyola University Chicago in 1974 and an MA from the Chicago Theological Seminary a few years later. During her time in seminary, she became involved with what she called the “wonderful community” of the Catholic Worker Movement (CWM). In about 1982, Kelly and a number of her fellow CWM members decided to stop paying taxes to the federal government, which they claimed was allocating “half” of all tax revenues to “defense expenditures” while neglecting the needs of people in poverty. Nor has Kelly ever paid any taxes since then. “The IRS has become my spiritual director,” she says. “They want to attach penalties and fines to anything I own. So I don’t own anything.” Kelly reports that her defiant approach to taxes and private property “feels liberating, oddly freeing.”
Kelly has taught in Chicago-area community colleges and high schools (including the St. Ignatius College Preparatory School) since 1974. In 1985 a Jesuit professional development grant enabled her to travel to Nicaragua to participate in a fast, protesting the activities of the U.S.-backed Contras who were fighting the Marxist government of President Daniel Ortega.
Over the years, Kelly has been arrested more than 60 times for her activism in the United States and abroad.
In late 1990 Kelly joined Bob Bossie and more than 75 additional peace activists on the so-called Gulf Peace Team, a delegation that assembled in a village on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia to protest the imminent Persian Gulf War. Kelly stayed there through the first 14 days of that conflict in January 1991, before Iraqi officials forced her and her comrades to relocate first to Baghdad and then to Amman, Jordan.
Kelly also helped organize nonviolent direct-action teams in Bosnia (1992 and 1993) and Haiti (1994).
After reading a December 1995 letter in the British medical journal The Lancet which said that 567,000 young Iraqi children had died as a direct result of the economic sanctions that the U.S. and the United Nations had placed on that country in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Kelly resolved to find a way “to challenge” those “immoral” sanctions and to raise awareness of the harm she believed they were doing. Toward that end, she founded Voices in the Wilderness (VW) in 1996. Characterizing the United States as an arrogant aggressor, Kelly condemned the “bullying and cruel posture” that America had taken against Iraq.
Between 1996 and the beginning of the Iraq War in March 2003, Kelly participated in 26 of VW’s 70 delegations to Iraq.
Kelly believes that Israel, like the U.S., also ranks among the world’s most egregious human-rights violators. In April 2002 she visited Jenin, the town where a recent Israeli military incursion against rampant Palestinian terrorist activity was being falsely depicted by propagandists as a massacre of innocent civilians.
In October 2002 in Chicago, the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA — People’s Weekly World — held a banquet where Kelly was honored with an award named after the late Chris Hani, a longtime member and leader of the South African Communist Party, and the Chicago-based left-wing activist Rudy Lozano.
In March 2003, Kelly traveled to Baghdad shortly before the start of the Iraq War. She remained there for two months, witnessing the U.S. invasion first-hand and narrating her observations for Western audiences via antiwar and religious witness websites.
In December 2003 Kelly said that if only “the Iraqi technocrats at a low level of government” had been “given time,” they “would have been able to wean the [Iraqi] government away from the control of the human rights abusers” — and thereby would have made the U.S. invasion unnecessary. “They would have needed some measure of prosperity [and] social services [and] communication” in order to achieve that goal, Kelly expanded, but “11 years of economic sanctions … [had] wrecked social services, the education system, and the communications infrastructure.”
Also in December 2003, Kelly said that “if Iraqis start to use nonviolent tactics of strikes, boycotts, sit-downs, fasting, walks, and effective slogans that communicate to the people in the U.S. that they’re not trying to bring harm to anybody, I think it could have a very strong impact.”
Kelly has been a member of the editorial advisory board of the Peace Majority Report since 2006. Other notable board members who have served alongside her include Medea Benjamin, Michael Lerner, Kevin Martin, Dave Robinson, and Susan Shaer.
In April 2004, Kelly announced that she was leaving VW. After that organization folded in 2005, Kelly became a co-coordinator of its successor group, Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCN), whose mission is to engage in “nonviolent resistance to U.S. war-making.”
In the summer of 2006, Kelly and other VCN activists traveled to Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, reporting on what Kelly characterized as Israel’s excessive use of force.
In 2007 Kelly spent five months living in Amman, Jordan, amongst Iraqis who had fled the war in their homeland.
In January 2009 Kelly helped organize “Camp Hope: Countdown to Change,” a 19-day vigil which was held two blocks from the Chicago home of then-President-Elect Barack Obama. The purpose of that initiative was to encourage Obama to enact some “profound policy changes.” Kelly herself spent most of that period in Egypt and Gaza, witnessing and reporting on Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day military incursion against Hamas‘s terrorist infrastructure in the region.
In 2010-11, Kelly made several visits to Afghanistan, where she met with Afghani youths, refugees, and representatives of several NGOs, and wrote reports on her experience.
From June 22 through July 9, 2011, Kelly was a passenger on The Audacity of Hope, a U.S. boat that was part of the anti-Israel Free Gaza Movement.
In November 2012 Kelly traveled to Gaza in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense,” the Jewish state’s military response to a dramatic escalation in rocket fire by Hamas terrorists in that region. She spent two weeks visiting bombing sites and interviewing survivors.
In May 2014 Kelly traveled to Jeju Island in South Korea to participate in protests against the construction of a naval base that would be used by the United States. According to the National Catholic Reporter: “Protests focused on threatened environmental and cultural damage, and also the undesirability for the region of an announced ‘Asia Pivot’ in U.S. military strategy.”
In August 2015 Kelly helped organize a 90-mile walk through Wisconsin, the purpose of which was to draw parallels between police violence against blacks inside the U.S., and American drone assassinations in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Kelly traveled to five cities in the Russian Federation in June 2016, seeking to discourage renewed hostilities between the U.S. and Russia. Most notably, Kelly reported about Russia’s concern regarding NATO’s growing military presence along its borders.
For additional information on Kathy Kelly, click here.
Further Reading: “Amal’s Birthday” (interview with Kathy Kelly, Yes Magazine, 12-31-2003); “Kathy Kelly” (NWTRCC.org, Keywiki.org and VCNV.org); “Hope and Vision” (Huffington Post piece on Camp Hope, 12-14-2008); “Start of the Season” (by Kathy Kelly, re: Free Gaza Movement, 7-7-2011); “Living the Eucharist: Resisting the Destruction of Jeju Island” (National Catholic Reporter, 11-12-2014).