In its early years, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) extended rehabilitative care to survivors in St. Paul, Minnesota, all of whom were refugees or asylum seekers. The very small team was focused on direct care, and Doug Johnson, CVT executive director from 1988-2012, was looking at growth in the other areas specified in the organization’s charter: research on effective methods, training to develop other clinicians around the world to expand capacity, and efforts to stop torture.
To expand in these directions required new program areas and new funding. CVT needed someone who could not only fundraise but think strategically and bring in the necessary funding to support new and much broader efforts for the long term.
That person was Pete Dross.
Doug hired Pete in 1993 as development director, and Pete had to hit the ground running. Only days after he started, CVT learned that Secretary of State Warren Christopher was visiting former Vice President Walter Mondale in Minneapolis. The vice president told Christopher that while in town he needed to visit the Center for Victims of Torture. So in his very first days on the job, Pete scrambled to set up the visit, including meetings with staff and clients, and quick-turnaround work with volunteers to set up a beautiful rock garden. With almost no notice, the secretary got a unique glimpse into the lives of survivors and of the specialized work needed as they began rebuilding their lives.
That was Pete’s Week One.
At that time, CVT had been working with U.S. Senator David Durenberger of Minnesota, who introduced the first Torture Victims Relief Act, which was signed into law five years later with bipartisan support. This act ensured that the United States would provide funding for treatment centers like CVT in the U.S. and internationally, where effective rehabilitative care was available for survivors of torture. This support would require greater capacity within CVT, as well as additional funding sources, all falling to Pete to manage.
CVT needed someone who could not only fundraise but think strategically and bring in the necessary funding to support new and much broader efforts for the long term. That person was Pete Dross.”
About these very early days, Doug said, “It was great for me to have Pete because he had real capacity to think politically, and we were able to talk through ideas. It really sharpened my thinking.”
The next years were marked by innovation and expansion, and Pete used a strategy of consistent and bipartisan networking along with earned news media coverage of CVT’s efforts to end torture and heal its wounds. With that visibility, Pete’s efforts to raise money gained momentum and success, and more growth became possible.
CVT made major news again in 1998, the year when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan marked the first UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Just before this occurred, Annan made a special visit to the Center for Victims of Torture. Pete arranged for him to meet with staff and clients, where the secretary general learned about the challenges survivors face in the aftermath of torture, as well as hearing about the healing that is possible with effective care. Annan spoke to the audience gathered at CVT’s clinical house, saying, “Now I know where to send people if they want to learn how to deal with this problem.”
I think I was a stronger, smarter person by having Pete as my partner for so long,” said Doug Johnson. “I became more able to take risks and more able to think clearly because of Pete’s partnership.”
In the midst of these events, Pete spearheaded the startup of the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs (NCTTP), bringing together leaders from survivor of torture centers across the U.S. This was a major accomplishment, especially given the numbers and the diverse geography and programming of the centers. Nevertheless, Pete hosted the first meeting of the centers, marking a new coalition that would work together for funding and for effective methods of care for survivors.
“It was Pete’s diplomacy really, and his sincerity, his commitment and his ability to talk through many details on this – and really his vision of what could be – that got the Consortium up off the ground,” said Ruth Barrett, former CVT vice president of global operations, who worked with Pete from 1998-2022. She noted that Pete consistently went deep into the issues surrounding projects, saying he “made it his business to understand all of our programs. He was always thinking forward into: How do we take this program and that program and make it help more people?”
“I especially liked working with Pete on complex policy issues,” said former CVT board member Nancy Feldman. “He always brings a focus and a clarity to those discussions that I truly admire.” And 2001 would bring that complexity to CVT and to Pete. First, in April U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft honored CVT with the National Crime Victims Service Award for its care for torture victims, the highest civilian award granted by the Department of Justice.
Then, the horrific attacks of 9/11 began a dark new chapter in the CIA’s interrogation practices, which had deeply disturbing impacts on the United States’ reputation and national security. As reports of use of torture by the CIA began to emerge in the years after 9/11, Pete was working on numerous initiatives to bring accountability and shine a light on torture. Among these was the partnership Pete organized with CVT, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Evangelicals for Human Rights, launching the Campaign to Ban Torture. This was a significant action, culminating in a bipartisan, national effort calling on the president to end torture and cruel treatment of prisoners captured in U.S. counterterrorism operations. The campaign was endorsed by hundreds of retired military leaders, foreign policy and national security experts and religious leaders.
As the New York Times wrote in this June 25, 2008 article, this campaign called on then-President Bush to outlaw transfers and forms of secret detention that the CIA used after the attacks of 9/11. “The executive order they seek would commit the government to using only interrogation methods that the United States would find acceptable if used by another country against American soldiers or civilians,” wrote reporter Scott Shane.
One of consequential results of the Campaign to Ban Torture was the Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama shortly after his inauguration, calling for a ban on use of torture. CVT board member Connie Magnuson said that her first board meeting took place just at the point when this order was signed, which demonstrated to her Pete’s gifts as a strategic thinker. “This action reflected the work Pete and others had done to create visibility and focus advocacy efforts,” Connie said. “Pete’s imprint has been made on so many aspects of CVT – the policy and advocacy activities being just one.”
Subsequently, Pete worked with the policy team for the release of information on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation programs, and established an accountability coalition. Ultimately, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its bipartisan report on the CIA’s torture program.
Ruth noted that Pete’s great contribution was his vision. “It was always about his vision. It wasn’t just getting money together to do the project; it was clearing weeds for things that he had in mind,” she noted. “He envisioned for one year, two years, five years out.”
It was always about his vision. It wasn’t just getting money together to do the project; it was clearing weeds for things that he had in mind.” Ruth Barrett, former CVT vice president of global operations
It was always about his vision. It wasn’t just getting money together to do the project; it was clearing weeds for things that he had in mind.”
During these years, Pete moved into the role of director, and later vice president, of external relations. He established a development department dedicated to fundraising, a communications team responsible for work with external audiences in news and social media, and a Washington, D.C. policy office with programing to support survivors and work for accountability for U.S. torture.
“I think I was a stronger, smarter person by having Pete as my partner for so long,” said Doug Johnson. “I became more able to take risks and more able to think clearly because of Pete’s partnership.”
Curt Goering, who was CVT executive director from 2012-2021, said about the growth and expansion of those years, “Pete was a key partner in that sort of endeavor. I would say probably no single individual has had a greater impact on that trajectory than Pete. He’s just been a critical lynchpin for so many initiatives, some of which have been transformational.”
Pete consistently took a bipartisan approach to new initiatives, working across the political spectrum on issues related to torture. He established the National Advisory Council in 2015, a group of proven leaders from numerous disciplines related to global human rights and survivor rehabilitation. These experts provide counsel and support across many facets of CVT’s work, from policy to healing care.
Former CVT board member Valerie Spencer mentioned that Pete’s “legacy includes the thousands of survivors of torture and their families who’ve been uplifted by CVT.” She also noted how much Pete taught her over the course of nine years working together, saying, “On every fundraising call we did together I learned something.”
This focus on strategic fundraising allowed for growth in the United States, including the opening of a center in the Atlanta, Georgia region, which includes a client care center as well as an external relations department dedicated to policy advocacy and regional fundraising. Georgia, and the city of Clarkston in particular, are home to large numbers of refugees, so the care and advocacy have made a difference in the lives of thousands.
And in recent years, Pete worked with the development team and the board, raising $16 million in special fundraising campaigns, which included the Comprehensive Campaign, the Covid Campaign, a campaign in honor of Curt Goering, and the Strategic Plan Implementation Campaign. These allowed critical investments in much-needed infrastructure and programming.
New funding made possible two new U.S. programs: the Proyecto Mariposa partnership in Tucson with a migrant shelter called Casa Alitas, for which Pete secured funding for destination case management services for asylum seekers coming across the U.S. Southern border. Also, the new campaign funding allowed the launch of the Minnesota-based Healing, Incarceration and Policing project, working on issues of violence and racism in the U.S. criminal legal system, with a focus on Minnesota policy.
CVT has been so incredibly fortunate to have had Pete all these years, benefiting from all that he has had to offer.” Curt Goering, former CVT executive director
CVT has been so incredibly fortunate to have had Pete all these years, benefiting from all that he has had to offer.”
“I’ve had the privilege really of working with incredibly committed and smart and competent professionals who were just superb in their field, and Pete ranks among the best of those,” Curt Goering said. “CVT has been so incredibly fortunate to have had Pete all these years, benefiting from all that he has had to offer.”