You don’t have to shout or raise your fists or carry signs to initiate positive change. All you need do is sit, talk, and listen. Create a safe environment for conversation. No fear, no judgment. Open a space; construct a venue for truth and healing.
This is the kind of activism I do; I am a mentor at the local youth sex offender prison. In my chair, just like the youth I’m visiting — no keys, no wallet — I’m stripped of identity. Facing each other across the table, it’s just him and me. We play games or cards and chat, but mostly he talks, I listen.
I have a story, too. My son’s father sexually abused him. I can’t change that, but I can transform my anger. I can choose not to live my life embittered. Listening to these young offenders is how I do that. As one tale after another of inhumanity and failed parenting washes over me, we both are cleansed.
Listening and coming back to listen again engenders hope. If I hear the awful truth and yet come back, then the young man, so abused himself, realizes he’s not a monster. We both can choose change. All it takes for self-betterment is one person who keeps believing in us until we believe in ourselves, too. We can choose to be neither victim nor perpetrator. We can live healthy, productive lives. Knowing ourselves, we change and we cause society to change along with us, one visit at a time.
Sit, talk, listen, validate.
My students are waiting for me. One of them is speaking with a great deal of intensity. I’m struck, for the first time, by her resemblance to me, a much younger me. Because Sharman’s parents were born on one of the islands, she enunciates with an island accent. Feet planted firmly on the ground, she stands, but not still: her hands move as she asserts her position on political issues.
As was customary during my childhood, has Sharman observed how conversations in her home cascade into world events? I became aware of my family’s activity in the outside world when visiting Roberta, my best friend. Her father and brother were discussing a black reporter who was not being treated justly — his passport had been revoked, making it impossible for him to cover international stories, which was what he did so well. As they spoke, I realized they were referring to my Uncle Charley. Why was his situation any of their business? And why had the events been reported in the local black newspaper? Has Sharman listened to such discussions about relatives? Is this why they left their island?
The other young women do not stand as close to the young men as Sharman does. These young women seem more comfortable apart as they chatter amongst themselves. This does not deter Sharman’s ebony mouth from bellowing out passionate declarations about the rights of women. No, I was never as forceful as Sharman. At the age of seven when the white girls refused to sit next to me in school, no words emerged from my small ebony mouth, nor tears from my eyes. I sat alone, showing no emotions because silence comforted me and made those around me very uncomfortable. Sharman has no concept of silence. Her tears are shed in public; they are her badge of courage.
Even in the ‘60s, I marched silently with my friends, hitting the pavement with all my might, but still no tears. When my boyfriend helped with voter registration in the South, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated with brutality. There were those who beckoned my boyfriend to lead protests as a way to show strength after such brutality; consequently, he could only weep in my arms, which meant I couldn’t weep.
Suddenly, Sharman turns, notices me, and gazes into my eyes. “What do you think, Professor?”
What do I think? “The immigration issue is a good topic for the entire class to debate. Why don’t you lead the discussion, Sharman?”
Even after all of these years, my activism is manifested in silence, but now there are tears.
Making Our Mark
It was a year in the mid-’70s. I and my friend and co-worker — let’s call her Jill — were at the national meeting of a major educational organization, where we had just attended a session on language development. We headed for the hotel’s exhibit hall where publishers’ representatives had covered display tables with colorful cloths and laid out even more colorful games and books for use with young children.
We approached the tables with high expectations. Both of us were tired of looking at the “same old-same old” materials. At first we were pleased to find many of them revised and updated with colorful artwork and racially diverse characters. So far so good! As we continued to look at the illustrations, however, patterns began to emerge — patterns that were not evident at first glance. An activity in one of the books requires children to match pictured objects with the people to whom they belong. For example, the briefcase goes with the man in a suit, who happens to be white, while the mailbag goes with a black man in a uniform. Even more obvious is the vacuum cleaner, which clearly belongs with a woman in an apron. The times may have been “a-changin,” but they had hardly begun to change in the publishing houses.
Disappointed and saddened, we walked away. There was a clear need for “consciousness-raising” with publishers, yes, but that would take a lengthy campaign, perhaps even organizing a boycott. We felt a need to do something more immediate. Jill hatched a plan. We could start with our fellow professionals, many of whom were insensitive to the subtle stereotypes in the materials.
That evening Jill and I turned in early, professing fatigue. At 2 a.m. — fully awake, armed with black markers, and intent on serious vandalism — we made our way down to the deserted exhibit hall. We chose the most offensive materials as our targets and used the markers to highlight blatant examples of bias. We drew arrows. We circled items. We wrote “RACIAL BIAS” and “SEX-ROLE STEREOTYPE.” We worked quickly and efficiently. After decorating a reasonable number of books and boxes, we hustled back to our rooms hoping for more sleep but so wired that sleep was elusive.
Neither Jill nor I was around for breakfast the next day. When we appeared at the mid-morning coffee break, we listened attentively as our co-workers discussed the vandalism of the night before. Jill commented, “I’m glad someone had the courage to do it.” I appended under my breath “…and didn’t get caught!”
Confessions of a Red Diaper Baby
On February 10, 1953, my father, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, appeared before a Senate subcommittee and took the Fifth Amendment when asked if he was a member of the Communist Party. He was a gymnast, he had a Ph.D. from Columbia University, he could put my sister and me in stitches in an instant, and he was a Communist. The day after he testified, Brooklyn College fired him.
On April 15, 1953, I turned 16. I was a shy, smart, silent high school senior. I wore braces and glasses. Every afternoon I would subway up to the School of American Ballet in Manhattan. I swooned for George Balanchine and Maria Tallchief but I’d never be able to join their party. No matter how dedicated my practice, my body type was off.
Earlier that year, I had joined a Communist-front organization, the Labor Youth League. I joined not so much out of loyalty to my father’s politics but because a terrifically cute boy belonged. He didn’t go to my high school so he had no idea I was ugly, mute and unpopular. Somehow, with him, I was able to fake the opposite.
On June 19, 1953, despite worldwide protests, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage at Sing-Sing. Julius went quickly but they botched Ethel’s electrocution. It took two extra jolts to kill her. Smoke rose from her head. A New York Times article said that before Ethel Rosenberg became a traitor she’d been a “failed actress.”
In a large crowd, I marched in protest down Fifth Avenue the night the Rosenbergs died. A different crowd lined the sidewalks, taunting us.
“Commies!” “Dirty Jews!” “Traitors!”
It was the ’50s. I was walking with that terrifically cute boy. Naturally I wore high heels and nylon stockings. I returned home well after midnight, my feet bloody and swollen, purple bruises on my thighs from the garter belt fasteners.
My family moved to Los Angeles when my father was fired. I started college at UCLA, not Barnard as originally planned. I took ballet with the marvelous Carmelita Maracci. I found yet another Communist front organization. I mustered up my courage to tell my father I was planning to join.
He hadn’t minded the last time, but things were different now.
He’d been fired from his job. Vilified in the press. Harassed by the FBI. Separated from his comrades. Shunned by his siblings. Torn apart by stomach ulcers.
In sunny California, his compass shifted north. His world turned to ice.
He told me, “You can join if you want to, Joanna. Go right ahead. Be an idiot! But when the interrogators come after you, you can never name names. Never. Not even when they execute you.”
“It’s O.K.,” I said. “I won’t join. I won’t.”
I knew exactly what the New York Times would write, “Before she was electrocuted, Joanna Bressler was a failed dancer.”
Daughters of Friedan
I reached for my cigarettes and dialed. A deep draw on a Kent for calm and courage. My friend Joan and I had divided our list. These good old boys were mine: long-time legislator and John Bircher from Lakota; first termer, affluent beet farmer from Neche, just this side of the Canadian border; prominent attorney with generational history from Grafton. I had to sound positive and knowledgeable.
“We’re members of the League of Women Voters. We’d like to talk to you about the ERA. Would you meet with us? At your convenience.”
It was 1973. The North Dakota State Senate had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, but it failed by one vote in the House of Representatives. Coalitions of infuriated women mobilized.
The League decided to contact every male legislator in his home district before the next legislative session. We had to convince them that the ERA would benefit their wives and their daughters.
Awakened by Friedan, we were involved in civil rights and women’s rights. We were an acronym, going back to college as SOTAs, Students Older than Average. We even dared to run for public office. With fire in our bellies, we naïve city women made plans to canvas the state in teams. Change was in our hands. Anything was possible.
Joan and I put our kids on the school bus, donned our polyester pants suits, and took off. Joan drove. I consulted the map as we made our way across the sparsely populated prairie on unfamiliar, two-lane country roads. The fields of the Red River Valley, referred to locally as black gold, reached to the horizon.
“You could fall out of the sky,” Joan said.
Heads turned as we walked into the country cafes where townsmen and farmers gathered for morning coffee. Chatter stopped. Unnerving silence. Strange women invading their sanctuary! They watched as we spotted our target legislator and introduced ourselves. Unabashed, they eavesdropped. Sitting primly, legs crossed at the ankles, we tried not to beg.
Once a week we convened at a Leaguer’s kitchen table to review our progress, shed our humility, and rant. Joan relished telling the stories. “We met this guy in a café in the middle of nowhere. Rich young farmer. Wish you could have seen him. So arrogant. Pushed his John Deere cap to the back of his head, leaned back on two legs of the chair. Grinned. Clearly amused by our audacity.” It fueled our zeal.
When the Legislature met in February 1975, they ratified the ERA, the thirty-fifth state to vote aye. We did it! The future and change were in our hands!
But our jubilation was short-lived. To amend the Constitution, thirty-eight states had to ratify before the deadline. After North Dakota, no other state ratified. Three states short. We took our pewter ERA bracelets off and put them in a jewelry box.
We’re old women now. But remembering us — our energy, our zeal, our optimism — brings back the exhilaration of the time and makes me smile.
Washington, DC Jail
As our paddy wagon pulled away, I looked out the window and saw my sixteen-year-old daughter just as she saw me. She gasped and put her hand over her mouth. What had I done? I was the mother of four, and I was on my way to jail.
It was June, 1968. I was in Washington, DC with a group that came from a Quaker conference in New Jersey to demonstrate in support of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign lobbied against economic inequality and poverty, seeking provisions for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and increased low-income housing. We were especially protesting the arrests of demonstrators “congregating” on the Capitol steps. This, we believed, denied them access to their representatives.
Most of our group, including my daughter, demonstrated across the street from the Capitol. Those willing to risk arrest held a silent meeting for worship on the Capitol steps. We sat facing each other in something approximating a circle and centered ourselves, seeking to feel God’s presence.
The police left us alone, and arrested demonstrators above us who were walking and singing. Our preferential treatment became unbearable. We went up and merged with the other demonstrators. The police arrested us, too, and delivered us into the paddy wagon.
The paddy wagon moved along streets full of protestors of all races, gathered in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call.
Reaching the courthouse, we were booked and directed up a set of concrete steps. I climbed, feeling ashamed and fearful. At the top of the stairs, a large group of cheering fellow prisoners greeted us. Suddenly, elation erased my shame and fear. This was a celebration. We were all in it together — speaking up against inequity.
That night in jail, some of us decided to add to our protest by fasting. I had no trouble passing up the baloney and white bread.
The next day, the judge tried to let us off easy. He’d release us if we promised not to do it again. That was totally unacceptable. I couldn’t say I wouldn’t do it again. I got a three-day sentence.
With the good company in jail, those three days passed quickly. I felt totally supported, and glad that I stayed the course. The support I valued most came later, back home, when my daughter said she was proud of me.