Most of my adult life has been centered on advocacy on behalf of people who have not been afforded all of the advantages of the rest of us. It has been interesting to look back on events in my early life that shaped these views and how they played themselves out.
My childhood in Santa Monica, California was not in any way diverse. While some areas of Santa Monica were more culturally integrated, my neighborhood was not. As I look back through my elementary class photos, the first, and only, African American student appears in second grade at Will Rogers Elementary (1949).
My sister Chris recalls having a black girl in one of her classes that became one of her best friends at school. They wanted to play together outside of school and each of them went home and talked with their mothers. The mothers conferred by telephone and it was agreed that the girls could play at a mutually convenient playground. Both mothers visited during this ‘play date,’ but it never happened again. Chris remembers that neither mother felt comfortable about a visit in either one of their homes.
It was also the summer of 1949 that first jolted my social consciousness. Our family traveled by train to Florida to visit relatives and had to change trains in New Orleans. I was shocked to see signs in the railway station designating separate bathrooms and drinking fountains as “Colored Only.”
It was an image that was seared in my memory and would drive later activities to work for equality and opportunity for people.
When we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house, I was surprised to learn that they and their friends all had black housekeepers. While my aunt’s housekeeper was treated nicely, even at age seven I discerned an aurora of second-class citizen status which disturbed me. I, of course, did not realize that schools were still segregated. A few years ago when I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I had an ah ha moment and recalled this early experience.
Right after my tenth birthday, our family moved to San Bernardino, California and I was introduced to a racially diverse community. One of our first activities was attending a fiesta at the House of Neighborly Service, a community center sponsored by the Presbyterian Church.
Although my mother pronounced them as much too spicy, I loved the Mexican-American foods I sampled.
At San Bernardino High School I became aware of students that belonged to gangs and drove low-rider cars, but their lives didn’t touch me as they were not in my college preparatory classes or extra-curricular activities. It was only recently that I learned that the musical West Side Story that debuted in 1957 was based on an Aug. 20, 1955, brawl between two San Bernardino gangs – the Raiders (which I remember) and the Bullies.
While there were a few students from ethnically diverse backgrounds that attended the University of Redlands, a small liberal arts college, my classmates were primarily Caucasians who could afford private school tuition.
During the second semester of my freshman year, I decided the spending money my parents sent each month was not near enough and secured a job in the student cafeteria making salads. I have considered this job an extremely important part of my college education as my supervisor was a woman who probably did not have more than an 8th grade education. As a haughty college student, I learned that education is not the sole determinant of intelligence. This woman was wise in so many ways, and I have always valued my stint working for her.
During my sophomore year, I became enthralled with sociology and the forces that shape society. In a term paper, I defended California’s Bracero program that allowed Mexican American workers to fulfill a labor shortage harvesting crops.
During the summer of 1961, I journeyed to Hong Kong to spend my junior year of college At Chung Chi College as part of the Presbyterian Junior Year Abroad program. Despite the reading I had done, my eyes were really opened to the world of poverty, as well as the drive of political refugees. In a letter home I wrote of my first impressions.
“There are many things that would be considered inconveniences at home, such as eating rice twice a day, washing your clothes by hand, sleeping on a bumpy, straw mattress, having only about sixteen inches of closet space, and pretending you don’t see the cockroaches scurrying from under your bed. But before I left home, someone told me, ‘enjoy even the inconveniences.’ It was wise advice, for although these things may be considered troublesome, they are part of a new life that is rich in its rewards and allows me to overlook these inconveniences. These experiences are also humbling, enabling me to become one with the people around me.”
It was the first time I experienced what it was like to be the ‘other.’
I took classes in the Social Work Department, and was able, with an interpreter, to visit families living in squatter’s shacks,
folks living in bed spaces shared by more than one person, and families in resettlement blocks,
I not only learned many lessons of life, but knew that I wanted to make social work my career.
Towards the end of the school semester, there was an influx of refugees from mainland China. The students at the college, who came to Hong Kong with their families as refugees, were very concerned about the people hiding out in the area near the border that was closed to all except the farmers who lived there. It was definitely not an area that Americans were supposed to enter. However, wanting to assist, I accompanied the students after dark to pass out bread to the refugees. They were probably startled at a young white face!
As I look back over my letters home, I am grateful that it was before the days of email and social media. The hard-copy letters have survived for over 55 years. Snippets from my letters include:
“After reading about the Peace Corps incident [where a Peace Corps volunteer created an international incident describing the people in the host country], I am filled with a new sense of responsibility as I attempt to express my impressions of my year abroad. It is often difficult to report without making value judgements about a person’s mode of behavior or pattern of living. We so often think in terms of our own culture.”
I think this has stayed with me as I travel, and I am always reluctant to take photographs that show the poverty of a country I am visiting. It somehow feels voyeuristic or judgmental.
“It is difficult to describe accurately what it feels like to be a foreign student and to live in a completely different environment for a year….to what extent should a person living in a foreign culture adapt to the life around him and to what extent should he retain the characteristics of his own nationality. I have faced this dilemma more than once.”
Before heading home, I traveled through Taiwan, Okinawa, South Korea and participated in an ecumenical work camp in Japan, where I helped construct a health clinic.
I started my first job as a social worker at the San Bernardino County Welfare Department within days after graduating from the University of Redlands in June 1963. I had a caseload of families, most of them single mothers and their children, receiving Aid to Needy Families and was responsible for making a quarterly home visit. Not only did I visit families who lived in the neighborhood made famous by West Side Story, but in parts of town that I didn’t know existed. It was a real eye-opener.
Over the course of the first year, I learned that many of the stereotypes of ‘welfare moms’ were based on false assumptions that they had loose morals and were lazy. I gradually came to realize that while they may not have made the best choices for themselves, I had to look at each one of them as an individual and accept that there were many impediments to their being able to succeed, including learning disabilities, physical disabilities, psychological problems and lack of education. It was also painful to learn that I could not change their lives or ‘fix’ them.
The early to mid-1960’s were a time of social unrest. As I was learning firsthand the effects of inequality in San Bernardino, Martin Luther King was organizing a march on Washington DC for jobs and freedom, and my sister, a junior at Berkeley, was marching with fellow students and sitting in at the President’s office demanding free speech.
I remember sitting at my desk stunned when the news rippled through the office on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I itched to do more than just make home visits, but that was not to happen.
By 1973 I had moved to Seattle with my husband. A short time later I was hired as Executive Director of the Arc-King County where my advocacy skills were honed as I sought to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The key issues were the civil rights of individuals with developmental disabilities, the public school education system, and the closure of state institutions. One of my biggest regrets was not being able to see the state institutions close. In the 1980’s and 90’s, The Arc of King County became part of a national movement as a chapter of The Arc of The United States and saw an expansion of self-advocacy on issues affecting individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
At one point, the county commissioners cut the funding for a program that served newly diagnosed children with disabilities and their families. I organized a protest in front of the court house – and felt delayed gratification in finally being able to be a sign-carrying protester. And, yes, the funding was restored.
It also was a time when there were few women in top leadership positions in the non-profit world. I coalesced with four other women executive directors of United Way funded agencies to strengthen our positions. Since we were not included in the male morning breakfast meetings, we started our own support group.
When I moved to Albuquerque in 1994 and went to work for the Center for Development and Disability, part of the School of Medicine at the University of New Mexico, I continued my advocacy for people with disabilities and their families. While my job as Associate Director consumed much of my time, I continued to focus on activities that supported families.
While advocacy in the disabilities field had been my life work, after I retired I realized that I could turn my attention to other areas and gave myself permission to let the next generation take over this work.
In 2007 I had another opportunity to practice social justice. When our church announced a mission trip to New Orleans that spring to assist with restoration activities after hurricane Katrina, I knew I had to go. I continued to be haunted by the memories of the devastation and heard that little progress had been made. The five days I spent helping to gut storm-damaged houses so the families could rebuild, had a profound effect on me. I am glad I was able to have this experience while I was still physically able to do this type of work.
These experiences over my life have formed and reinforced my core values of social justice, as well as given me ongoing ways of expanding my horizons and being able to see the world through others’ eyes. I’m sure will be more experiences to come.