Lifelong Activism: Lessons from Betty Reid Soskin
“Democracy has been experiencing these periods of chaos since 1776. They come and go. And it’s in those periods that democracy is redefined.”
– Betty Reid Soskin
Political elections, devastating hurricanes, even celebrity marriages are all subjects that have come and gone in waves of sweeping news. They captivate the nation for a micro-season, and then quickly fade into the background. Some argue that news is history in the making, while others claim it has devolved into a form of entertainment–– and both opinions hold some form of truth. When streaming a video or scrolling past a Facebook post, it can be difficult to absorb modern news with the appropriate sympathy; it is only human to derive some form of fascination when the drama of real life does not affect us directly. But true history is made when people are capable of carrying the subject beyond the narrative of scandal, and into the realm of societal disruption.
In recent weeks, the public has faithfully stood by the waters as news media has once again swept the “wave” of civil rights into its tides. But how do we keep the fight for equality from ebbing at the advent of a new scandal, as it has so many times in the past? What happens when proclaimed allies grow weary of posting the trending war cry on Instagram? How do we take the movement beyond popularized infatuation? How do we keep ourselves disrupted?
While we’re in no position to take authority on definitively answering these questions, we do find it important to engage in conversation that might lend to finding individual answers. Rather than inflate ourselves with assumed wisdom and a list of manufactured bullet points, we turned to a source with both past and present day experience: Betty Reid Soskin.
Civil rights heroine and oldest serving National Park Ranger in the US, we featured Betty as our June Cape Girl of the Month. Aside from being Glamour’s Woman of the Year at the spry age of 97 in 2018, Betty’s life has been one of improbable victories. Currently known for her vigor in educating all who enter the World War II Home Front National Historical Park on the trials and triumphs of women and people of color, Betty is no stranger to the hardships of overcoming oppression and bigotry herself.
As a woman of Creole and Cajun descent, Betty experienced the emotional and sometimes physical pain that came with being a person of color in the early decades of the 1900s. She and her husband were even subject to death threats after building their home in a white suburb. Inspired, rather than intimidated by such events, Betty clung to the idea that pain is the usher of progress. “History has been written by people who got it wrong,” Betty said, “but the people who are always trying to get it right have prevailed.” With adversity acting as her call to action, Betty has prevailed in using her voice to transform the flaws of written history into real social change.
From her time as a servicewoman in WWII to her days pounding pavement as a field rep for women in politics, Betty has made it her life’s mission to use her experiences to encourage and enlighten those within her sphere of influence. Betty’s passionate reputation eventually recruited her involvement as a board member in the development of what would later become the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
With a committee of mostly white men as her fellow board members, Betty noticed a one-sided narrative developing in the plans for the park––intended to memorialize the role of women at the forefront of WWII. Rather than be intimidated, Betty used her voice to disrupt the social norm and ultimately pave the way for other minority voices and stories to be heard at the park. “There was no conspiracy to leave my history out,” she said, “there was simply no one in that room with any reason to know it.” To this day, the park includes findings from scholars with all backgrounds of knowledge to assist in the planning of their exhibits. It’s now a site where people can remember the contributions women of all kinds made to the war effort.
So, how does a 99-year-old’s experience as a park ranger inform a modern movement? By reminding us that being a force for good takes a lifetime.
Servicewoman, field representative, park ranger–– Betty has never held the most prominent title, yet her life has made a profound difference. Even after having a stroke earlier this year, Betty has never found a reason to stop her voice from being heard––she lives her life fighting for the bigger picture by doing what she can. Betty reminds us that significance is found in the seemingly insignificant.
The cry for civil equality is not another wave on the sands of news media. It’s an unresolved pattern. So how do we keep it on the shore? How do we make it more than just another event that will drown in the tidal wave of the 2020 tabloids? While we may not have the prescribed answer, we can begin to remedy symptoms by learning from advocates like Betty. We can make the decision to individually dedicate ourselves to change, no matter how small our role. We can commit ourselves to the proven method of maintaining morals, no matter how often they are challenged. And we can remind ourselves that while progress can be made with the collective voice, it is absolutely crippled in the practice of individual silence.
For ideas on how to get more involved with Black Lives Matter, check out the following resources: