Sunday, November 23, 2014

Photo by Tom Debley
Maybe being validated by an eminent Kaiser Permanente historian will suffice ...

As my bi-monthly public bus "tourists" gathered at the entrance to the Visitor Education Center on Tuesday I noticed that recently-retired Kaiser historian Tom Debley and his companion were among them.  That was noticeable because they had both been along on our last tour only two weeks before.

I remembered that this had, at least momentarily, caused a few seconds of concern -- as I wondered briefly if my remembrances of the era of WWII would  stand up under his professional scrutiny of the period over the many years that he headed the Kaiser Heritage Department.  After all, I've come lately to the field, and -- though I don't pretend to be a formal "historian," I do speak with authority -- but only after using existing studies from scholars (Quivik, Litvak, Archibald, etc.)  who have published doctoral papers and masters theses -- combined with my own memory of those dramatic times.

I need not have worried.  Within the first half-mile of my interpretation, once we boarded, I'd completely lost the fleeting discomfort and was well into my presentation without losing the rhythm or my confidence.

The tour takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to cover the many scattered sites that bear the history of  the Kaiser home front story with a running commentary that places me in context of the experience.

It ends with a return to the Visitor Center for a viewing of the 15-minute video that specifically tells the history of Richmond during those years.  It's entitled "Home Front Heroes," and fills in any gaps that may have been overlooked on our tour.  This is followed by a 15-minute commentary as I place my personal story in context and bring us into the present.

By this time I've forgotten that Tom and his companion were among the guests, and that this was his second tour in two weeks!  Had I thought of that the "willies" would have surely returned.

As my talk ended and the Q&A invited, Tom was the first to speak:

"Has anyone yet videotaped your talk, Betty?"
I allowed myself to fully appreciate the implications of his comment.  I savored his words. He was expressing his approval, and an appreciation of the fact that I am doing good work.

... and at 93 I'm still developing new edges to grow from!

Who knew?

Sunday, November 02, 2014

What is there about the aging process that brings earlier thinking into such sharp focus ... ?

I'm aware that there's the danger of over simplification to consider, but something else previously unaccounted for appears to be present.

Maybe it's that I'm working so much in full public view these days; finding myself doing some deep analyzing while giving my presentations before audiences in our little theater as the "Ranger on call," every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Hearing my thoughts being uttered without previously chewing them over and giving them proper form.  A risky way to work, surely, but I find the risk may provide an aliveness that wouldn't be present otherwise.  Each new audience freshens my presentation, oddly enough, while I might have expected the opposite to be true.  The trick is to have the house lights turned up high so that I can see the eyes and faces as I speak.  The new revelations often arrive without prior warning, except for what happens here in these musings ... .

Blogging provides the way to shaping that which rises to the surface as I speak.  That, and paying attention to what happens behind my eyes just before falling asleep at night ... .

Now and then they're freshened by an insight so startling, and so (seemingly) profound that -- as I hear myself delivering the re-shaped element I find myself wondering where those words are coming from -- and with such confidence in their veracity?

Case in point:

I've begun to mention the fact that Jim Henson and his Children's Television Workshop and Mr. Rogers are members of my pantheon of civil rights heroes, right along with Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Fanny Lou Hamer et al.  That they humanized many generations of America's children now grown up and sitting in corporate boardrooms all over the nation; staffing the State Department and all agencies of government; while having effected the social fabric of our country irrevocably.  I truly believe that.

Yesterday I came close to bursting into song with the line from Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, "Children will listen ...".  It would have startled my audience. The brief line from those lyrics came so close to leaving my lips in making my point.  The temptation was so strong that I lost my train of thought and experienced a long silence as I tried to move on.  Maybe in the days ahead ... .

Found myself delving deeper into the meaning, and realized that at the base of this new discovery there was a new idea forming that may be important.

If and when we ever find world peace it will not be through mathematics nor the hard sciences, it will be through the Arts.  It is through the Arts that we learn empathy.  The fact that our nation has moved further and further away from the funding of Arts and Culture (with the virtual de-funding of the NEA) that I'm certain of a relationship between the fact that we're in an age of unrelenting violence with mass shootings and endless wars.  These faceless and demented young males whose suicidal acts of unspeakable gun violence surely attest to their being bereft of empathy -- the ability to identify positively or to see themselves in others.

Let's compare the budgets of other nations with ours:  Germany spends roughly $20/per capita on Arts and Culture to our 41 cents!  Canada supports its Arts to the tune of $841 per citizen, and spends double on the performing arts than on sporting events.  Neither of those countries has experienced the numerous acts of mass violence that the US has over the recent past.  

How long ago was it that we began to drop or reduce arts programming in America's systems of public education?  How does that correlate with the mass killings in our schools and other gathering places?

Can such a simple answer be relevant to such a profound problem? If so, why hasn't it occurred to anyone in high places -- someone with the power to walk us back through to this simple explanation?

I recalled --  --just before falling asleep last night that there was a time -- when I was married to Bill Soskin (Dr. William F. Soskin) brilliant research psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley -- that I would sit cross-legged on a zafu in our living-room high atop the hills behind the campus and look around at those eminent leaders of their various academic fields who would gather some Sunday mornings to exchange their latest breakthroughs over coffee and bagels ... and think to myself, "... if I know that, think of what they must know?"  I was so in awe of those great minds.  They tolerated my questions with respect and good humor, and at times seemed really taken with some of my speculations on their theories.

... now I find myself wondering if these "Betty" theories aren't over-simplifications at all, but truths that are deceptively elegant, but not yet given the attention they deserve?

Maybe, had he lived longer, Bill would have ordered up a research study with hypotheses and justifications and cohorts and graphs and outcomes -- and would find it to be true.

I suppose I won't be around, either, to know.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep delving and sharing and maybe there will be someone in my audiences one day who will pursue the answer and save us from ourselves.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Awesome thoughts in the middle of the night ...

I woke suddenly somewhere around one o'clock in the morning with one of those flashes of insight that occurs when least expected.

Maybe it was noticing the picture of my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, which hangs in my hallway -- as I was setting into place a beautiful plaque awarded to me by members of the California State Legislature at the recent Central Labor Councl of the AFL-CIO.  It would be hung next to her photograph and just above that of an Allen/Breaux reunion photo taken some years ago.

Whatever it was, somewhere in the night she "visited" through a dream and I was awakened to a state of aliveness that rattled my psyche!

In my talks I always end with my personal timeline which starts with my great-grandmother's birth into slavery in 1846; travels through her gaining of freedom at 19 by the Emancipation Proclamation and living until her death in 1948 at 102; proceeds to my mother's birth in 1894 and death in 1995 at 101; then to my birth in 1921 through to the present.  The story ends when I was 27 years-old and the mother of two children at the time of my slave ancestor's passing.  When I describe the sequence to my audiences -- I can see their near-disbelief in realizing (as do I) how quickly those years passed -- how fast time flies!  The story of three women who lived from the years of slavery through to the Mars probe -- and were adults together at one time.

Suddenly found myself imagining that sequencing of our combined lives into a template, moving that template forward by 100 years -- starting in 1946 and moving into the present.  The chilling mind picture that formed was disturbing of any further sleep.

Those warnings of climate change, global warming, rising sea levels now undeniably happening as we speak, were suddenly italicized!

It is the current generation -- by those things we either do or fail to do -- that will determine whether our grandchildren will inherit a livable world.

My work suddenly took on a new urgency, and a rightness previously unseen by me,  and surely not fully understood.

There must be others who share this sense of immediacy -- this feeling of helplessness and frustration in a world too caught up in the quest for personal wealth, political power, and the need to control others  -- and without the will to collaborate and cooperate in a common effort to save ourselves and the planet Earth.

... but tonight I'll attend a San Francisco State banquet in San Francisco as a guest of my friend, Careth Bomar Reid, with whom I work on Fridays on the E.F. Joseph photo collection -- and try to convince myself that those street corner evangelists of my childhood -- with the sandwich boards shrieking of the "Signs of the End of the World" were not right, and that  --whether or not we come to terms with the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels -- was not related to his warnings ... .

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wondering about so many things ...

not the least of which is the nagging suspicion that my feelings about black identity need upgrading in light of a changing nation and world.

I mentioned after returning from the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee in August, whether I didn't need to reconsider something that had begun to creep into my theater presentations of late; the feeling that African Americans may be settling for less than we should when we actively promote Black history over encouraging the inclusion of our story into mainstream American history.

The trip south weakened my resolve upon the re-discovery of the richness of Black History while visiting the beautiful red brick campus at Tuskegee University; walking through the George Washington Carver exhibits; through Booker T. Washington's gracious home; riding through the magnificent greenery of the historic 54 mile drive from Montgomery to Selma; standing on Pettus Bridge; etc.  It was so much more powerful than I'd ever imagined.  On returning home I began to wonder just how much power might be lost if our collective truth were to be de-emphasized in any way.

I'm no closer to an answer, but something came up in the course of the tumultuous political campaigns in our city -- of the two candidates in the mayoral race one is white, and the other black.  The white candidate is loosely associated with the Progressive wing of the community, and the black candidate is running a brutal campaign with unlimited corporate financial backing.  The black candidate expresses conservative views on just about anything that comes before the city council, of which both are currently members.  The white candidate might best be described as a political moderate with a good and years-long record of public service. The rough and tumble shape of the election cycle is predictable with few surprises.

However, none of this is the issue that's giving me cause for concern; it's this:

The base out of which the Black candidate emerges is an organization called B.A.P.A.C (Black Americans Political Action Committee).  One day last week as I held a scathing flyer distributed  online by that group in an attempt to detract from the white candidate's reputation,  I found myself wondering what might happen should the white candidate have a base called " W.A.P.A.C. (White Americans Political Action Committee")?

Setting the obvious aside for a moment, I need to say that not that long ago 40% of Richmond's population was African American.  At this point however, according to the last census, 40% of this city is now Latino, with African American families having moved on deeper into the small towns of the upper San Joaquin Valley and Solano County.  The black demographic has been reduced dramatically. There was a time when there would have been a  significant black constituency to try to attract in order to garner political power, but now -- in a non-majority State -- where no one holds the edge, "Black" labeling may be fast-becoming outdated, and will soon no longer be viable as a magnetic force for change.

Were I a member of the large European,  Laotian, East Indian, Asian/American, or Latino subgroups who share this community I'm not certain that I would be quick to align myself with a group so labeled.  It may not be through any sense of disrespect, but given the label Black American Political Action Committee, I just might wonder if its concerns would be broad enough; that its membership would have the capacity to care about my culturally-specific issues.

In a nation on the verge of becoming a non-majority society, coalition-building must become the rule of the day, right?  This is uncharted territory, and I'm only beginning to see the implications through this election cycle. My brain is engaged in some editing, upgrading, changing, and the concept that involves including black history into mainstream American history may be a natural progression, but at this point it's unclear. I may not have time on the planet to see this through to its conclusion, but meanwhile I'll keep gnawing at it.

... maybe that's why I'm attracted to the Richmond Progressive Alliance wing of local politics at this point; an organization less "moderate" than I, surely, but that reflects the wish of what used to be called "Liberals" to act together on those things upon which they can agree (across racial lines) as they cast aside for further discussion those things seen differently; and all in mutual respect. 

I suggest that B.A.P.A.C may want to come into the 21st Century and begin to build anew its political base -- this time with inclusion. The organization may want to re-design its mission, re-think its direction toward something that better reflects the multiracial, multicultural society we're evolving into as a city and as a Nation, instead they appear to be rebuilding the racial barrier earlier generations gave up so much to overcome. This is hardly worthy of their well-meaning organization. The only thing being accomplished by current attitudes (which excludes all others except for black males), brings divisiveness into the unity some have struggled to gain over time.

... and make no mistakes, I see continuing need for African Americans to come together socially and culturally in order to strengthen the ties that bind us as a people. What I'm beginning to wonder about is just how far we can take the Black designation into politics and prevail in a time when it will become more and more necessary to coalesce with others for mutual gain. Maybe we can't stand alone any longer in a fast-changing nation without losing something very precious to the continuing development of the Democracy that we are all trying so hard to bring about.

New thoughts.

Old doubts ... .

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Photo by Shirley Butt
Balancing my career self (with the limitations imposed by the Hatch Act ) ... .

... and my very political private citizen self has been challenging over past weeks.

This election cycle has been so volatile in my city (Richmond, California) since the passage of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United which grants corporations unlimited opportunities to participate in -- not only national and state -- but in city elections as well with obscene amounts of money.  Here in our city corporate largesse is overwhelming our local candidates.  We're reeling from the effects of that ruling, and I've been diligent in respecting those limitations, but adamant in expressing my rights to participate in the electoral process as a private citizen.

I've agreed not to ever appear at a political event in uniform (a requirement), and to try to avoid ever being identified in my official role as an employee of the federal government.   The local press has been very cooperative and I've been able to enjoy relative freedom to express myself and my political interests with the consent of those to whom I'm responsible.

All that being said, I'd say that I've done pretty well, all things are considered, and -- being photographed with the dynamic Senator Bernie Sanders and two of this year's candidates was accomplished without identifying me at all.  Senator Sanders is a brilliant man, and a great speaker.  His strident advocacy for our shared goals is heartening.

I suspect that I'm firmly enough identified by the amazing amount of public exposure I've had over the past months so that labels would not serve any purpose anyway.

It's a wild ride to November 4th!


Thursday, October 02, 2014

(welders tool is embedded within)
Just every now and then I begin to feel overwhelmed by an increasing amount of public attention ... .

... the past several weeks have been just such a time.  Everything seems larger than life as I'm been living it over the past decades, and waaaaaay beyond the edges that used to hold that life.

I tend to withdraw a bit, do some reassessment of the landscape, and (if possible) gradually move back into the foreground.

A few months ago I received word by a phone call that the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO was holding their annual banquet in the Craneway Pavilion -- a vast cathedral-like venue in the Ford Assembly Plant which abuts our Visitors Education Center here in Richmond.  The reason for the call was to get me to hold the date of September 19th since I would  be one of this year's 3 honorees that evening.  Rep. George Miller would receive the Life Achievement Award, and the Legacy Award would be given to me.

The evening arrived and every standing or sitting public official from State, County, City, and from the Labor Movement itself was present in that cavernous room.  Every declared candidate for any political office in this election cycle was also present and accounted for.  It was a grand evening!

The drama of the evening, for me, was not the "Who's who" in that grand space, but that this handmade crystal 15 inch (lighted from within!) beautiful one-of-a-kind trophy was presented by a group of of today's Boilermakers Unionists who stood with me on the platform to make the presentation.

The bronze plaque gives, after many decades, status to the little Jim Crow segregated Union, Boilermakers Auxiliary #36, created under the flawed social system of the early forties -- the time of the greatest mobilization of workers since the building of the pyramids or the Great Wall of China.  By their action (through me) that powerful Union legitimized our participation by closing the circle (finally) with all of us enclosed within.  Rev. Willie B. Smith, Secretary Mahlon Roles and his wife Marguerite, Spencer Jordan, Zola Adams, Christine White, Martha Ford Montgomery, plus thousands of black shipyard workers who gave their all without fairness of opportunity or recognition, and I,  are now counted  as legitimate contributors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Great Arsenal of Democracy after more than 70 years.  The little temporary office building that held us was unceremoniously torn down immediately at the end of the war, so that past has been obliterated as most or all of those other lives passed into eternity over time.  I believe that I may well be the last one standing ... .

This tribute may have come in my name, but it is really a tribute to today's International Brotherhood of Boilermakers who went back into their past to own that blighted history; to forgive themselves; and then continue to open the way to greater unity.  I'm told that today's Boilermakers is the most racially diverse division among all of today's Unions.

The plaque reads:

    Betty Reid Soskin
         Boilermakers Auxiliary Local #36
in honor of your Home Front service
and your dedication to preserving
a transformative chapter in U.S. history
for women and people of color

(signed by the international president of
the Brotherhood of Boilermakers Iron Shipbuilders
Blacksmith Forgers and Helpers)

In all of our names, I am so grateful for this recognition.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Busy back at work so haven't followed up on my report on the trip to Atlanta and Tuskegee ... .

Photo taken at Tuskegee Airfield after Women's Equality Day Address
... but I was trying to wait for my colleague to provide her photos so that I could share them, but she is also back at her desk and hasn't gotten around to making the CD yet.  I brought along my camera but, unfortunately, I simply forget to take photos even when it's right there in my hand.  I guess I just don't want anything to stand between me and an experience.  We'll just have to wait for Sue's pics.

It occurred to me that the one thing I haven't yet reported on is the event that brought us to Tuskegee in the first place, the address for Women's Equality Day at the Airfield.  The truth is that I was so deeply moved by all that surrounded it, that I'm not sure that I could tell you what I said in that speech.  It faded into the background as the other experiences took over every cell in my body.

Moten Airfield is a scant 4 miles from the university campus, and is also a National Park System site, one that has been faithfully restored with impressive exhibits, both of the ghost buildings and those that could be restored. Those no longer standing are represented by skeletal metal footprints in the exact measurements of those now missing.  I've never seen that done before, and it does the job quite well.

In addition, the hangars have been restored and are rich with blow-ups of the Airmen, including everyone who served in any capacity (pilots, mechanics, instructors, etc.) now being considered "Tuskegee Airmen."   This was no surprise since our park considers anyone working on the Home
Front in any capacity as a "Rosie."  I was told that one woman who is seen in one of the giant photos huddling under the wing of a plane with pilots -- a mechanic -- is still living in the area but was too frail to attend the event.

The audience was made up of NPS staff, volunteers, and at least two elected officials, one who with his spouse, had driven all the way from Mobile (a 3-hour drive) to attend.

We visited the historic hangars, followed by a sumptuous lunch in the Sky Club where young  officers had gathered for recreation -- with a jukebox of the times playing music of that era.  We would then take off for the drive along the historic Selma to Montgomery Trail and Pettus Bridge where another stunning NPS visitor center has been established in a rehabilitated bank building.  What had escaped notice by virtue of the tragic and dramatic events of Bloody Sunday was the serene beauty of the Alabama river that meanders lazily below in silent testimony to those long ago horrific scenes.  The nation responded with shock and shame, and those images on our television sets changed the fate of what had been a seemingly failed social revolution up to that point.

The town of Selma appears to have changed little over the years; and could be well-used as a movie set of that painful era.  One would hope that the same would not be said of those still living there.

... and I just noticed that the report on my talk has gotten itself buried again.  Maybe I'll just have to let it all simmer until it's ready.  Maybe by the time Sue gets back to work from her backpacking trip at Yosemite and can transfer the photos from her camera to a CD.  Maybe then I can recapture the part  that I played in last week's journey ... maybe.  But when put in context, my contribution was probably the least important aspect of a memorable trip back in time.

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