Community Organizer

In January of 1982, already under the wings of Toni and Judith, my new feminist mentors, employers, hosts and patrons (though they were women the word “matrons” just doesn’t have the appropriate connotations) I plunged willingly into a new deep end. Toni was in charge of setting up the Los Angeles office for the last-ditch ERA Countdown Campaign effort to attempt to get three more state legislatures to ratify this proposed U.S. constitutional amendment, the focus of the mainstream women’s movement of the time. She had put together a four-person staff (all women) for the office, but one of the people she had slotted had dropped out at the last minute. To fill the gap she decided to broaden her gender horizon and offered the job to me, as I had previously proved myself as a volunteer.

That prior summer, as a Los Angeles NOW unpaid volunteer, I had taken on a leadership role in the so-named “Last Walk for ERA” which had over 10,000 people participating and raised $300K to help launch the final push for ERA ratification. I had taken on organizing the “marshals” for the event, some 100 volunteers who were posted throughout the walk route to keep the event proceeding in an orderly fashion and be available to participants with questions or issues, and also there to report on and handle any emergencies that might occur. I got so sucked into the pre-event preparatory work that I had pretty much abandoned my money-making film production work, which had been very intermittent at best when I was focusing on it, and my bank account dwindled to pretty much nothing by the time of the event.

The evening before the event, I set up shop in the small gymnasium of Rancho Park, the start and end point of the walk, and the location of the post walk rally. My 100 volunteers were all scheduled to appear at the gym at 7am the next morning to be given their assignments and put to work. I stayed up all night writing up a separate instruction sheets for each of them, and taped them to the walls around the gym in alphabetical order. The morning of the event came and my system and assignments worked well, the event was a big success, and I got lots of notice and kudos for my work, including in particular from Toni, who now maybe saw me as a bonafide organizer.

It was shortly after “The Last ERA Walk”, probably sensing my precarious economic situation and seeing clearly my commitment to the cause, that Toni and her partner Judith had offered me a small room in their upstairs apartment and job working full time filling orders for Judith’s mail-order business selling feminist pins, buttons and bumper stickers. So there was definitely logic to it, based on my volunteer work on the Walk, when Toni three months later offered me the open paid position helping run the ERA Countdown Campaign Los Angeles office.

I was of course thrilled, honored and a bit amazed (based on my gender) to be asked, and immediately agreed. The job involved recruiting and coordinating volunteers and staffing (with volunteers) a nightly fundraising phone-bank to raise money for the ERA ratification efforts around the country. It paid the whopping sum of $1000 a month for six months, and I pretty much understood that it would be seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, but throwing in the free room at their house and some free meals as well and it was a living wage.

Not since my JLO youth theater group fifteen years earlier, when my then mentor Michael had asked me to adapt the novel Lord of the Flies to the stage so our ensemble could stage it, had I been singled out to play such a pivotal role in a major project. But Lord of the Flies was a play performed by thirty actors and crew for several hundred people in attendance, and something I worked on in my free time while going to high school. This was an effort to transform the legal and legislative landscape of the entire country and explicitly call out women as full and equal partners to men in our country’s highest law, an effort I was in the position to throw my entire being into.

Add to this that the achievement of legal equality for women had been the driving goal of my mom’s earlier participation in the women’s movement, and her own involvement in NOW and advocacy for ERA, back seven or eight years earlier, had played no small role in pulling her out of the ennui of her deep post-divorce depression. If I could play a role (however modest actually in the big picture of this nationwide campaign) in helping to put this language into the U.S. Constitution, what an acknowledgement that would be to her and all she meant to me and my own development.

So every morning for the next six months I would wake up in my little bed in my little room, shower, dress and walk the mile route to the ERA Countdown Campaign office. Every evening from 6:30 to 9:30 (plus an afternoon session on Sunday) I would have anywhere from 10 to 30 volunteers come in, and I would spend the day preparing work for them, and then give them all tasks (including briefly training newbies where necessary), facilitate and supervise their work.

The main task was calling the thousands of NOW members and other identified ERA supporters in Southern California and pitching them to contribute money to aid the ratification campaign. Adjunct tasks included calling volunteers and scheduling them to come in and staff the phones each day and getting other crews of volunteers out on the streets of Los Angeles with ERA petitions and other inducements to get the names, addresses and hopefully phone numbers too of more ERA supporters that could then be fed into the phone-bank and called for a donation to the campaign and to volunteer themselves.

I acquired and honed many skills during my six month “intensive” that I ended up leveraging for great success in my corporate “real jobs” that I got later after Sally and I had started a family and needed more substantial incomes (than made by paid to field organizers) to pay our expenses. Among other things, I learned to…

* Synthesize fairly complicated positions down to one or two simple sentences and hone many page policy documents down to single page “cheat sheets” that my volunteers could use to quickly respond to questions or comments they received on the phone or the streets.

* Write fliers, pamphlets and fundraising letters combining provocative phrases to get attention with explanatory paragraphs, and hopefully compelling prose to inspire people to contribute their time and money.

* Break down big clerical tasks, like stuffing, sealing, addressing, sort and bagging a several thousand piece mailing in assembly-line fashion, so that a room full of volunteers could all participate together in the process and quickly finish the task.

* Quickly train and continually inspire a myriad of volunteers bringing highly variable skill levels (and sometimes motivation) to their efforts.

* Do my best to keep myself at all times emanating positive and supporting energy to the many volunteers I was nearly constantly surrounded by while being aware of their own needs and issues.

I now look back at the experience from a developmental point of view, since I seem to be all about the nuts and bolts of human development these days, inspired as I have been in more recent years by the efficacy of my own kids’ unschooling, which features the “school of life” and the learning that you do outside of a formal academic environment. In retrospect, what Toni was offering me was (from an unschooling point of view) “deep learning”, the opportunity to completely focus on learning a discipline (social activism) and a body of knowledge (feminist philosophy) that I had a tremendous passion for. She was offering me a masters program of sorts in feminist theory and practice, where execution of my piece of the ERA Countdown Campaign would be my thesis.

In the end the campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment fell three states short of the 38 it needed to enshrine gender equality in the Constitution. It was painfully disappointing in the American competitive sense of “losing”. But the effort taken, and all the people (including me) that were recruited to actively participate, I think transformed our country in maybe a less explicit way. For the thousands of women and men like me that threw themselves into this campaign, there was no going back to passively accepting the inferior position of women in patriarchal culture. I also discovered that the pain of failure when you actively pursue something you believe in is much shorter in duration than when you passively watch something you believe in fail without your best efforts.

After we both had worked on “The Last Walk for ERA” as volunteers the previous summer, my fellow activist and future life-partner Sally had been recruited by the Campaign to go to Florida to help with the organizing effort there, one of three states that were the focus of the final state ratification effort. She would be travelling traveling there with another one of our fellow NOW activists, Susan. For the past year, Sally had been just a casual acquaintances and a fellow volunteer.

Sally and I had had the opportunity in early November of 1981 to spend an afternoon together while she and Susan ran errands and tied up loose ends prior to their planned cross-country drive to Florida. I recall Sally and I were sitting together in the cramped back seat of Susan’s little car, because the front passenger seat was otherwise unavailable. The three of us talked of their upcoming odyssey to Florida, activist shop talk as it were, of where they would be working, what they would be doing, and the herculean task of convincing of convincing a majority of the state legislators there, who were overwhelmingly conservative older white men, to support equal rights for women. Though I don’t recall any romantic spark between us at that point, a seed was planted in my head that here was a person I was very comfortable being side by side with as we contemplated life’s journeys.

The three of us had already been through a lot together and were now preparing for each of our heavy-duty developmental experiences to come. Looking back, more and more I measure the value of things in my own life, the circle of people around me, and in society as a whole in terms of development. Of course it is important to have your basic needs for food and shelter met, and we tend to be more open to experience when we have love, support and happiness. But my bottom-line metric for the value of things we do is how they impact our personal development, plus that of those around us and human society as a whole.

To read the final chapter of this thread, see “Negotiating a Life Partnership”.

3 replies on “Community Organizer”

  1. Hi Cooper: I’ve enjoyed reading your memories of NOW Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I was an intern in the NOW Office, working with Stephanie Knapik in 1984-1985 while an undergraduate at the University of Southern California. You were always wonderful: kind-hearted to everyone and a calm presence. Sounds like you’ve maintained the same values and mindset.
    — Liz Brunner

  2. Thanks Liz. It was quite a heady time and very developmental for me and I’m sure everyone else. We were all mobilizing our current skills (and learning new ones) for a cause we really cared about. I remember it all very fondly.

    So now I’m curious, what was your degree at USC and what are you doing now? (Feel free to email me at

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