Unschooling in the Art of Social Transformation

It is my continuing effort to promote the concept of “unschooling”, the mostly unsung method of human development that often gets short shrift compared to more formal modes and venues for education. Wikipedia defines “unschooling” as a term coined in the 1970s by radical educator John Holt, representing…

A range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. There are some who find it controversial. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities, often initiated by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

Becoming familiar with the concept of unschooling reading works by John Holt, Pat Farenga, Matt Hern and John Taylor Gatto, I have been taking a long look back at the road I’ve traveled and the key developmental experiences that have contributed the most to who I am today. Though I went to school (K-12 & college, some 20 years worth!), my school experience contributes relatively little to who I really am today, and the wisdom and skill set that I bring to my life’s activities. What is more significant, in retrospect, are the major themes of my own self-directed learning done mostly outside of school.

I have already told the story of my developmental themes around participation in theater and military simulation board games. What follows is a narrative of my continuing interest around the theme of social transformation. What I’m trying to get at is the “deep dive”, the robust weaving of many threads, that can happen with a totally self-directed effort to learn. This rather than learning initiated by an external entity that the learner is “assigned” to learn to a prescribed extent.

I will warn you up front, like the others, it is a long piece, some 7000 words.

Early Inspiration

Perhaps it all began for me seeing the 1950s movie versions of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi books 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island on television when I was a kid, and resonating with the character of Captain Nemo. He was the brilliant insurgent captain of his amazing submarine Nautilus who said…

Think of it: On the surface, there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight and tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves, their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here, I am free. Imagine what would happen if they controlled machines such as this submarine boat. Far better that they think there’s a monster and hunt me with harpoons… There is hope for the future. When the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass… in God’s good time.

Certainly Nemo was no Mahatma Gandhi! In Verne’s stories, Nemo’s five decades ahead of its time metal submarine rammed and sank many warships and transports laden with war munitions, killing hundreds of sailors, in his quest to end the human denizens of the surface world’s ability to make war on each other. As a shy seven-year-old kid, but one full of passion for grand ideas, I was inspired by Nemo’s zealous obsession with trying to singlehandedly transform the world.

Soundtrack of Social Issues

That theme of transformation was sidetracked during my preteen years with my parents divorcing when I was ten and my literary interests turning to superhero comics (Batman, Flash and Dr. Strange were my favorites), James Bond novels (I read them all), and more pulpy sci-fi (than Verne’s) like E. E. Smith’s Lensman series and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series, including The Fighting Man of Mars. But certainly in the pulp plots was that same theme of the lone crusader (caped or otherwise) challenging some sort of individual or systemic evil and corruption.

The beginnings of my awareness of more down to earth issues came not from junior high civics and social studies classes but TV news and AM radio, particularly the Detroit Motown music featured on CKLW, the Canadian Top-40 station just across the border from the Motor City. “CK”s playlist was full of black artists like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, who were telling stories of people fighting for life and love in the urban ghettos.

From the Supremes 1968 hit “Love Child”…

I started my life in an old, cold tenement slum
My father left he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

Popular music yes, but also real social issues of race, poverty and patriarchy.

And from the 1966 hit “Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel…

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

And of course, The Beatles, offering their thoughtful counterpoint that the real revolution begins inside you…

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead

These and others like them were not songs I just heard occasionally, but day after day on the radio or played over and over on our record player until the words and the ideas and issues they conveyed were burned deep into my consciousness. It was a constant Greek chorus reminding me and others of the social context we were living in, and I, as a future adult citizen, needed to address as either “part of the problem or part of the solution”.

Local Progressive Politics

Several years after she divorced my dad, my mom threw herself into local politics as a Democratic Party precinct co-chair and campaign manager for a couple local city council and mayoral candidates. She was motivated initially by, among other things, trying to keep her son (me… still a handful of years from draft age) out of the Vietnam War, and later by the growing movement for women’s rights and particularly the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. It took her into a new world of people, passion and polemics… dragging me not so unwillingly along with her.

The initial event I recall in this emerging thread was a cocktail party at the home of Franklin Pierce, an acquaintance of my mom’s who was running for the US Senate on an anti-war platform. Jane Fonda and Daniel Ellsberg were there, Ellsberg fresh off his Pentagon Papers revelations and Fonda still yet to embark on her visit to North Vietnam. I recall meeting the two and being duly impressed by these big-time progressive political celebrities. It may have been this event, or some other consciousness-raising “click”, but my mom took on the persona of dedicated political activist. It was certainly a better self-image than divorced, semi-suicidal, forty-something homemaking mom.

I recall my mom taking her precinct chair job pretty seriously. She was given the list of all the registered voters in our precinct. Since at the time in Michigan (unlike other states) there was no political party registration, one of my mom’s initial tasks was to identify all the Democrats and the other people in our precinct that were likely to vote for Democrats. This involved telephoning people on the list, if possible, or even going door-to-door to try and gather this information.

She methodically worked through the list, identifying each voter with a “D” (Democrat), “R” (Republican), or “I” (independent) or some combination like “ID” or “IR”. She even recruited me (thirteen or fourteen at the time) to make some of these canvassing calls and ask people which party they supported. It was tough work for a shy kid like me, being on the wrong end of an occasional call where I got chewed out by someone that their political party affiliation was “none of your damn business”.

Once the potential Democratic vote in her precinct was identified, the next key task was making sure they all got out and voted on election day. At about 5pm, three hours before the polls closed, she would go across the street to our polling place in the Burns Park recreation room and scan the voter roll to identify who on her list had not voted yet. Then she would get back on the phone, try to reach these people and make sure they got out to vote. For some of this subset who could not be reached by phone, she sent me out on my bicycle to knock on their doors and deliver the reminder in person. Again I was shy and at times intimidated by this task, but I recall moments of pride after being thanked by someone for the reminder and acknowledged for my youthful civic participation.

The next episode of my mom’s involvement in local politics was functioning as a campaign manager for two male acquaintances that lived in our neighborhood, one running for Ann Arbor Mayor and the other City Council. My mom organized bake sales to raise money and cocktail parties to buttonhole votes for their campaigns, with me invariably behind a card table selling home-made bake goods or mingling with the party guests and participating in or eavesdropping on all the best political arguments. She also set up card tables in front of local grocery stores to hand out campaign literature along with going door to door in our precinct.

Though my mom successfully got her mayoral candidate elected, two wild local mayoral elections (with other candidates) followed. The first in 1972 featuring a three-way race for mayor, including a mayoral candidate from a radical student party who was an out lesbian, plus a new preferential voting system that allowed each ballot to have a first and second choice. The second in 1974 was just a two-way race, but was won by only one vote. Both elections ended up in court for various reasons and were resolved by the judge months after the voting. My mom was on the inside of all the goings on and shared with me in her passionate way all the issues and events. What pride and growing self-confidence I saw in the face of this woman, who in her weaker moments could still be found crying on her bed surrounded by unpaid bills, but who I was coming to know as a human being rather than some iconic parental figure. By the end of it all I was hooked as a political junkie.

Throughout all this I was right there in the thick of things, hearing all those great conversations about strategy and tactics, many in our kitchen (why is it always the kitchen?) during my mom’s parties. I witnessed my mom and her comrades develop into pretty sophisticated political operatives, and I learned the basic ropes myself, partly by osmosis and by my own occasional assistance with her “precinct work”.

This was a real world political education, visceral, and way beyond anything taught in a civics class.

Feminism & My “Feminist Aunts”

In the early 1970s my mom and most of her circle of female politicos transitioned from straight Democratic party work to involvement focused on the Women’s Movement and particularly the campaign for the new Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA had gotten through Congress in 1972 and subsequently had to be ratified by 38 state legislatures to be added to the U.S. Constitution, an effort that was spearheaded by the National Organization for Women. My mom and her comrades joined the local Ann Arbor chapter of NOW.

An ongoing theme of frustration for my mom, which was not lost on me as a budding activist myself, was the fact that many of the liberal male professors and male progressive political activists that my mom had worked with on Democratic party efforts (including those campaigning for local male candidates) were not supportive of (or some not even interested in) this growing ERA campaign for legal equality for women. They seemed to like their female activist comrades best as a sort of sexy auxiliary available for political grunt work and also to be hit on for sexual liaisons.

My witness played a significant role in planting a seed in me that began moving my thinking from being simply a “leftist” to being a “feminist”. You might not think there was any gap there, but I was quickly learning that support for women’s equality could be found among conservatives as well as progressives, and more often among women than men, on both sides of the political spectrum. One most effectively stated their case for feminism not necessarily in the context of socialism or liberalism.

Unlike me, my mom was a natural extrovert, and after joining the Ann Arbor chapter of NOW, she quickly gravitated to the job of membership chair and was busy trying to recruit every woman she knew or newly encountered. In the process she more than doubled the chapter’s membership and developed a strong circle of fellow feminist women friends in the process. Many of them were moms with children like her, and notably, many ended up divorcing their husbands as my mom and dad had previously done. As I continued to develop my own feminist consciousness, I could see that the emerging consciousness of these women was challenging the traditional “rules of engagement” between them and their husbands. As they separated from those former male partners, they began to depend on each other more and more as a sort of feminist extended family. They would hang out together a lot and bring their kids along. We kids with our shared experience of our activist moms became not unlike siblings or at least cousins, so much so that I would come to describe my mom’s friends as my “Feminist Aunts”.

One of my “Aunts” was Carol, who my mom first met when she and her then husband Bob (they later divorced) were involved in the same Democratic party circles. Carol had a similar orientation to pragmatic equal rights activism to my mom. She in fact was in those trenches every day working for the EEOC (the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) as an investigator of cases of discrimination against women in the auto industry and other businesses in southeast Michigan. Carol had twin daughters my age and a young daughter as well.

As a mentor to me, Carol was the person who taught me the concept of “think globally and act locally”. She was a more abstract and theoretical thinker than my mom (my mom was the one always saying, “Let’s stop discussing this and get to work!”), and I particularly appreciated how Carol could paint a high-level view for me of the feminist movement in its political, philosophical and historical context. She was laid-back, thoughtful and always willing to take extra time to explain stuff to me. She was a dedicated activist and EEOC investigator, successfully bringing several discrimination cases to court and eventual settlement in favor of the women complainants, removing sexist corporate policies. Carol tragically died of cancer in the early 1980s in her early fifties, a tragic loss of one of many mostly unsung local heroes of the U.S. 1970s women’s movement.

My “Guru” Mary Jane

Even more of a mentor (who I often describe as “my guru”) was my mom’s best friend Mary Jane, who my mom also met involved in local Ann Arbor Democratic Party politics. She and her husband Ray had four kids that I spent many long hours hanging out with. Unlike my mom and Carol, Mary Jane embraced more of the radical separatist side of the feminist movement, and was a full-blown radical academic and intellectual. She had collaborated on work with media philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, and was also friends with Norman Mailer (who used to come to parties at her house when he was in Ann Arbor). She also knew people in the Weather Underground. She and her husband Ray divorced a couple years after my mom and dad did.

As I was learning in my high school Modern Russian History class about the radicals who overthrew the Czar and engineered the 1917 revolution, I began to wrestle with radical activism and profound critiques of society. In that regard Mary Jane seemed like the genuine article – a real flesh and blood radical intellectual (my very own cookie-baking Bakunin) – who challenged my thinking and with whom I could dialogue. From her I was introduced to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and many of her own ideas, that at the time seemed totally outlandish, but turned out to be thought-seeds that would later become a significant part of my life. Mary Jane was the first vegan I ever met. She introduced me to the concept of “patriarchy” (I remember here provocative catch-phrase, “patriarchal pimperialism”) and McLuhan’s “global village” and the “death of literacy”. She strongly believed that education for kids should not be mandatory if it were to be anything beyond mere indoctrination.

Mary Jane would sometimes come to my mom’s parties wearing a maroon monk’s robe and a women’s liberation necklace featuring the women’s symbol with the clenched fist within the circle, and spout off about stopping “male literacy”, a major league provocateur indeed! Though it might be easy enough to write her off as a wacko, and a fair number of people at my mom’s parties and elsewhere did, she was probably the smartest person I ever met, and she became a mentor, at times, to the consternation of my mom.

I can remember many times being the only male person in a room full of women, including Mary Jane, Carol and my mom, when Mary Jane would voice some profound critique of men. Then acknowledging me in the room she would grin and say, “Present company excepted of course”. Her eyes would catch mine with a twinkle as if to say, “I challenge you to do something about that someday young man!”

A room with the three of them holding court – Mary Jane, Carol and my mom – was a great environment for me as a shy adolescent, but one with a strong urge to make a difference. They were smart, loving and respectful of young people, and full of energy, agency and a bit of hell as well. Sitting and listening to the three of them discuss history, politics, parenting, or whatever, in a feminist context, was the closest I ever came to a religious experience. There was a strong set of ethics and belief behind their arguments, regarding equal rights for women and life in a patriarchal society.

I pretty much accepted that strong ethical framework from these three bigger than life women, including:

* Respect and solidarity for all people, particularly those people that are marginalized by majority society

* The absolute and fundamental equality of women and their ability to be strong leaders and deep thinkers

* The importance of activism in a democratic society – if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem

* The need to challenge complacency, conventional wisdom and particularly the patriarchal path of least resistance

Mr Peacock, Bakunin & the Graduate Library Sub-Basement

As I mentioned briefly before, in my senior year in high school (1971-1972) I was a wannabe radical, enjoying the intoxicating stories of my Modern Russian History teacher (an avowed communist) Mr. Peacock. He spent weeks regaling us with stories about the group that plotted and killed the Czar in 1881, the Russian revolution of 1905 and its failure to seize power, and the Bolsheviks who thirteen years later successfully did so. I so identified with the larger than life radicals he channeled, that it led to my own flirting with these radical ideas.

The course included Peacock’s detailed foray into the differences between the various revolutionary ideologies in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Lenin’s Bolshevism, Trotsky’s “Menshevik” ideology, and the Russian anarchist thinkers, particularly Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. As an older youth increasingly motivated by the principle of “questioning authority”, and feeling my oats as a budding male feminist, I was particularly attracted to the anarchist ideas. Part of that interest was simply that it seemed like forbidden fruit, and I was obsessed with knowing more.

My high school library, though pretty extensive, did not have any books on anarchist philosophy, but I was blessed with other available sources (before the Internet of course) for arcane literary works. With my house just a mile from the University of Michigan central campus, it was an easy walk or bike ride to the U of M Graduate Library with its huge collection of books.

I remember bringing a like-minded radical-chic inspired friend along as we walked up the concrete stairs, through the big doors and down the lobby to the giant card catalog (not computerized in 1972). Fittingly enough, at least by my thinking at the time, the books on anarchism turned out to be in the second sub-basement of the library in stacks off the beaten path, with appropriately low lighting, no windows to the outside world, and that wonderful dusty smell of old hardback books that get little use, that still today brings back memories of this youthful pursuit.

I have a recollection of the red spine of the first book I found, with Dewey notation “BA” at the bottom and just the word “Bakunin” in gold inked letters pressed into and running vertically along that spine. We probably looked around to see who else was watching (yeah, way too melodramatic) before we slid the book out of the shelf. I don’t remember if it was Statism and Anarchy, God and the State, or one of his other volumes. Since I was not a university student at this point, I could not actually check the book out, but we sat on the floor, thumbed through and surveyed the various pages. I was captured at the time by these anarchist ideas of rejecting God and more earthly formal authority and governing structures, promoting the concept of natural liberty, direct control of institutions by the participants in those institutions, plus decentralized decision-making from the bottom up.

Here is the sort of Bakunin quote that would have fired my imagination at the time…

I am a fanatic lover of liberty, considering it as the unique condition under which intelligence, dignity and human happiness can develop and grow… I mean the only kind of liberty that is worthy of the name, liberty that consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers that are latent in each person; liberty that recognizes no restrictions other than those determined by the laws of our own individual nature, which cannot properly be regarded as restrictions since these laws are not imposed by any outside legislator beside or above us, but are immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being — they do not limit us but are the real and immediate conditions of our freedom.

I had my own model of anarchic informal governance, being part of my Junior Light Opera theater group run (to a large degree at least) by the youth participants. I also fantasized about my fellow students and I taking over and running our high school. I imagined contentious meetings between a hastily formed student collective and a phalanx of concerned parents, discussing the future of educational practice at Pioneer High.

Those ideas did not get beyond idle fantasy at that point, but they stuck with me, permanently embedded in my imagination and periodically rekindled. In the 1980s I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s great sci-fi book, The Dispossessed, which told the story of a man born and raised on a breakaway desert planet with an anarchist society, but challenged the conventional wisdom on his own world and their original home-world to try to bring a rapprochement between the two. More recently, reading extensively about Western history, I read more about the anarchist philosophy of Bakunin and Proudhon, as well as the Spanish anarchist-educator, Francisco Ferrer, and the “Modern School” established by American anarchist Emma Goldman and others. I was inspired by his ideas on the rights of youth.

My mom, the forward thinker that she was, used to say that “the teachers should run the school”, which is maybe not so far from Bakunin’s ideas. She was also a passionate advocate for more respect and more rights for youth. So the fruit definitely had not fallen too far from the tree when I would come to believe, taking her idea a step further, that “the teachers and the students should run the school”.

A Sojourn from Self-Directed Learning in College

This piece is a tale of what I feel was profound learning mostly outside of any formal educational environment. But between 1972 and 1978 I did follow the conventional developmental trajectory and attended college, graduating from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Speech and a concentration in television and film production. Through those years I continued to get regular “briefings” from my mom and my “Feminist Aunts”, but I mostly did not pursue this radical societal transformation agenda in my formal coursework.

Still I was attracted to a few individual elective courses in feminism and philosophy. I was one of the few male students in Women’s History and Status of Women classes. I was particularly moved by reading Viktor Frankl‘s Man’s Search for Meaning and Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings in a “Post Freudian Thought” class. What I got from these two great thinkers and writers was that life may or may not be about material wellbeing and the “pursuit of happiness”, but it was definitely a life well lived if it was about human development.

If contributing nothing else, my interest in television and film production took me to Los Angeles to try to break into the entertainment industry there. That did not work out, but it introduced me to a bigger developmental sandbox where I would have the opportunity to proceed with my social transformation thread in a compelling real-world setting.

Finding My Way Back to Feminism

I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 and rattled around in the fringes of the film business for a couple years before giving up on it as a career path. Feeling very alone in the big city, I decided I should try to find a local community akin to the feminist one I had been nurtured by during my older youth in Ann Arbor.

By 1980, the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was heating up and becoming a compelling narrative being covered in the mainstream media. Thirty-five states had already ratified the amendment; three more and it would be carved into the U.S. Constitution that, “Equality under the law should not be abridged or denied on account of sex”. In that context, I gathered up the nerve to attend a meeting of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Once I got myself there it turned out to be okay, since I was comfortable in the world of women, particularly strong women (and way more comfortable than I was in the world of men).

The meeting was held in a nondescript office building in the Mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles. There were about 30 people attending, including what seemed like an inner circle of women that knew each other along with a fair amount of newbies like me who were drawn by the growing effort on behalf of the ERA. I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple other men there. For the most part I was accepted and welcomed, and it was probably attending my second or third such meeting that I was pitched by a very handsome and sexy woman named Jane, probably seven to ten years my elder, and agreed to volunteer for her Communications Committee.

My first “action” was very unlike the more mainstream legislative and political activities that NOW officially staged and that my mom had been involved in. There was a billboard not to far from the NOW office advertising Las Vegas with a huge picture of a busty, scantily clad woman decked out in feathers (a chorus-line dancer) like a human peacock. Jane, another woman Judith, and I planned and executed a clandestine defacing of that billboard in the middle of the night, writing “Women are not chicks!” in big black spray-painted letters across it. (I thought it ironically humorous that the hardware store where we bought our tools of desecration had all sorts of signs that they did not sell spray-paint to minors, presumably to prevent tagging.) At maybe two in the morning, watching fitfully for police cars, we managed to scale the sign and carry out our act. Sexy female comrades and guerrilla political action… it brought out that radical wannabe in me again and I was totally hooked and bonded with my two radicalized colleagues.

Certainly politically motivated tagging and defacing of institutional messages has a long history in political radicalism. Having the opportunity to do it was a heady developmental experience for me (though still mostly in the wannabe category), but one that I happily only did once and was able to move beyond to perhaps more consequential activism.

Last Walk for ERA

In the summer of 1981 Los Angeles NOW took on organizing a major event in support of the final year of the Equal Rights Amendment campaign, dubbed the “Last Walk for ERA”. Jane took on the role of coordinating what turned out to be a march and rally with over 10,000 people participating that raised $300K to help launch the final push for ERA ratification. She recruited me to take on a key role, recruiting and organizing the “marshals” for the event, some 100 volunteers who would be posted throughout the walk route to keep the event proceeding in an orderly fashion, be available to participants with questions or issues, and also present to report on and handle any emergencies or other problems that might occur. It was this event in particular that got me so sucked into this compelling unpaid effort that I had pretty much abandoned my money-making film production work, threatening my ability to pay for food and rent.

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 sheet for each of them, and taped them to the walls around the gym in alphabetical order by the person’s name. 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 Carabillo, the driving force of Los Angeles NOW and a chief advisor and “lieutenant” of Eleanor Smeal, the National NOW President and one of the key leaders of the modern U.S. feminist movement.

To get this sort of acknowledgement for my work from my new feminist comrades (and particularly from Toni) contributed so much to pulling me away from my previous half-baked attempt to make a life in the TV/film industry and back to the “cause” I had bonded with in my older youth. This felt way more like my life’s work than the sporadic jobs I had had as a production assistant on commercial TV shoots.

On an important personal side note, it was also during this same time that another new face volunteered at the Los Angeles NOW office. Though we did not initially connect with each other, I was struck by Sally… tall, broad-shoulders, shy tell-all grin and huge mane of curly black hair. She was cerebral, well spoken though not quick to volunteer her thoughts, and a thoughtful observer of everything around her, but with a quiet charisma that drew the other newbie women volunteers to her and caught the attention of Toni and the rest of the inner circle. I took a passing note of her then, though it would still be two years later before she and I would focus real attention on each other.

Under the Wing of My New “Feminist Aunts”

In the aftermath of the “Last Walk for ERA”, probably sensing my precarious economic situation and seeing clearly my commitment to the cause, Toni and her lesbian partner Judith offered me a small room in their upstairs apartment (where Toni’s elderly mom lived), along with a job working full time filling orders for Judith’s mail-order business selling feminist pins, buttons and bumper stickers. They paid me a reasonable wage for my work, and in lieu of paying rent, I made myself available to help Toni’s mom, including taking her out to dinner, which she loved to do (and paid for my meal… such a deal!)

In accepting this offer, I had traded my precarious situation for the shelter and nurturing of my new “Feminist Aunts”. With no real connections yet to anything else in this big crazy city, I was more than happy to plunge my entire waking existence into the world of feminism, even this initial fairly rudimentary “day job” of boxing and shipping all the buttons, pins and bumper stickers that Judith pedaled as one of her contributions to the movement.

Toni was the fifty-something President of the Los Angeles NOW chapter, a key advisor and speech writer for movement leader Eleanor Smeal. Toni was known affectionately in NOW circles as the “godmother” (read female “godfather” rather than the “fairy” variety) of the movement. She fit the part, the charismatic center of any smoke-filled room (literally, because she smoked constantly where she could), hellaciously intelligent and a seeming endless font of worldly wisdom and sarcastic wit. It was a rare venue where everyone else in attendance did not hang on her every word. From the beginning Toni liked me, even having the chutzpah to tell me (since I wore shorts a lot) that I had “nice legs”.

As with Mary Jane in my youth, I learned so much from Toni just being in her presence and listening to how she framed the issues of the day in a feminist and historical context. She was a profoundly gifted activist, both as a strategic and tactical thinker. Among so many other things, Toni taught me how to use Roberts Rules and procedural maneuvers in a meeting, plus the reality that an organization’s agenda depended not so much on what they say they are going to do but how they budget their money.

I don’t think there is any kind of education more profound than to have the opportunity to collaborate on real work, be recognized for ones contribution, and in the process gain access to compelling mentors.

Playing a Key Role in the ERA Countdown Campaign

In January of 1982, 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 before its deadline, which was 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, since I had previously proved myself as a volunteer.

I was of course thrilled, honored and a bit amazed to be asked, and immediately agreed. The job involved recruiting and coordinating volunteers and staffing (with volunteers) a nightly fund-raising phone-bank to raise money for the ERA ratification efforts around the country. The position 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 it was a living wage and there was nothing else at that point that I wanted to spend my time on.

This was an effort to transform the legal and legislative landscape of the entire country and explicitly acknowledge 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. I certainly had plenty of personal motivation, since the achievement of legal equality for women through the ERA had been the driving goal of my mom’s participation in the women’s movement back seven or eight years earlier. If I could play a role (however modest 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 had meant to me in 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), then facilitate and supervise their work.

The main task was calling the thousands of NOW members and other identified ERA supporters in the Western half of the U.S. 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

* Recruiting other crews of volunteers to go out on the streets of Los Angeles with ERA petitions and other inducements to get the names, addresses and hopefully phone numbers 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

Building a Skill Set You Can’t Learn in School

I acquired and honed many skills during my six month “intensive” that I ended up leveraging for great success in my later work “career” I had later after Sally and I started a family and needed more substantial incomes (than paid to most field organizers) to meet our expenses. Among other things, I learned during this time was to…

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

* Write fliers, pamphlets and fund-raising letters combining attention getting provocative phrases with explanatory paragraphs into (hopefully) compelling enough 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 bulk 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 support and inspire a myriad of volunteers bringing highly variable skill levels (and sometimes variable 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 the subject of my “Lefty Parent” writing is getting at the reality of human development. A new cause inspired in more recent years by the efficacy of my own kids’ unschooling, which like my own 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 to “lose”, in that American competitive framing of “losing” rather than “winning”. But the effort taken, and all the people (including me) that were recruited to actively participate, I think transformed our country in perhaps 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.

Final Thoughts

In looking back these days, 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 the impact of those things on human 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 humans do is how they impact our personal development, the development of those around us (including our kids), and human society as a whole.

As Viktor Frankl noted in Man’s Search for Meaning

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

After my experiences in the Women’s Movement in the early 1980s, I spent the next two decades of my life partnering with Sally to bring into the world and raise two kids who are now vibrant and caring young adults. Since I inherited the activist spirit for social transformation from my mom and my “Feminist Aunts” (as Sally did from her mom), developing it further with my own efforts, I am grateful to see it emerge as well in our own kids. It was an important education best learned in the school of real life.

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