Practicing Social Activism


Peace activism in wartime

The coming of World War II in the 1940s brought harsh displacements. Betty's husband, Gunnar, was drafted and registered as a Conscientious Objector to war and given an alternative work assignment at a Maine state school. Here, they were greatly influenced by the Quaker Society of Friends and the example of Mohandas Gandhi, both of which paved the way toward a spiritual path of nonviolence, peace, and social change. Living with their new baby boy in a one-room log cabin in the Maine woods, raising goats and growing their own food, Betty found time for study and reflection on the waging of war, the prevalence of suffering, and possible solutions:

Surely the world had learned the futility of war. But in 1945, at war's end, we learned with horror and disillusionment of Hiroshima and the atom bomb, and the Holocaust that U.S. propaganda had insisted was just a rumour. This led to a dramatic change in our lives and a decision by both of us to work for peace and social justice for the rest of our lives.

Civil rights protests

Betty identified as a peak experience a 20-year period of working in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., starting with the solidarity of a local peace group in Syracuse, N.Y. with a group of Black men who led lunch counter and restaurant sit-ins. "Black and white together, we were routinely refused service and put off the premises," she recalled.

When Betty and her family (of Gunnar, Lisl and Eric) moved to Chicago, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were moving north to seek a better life. She began to feel that while constant protesting and public education were necessary, something in a more positive vein was also needed to solidify the work for change. In this spirit, she approached Black segregated schools to inquire whether volunteers could help tutor their failing students.

I began to seek volunteers in the churches, civic groups, retired teachers – and eventually about 35 responded. I organized one-on-one teaching of reading and writing using our materials. It was questionable to some doubters who said, "You're going to go in surrounded by Blacks? They might take out their frustration on you!" – but this was not so. We kept on.

Soon Betty began working with the "the War on Poverty" program developed by the federal Office of Equal Opportunity. She was asked to start the Harvey Adult Education Center, hiring African Americans to teach from the basics through to high school. It was a rewarding challenge for her to "feel the pull of being a part of history" at a time when great changes in social legislation were being achieved.

Activism in Halifax

In 1975 Betty and Gunnar, in protest against U.S. domestic and foreign policy, moved to Canada for a new start and intended semi-retirement. Following Gunnar's sudden death in their first year after moving, Betty stayed on their Cape Breton farm until 1980, when Muriel Duckworth invited her to live in her large Halifax house. Life became suddenly full with "round-the-clock activism, largely with the organization Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) and other social justice organizations". She participated in events that featured "outspoken protests and demonstrations, occasionally civil disobedience and arrests, but also public education and political work".

Betty's first big effort came at a 1981 Halifax meeting of the VOW. As part of an international women's movement to Say No to War, she volunteered to collect names for the Canadian Women's Petition for Peace. This effort proved to be an eye-opener, for she had to alert VOW groups across Canada to copy the petition and gather signatures locally. Petitions poured in from everywhere and VOW Halifax collected 150,000 Canadian names—no small feat in the days before email and the Internet. In the spring of 1982, buses from Halifax crowded with women and piles of petitions traveled to New York City to join a huge march of a million people from all over the world and deliver the petitions to the United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament.

We deluged the Secretary General of the UN as I joined other presenters on the platform. But oh, that march through the streets of NYC to Central Park! It took five to six hours for us to march past just one place – unforgettable. Surely, no more war. Rousing speakers and music in the park inspired us all and we returned home feeling connected to a great international movement.

Women working for women

Muriel Duckworth's house in Halifax was known variously as the Peace Centre, the Quaker Centre, and the Women's Centre. There, Betty began to meet key women activists who worked for organizations such as Oxfam, the New Democratic Party, and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, among others. While she regarded Muriel Duckworth as her role model, Betty was also transforming her understanding about gender-related social dynamics with a greater depth analysis than ever before:

In the United States in the 1950s, I seemed to have it all, a wonderful husband and marriage, our first home, two lovely children. But in quiet suburbia in Chicago, I felt confined and isolated. I wanted to be working for social change outside the home and I gave myself a hard time: "What's wrong with me? Why aren't I satisfied staying at home like other women around me?" I was then in my 40s.

During her activism in the Civil Rights movement, Betty observed that when they wanted to occupy other roles than the traditional coffee-making and chauffeuring, women were devalued and that in meetings, study groups, and planning sessions, it was the men's voices that dominated – even in Civil Rights groups and the peace movement. Still, it seemed to be the case that it was the women who were "the steady movers", who were getting things done. It was not until years later in Halifax when other women were speaking out that Betty could see that she had been part of "the birth pangs of the Women's Movement". It was a new framing that helped her understand the evolution of her activism, and it brought elation:

What a breakthrough! Things became clear, separate parts of my life seemed to come together in the new surroundings, and my life changed. I worked my way out of the trauma of losing my magnificent husband in our first year in Canada… I would work the rest of my life for both of us, for social change.

As women came together, Betty said their ideas "popped and crackled". The Voice of Women employed provocative actions such as street theatre and civil disobedience that drew crowds, and sometimes netted overnight stints in jail and court appearances with extensive media coverage. At the time, VOW women were focused on issues such as nuclear submarines in the Halifax Harbour, the Cold War, "hot war" propaganda, military weapons systems, and the military training of young men to kill and destroy.

Reflecting on the way the women had worked together, Betty said there was "something very special" about their work with one another. She observed that women brought dependability, creative imagination and insights, good humour, and unbridled determination. Even occasional differences of opinion did not derail the efforts toward a larger goal: "A bit of bickering now and then keeps things lively."

Managing collective action

A model of collective action and inspiration with other social justice groups emerged in June 1995 when world leaders were descending on Halifax for the celebrated G7 conference. For almost a year before, a committed group of people from different change organizations met to develop their strategy for the summit. Since the G7 would feature closed meetings, tight security, and world press coverage, Betty and her colleagues decided to create the P7 – "the People's Summit", to exemplify accessibility in the wide-open Commons at the center of Halifax, where large tents could be used for displays and the open-air stages were ideal for accessible rallies and music. This would start a full week before the G7 in order to attract reporters who arrived to cover national public figures such as Ovide Mercredi, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who led a street march with full drums onto the stage. The international participants carried news of the People's Summit and its success around the world and for several years, the Halifax organizers' model of P7 served for alternative events at the formal G7 meetings.

But just as much as planning for a positive demonstration could be inspirational, so too could months of careful training erupt unexpectedly into violence that eroded public relations and good will. Betty experienced a major disappointment at a time when she provided support to a group of students planning a "welcoming committee" demonstration at the June 2002 G7 Finance Ministers' meeting in Halifax. Overseeing a plan that was based on traditional nonviolence training with emphasis on peaceful chants, individual crowd control and leaders with megaphones to call for sit-down demonstration, Betty and others organized a meeting with police to make clear the intent of non-violence. In their turn, the police declared that any loss of control or negative conduct would provoke a severe response.

However, an email invitation sent out the night before the march, without Betty’s knowledge, announced that any tactics were acceptable. And so the event was appropriated by a few strangers with no training in non-violence principles, and the police reacted with tear gas and billy clubs. As Betty explained, one such disaster triggered by a handful of protesters could set back the cause considerably in terms of lost trust and public support.

By the late 1980s, social change groups in Nova Scotia with concentrations in the area of peace, human rights, social justice, and environment, had understood their interconnectedness and began joining together. "Coalition politics" was still a new phenomenon at the time and participants reveled in the strength of unity that won more media and political attention and a demand for public education. During this time, Betty was involved in collective action for causes like the Face of Poverty, Medicare, Fair Trade, Stop Violence Against Women, Fair Housing, Abolition 2000 (against nuclear weapons), anti- North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and corporate globalization.