Forming Her Activism


Early formative influences in Sue's childhood included accompanying her grandfather to take food baskets to needy families. He would say simply, without fanfare, that "not everybody is as fortunate as we are." Sue said this practice was not touted as "any big moral lesson: it was just something we did."

Then there was her growing awareness of the injustice of segregation as she witnessed the treatment of Blacks in 1950s America. Sue had Black friends and thought nothing of it until one day, while going with friends to the beach, she was challenged by the gatekeeper about the Black girl in their group:

"Is she your maid? You know, Sue, that you can't bring her on the beach unless she works for you." I was just appalled. I hadn't really thought this would happen, so I said, "No, she's a princess from Africa; her father is a diplomat." It was a big lie, but that was my first lesson in how you circumvent these things. She came with us onto the beach and there was no issue.

Another pivotal experience was when she taught high school in St. Lambert, Quebec, and became involved in environmental activism. She had brought certain social norms to Canada about individualism; for example, you get what you deserve; you can work your way out of anything; if you work hard, you'll succeed. But her experience teaching high school suggested otherwise:

You can work and work but if you're starting from a point way behind everybody else, you're probably not going to succeed. And if you're carrying baggage like abuse or poverty, or not having a family that values education, no matter how hard you work you may still not be able to catch up without some timely and appropriate help.

She also learned that students might not succeed with a single, rigid model of teaching that does not meet the needs of different students, so teachers must learn to vary their delivery methods. It became painfully obvious that the educational bureaucracy was failing students who did not fit the expected mould. Somewhat chastened, Sue learned that if you want to make change in the world, you must accept existing boundaries and work with them. Furthermore, changing the boundaries themselves entails a disciplined approach to avoid total chaos.

When I was quite young we used to go to Kentucky often—I always thought that segregation was very unfair. So I think that's where this feeling started that the world is not fair based on things that people can't help, like the color of their skin or the family they grew up in, or the amount of money they had.