Journeys in activism.
When the above flier came in my email today I felt a momentous cycle had come full circle. I have been experiencing more of these full cycle experiences in my 59th year on this weary planet. It could be aging, the big Mayan paradigm shift, the six moons in Pisces, my grappling with mortality, or all of the above. In any case, my equanimity about my many years of activism and service for women and girls was restored. It took a long time to reach this state of compassion and equanimity but a recent research journey to Cuba with a group of American women opened the door. This trip triggered old internalized oppression and my loathing of American feminism slapped me in the face once again, clarifying for me the hurt and rage I carried with me about my experiences in women's movements in imperialist USA.
The story begins with the young, organic intellectual, activist me of the 1960s and 70s. My sources for inspiration that informed my activism were found in early religious teachings about service and poverty; the books comrades would give me at study groups and organizing meetings; political music and films; in feminist courses I attended to finish college while my daughters were at school; or, reading books about liberation during night shifts at the many restaurants in which I worked. The discourse and debates about social justice and social change emerging from conversations around my kitchen table after huge spaghetti dinners during the 1970's inspired a small activist community of workers and artists, most of whom were women I admired and loved.
Throughout the period from the 1960s to the 1990s women and men, in countless forums both activist and academic, gave me theoretical food for thought and role models for action, distraction, and sometimes inaction. During the 1960s and 1970s I had learned about the academy's role in defense industry research such as the making of napalm at Harvard, the atomic bomb research at the University of Chicago and the advent of biological and chemical weapons such Agent Orange, a deadly chemical from which a cousin died after concentrated exposure in Vietnam. I learned about university psychology and psychiatry experiments in controlling and manipulating behavior such as the LSD experiments. I also learned about the educational curricular agendas that were modeled upon factory assembly line models (Taylorism and Fordism) which focused on the social control of labor populations and the poor through tracking and testing systems. I learned about the increasing extensive poverty and exploitation of peoples in two-thirds of the world, a majority of whom were women and children living in much worse conditions than the poverty of my childhood. I had learned from my own experience in providing programs and services ranging from depleted urban areas and working class communities to middle and upper class neighborhoods that a huge disparity existed between rich and poor, black/brown/red and white. I learned by "doing my homework," critically analyzing social inequalities with what tools I had at hand to understand reform, resistance, radical and revolutionary theory and methods as practiced "on the ground."
While majoring in the Social Sciences in graduate school during the late 1970s and 1980s I became intensely focused on what historical events and social structures of oppression and exploitation meant for me, my family and for poor and working class women, men and children of all races, ethnicities and creeds. I was passionately committed to strategies that gave women and men from the poor and working classes access to university education. I believed social justice work focusing on women and girls could change dehumanizing mechanisms of oppression in social, educational and economic systems.
In the early 1980s-1990s this single working class mother of two brilliant daughters took her hard-won social sciences Master's degree and joined a tough group of women in Chicago to develop crisis intervention services for abused and assaulted women and girls. We organized shelters, hot-lines, wrote legislation, lobbied, wrote grants, and learned how to raise funds for these programs from the rich and their philanthropic managers. I founded a shelter for battered women and girls, created a social issues children's theater company, founded a university women's center, consulted on projects to establish multi-racial and anti-racism women's programs throughout the country and created a discrimination investigation program. However, by 1995, I was completely discouraged and distressed and under surveillance. I had found that while I still believed it right to struggle against the system, reforming it appeared impossible. The problem was not just the men in charge of the system but also the women, and not just the women leaders and teachers but the entire social complex in which women had become "invested" and to which they had sold their souls. I no longer loved or admired these women.
An FBI investigation, increasing disparity between rich and poor in the USA and threatening me with a poverty I did not care to revisit, along with increasing global control through overt and covert wars in Latin America, led me to flee from feminist therapy groups and the anti-racism groups who focused on identity, cultural and class assumptions and interpretations about the subjects of race, class and power. I was sick of navel-gazing and asking; "What is it like for me and what's it like for others given the constructs of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and creeds?" I came to loathe the self-centeredness and sell out American feminism of the 1980s which mirrored the loathing of the feminine taught in the Calvinist Churches of my youth in the 1950s and resulted in post-feminist "Sex in the City" consumerism under the leadership of women such as Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.
I fled to the intellectual safety of liberation theology and sang in an interfaith gospel choir; I was engaged in radical activism here and abroad but I traveled alone; I embraced those people who consciously claimed no labels but that of revolutionaries; and, I practiced Iyengar yoga intensely along with studying Buddhism. I met Father Gustavo Gutiérrez who lives his theology as critical reflection of praxis and housed Pastors for Peace in a radical action which brought me full circle to my Waldensian ancestors of Italy in prioritizing the poor. I married a kindred comrade and revolutionary. I focused on my teaching and the advice from Che to love the people particularly my students. And, until a recent trip to Cuba, I avoided women's groups and close friendships with women, as much as possible.
Why I chose a research trip to Cuba with a group of American women after so many years is another story for another time. However, as I found myself in the group remembering both my past devotion to women while surrounded by their imperialistic prejudices against Cuba and their need for "leaderless leadership" all the old rage, betrayals, and pain were triggered opening the flood gate to memories, both good and bad, of all those years in women's movements and anti-racism groups. But it was also in that same trip to Cuba that I found and fell in love with the revolutionary women and men of Cuba.
Since Cuba I have been processing and pondering my journey as an activist woman and where I will choose to focus my efforts in my sixtieth year. A call from a woman friend in Kenya to help pay school fees for a young Kenyan girl whose father had been killed in recent conflicts there caused me to first contact a group of friends to pay for this year's school fees. Next, I contacted the university women's center I founded and directed from 1986-1993 to see if they would be interested in raising the rest of the school fees so she could complete High School. The women of the center agreed. In organizing this project with the women's center I realized I want to serve as concretely as possible in the efforts to end oppression. This service can manifest as one girl, boy, man or woman in need; it can be subverting the dominant paradigm; it can be direct action in resistance; it can be anti-imperialist research; and, it will continue to be anti-oppression education. The small group of people who helped fund the above project and with whom I work on other projects are my people; some old allies and friends and some new, they have been my evolving and revolving community for over three decades. The circle is unbroken, I no longer have to flee but I retain my right to wander.
June Scorza Terpstra, Ph.D. is an activist educator and university lecturer in Justice Studies, Criminal Justice and Sociology. She has founded numerous programs for homeless, abused, youth and oppressed people in the USA. She is presently teaching courses on Law and Terrorism, Social Justice, Resistance, Criminology, and Juvenile Justice. She is a former Community Research Fellow and doctoral graduate of Loyola University Chicago.