Brenda Crawford is known as a fierce activist and relentless advocate for African Americans, for poor communities, for women, for lesbians and gays, and against all forms of oppression everywhere. As she turned 63 she came to some reflections and conclusions that surprised her; we think her comments will start a conversation for you:
I’m 63 now and how am I going to spend the rest of my life?
I’m retiring from the activist movement. I’m finished with in-your-face lobbying and sign-carrying activism. I don’t want to go to Sacramento again unless it’s to see a basketball game. I’m done talking to our elected officials. I’m done with confrontational politics.
I’m going to take up senior line dancing and dominoes. I have to re-learn how to play bid whist. My new activism is about building community, talking more with people I don’t agree with, building partnerships.
When I turned 60 I started looking back at all the work I’d done in the African American community and the LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) community and what changes all that work had really promoted. There have been some important changes, like getting the City of Oakland to embrace domestic partnerships, and getting some provisions into the Older Americans Equality and Protection Act.
And I started to realize that in-your-face activism is one way of promoting a social justice agenda, but it takes much longer if it isn’t based on face-to-face community building. As activists, we assume we know what’s good for folks, and we’re not necessarily right.
Where I am in my life makes me think in a different way about all the social justice work we’ve done. I’ve been working class or middle class all my life, and as I get older, I’m going to have to depend on services provided by the community in which I live. Being an activist doesn’t carry a retirement plan. I’m going to be going to the community center. Will I go to the LGBT center or to the local senior center?
We look back at the decisions we’ve made about how we spent our time. There are moments when I think, “Maybe I should have worked for the Post Office for 30 years and now I could retire.” The reality is that I could never have done that, or done anything that would have curtailed my activist identity. On the other hand, there’s a commercial that says, “Be Your Own Cause.” I wish I had put a little more energy into being my own cause.
In-your-face to face-to-face
Right now, I’m working in the mental health field, and working with mental health consumers means working with some of the most marginalized and invisible people that we have in this country. The stigma of a mental health issue lives with a person for a lifetime. I grew up in Mississippi and went to segregated schools, but I have never experienced the blatant discrimination we got when we were looking for a site for our mental health programs.
This is my last big job. Trying to build community in a field like this is difficult, but having your last job being about social change with a disenfranchised group? It’s a wonderful thing.
Now I have to admit I’m doing something I said I wasn’t going to do: I’ve involved myself in the politics of Vallejo where I live. A few weeks ago there were two murders, three stabbings . . . a crime spree. So I wrote to the city council and the mayor and volunteered to work on holding some meetings to develop a community-driven plan to solve some of Vallejo’s problems. For me, being an activist means that when something hits my consciousness I take action, and I guess that won’t ever really stop.
My younger self might say I’ve gotten soft and tired. No: I’ve gotten old and wise. I’ve finally figured out that it’s a combination of strategies that move people to social change. Angry activism is an effective strategy, but I’m working on a different strategy now.
Brenda Crawford is executive director of Mental Health Consumer Concerns in Concord, California. She is former executive director of Progressive Research & Training for Action, and former board chair of the National Black Lesbian & Gay Leadership Forum. She has two Rat Terrier dogs and is active in Rat Terrier Rescue: “I like rat terriers because of their tenacity,” she says.