Fighting for a Better World: Heather Booth on the Power of Organization and Activism

 /  Feb. 7, 2018, 2:04 p.m.

Heather Booth speaking at Boston University.

Heather Booth is an American civil rights activist, feminist, and political strategist, renowned for her effective activism in progressive causes. She received both her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, where she was active in the civil rights and feminist movements. Heather has gone on to mobilize and organize communities to fight for feminism and progressive politics. She spoke with The Gate on what drives her to make change, her time at the University, and the new documentary “Heather Booth: Changing the World.”

The Gate: You have been organizing people for progressive causes over the past fifty years. Was there a specific moment when you knew that grassroots mobilization and community organizing was what you wanted to do?

Heather Booth: I didn’t start out thinking this would be my career. I knew I wanted to live a life based on living my values, which included loving and caring for people and treating people with dignity and respect. I went to Mississippi in 1964, and I saw that when you organized, when people are empowered, they find their voice and act. I saw how it changed the world. After desperate times we ended up with a voting rights act that transformed communities where poor black people were being murdered and constantly in a state of terror. And I saw that change because people organized. I too partake in activities that could make change.

Gate: The causes you have championed are diverse: from civil rights, to a woman’s right to choose, electing progressives, immigration reform, mobilizing people for financial reform, and making it easier for families in Chicago to access childcare. What was the underlying theme in all these issues that drew you to them?

HB: The belief that all people should live with dignity and respect. There should be a sense of justice, democracy, and equality. I am attracted to the issues that have a promise of providing that. I grew up in a time of movements: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. All of them, in my mind, were tied together. I felt they were apart of one broader movement. I realized to make that broader movement work, you needed to build from many different sectors of the society. From many different minorities, you can build a majority. I connected with the labor movement, economic issues, and social issues. I’m attracted to causes that in the moment that will allow the greatest number to make the greatest progress. All these causes have the theme of helping people live with dignity and respect, making democracy work, giving people a greater voice, and bringing justice to society.

Gate: You received both you B.A. and your M.A. from the University of Chicago, a school that is known for “the life of the mind” and dealing mostly with theory. The kind of activism you do is very much in the real world. How did your theoretical education influence your non-theoretical work?

HB: There are many things I am grateful to the University of Chicago for. It helped me develop critical thinking, analytical thinking, and to understand that facts matter and that there is knowledge worth having. A diverse range of study: science, economics, and politics all matter. Because I went to school in the 1960s, I often got involved with movements while I was at school and realized you need a life of the mind within a society. If you want to protect the life of the mind you need to change the society, especially in these days. So I did not view them as separate. Now we are in a time when facts themselves are in jeopardy and you can’t remove yourself from the society overall.

As much as I appreciated the university, there were struggles. It was putting itself on the side of popular removal of people in the name of urban renewal. I felt the community voice was not heard enough. On the campus, the voices of students and oftentimes women were not heard enough. There needs to be organizing and the university needs to change with the times.

Gate: What do you think of Steve Bannon coming to speak on campus? As someone who has spent her entire life combating rhetoric and policies like the ones Bannon promotes, do you have any advice on how to protect free speech while not condoning white nationalism?

HB: People have the right to organize and have their voices heard, and they need to be heard. We need to think about people’s safety and well-being—they need to be protected. The hateful, racist, white-supremacist, intolerant, destructive, and at some points terrorist actions that can result from Bannon’s premise need to be opposed. Particularly at the University of Chicago, our ideas of democracy, justice, and freedom are the prevailing ideas. I think that the arguments for democracy, justice and equality as opposed to intolerance and hatred will win in this context in the battle of ideas. If Bannon controlled the armed forces and police department, shutting down dissent, there would be other rules that would be applied based on the power dynamic. But right now, those ideas of justice freedom and democracy can force Bannon’s ideas away from central life. We need to wage that battle for those ideas and our values at every turn.

What makes Bannon particularly dangerous is that we did not wage that battle, not just on a campus and not just for free speech, but that we didn’t wage it with the American public, in places where those ideas were in context. We didn’t go to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. We didn’t mobilize those people who would share our ideas and values or those that didn’t think it was worth voting. They couldn’t see their percentage in it, how their life would be improved. We need to take responsibility to engage with those people, so they do see the consequences, so fascism and white supremacy don’t triumph. People who share positive values don’t engage, and those who have become so hopeless about their life and don’t think there is a better option: “Well even if I don’t agree with Bannon, even on central issues such as race and immigration, his ideas, Trump’s ideas, have a higher chance of me having a decent job so I can raise my family.” We must do that organizing. Of course, I oppose Bannon and his ideas. We need to do battle with them and use the free speech we have to speak our ideas not just to shout down, but to persuade those who are not persuaded. We also need to engage and mobilize those who do not see why they need to be engaged and mobilized. That organizing, of people who may not fully agree with us but are not themselves haters is in some ways harder work than shouting down a Bannon.

However, I do believe students on campus have the right to organize against and oppose Bannon. I would stand with those opposed to him.  The key issue is the organization of those who either need persuasion or those who need engagement and mobilization. They are two different but related functions and without them, we will not win and have our ideas dominate.

Gate: A substantial portion of your work has been mobilizing people to champion the rights of women—in fact, before Roe v. Wade you started an underground network called “Jane” to help women access safe abortions, something that at the time could have landed you in prison. What are your thoughts on the “new wave” of feminism, movements such as “Me Too” and the Women’s March and where do you think the future of feminism lies?

HB: There has been a flowering of women finding their voice and standing up, standing strong, and standing together which is really beautiful. As beautiful as the start of the early women’s movement, though each year it is different. You see it in the Women’s March and Me Too, but you also see it in the leaders of the Dreamers and the Fight for Fifteen. Much of what is going on is in the hands of young women, often young women of color. It’s very exciting. There are also thousands of women who are running for office.

I think that the future of the women’s movement is any place women want to be. But we need to organize to get there. Nothing happens naturally. If women stand together and men of goodwill stand with women, if we expand options and opportunities for women and for all people. Our futures are connected. We need to be expanding for women in general, but we need to be expanding for others as well. All our battles are connected. Standing strong and organizing is the key to it all.

Gate: What advice do you have for young people who want to organize, mobilize, and make change?

HB: Do it. Right now, we need to resist and mobilize. Our ability to organize is our power, and our ability to build power. There are three principles in the training session that I run with Midwest Academy where people in Chicago can go and get training and learn about organizing. The first principle is to fight and win improvements in people’s lives, so their lives are concretely better. The second is to fight for freedom, justice, democracy and the values and visions we care about. We need concrete improvements, so people know how the struggle helps them: they have more money in their pocket, clean air they can breathe, a way to accept themselves without fear. This gives people a sense of power. It’s not just a question of winning a victory and believing that a benevolent administrator, elected official, or university has granted them something, but the understanding that we won it through our efforts and together we can make a difference. The third principle is to change the relations of power, therefore building our own power and organization to make us stronger, and to look for the kind of institutional changes that increase democracy.

Gate: How do you deal with setbacks?

HB: There’s a phrase from the great Italian organizer Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” On the one hand we need to plan for negatives, and at the same time we say that we are driving forward with knowledge about what could go wrong and what has gone wrong. I was just working on a tax campaign. We lost in that it was a giveaway to the millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations. That giveaway, up front, will be used as the basis to try and undermine Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and education. People will say there is no more money we can’t fund it. But we gave those tax breaks to the wealthiest. So that was a great loss. However, in the fight people’s attitudes change. The vast majority of the country knows that the millionaires and billionaires got all the money and not them. Paul Ryan just tweeted about the person who got the $1.50 wage increase, which is not significant when people like Paul Ryan are getting tens of thousands of benefits from this tax plan. People’s awareness changed and the message has changed.

Also, our forces are stronger. People gathered together and worked on taxes and tax fairness who had never worked on it before. We gained strength. It’s quite likely that it becomes a driving and dividing issue in the upcoming election. Even out of defeat you can find ways to become stronger if you keep in mind the long-term strategy and you are committed to constantly engaging people and building for stronger efforts.

Gate: You have had firsthand, on the ground experiences in some of the most pivotal moments in American History (and helped make them happen). What is your favorite story to tell?

HB: I have a story that’s not a favorite, but it’s relevant to where you are at the University of Chicago.

When I was a student, a friend on mine had been raped at knifepoint in off campus housing. We went with her to student health for a gynecological exam. She was given a lecture on her promiscuity and was told that student health did not cover gynecological exams. We sat with her, and they called it a sit-in. Not that day—but over time because we organized—we now say: “Of course there should be a gynecological exam and counseling,” and it would happen.

It is not a natural assumption that we make progress. Because people do sit ins, raise their voices, vote in elections, persuade others who were not persuaded before, we have those rights. And those rights are now under threat. They’re going after Planned Parenthood and they just passed a law in Mississippi banning abortions over fifteen weeks. We will only be able to support women and men in their lives in the choices that they want and need to make if we organize.

Gate: What are your thoughts on progressives who advocate for making concessions on issues in the name of compromise?

HB: Compromising is not a principled position. A principled position is working for justice, freedom, and democracy. If you can’t get it all, get as much as you can moving forward. We need to hold a vision that inspires people and organize to build as much power as we can to win as much as we can. We rarely win everything. In the course of the struggle, we not only become stronger but can build on our victories.

Gate: Heather Booth: Changing the world, is the documentary about your work and legacy that will be showing on Monday, February 12 from 7–8:30 p.m. at the Logan Center for the Arts here at the University of Chicago. Not only will people be able to watch the film, but you will be here for a Q&A after. What do you want people to take away from the film, and more generally, your life’s work?

HB: We need to keep love at the center: love people, hate injustice, and organize to make this a better world. If we do that, we will make this a better world.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity. Image is courtesy of "Heather Booth: Changing the World." 

Sarah Wasik

Sarah Wasik is a fourth-year double majoring in Public Policy and Philosophy. She has spent her summers working campaigns and interning at both the state and federal levels of government. When she isn’t writing, reading, or learning more about policy and politics, she is probably running up and down the lakefront path or spending time with friends.


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