Angry Activist Gets Old & Wise: A First Person Nonprofit Story

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.

Comments (18)

  • It is the most startling thing that activism can lead us back to the place where we started -- but instead of externalizing all issues, upon our return we can sometimes see our own roles and our own contributions to the problems in our communities. Questing after the reasons for exclusion can bring us back home to realize that we have also excluded.
    But, with the guidance of wise, tolerant, and inclusive activists from all generations, not everyone has to learn this on a long road with no retirement. Wisdom like this informs all efforts to work cooperatively for local solutions; these local coalitions are the bases of power for organizing more complex and collaborative efforts for inclusive justice, sustainability and peace on a larger scale. Wisdom informs activist work which is broad-based and as civil as the society we work to build. Wisdom like this has a right to retire not in martyrdom, but with comfort and dignity.
    Keep blogging. Thank you for your work.
    http://www.thirdwavefoundation.org

    Feb 22, 2010
  • I'm turning 60 at the same time I'm trying to decide what to do next with my life-time of experience in leading nonprofits, and this piece helped validate my growing discomfort with returning to the "front lines." Maybe it is that wisdom that they told us would come with age. Maybe it is just a need to savor a little of the good in the world for awhile, instead of attempting to fix the evils. Maybe it is a desire to become a part of a community again, rather than battling it. But it is nice to know that those thoughts & mixed feelings are shared. Thanks, Brenda.

    Feb 23, 2010
  • I am a "young" 56 :) but have had this growing old conversation twice this week. Are we tired / wise or just need a bit of peace? I'm pondering my next steps as well. I feel the need to nurture the young ones so the voices continue when ours grow quiet. How to best do that is my new question...

    Feb 23, 2010
  • What a thoughtful article and I definitely appreciate Brenda sharing her "old and wise" viewpoint. I really like the comparison of "in-you-face" with"face-to-face". I think especially with the use of social media today many of us at nonprofits need to consider this when promoting our mission. It is more about talking with people than talking at them.
    Thanks so much for your thoughts Brenda!
    Ashley Messick
    @glorysgirl

    Feb 23, 2010
  • Bonnie Young
    2/23/10
    I have been the support person for angry activists for 25 years. Painfully introverted, I cheered them on, wrote, planned, supplied, and organized. Now they've moved on and I find myself in charge. Thank you angry activists. You have left me with a community that has grown, sometimes against it's will, and is now ready for community team building. I never could have gotten here without you.

    Feb 23, 2010
  • What a wonderful comment to share, Bonnie. Thank you so much. It sounds as if your First Person Nonprofit story might also make a good article. Let us know if you're interested! Jan

    Feb 23, 2010
  • I thought it was great that although Brenda's getting older, she's not retiring her activist dancing shoes altogether.... maybe doing a different dance, but still  getting up on the dance floor.

    Her remark about "no regrets" for having Not worked at the Post Office for 30 years, just for the pension, resonated with me.... I have a friend who did the equivalent working for the County  who was miserable the whole time...the 20 years he put in made him a sour guy. He's ok financially now, but what a price he paid.

    And, am so glad to read a reflective piece by an older woman that doesn't reference that tired old poem about "Wearing Purple", etc....  : )

    As for me, I'm "poor" now, and anxious sometimes, but I don't regret the years spent putting my heart in nonprofits.

     

    Feb 23, 2010
  • The comments are as useful as the article. Many in the field of non-profits can respond to Barbara's experiences. It feels good to know others, angry or silent activist, feel making a difference is worth more than a pension plan. I hear it all the time, "Don't you want to make your education pay for itself". I always have to reply, "I get paid in something more valuable to me than money". Community service is a reward in itself and helping others to experience that and feel the difference…works for me. That is the only way to reinvent ourselves and keep the fire in the belly need for service to others ready to replace us when we are gone.

    Feb 23, 2010
  • Thank you all for sharing. The ways in which I intend to honor and embrace my activist core, while continuing to work toward social justice,may have changed ,but my commitment to the movement remains strong! Thanks again.
    Brenda Crawford

    Feb 23, 2010
  • I recognize myself in Brenda and in the others who posted comments. I have always worked to build healthy communities, my passion is for our small rural communities with few resources except our amazing people and the passion they bring to a cause or a need. I, too, am more face-to-face than Facebook, in fact, that is how I have promoted my current "Community Cafe" project, taking input from constituents using the appreciative inquiry model, making myself personally available to people as we discuss our strengths and challenges. It is a model that my colleagues on City Council are not comfortable with, but it has always worked for me, whether in health & human services, education or local government.And I am also staring down the demons of health issues and aging, without a retirement plan and few reserve funds after 32 years in the non-profit sector, so I appreciate Brenda's comments about depending upon community services. I can't imagine that I will ever really "retire", just make different choices about what I am able to get involved in, and what is in my best interests in terms of my health and my need to take care of myself. I am currently putting a lot of energy into nurturing the next generation of leaders, because we certainly need them to pick up the banner.Thanks, Brenda for your hard-earned words of wisdom and all you have done to make our world a better, more loving place.Trish Seiler

    Feb 24, 2010
  • I thought the piece was very reflective and informative. As a 40-year old lesbian, I sat with your words and contemplated my own journey. I think it is important to find the passion of our lives within the doings of our lives. Oftentimes, that is a struggle, but your words encouraged me. Thanks for being transparent.Angela

    Feb 24, 2010
  • Very thoughtful. I too am peering into my 6th decade and wondering the same things. I long ago came to the same conclusion - that I am not 'post office' material - I have reveled in the focus and flexibility of the non-profit sector and the satisfaction of mission-driven work. I do wonder about my ability to help my kids and not burden them with my elder care, but, what the hell. Who knows what adventures lie ahead?

    Feb 25, 2010
  • What a wonderful and reflective piece. I am on the younger side, but having only ever worked in not-for-profits will likely face many of these questions.
    I did want to share a resource for the many commenters who are wondering, 'Now What?' Its a retreat called 'Stepping Into Elderhood', put on by a not-for-profit called Rite of Passage Journeys. The retreat guides participants in thinking through their years through a personal and societal lens, and approaches the elder years with the question, What if everything we've experienced in life was only preparation for my gift of Elderhood. And, what is that gift of mine?.
    Here's the link: http://riteofpassagejourneys.org/adult-programs/stepping-into-elderhood/...
    As the director of a Senior Center, I know that many 'incoming seniors' are pondering this question and others, re-inventing what it means to be an elder / senior in our country.

    Feb 26, 2010
  • What a wonderful article. I just turned 48, and I gave up the angry activist role several years ago when my mom died. Not that the world had changed, I just couldn't sustain the anger anymore. Since then, I have focused on my church, my neighborhood association, my neighbors and my family.
    Now after a few years, I'm finding my activist voice again and dipping my toe back in the water. But it comes from a different place. I see myself in Ms. Crawford, and I am grateful.
    Thanks again.

    Mar 08, 2010
  • I just turned 50 and hope I look as good as Brenda when I turn 60. We are now in an era where activism has to be taken to the internet and social media allows hundreds of thousands to participate. Good luck in your retirement.

    Mar 23, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Love this article!
    I'm 62 thisyear and a community builder at heart. Meg Wheatley, author/speaker and co-founder of The Berkana institute recently said that if you're working with a non-profit because you want to get things done NOW - you're in the wrong place. You work for a non-profit because it's your calling. That's your reward. Change is slow.
    My 'second adulthood' involves community building.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom Brenda!

    Jul 21, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Yes, often wisdom comes with age and experience. By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest - a wise quote by Confucius. As far as charity and doing good things is concerned, many people wait till old age. But the right age is from teenage imo. But - better late than never. All the best to Brenda!

    Sep 30, 2011
  • This is a issue that is compressed to my heart... Cheers! Where are your contact details though?

    Jun 09, 2016

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