What My Radical Mentor Taught Me About Protesting Today

In January, I wrote a blog post A 48-Year Déjà Vu, about how the Women’s March in reaction to a newly threatening political climate had caused me to wake out of my “radical sleep,” and reactivate to find an appropriate role for a contribution that would make sense today. I realized I was fascinated by how former political “radicals” were newly responding to the world. I now envision a series titled #Re-Radicalized, which will, from time to time, spotlight the inspiring stories of others who are still out there, newly recharged, working to change the world. This blog post is the first in that series.

The Northern Star, October 1969

Back in the Fall of 1969, I was increasingly disturbed by the direction of the Vietnam War and just sticking my toe into the campus counterculture at Northern Illinois University. I would comb notices for events advertised on posters and began to attend a few—a planning meeting to support a student strike, a gathering of the campus chapter of the SMC (Student Mobilization Committee to End the War). I’d cling to a wall at the back of the room and try to blend with my brand new jeans, and be amazed at how order would arise from the chaos before me—everyone yelling at once, purposefully raucous, yet somehow arriving at decisions. I’d slink out, without interacting. Intrigued, but not ready to engage.

Sign This

One day at the union, Marcia Fradkin plopped herself down next to me, shoved a petition under my nose, dared me not to be apathetic and told me to sign it. I don’t remember what it was for, but I certainly obeyed. She had seen me at all the meetings and knew a ripe convert who needed a push when she saw one. From that moment she became my radical mentor, schooling me in all the important things—we were “freaks” not “hippies;” it was “grass” or “weed” not “pot;” proper attire meant the bells of your jeans had to be a complete circle, not sticking out like triangles from your ankles; and there were “right” ways to get involved (SMC yes, SDS and YSA—the Young Socialists Alliance, no). She immediately introduced me to her expansive circle including virtually any non-straight person on campus (back when “straight” meant “conforming,” not sexual identification) and gave me the name I am still called by to this day, “Lovely Rita.”

A Woman of Substance

We called her “Heavy” Marcia, a label coined by a mutual boyfriend (no, not at the same time), from I Want You (She's So Heavy) on the new Abbey Road album. And, it was fitting. She was a woman of great substance… our leader. Everyone followed Marcia and we were thrilled when we heard her exclaim “Oh wow!” when impressed or excited. She had a way of getting past all the attitude and reminding people of the essence. Forget wounded US pride and failed Paris peace talks. People were dying. The war had to end. Period. Love conquers all…really…think about it. “Give me one instance when it doesn’t. You can’t can you?”

As a one-issue radical, once the war ended I moved off into a business career. But Marcia kept at it, always involved in causes to help the underdog, people in need. We reconnected in recent years when we lived closer together. She’s on the board of Bridge to Success, helping people get a second chance, always recruiting others to become involved in causes she’s identified, still marching when it’s called for.

When I didn’t hear from her about the recent Women’s March, an activity that after the election woke me out of my everything-will-work-itself-out stupor, I contacted her. I figured she must be planning to go to Washington to march.  Her response was quiet, thoughtful and puzzling. The eternal fighter said simply that given the new administration our voices would fall on deaf ears, and her response from now on would be more spiritual. Peace and love over fear and anger. Healing, not raging at, the world.

The Women’s March without the Key “Woman”

I went with others to the march I wrote about here, but I felt Marcia’s absence everywhere. Only she would have seen all the parallels to 1969. I wrote an entire chapter in my novel, The Fourteenth of September, about the March on Washington we’d been on together. I wanted her to be with me now to revel in the music, about how open and engaged everyone was, over the fact that there were so many people we couldn’t actually march, just like back in our day, and how fantastic it was that we’d overwhelmed expectations yet again. I knew she’d have beamed out “Oh wow’s” all over the place.

“Heavy” Marcia  and  Lovely Rita  have lunch…Oh wow!

“Heavy” Marcia and Lovely Rita have lunch…Oh wow!

I had lunch with her last week and told her all about it. She’d read my blog. We reminisced. She spent a lot of time since the election, she said, seriously thinking about what direction was right for her and she’d reached a conclusion. She decided that her best contribution would be to ensure that everyone she encountered—whether it be the receptionist at her doctor’s office or someone on the bus—would feel seen, heard and valued. She was stopping—to be pleasant, to ask about their day, to listen to them. She wanted to make a difference, she said, if only one by one. She was apologetic, almost embarrassed, as if she knew it was small and I’d be disappointed in her.

Instead, I thought, she’d done it again--cut through the political rhetoric and reduced the problem to its essence.  After all, wasn’t that the issue of the election? Large swaths of people were frustrated they hadn’t been listened to, taken seriously….seen? If we had been doing this all along, where would we be now? If we all do this--from each individual to all of congress--on a larger and larger scale moving forward, where do we have the ability to be as a country? If we see, listen and value instead of shriek, sneer and blame?  

So simple. So heavy. Oh wow!