Reporters staked out the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., in early April, waiting for attorney Alex van der Zwaan to be sentenced for lying to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. When a smiling van der Zwaan walked into the building, 63-year-old activist Bill Christeson held up a sign and shouted “Lock Him Up!”
When van der Zwann left the courthouse, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote: “On the sidewalk outside the court, the newly sentenced van der Zwaan, no longer smiling, was again accosted by the activist Christeson. ‘Hey, Alex — it’s Mueller time!’ he shouted, invoking the old beer ad. ‘Congratulations.’”
Christeson happens to have been my college roommate, but I’m fascinated by what he’s doing for more than personal reasons. Politics aside, I admire the way he — like many others — has taken his passion for political and civic activism and turned it into a major activity in retirement. “I’m not trying to reach the Whole Foods activist crowd,” Christeson says. “I’m trying to reach out to Republicans.”
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I remember when he was deeply engaged in the global peace movement in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, especially though his work on reforms in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Now retired, after a nearly two-decade career as an early childhood education researcher, he has returned to his activist roots. When an NPR reporter asked Christeson how long he had been waiting before one court hearing, he replied, “Three decades.”
These days, he’s committed to convincing people that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a threat to American democracy. He hopes Americans will eventually emulate South Korea’s recent experience when millions of protesters hit the streets, forcing the resignation and eventual impeachment of its president.
Activism and Older Americans Go Together
Sadly, as in so many other aspects of society, older people are largely invisible as activists. The media typically favors pictures of Millennials and Gen Z for its stories on marches and protests. But in reality, there were plenty of protesters in their 60s, 70s and 80s at the March for Life and the Women’s March.
“In America, we associate activism with youth,” says Deana Rohlinger, a sociologist at Florida State University. “We often don’t see older Americans as engaged — but they are.”
Activism and older generations, in fact, go together. The scholarly term for the relationship is “biographical availability,” says Rohlinger.
In college and immediately afterwards, people have time to protest. But then, with full-time careers, marriage, kids and taking care of aging parents, time becomes a scarce resource. Those are the years when people who want to take a stand, tend to sign petitions or volunteer on the weekend. They don’t take days off from work to join a protest.
More Time to Be An Activist
But in retirement, people have more time to engage. They’re also liberated from employer constraints on their political activities. “You don’t work for anyone anymore,” says Christeson. “You can say what you want.”
To be sure, many retirees recoil at the word “activist” and instead see themselves strengthening the bonds of civil society and encouraging civic engagement.
“The things I’m working on involve a lot of really interesting people who are for the most part pretty smart and they have a real concern about the common good,” says Ken Howell, 72, of Alexandria, Minn.
Howell wouldn’t describe himself as a radical during the days when he attended St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn., but he does recall sharing a beer with Tom Hayden, the antiwar activist and founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), during a campus visit in 1967. ‘We did what we could,” he says.
From the Peace Corps to Climate Change
Howell joined the Peace Corps with his wife in Brazil after college, focusing on public health and sanitation. After that, he taught high school social science and worked as a medical device company salesman for 36 years, retiring in 2012.
Now, he volunteers with the local chapter of Citizen’s Climate Lobby, a network of volunteers trying to engineer bipartisan climate change policy. He and his wife also revived the local League of Women Voters several years ago. “It keeps me active and engaged and hopefully makes a difference,” Howell says.
Minneapolis-based Mary Jo Schifsky, 68, has been driven to make a difference throughout her life. She still has her framed 1968 Eugene McCarthy for President poster hanging in her laundry room. Schifsky knocked on doors for McCarthy when she was 18 and, while at college at the University of Minnesota, helped build a food co-op and spice warehouse while hitchhiking to marches on the east coast.
Following college and during the Watergate years, she moved to New Mexico to join a commune — “big garden, living in a tepee, growing many things and working part-time in a low wage job.”
When commune living didn’t pan out, Schifsky got her MBA. She had a varied career working in corporate and nonprofit leadership roles and starting a small manufacturing business while having a family and caring for aging parents. Schifsky has spent her retirement years largely focusing her advocacy at convincing employers that older workers are attractive hires.
When Activism Is a Lifelong Commitment
For some people, activism is a lifelong and full-time commitment — like the five remarkable women in their 70s, 80s and 90s who just received the eighth annual Clara Lemlich Awards at the Museum of the City of New York. These awards honor women who have spent their lives fighting for the common good (Lemlich was a garment worker, union organizer and battler for women rights).
This year’s Clara Lemlich Award winners:
Doreen Wohl — She came to the United States to work with migratory farmworkers, then worked with settlement houses in New York City and later transformed West Side Coalition Against Hunger into a participatory cooperative.
Alix Kate Shulman — A writer and activist in the civil rights, antiwar and radical feminist movements, she continues to organize, recently helping to form Occupy Wall Street’s four Feminist General Assemblies. She is currently co-editing an anthology of writing about the women’s movement.
Evelyn Jones Rich — She’s an advocate and activist around a range of issues including civil rights, education, school funding, health care and aging and is a former teacher, principal and college administrator as well as a mentor and role model for women of all ages.
Mirene Ghossein — A Lebanese-born writer, advocate and translator, she works with organizations like the WESPAC Foundation and Alwan for the Arts (an Arab-American cultural organization).
Anne Cunningham — An activist on women’s rights, civil rights, housing and aging issues, she helped found one of the first battered women’s shelter in Brooklyn and was president of the first chapter of NOW on Staten Island. She continues to give housing rights workshops and advocate for low-income tenants every week.
The Memorable Words of Paul Newman
Activists like these women, as well as Christeson, Howell and Schifsky, feel passionately about continuing to find ways that will help society be better off.
Many seem to share the perspective of Paul Newman, the late actor and nonprofit entrepreneur. “I’m not running for sainthood,” he once said. “I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”
Now, that’s a goal worth striving for.