The Common Good
January-February 2002

A Passionate Education

by Stacia M. Brown | January-February 2002

Shrimp feasts, rifle training, and jail time: The peaks and perils of growing up with activist parents.

Kate Berrigan has a problem. She and a friend have moved into a new apartment and their phone isn’t working properly. She e-mails me apologetically. "We can reschedule the interview, or I can go wait by a pay phone for you to call me," she offers.

Phone troubles are pretty standard fare for college students. Berrigan’s offer to do a 40-minute interview from a public phone booth is less so. The child of social justice activists, she possesses one of the qualities that seems to distinguish this unique—and often unacknowledged—group: It takes a lot more to inconvenience an activist’s kid than it does for most of us.

So what was life like for those whose parents worked on the front lines for peace and justice? In addition to Berrigan, the 19-year-old daughter of Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan, I recently spoke with Tom Douglass, 30, son of Jim and Shelley Douglass; Marc Mealy, 36, son of Rosemari Mealy; Laura Harris, 40, daughter of LaDonna and Fred Harris; and Cecil Gray, 41, son of Victoria Gray Adams.

THE PRICE OF ACTIVIST PARENTS. While activist parents might worry about their children’s alienation from classmates, the individuals with whom I spoke said isolation from peers isn’t the problem. The problem is separation from your parents.

Berrigan talks candidly about growing up in a radical Catholic family. Her father, Philip (along with his brother, Daniel), came to activist fame with the Catonsville Nine, an anti-Vietnam protest group that burned draft files in a Maryland Selective Service office in 1967. "I grew up in Jonah House (a religious anti-war community in Baltimore founded by her parents). But I can’t talk about that time without talking about my mom. In ’82 or ’83, she went to prison for two and a half years."

When Elizabeth McAlister was arrested for civil disobedience in the Griffiss Plowshares action at Griffiss Air Force Base in Syracuse, New York, her children felt the effects. "We were little kids," Berrigan recalls. "My older brother would lash out at people and get into fights at school. My sister just sort of withdrew into herself. And I—well, I got sick a lot."

Cecil Gray tells a similar story. "My mom was missed, especially by my older brother and sister. I might not have missed her quite as much, because I was small enough to travel with her much of the time," he says. While Victoria Gray Adams was co-founding the racially inclusive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)—a task that included Adams’ groundbreaking feat of becoming the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi—her children were struggling to accept their mother’s schedule. "There was a cost for all the families on the front lines of the Freedom Movement," Gray says. "But what else could my mother do? Someone had to do the work of freedom."

In Laura Harris’ case, separation from her parents proved less problematic than separation from her Comanche roots. When her father became a senator, the Harris family moved from Oklahoma to Virginia. There her mother, Native American activist LaDonna Harris, was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the National Indian Opportunities Council. "I was the only Native American kid in the Fairfax County school system," Harris says. "I would go to the library and read everything I could find on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other African Americans. They were the closest I could come to connecting with my own background."

SHRIMP FEASTS, FANNIE LOU HAMER-STYLE. But most activists’ kids are not latchkey kids. When the parents are away, other adults step in to fill the gap. "I had such a strong experience of community, even while my parents were in and out of jail, that the times without them were not too lonely," Berrigan says. When your parents are working for justice, "family" isn’t just nuclear. It’s an entire community. In Harris’s case, it was a whole tribal network.

"I have numerous adopted aunts and uncles from all different tribes," says Harris, now executive vice president of Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), a New Mexico organization founded by her mother. "This helped me not only as a child but as an adult." Prior to joining AIO, Harris worked as a fund-raiser for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. "Whenever I needed help with a project, I could pick up the phone and call someone. I could ask them about Native protocol and tribal politics, which was a great help."

Cecil Gray—now an ordained United Methodist minister who is chair of African and African-American studies at Gettysburg College—still remembers being surrounded by members of his extended family in Mississippi. "They gave me massive affirmation, self-esteem, and love in those early years," he says. "And when we lived in D.C., Ms. Hamer (MFDP co-founder Fannie Lou Hamer) would buy a pound or two of shrimp and cook it up every year for my birthday."

Gray’s friendship with Hamer illuminates an important element in the formation of activists’ children: When you grow up surrounded by passionate people, their interests and commitments can be contagious.

"I was always exposed to international events," says Marc Mealy, an international economist who works in global trade on Capitol Hill and advocates for developing African nations. His mother Rosemari Mealy’s journalistic and organizing work made the Mealy house a center of activist conversation. "Friends of my parents, visitors, and lots of time sitting in on Black Panther meetings gave me an interest in the international issues being discussed. This became a passion, and later it became my career."

Tom Douglass remembers the impact of anti-nuclear protestors outside his back door. Growing up at the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, a Washington state group founded by his parents and dedicated to resisting the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarine buildup, Douglass found himself drawn to ethical—and artistic—pursuits. "Our house shared a fence with the Navy base," he says. "I would take pictures of the people crossing the line and getting arrested for protesting."

Harris recalls sitting on the front lawn as her parents conversed with various leaders. "Dick Gregory would sit on the grass and tell stories. Betty Friedan would come by. So would Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy. I am grateful for the wide diversity of people I was able to grow up with."

MOLOTOV COCKTAILS AND RIFLE TRAINING.. Growing up in a vibrant political and cultural community has its price. Several individuals acknowledged that living with activist parents meant living with the threat of violence. "I had responsibilities other kids my age didn’t have," Mealy says. While Rosemari Mealy was writing about political upheaval in Cuba and strategizing with African-American leaders in the United States, her son was taking care of the younger children. "I had to take charge of them in the event of a police raid. I had to learn how to shoot a rifle. This was a reality if you were with the Black Panthers."

Gray, whose mother served as director of MFDP’s national office from 1964 to 1967, tells a similar story. "We used to have fire drills at my house. These were the days when Molotov cocktails were getting thrown through people’s windows. My mom trained us how to respond. ‘What are you going to take with you? Nothing!’ she’d say. She knew I was going to try to gather and drag all my books outside if there was a fire."

Spending your childhood in the face of danger is less than ideal, but it has at least one advantage: You learn that fear doesn’t have to have the last word. Since entering Oberlin College, where her self-designed major is Community and Critical Resistance Studies, Berrigan has tried several activities that might even make Uncle Daniel turn pale. She works with the Ruckus Society, a Berkeley group that trains activists in direct action strategies. "We learn how to climb, to hang banners, to form blockades," she explains. "I’ve worked as a student trainer for the climbing exercises. I can see myself getting pretty involved with them."

PROTESTING BY PAINTING. Berrigan’s turn to new strategies reminds us that activists’ children are not mirrors of their parents. Tom Douglass’ exposure to nuclear disarmament protests, for example, has evolved into an aesthetic vision. Following an internship at Sojourners, he took a job with the Seattle Art Museum. "I’m holding a day-to-day job. But mostly I’m trying to start painting again. My paintings tend to revolve around ethical issues. I think art offers a different angle into some of the same concerns my parents hold."

When asked what Jim and Shelley Douglass think of his pursuits, he doesn’t hesitate. "My parents support me in whatever direction I want to take."

The same can be said of Victoria Gray Adams. While Cecil Gray’s teaching and ministry work aligns him most closely with his mother’s involvements, he says she has gladly supported all of her children’s pursuits. "My older brother was into fashion design, modeling, and interior decorating," he says. "My younger brother is a high school teacher and a football coach. And my older sister plays the piano."

And although Berrigan’s activist philosophy resembles her parents’—respect for all life and pacifism—her commitments extend beyond Jonah House. "I’ve gotten involved with a broader spectrum of issues," she says. "My parents have not really worked on anti-corporate globalization movements or the School of the Americas. I don’t fault them for not focusing on other issues. It’s just that I’ve been exposed to so many new options."

'DEVELOP IT FOR YOURSELF.' Each of those interviewed expressed strong agreement with their parents’ political and ethical stances. Responses to their parents’ religious convictions were less univocal. Douglass has separated from his Catholic ties and embraced a questioning stance. "Religion is very important for my folks. Not as much for me. I’m pretty agnostic. Moral and ethical concerns have always felt more concrete than church."

Do his parents mind? Not at all. "Some of my best conversations about religion have been with my parents," says Douglass.

Berrigan calls herself Catholic—with qualifiers. "I identify with being Catholic, but the church isn’t that important to me," she says. "I focus on the traditions of saints and radical activists. It’s a very non-institutional Catholicism."

For Mealy, freedom to think for oneself matters more than attachment to a particular faith. "My mom came from a Catholic school background and later moved toward traditional African faiths," says Mealy. She always said to me, ‘Explore it and develop it for yourself.’"

Gray grew up Protestant, but his family’s religious preferences had more to do with geography and culture than with theological subtleties. "Christianity was essentially all that we—or anyone else—knew at that time in Mississippi. Mom encouraged our spirituality, but not in a narrow, Bible-thumping, fundamentalist Christian way. ‘You treat everybody right,’ she said, ‘and always remember nobody is higher or lower than you are.’" While working as a full-time academic in the United States, Gray also serves as a lead bridge person between academic institutions, religious institutions, and other entities in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Egypt. He builds on the values his mother taught. "I’m continuing in the tradition, as my mother would say, of ‘enfleshened spirituality,’" he says.

Perhaps the most staunchly aligned with her early spiritual upbringing is Harris, who credits her mother’s Comanche faith with helping her find a sense of identity. "I’m inheriting a dynamic legacy," she says. "My father was a student of Comanche philosophy. My mother was raised in a Comanche family. Those traditional tribal values have been extremely important." Under Harris’s leadership, AIO has started teaching young Native Americans tribal history and preparing them for grassroots organizing.

WATER IN THE DESERT. While the lessons—spiritual and otherwise—that these activists’ children learned at an early age have served them well as adults, some voiced concern about future generations. Harris recently spoke to 200 Native American high-school students. "The teachers told me that although their kids are concerned about health, poverty, and politics, they don’t see themselves as part of the solution," she says. "They have a bleak outlook about how to influence society."

Mealy, whose work includes efforts to free death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, sees African-American youth facing some of the same troubles he did as a teen-ager. "But the racial and police-brutality wars are more intense today. Kids lack the family and educational resources to respond positively. Those resources are now degraded," he says.

So what’s a 21st-century activist to do? Mealy suggests mentoring. Since Rosemari Mealy has started teaching law at Florida International University, young people have flocked to her. "I’ve seen firsthand the number of young people gravitating to my mom," Mealy says. "They’re like a person in the desert dying for a drink of water. My mother is that drink of water for them. ‘You were a Black Panther? Wow! How can I change things?’ they ask."

For Gray, hoping for the future means remembering—and building on—the lessons of the past. "The older I get, the more internal stories Mom tells me about Malcolm, Dr. King, the Freedom Movement," he says. "She’s one of the last MFDP leaders left. Her memories need to be recorded and heard; otherwise, we’ll lose very important historical information." He plans to have his mother’s autobiography published next summer.

When Gray asked his mother why she waited so long to share her stories with him, she responded, "You wouldn’t have used the information wisely when you were younger." Chuckling, Gray confesses, "I was a bit of a fireball."

Stacia Brown, a

Sojourners contributing writer, works at the Emory Center for Ethics.
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