Hell was officially raised on December 11th at OATS’ flagship Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York City. OATS welcomed a panel of five seasoned activists for their special #RaisingHell: 50 Years of Activism event. Organized by Isabel Magnus, Manager, Civic Engagement and Advocacy for OATS, the event brought together “hell-raisers” who discussed how the world has changed — or not — since 1968.
The event, moderated by OATS Executive Director and Founder Tom Kamber and co-hosted by Magnus, included Charlton Mcllwain, Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development at NYU; Muriel Beach, a tireless activist for 70 years; groundbreaking TV producer Gilda Mirós; and author Frances Fox Piven, who served on the faculty of the Graduate Center of the City of New York. Later in the program, author and activist Ashton Applewhite made a surprise appearance and joined the panel to discuss, among other things, ageism, then and now.
The panel of speakers, who aimed to explore the “legacy of 1968,” as moderator Tom Kamber put it, were asked questions about the legacy. Two of them were: are we living up to the promise of 1968 or not, and what lessons have we learned since that year? The answers were varied — and fascinating.
Frances Fox Piven said she considers 1968 — with its blossoming grassroots movements — to be a “great year,” but expressed concern about the “coarsening of the political dialogue” of 2018.
91-year-old Muriel Beach, who protested the Vietnam War, felt a bit differently about ‘68, the year Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. “It was a sad year and yet a very powerful year. We were full of despair, but we picked ourselves up. We organized, fought, and improved. We were empowered. I’m proud of what I did in ‘68.’ She added that the most important takeaway from that year was to “keep working. If you know you’re right, keep working.”
“So little seems to have changed in the way of gender rights, civil rights, and sexual violence [in 2018],” said Charlton Mcllwain. “It’s better in many ways, but we’re not doing as well as I would have hoped.”
“We’re better off in some ways, worse off in others,” added Ashton Applewhite. “We’ve made progress around gay rights.”
The speakers were also asked how the digital age changed activism. Most panelists thought many aspects of technology are an asset. Frances Fox Piven had a mixed viewpoint: “Everybody’s looking at their screen all the time,” she said — making it harder to communicate face-to-face, which she believes is an extremely effective way to rally for change. On the other hand, she pointed out, “tasks are easier and you can reach a lot of people.”
GIlda Mirós and Muriel Beach both pointed out that technology has changed the face of activism because it’s easier to reach younger people, who are tech-savvy.
“I’m in love with technology,” Gilda Mirós said. “You can reach a lot of young people and they will listen.” “We have to utilize what we do have available,” Muriel added. “We have to use the phone, the iPad, and facebook to the fullest extent. In any way, every way.”
Ashton Applewhite said she believes the Black Lives Matter movement would be “nowhere without the internet.”
Finally, before breaking the audience up into four groups so they could engage with each other and the panelists and explore each topic in more depth, the panel was asked to explore the question of how older adults can be at the forefront of change.
Muriel Beach said seniors have a responsibility to “teach, have open ears, and listen. “Only when you listen can you truly communicate,” she said. “I [Seniors] can lend respect to the protest movements,” added Ashton. “We have dignity and respect because we are seniors. We can come together with age as our premise.”
The panel’s varied, thoughtful, heartfelt responses kept the audience — many of whom were members of Senior Planet, some of whom were guests of The Center — mesmerized. When the audience was invited to offer their input, one very passionate gentleman firmly challenged everyone in the room to “go do something.”
Isabel Magnus said she’s excited about future such events at Senior Planet. “#RaisingHell: 50 Years of Activism showed us how energetically willing older adults are to show up and be forces for collaborative change,” she said. “Listening to the specific stories, of joy and daring and challenge, and understanding how intertwined our liberation is, is unbelievably compelling. It is an honor to develop Senior Planet’s platform for positive social change and I can’t wait for the action that 2019 will bring for our Civic Engagement and Advocacy programming.”
In the meantime, Muriel Beach said, it’s time to get busy. “My day has past to be actively active,” she pointed out, but “There is great work to be done today. I challenge you to go out and do it. You must keep working. One person can make a difference.”
Pictured from left to right: OATS Executive Director and CEO Tom Kamber; Charlton Mcllwain, Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development at NYU; author Frances Fox Piven; TV producer Gilda Mirós; activist Muriel Beach.