Young people are increasingly identifying as activists, but to call this a new trend would not only be naive — it would also be a missed opportunity. Older generations offer an interesting perspective on what it means to be politically and socially active. In an effort to soak up their knowledge, we’re speaking to activists who have been doing this work for decades. First up was 74-year-old Sally Roesch Wagner; today is 66-year-old poet and playwright Jackie Warren-Moore.
Jackie Warren-Moore’s honest, raw poetry has earned her devoted fans and a book deal — Where I Come From was published in October. For Warren-Moore, born and currently living in Syracuse, NY, writing is about activism. In addition to expressing her views through words, Warren-Moore, now 66, has been on the picket lines fighting for her rights and beliefs for decades.
Her first civil rights march was in Washington, D.C. in the late ‘60s; she recalls naively wearing high heels and having to finish it barefoot. She has since participated in dozens of pickets, marches and protests for Planned Parenthood, anti-poverty programs, school board representation and other causes. Below, a Q&A with the poet, playwright, newspaper columnist, mother and activist:
What sparked your interest in activism?
My mother was an activist. She was a great influence in my life and a very powerful woman. She instilled in all of us a belief that if you see something that’s right, you celebrate it. If you see something that’s wrong, you work to fix it. That’s it. That’s something I passed down to my four daughters and to my grandchildren.
There are many forms of activism. What I say is that everyone has a role. My role is to talk about all this stuff and to give voice to it through my writing and my presence, to walk in the picket line, to visit congressmen and talk to the mayor. Because I’m a citizen and a community member.
You juggle multiple projects; what are you involved in right now, and what is your day-to-day life like?
I just co-wrote a play about the activist Paul Robeson. He is an icon. I’m working on another play about a historical figure; I also have freelance theater gigs, and I’ll do theater workshops.
I’m currently teaching an adult poetry workshop once a week. In February and March, I typically do a lot of poetry readings. February is Black History Month; March is Women’s History Month. I tell people, “Look, hire me in July. I’m a woman and I’m black all year long.”
I also travel upstate and do workshops in prisons. I’ll go up there for three or four days and do prison after prison after prison teaching poetry. I know how good it is for them to do it. It is so emotional and therapeutic. You may think you’re going to write about roses, but if you have some angst in your heart, it’ll come out in the poem. You’d be surprised. If I showed you some of the poems that the inmates wrote and some of the poems that my college students wrote, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was who. There are a lot of fine poets in prison.
How does your poetry and writing reflect your activism?
I talk about what needs to be spoken. There are a lot of things in our “polite society” that people don’t like to talk about. They don’t like to talk about domestic violence or sexual abuse or racism or all the –isms, and particularly about what is going on in today’s world. A lot of people would rather just turn their heads and pretend that what’s happening is not happening. Activism is not just something you do on Tuesdays or on Thursdays — it’s a lifestyle.
Poetry is a very personal form of expression. What is it like for you to constantly share your own stories, emotions and opinions?
It’s really self-affirming. One of my poems is about sexual abuse. It’s very graphic. It’s published nationally and internationally, and is one of the poems I read most. People will ask me, “How can you stand up in front of a thousand people and talk about being sexually violated as a ten year old?” Every time I do it, I look out in the audience and think, “That person knows what I’ve been through, and that person knows, and that person knows.” What that says to those people is that it was a horrible thing, but you can get past it. You can thrive and survive, and you are still whole. I’ve had all kinds of experiences, whether I was reading it in a high school or a college or a prison, where I’ve had people come up to me afterwards and say how touching it was.
I did a poetry reading with a class at Syracuse University, and I read that poem. When I finished, this guy who was on the football team, a big linebacker, comes up to me and says, “Miss Jackie, how do you begin?” I knew exactly what he was talking about. I talked to him, and I gave him my card. I saw him two years later; we happened to be walking towards one another on the sidewalk. He reached in his pocket and pulled my card out from his wallet, and he said, “See, Miss Jackie, I still have your card. I haven’t called you yet, but I’ve been thinking about what you said.” About two months later, I opened the Sunday paper and there was a two-page spread of this young man talking about being abused as a young boy. For a young person who is struggling with the issue to open up and say, “This happened to me, and I’m still struggling, but I survived it” — that empowers me.
You shared a story in your newspaper column about having an abortion. Why did you make the decision to share that story publicly?
A lot of times, I’ll read my column to my daughter or my husband before I submit it. I shared it with my daughter, and she said, “Mommy, that’s too personal. Don’t do it.” I shared it with my husband, and he said, “No, don’t do it.” I thought some more — right now there are young women struggling the way I struggled with making that decision. There are a bunch of men, primarily, making that decision harder for them. I had two friends who died in backyard abortions, one of whom was given an abortion by her mother. It is a difficult enough decision without having somebody lay a guilt trip, and then having laws against it on top of that…I said, “Bullshit.” I said, “I have to. I have this platform, and if I don’t use it and don’t speak out and don’t tell the truth, then shame on me.”
What has been your proudest moment in your career?
My proudest moments are my four daughters. My oldest just turned 48. I had her young when I was an unwed mother. I met my husband and married and then had three more daughters, each about a year apart. My obligation is to make a better world for my daughters and grandkids than what I grew up in.
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of proud moments. Once when I was a therapy aid at a psychiatric center, I was in a meeting with the head of the team, the psychologists and the social workers. We had just taken over a new area, and the head psychiatrist was describing the people in the area to us. He said, “We’re going to be working with pretty much the scum of the earth.” Those were his words. I’m sitting there thinking, “Okay, the team leader, the head psychiatrist, just said that, and nobody’s saying anything.” I was privileged to be in that group. I thought I may lose my job because I was on the bottom rung, but I had to say something. I said, “Doctor, I really feel that if we are here, our job is to psychologically treat people in this neighborhood. If we walk into that thinking of them as the scum of the earth, that’s a disservice right from the beginning.” He jumped up from the table, banged on it and yelled, “How dare you say that to me?” He stormed out, and nobody would look at me or defend me. Two days later, he came back to where I was working and said I was right and apologized. Ironically, after that, I was promoted.
There are also proud times on picket lines when I’m standing with people shoulder-to-shoulder saying that this is something important. Here we are, one group of human beings trying to make a difference.
What do you hope readers take away from your recently published book, Where I Come From?
A part of my humanity. When you are open to other people’s humanity, I believe you make connections. And those connections can save the world. When you connect with people, especially across racial, cultural and sexual-identity lines, you are doing something powerful for the world. I hope that somebody would read my work and say, “I’ve had that experience. I’ve shared that with this person.”
How do you think young people should get involved in activism today?
Take a look at your world. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really wonderful about the world. A lot of wonderful, good things going on. Get involved in that. Help promote the good. But if you see something that’s not right, then you have to stand up. It’s for everyone here and everyone to come. Stand up and speak your truth.