National Treasures – “Democracy is an Ongoing Project”

sketch of Betty Reid Siskin

“National Treasure”, ink sketch by Kerry McFall

National Treasures: name three.  Are they parks or forests?  Works of art or architecture?  Constitution?  I think I would have answered with names of places, until last week.  That’s when I heard Ranger Betty Reid Soskin speak at the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond, California.  Now she’s at the top of my list of National Treasures.  And two of my aunts are numbers two and three.

A friend recommended that we make a special effort to go to her presentation.  It was so worth it.  She spoke calmly and confidently about tumultuous times she’s experienced during her 95 years.  (I would have guessed she was 70.)  She described the years of WWII in detail, with an assist from some film clips that somehow got left out of my Baby Boomer education.  I hadn’t really understood before what the “Rosies” did and what they were up against, or that two of my aunts had worked in the shipyards, one an electrician she now explains proudly, and I need to research more about the other aunt.  Just like the men in our family who went to war, I never heard them describe their experience in any detail.  They would say they just did what they had to do.

Betty is a park ranger now, and active in Richmond and California state government.  But as a young woman she was turned down to work as a “Rosie the Riveter” or a “Wendy the Welder”.  Young women like my aunts were grudgingly hired back then to work in the shipyards, and fought hard to prove themselves capable, but as she so graciously phrased it, that was “not my experience.”  She was put to work as a low paid accounting clerk for the war effort.  She spoke for over an hour to a spellbound audience on many topics, without notes or prompts, about opportunity and involvement and learning to communicate and prejudice.  And leaving anger behind.

For me, the most important thing she shared was her conclusion that democracy is an ongoing project, and we can take nothing for granted.  Nothing.  Not our jobs, not our safety, not our privilege, not our freedom.  She urged us to learn all we can, to vote, to stay engaged and involved, and to remain optimistic in spite of all the current insanity. And she had just had a big dose of that insanity – she was mugged and beaten in her own apartment the week before.  “I’m a survivor,” she said calmly, “not a victim.”  Her voice never quavered.  The bruises didn’t show until she walked out of the small auditorium into the daylight.

I had been feeling sorry for myself of late.  Overwhelmed by sadness about all the bloodshed every time I turned on a screen, wondering what to do about my aging mother, the frustrations of dealing with insurance companies, feeling helpless as fire gobbles up the California landscape, trying to keep up with the realities of life in our times — when all I really wanted to do was draw or read cozy mystery novels… and then this tiny woman stepped onstage, and I felt like such a Wuss (whoa — now there’s an interesting comment on how women are perceived in our society – look that up in the urban dictionary for an interesting read, and think about the history of our language!).

Pass it on –  Listen.  Think.  Learn more history.  VOTE.