Filmmaker Lilly Rivlin calls organizer Heather Booth “the most influential person you never heard of.”
Over the past half century, Booth has improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans who never knew her name.
But if you’ve met Booth – if you’ve heard her give a speech, or participated in one of her training sessions for organizers, or sat around a table with her as part of a strategy meeting for an organizing campaign -- you’re one of the lucky ones.
Rivlin’s inspiring hour-long documentary, “Heather Booth: Changing the World," will be screened on Thursday, August 3, at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theater (8560 Wilshire Blvd) in Beverly Hills. Booth will be there to answer questions after the screening.
Ticket sales will benefit the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the city’s premier progressive organizing group. You can learn more about the event, and buy tickets, here.
Anyone who has been confused or disheartened by the recent election needs to see this film.
“Heather is one of the most dynamic, inspiring and fortifying leaders that I have ever worked with,” said Madeline Janis, LAANE’s co-founder and now the executive director of Jobs to Move America. “Heather is the person I turn to for battle tested wisdom about organizing. She’s one of my sheros.”
“Heather is the most tenacious organizer and campaigner I’ve ever known,” echoed George Goehl, executive director of People’s Action, a national community organizing network. “That’s her magic – her laser focus on what work needs to be done.”
“Heather is one of the people who makes this all work,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren. “I’m in awe.’’
Like Woody Allen’s character in the film “Zelig,” Booth seems to have been everywhere there was a fight for social justice. She’s played key roles in battles for voting rights, child care, workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and reproductive freedom. She helped Harold Washington get elected Chicago’s first African American mayor. She helped Warren get a consumer protection agency through Congress.
In 2007, Warren, then a Harvard law professor, had an idea for a federal agency to protect consumers from bank abuses. But she told a colleague that she had no idea how to make it happen, according to Huffington Post reporter David Wood. She needed to learn how to mobilize the political influence to get Congress to push back against the powerful financial industry lobby.
Her colleague said simply, “Call Heather.”
Booth became the founding director of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of labor unions, civil rights organizations, consumer and citizen action groups as well as unaffiliated individuals who were simply angry at the way financial institutions had abused ordinary Americans and triggered the epidemic of home foreclosures.
With Booth’s help, Warren persuaded President Barack Obama and Congress to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as part of the Dodd-Frank bank reform law of 2010. When Obama signed the bill at a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building, there were plenty of politicians and activists on stage to share in the glory. But Booth was in the back of the auditorium.
That’s typical of Booth’s style. She prefers to be behind-the-scenes rather than up front, giving the credit and limelight to others.
In the film, Booth describes her first foray into activism when, in her early teens, she stood by herself in New York City’s Times Square handing out leaflets urging an end to the death penalty. In the late 1950s, Times Square was a dangerous area, dominated by porn shops and addicts. One person spit on her. Flustered, she kept dropping her leaflets. “I was really frightened,” she said.
But she didn’t give up her idealism or her activism.
As Heather Tobis, she arrived as a freshman at the University of Chicago in 1963. She volunteered at a mental hospital, tutored students at a nearby public school, and participated in the folk music club. But when a friend of hers was raped at knifepoint in her bed in an off-campus room, Booth’s activist instincts took control.
“When she went to student health for a gynecological exam, she was given a lecture on her promiscuity,” Booth recalled in an oral history of the Chicago women’s movement. “She was also told that student health didn't cover gynecological exams. So we sat with her and they called it a sit-in.”
In 1964, the 18-year old Booth participated in Freedom Summer, joining hundreds of other northern college students who moved to Mississippi to help register black voters and organize freedom schools.
Booth was a founder of the modern women’s movement, a role that started in 1964 when she helped set up the covert abortion network. It began when she learned that a friend was pregnant. The friend wasn’t ready to have a child. She was scared and possibly suicidal. She asked Booth if there was anything she could do to help. Booth called around to find a doctor who would perform an abortion, which was then illegal. Word got around and eventually others called her to ask for help. She recruited other volunteers and other doctors. Eventually it became on ongoing organization called the Jane Underground. By some estimates, the Jane Underground group helped secure between 11,000 and 13,000 abortions for women in need between 1965 and 1973, when the Supreme Court finally legalized abortions in Roe v. Wade.
In 1965, Booth attended a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the major New Left groups leading the anti-war movement.
“I was talking and one of the guys yelled at me to shut up. And I was a really, really nice kid. And I stopped talking,” she recalled in an interview for a women’s movement oral history project. “I went around and tapped the shoulder of every woman in the group and we went upstairs and made a separate group.”
That incident inspired Booth and other women to start a women’s action and discussion group, whose members eventually blossomed into leaders of various feminist organizations, including the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.
Booth met her future husband, Paul Booth, in 1966 at the University of Chicago during a sit-in against the draft during the Vietnam war. He had been SDS’s national secretary. Like Heather, he’s a lifelong activist and organizer. He recently retired as a top official with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
As a young mother of toddlers in Chicago, Booth brought together a group of working moms to form a neighborhood day care cooperative. They soon discovered that the city’s byzantine licensing codes make this extremely difficult. So Booth and the other moms began organizing other parents across the city, through community centers, churches, synagogues, and social networks.
“People flocked to us,” Booth recalled in a recent Tedx talk. “People gained confidence, found their voice, spoke about their love for their kids, the child care they needed, their vision for the future.”
The moms’ crusade soon got media attention. Then politicians began taking notice. Within six months, the city had agreed to one-stop licensing, a licensing review board of parents and child care providers, and $1 million for new child care centers.
In Chicago, Booth got a job as an editorial consultant for Urban Research Inc., a market analysis firm. A few months after being hired, she was fired for encouraging the secretaries to organize for their rights.
"The boss treated them cruelly," Booth recalled in a 1989 interview with the Chicago Reader. "There were no health benefits, they got lousy pay. I was very idealistic. I didn't think you should be silent in the face of injustice. The boss told them: 'I'll give you your demands, but Heather has to be fired.' What could I do? I left."
She also sued her boss, In 1972, almost three years after filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, she won a $4,000 settlement. She used the money to found the Midwest Academy, a training center for activists.
Its goal is to “give people a sense of their own power to improve society” and to teach “strategic, rigorous, results-oriented approach to social action.” Over the years, more than 25,000 activists have gone through its training program. But its ideas – particularly its famous “strategy chart” – have influenced millions of people who have been participated in organizing campaigns of all kinds.
Through the Midwest Academy and her many movement activities, Booth, now 71, has trained and mentored some of the nation’s most effective and influential organizers and activists.
If she had a resume, it would read like a “who’s who” of liberal and progressive groups and activists, including MoveOn, the NAACP, USAction, People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, Alliance for Citizenship and the Voter Participation Center, to the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Center for Community Change.
“Heather Booth: Changing the World” blends interviews from close friends, political colleagues, and activists to examine Heather’s legacy in progressive politics and organizing.
Through the lens of Booth’s life and work, this inspiring and entertaining film explores many of the most pivotal moments in progressive movements that altered our history over the last fifty years.
What we learn from the film is that at the center of any successful movement are people like Heather who combine a generosity of heart, a lifelong commitment to social justice, and a remarkable talent for inspiring others and thinking strategically.
To the media and to much of the public, activism means gathering people together for protest marches. Booth has probably been to more marches than anyone on the planet, and has at times been arrested for civil disobedience as part of an organizing campaign.
But while protests are important, Booth has taught several generations of activists that protest is not enough. We need to develop tactics to pressure people in power – politicians, corporation executives, university trustees, and others – to change policies and practices. At that means doing the unglamorous and usually unrecognized work required to build movements.
“I tell the kids who ask me about Mississippi that it wasn't pretty,” Booth once recalled, discussing her work registering voters in the early 1960s. “It was hot, smelly, and dirty. I got chiggers in my legs, and it was boring. You can't imagine how incredibly boring and frustrating it is to knock on doors and try to get people to register. But one of the wonderful things about democracy is that people can change."
“If you stand together and organize,” Booth says, “you can change the world.”
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books). A version of this article appeared in Capital & Main.