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Life’s Work: Couple finds home for activism in Youngstown

By Mark C. Peyko | Metro Monthly Editor

• Authors Staughton and Alice Lynd will discuss their memoirs at 7 p.m. on Monday, July 6, 2009 as part of the Universal Café’s Arts and Lecture Series. The event occurs at the First Unitarian Church in Youngstown.

Attys. Alice and Staughton Lynd recently published “Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together,” a book that recounts their work as long-time activists in the Mahoning Valley and across the United States.

Over the years, the Lynds have taken on a number of unpopular and thorny causes – many times well ahead of the public’s awareness of or tolerance for an issue.

The Metro Monthly recently spoke with Staughton Lynd about the couple’s recent book, their lifetime commitment to social activism, and the dangers of voicing sometimes unpopular opinions.

Metro Monthly: What made you decide to want to write the book?

Atty. Staughton Lynd: Well, it’s hard to say. I’m 79, Alice will be 79 in a little less than two months. And so if there is any kind of summing up, it seemed like a good time to do it.

Metro Monthly: What do you hope readers may learn from reading about your experiences and Alice’s experiences?

Lynd: Well, a couple of things. One is to keep going. It was an observation of mine that in the sixties, we had an awful lot of sprinters and not too many long-distance runners. And I think [laughs] people may say Alice and I ran in the wrong direction or that we lost all the fights that we entered – but I don’t agree with either of those.
But one thing we have done is to keep going, so that was a general motivation.

But more specifically, I have a feeling that a lot of folks with liberal or radical ideas wind up on the West or East Coast. You know, they’re in San Francisco, or Cambridge, or New York City. And we wanted to make a plea that people who think they are pursuing a profession that’s of some use – I’m sure you feel this way, we felt that way as lawyers – take a look at the Youngstowns of this world. The medium-sized cities in-between the two coasts. And the particular term we used for what we had in mind was something we ran into on trips to Latin America. We learned of Archibishop Romero – in this case talking to Catholics – who had said that “People with a professional training should accompany those who might have need for their services.” Instead of spending all your time in an endless exchange of ideas in some rarefied university, just get out on the streets and see if you can be helpful to ordinary people.

Metro Monthly: I’ve always wondered that about you and your wife. Actually, that was one of my questions, too. But I think we should back up a little bit. Could you tell us a little bit about what brought you to Youngstown?

Lynd: Yes. I was in a funny situation at the end of the sixties, because I had chosen the profession of history. My wife was doing early childhood education and each of us ran into a roadblock. But in my case, it was being so outspoken against the war in Vietnam that I couldn’t continue as a full-time history teacher. And in Alice’s case, a lot of the funding for Head Start and early childhood education dried up in the early seventies.

Metro Monthly: O.K.

Lynd: And so we kind of looked the world over and decided to take a shot at becoming lawyers and being lawyers together and, specifically, we had been doing some oral history with steelworkers and others in the south Chicago/northern Indiana areas. The same part of the world, actually, where President Obama did his community organizing.

And one thing we ran into was the unionized industrial worker who felt he was being worked over by the employer and not getting much help from the union and was left to fight for himself. And so we had this specific project: maybe we could be lawyers to help that kind of person and, as you know very well, there are quite a few of them in the Mahoning Valley. And so, while in law school in Chicago, . . . we learned of some steelworkers in Youngstown. They worked at the old Brier Hill mill, Local 1462.

Metro Monthly: Frame this a bit. What year was this, which decade?

Lynd: This was the first half of the 1970s. I was going to law school – ’73, ’76. The question is: Where are we going to go when we get out of law school? And so we ran into these steelworkers and they were pretty broad-gauged guys. You know, they were into combatting racial discrimination in the mill and in the community. They were civil libertarians, they were concerned with peace and I figured, you know, this is the kind of person that I think I’m looking for.

I’m going to put my chips on these couple of guys and their friends in Youngstown, Ohio. And so we moved here in ’76 with that in mind and we’ve never looked back. They’re both dead now [the workers], John [Barbero] and Ed [S. Mann], and others whom we met. And I would add someone we met after we moved here, and is also now deceased, an electric utility lineman named Robert Schindler.

Metro Monthly: But when you came here, you’re coming right at the time when the mills started closing down.

Lynd: . . . It was GF [General Fireproofing] that first fall, if you remember. They had broken ground for a new plant here in Youngstown. There was a strike. The company canceled its plans and began to move out. They moved to Tennessee. And then, beginning in ’77, came every year a major steel mill closing.

Metro Monthly: A lot of people undergo career changes, but you underwent a career change where you were actually looking at controlling not only your destiny, but also really channeling your energy into something that reflected your values and your interests and your political views and everything else. . . .

You’ve had social activism and involvement in politics probably prior to the Vietnam War, but I’m just wondering what the roots of your social activism are and also your wife’s roots, too.

Lynd: Well, I would say in each case probably our parents. Not that we were carbon copies, but, for example, my dad had been to divinity school and between his first and second year at Union Theological Seminary, he was a volunteer summer preacher at a Rockefeller oil camp in Wyoming.

And he picked up the impression that the men who were working six days a week for Mr. Rockefeller were not excited about this handsome young man from the East who would spend his week visiting their wives. And so my father got a job as a pick-and-shovel laborer and preached in the schoolhouse Sunday night. And, you know, you have that kind of dad and it rubs off.

Metro Monthly: When people are socially active, do you see it as one event that may trigger an interest or is it upbringing, or maybe the culmination of a series of events? Or maybe a little of each sometimes?

Lynd: Well, I probably think people take different roads. In my case, there’s just no doubt my parents influenced me and then when I met Alice, she was a little more into an anti-war tradition than I had been exposed to. . . .

And one experience just built on the next for us and that’s why we call our memoirs “Stepping Stones,” because I don’t know it you’re a hiker, but sometimes you’re out in the woods, you come to a stream. There’s no bridge and so you make the way from one rock to the next, never knowing whether the rock is going to turn under your ankle or not. And we kind of used that as a metaphor for our lives.

Metro Monthly: I think when people are driven by causes, social justice and things like that, there’s resistance and disappointment. What do you consider your most educational disappointment?

Lynd: [laughs] Well, that’s fascinating. And I would say it was probably when – in the early sixties – I was a teacher at a college for African-American women in Atlanta called Spelman College. And on the strengths of my history writing I got invited to Yale University, which is you know like one of these movies where the guy is pitching in the cactus league and he gets a call from the Cleveland Indians.
And so I went to Yale, and what happened when I was there was that the Vietnam War escalated. I made a very controversial trip to Hanoi. And for the first time in my life, something that I assumed would be a good thing – namely getting a lifetime position at Yale University – was denied me.

And I think that was the best favor I could have received because as a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio – a kid who grew up in New York City, son of two college professors, you know – I didn’t have much in common in the way of life experience with steelworkers, and, more recently, prisoners. But as a lawyer, that was like an invitation card. I was able to meet folks that I would have never met otherwise, so I’m very thankful [laughs] to Yale University. What did you call it, a creative disappointment?

Metro Monthly: The disappointment you found most educational.

Lynd: Well, that was it.

Metro Monthly: Getting back to the book. How long did it take to write? And I wondered about the process of doing the book. I’m sure you and your wife talked about life and work experiences.

Lynd: There had been various dry runs going back to the early nineties, I would say. I remember drafting something with a number of separate chapters, but it kind of got into high gear when Alice and I decided we were going to do this together, which is how we’ve done some of our best work.

I would say [there was] another critical point. We have three children and . . . we read our draft aloud to Martha [our youngest daughter]. And it was interesting, because things we took for granted about the 1960s, for instance, we had the feeling ‘Well, everybody knows that’ . . . and Martha would say ‘What’s that, mom and dad? I never heard that before.’ So we tried to revise in such a way that a young person today who didn’t share any of those experiences would have some clue what we were talking about.

Metro Monthly: Considering your political views and social activism, I just take for granted that there are people who disagree with you or hate your ideas. How do you deal with that in your work, when you come against someone who is so dead against what your views are?

Lynd: That’s a very good question and I need to explain [that] Alice and I are Quakers. And we’re believers in non-violence. And that’s not just a question of marching in the street with a picket sign . . . but also how you treat people who to all appearances are antagonists.
For example, in 2001, Alice and I spearheaded a class-action lawsuit about conditions of confinement at Ohio’s first Super Maximum Security Prison here in Youngstown.

And I’m here to tell you that the lawyers for the state of Ohio were initially very hostile, very suspicious. And we have a relationship of trust with those people now. I won’t go into details because I don’t want anything to happen to these understandings, but I think they feel we can help them do their job. In other words, if there’s something festering out there at the Ohio State Penitentiary – maybe something between blacks and whites or something between the prisoners in a particular cell block and certain officers, it’s in the interests of the warden to know about it and I think there have sometimes been instances where we could bring things to their attention, which we had heard from prisoners.

Well, not snitching on anyone individually, but just saying ‘Warden, we think maybe there is a problem out in the cellblock, perhaps someone could look into it.’ And that’s an example of taking a relationship which you’d think, at first glance, ‘Boy, oh boy, they should be hostile toward one another.’ The guy’s trying to run a prison filled with people they consider very dangerous, and the ACLU lawyer is trying to improve conditions, but it just so happens that I think we’ve created a pretty trusting and cordial relationship with our lawyer counterparts on the other side.

Metro Monthly: In evaluating your work, do you measure it by progress or do you see it as a series of challenges that may or not be related?

Lynd: Well, that’s a question that a person asks himself or herself. I would have to honestly say that most of the ventures in to which I put a lot of energy have not proved permanent. It doesn’t mean they didn’t accomplish anything, but as organizations or institutions, they’re no longer here.

And you could look at that and say, ‘Well, the guy didn’t get anything done.’ But, you know, an African-American was just elected president of the United States, a black man was just elected mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three summer volunteers were killed in 1964. And I was the co-ordinator of so-called Freedom School that summer [in 1964]. I was a part of opening up the world for maybe 2,000 African-American youngsters in that state. So I think I’ve accomplished a lot, although it’s difficult to measure.

Metro Monthly: Going back to the book. How long did it take to write? You said you had some dry runs or some early drafts, but this project – from beginning to end – what would you put the timeline on as far as how long it took?

Lynd: Well, I would say 15 years, but that doesn’t mean we were writing a book for 15 years. As I told you, I did a draft of my own experience. I sent it to a certain reader, that wasn’t too excited about it [laughs], so I set it aside. Later on, I sent it to a publisher – same reaction. And then, and I cannot remember exactly why, at a certain point I told Alice, maybe if we work together on it, maybe if we changed this and changed that, we can produce a product we would feel happy about. And so far, even though it’s not yet available in paperback, we feel terrific about it.

Metro Monthly: When looking back at those cool earlier receptions, do you think it all worked out for the best because you decided to wait?

Lynd: Oh, for sure, because, as I also explained with regard to our daughter Martha, if somebody tells you ‘I don’t really understand that,’ that’s helpful. You know that as a journalist. You want to try to find the words that speak to the reader’s situation. That catch his or her attention. And so that’s what I hope happened over the years. That we more and more found those words.

Metro Monthly: My last question for you: What keeps you in Youngstown?

Lynd: You know, that is such an interesting question because when all the mills closed, which had basically happened in the city of Youngstown by the summer of 1980, I [laughter] remember saying to Alice, I’m a little ashamed of it, but I said to her ‘Well, I guess time to be moving on.’ And she said, ‘Cool your jets. Let’s wait. Let’s see.’
And what happened, of course, was that by the mid-eighties, you had the LTV bankruptcy, we had retirees who were losing their health benefits, pension benefits were being reduced. We had a whole new chapter of the story.

And when it came time to retire in 1996, Alice said to me, ‘I hear there’s some talk about building something called a Supermax. What is a Supermax?’ And so a new chapter opened up. And that’s one way of describing it.

But there’s something else, as well, which is [that] my parents were both born in the Middle West. Alice’s mother comes from Cleveland. And we like the people out here. You know, we like the idea of folks getting up early and making it to the mill or Lordstown by the time the shift starts because we’ve always been people who worked hard and felt that we at least tried [laughs] to get to places on time and so on.

There is the sense of, despite my very different early childhood as the son of two university people in New York, there’s a sense of being at home, of being comfortable with the folks that we meet here. And I think some of those who have become our friends would say the same about us.

© 2010, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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