New Orleans There is no way that anything I can write would do complete justice to the life and work of Barbara Bowen, my friend and comrade for over 40 years, but luckily I don’t really need to because her life and work was about justice and she lived it exactly that way from beginning to end.
My path first crossed Barbara’s in mid-October of 1969. I used to hear her tell the story of being sent from Boston where she was working with Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization to Springfield, where I was working, to see if she could help out in some way during a large action demanding winter clothing for adults that was hitting its climax on the same day as the Vietnam Moratorium. The short story is that we didn’t win and all hell broke loose, but Barbara used to tell the story of breaking clear of the riot and finding a telephone booth in the middle of the chaos to put a collect call into Boston for whatever reinforcements might be available to get me and others out of jail and do whatever it might take.
In 1970 when I moved to Boston as head organizer, I lived on Rutland Square in the South End one or two units above Barbara and my other old friend and comrade over all of these years, Mark Splain, who she married around the same time. Over the many decades our paths would always be interwoven and crisscross continually.
After I left to move to Arkansas and found ACORN, she and Mark and others ended up in Chelsea founding Massachusetts Fair Share, a landmark organization in the 1970’s. When she and Mark left Fair Share, they worked in various capacities with ACORN. We all worked on jobs campaigns. We founded the United Labor Unions together, with Mark and Barbara in Boston, me and Danny Cantor, Kirk Adams, and Cecile Richards in New Orleans, Keith Kelleher in Detroit and then Chicago, and Mike Gallagher a little bit of everywhere along with many others. Barbara did stints with SEIU and the AFL-CIO. Around 2000, I convinced her to join me at the Organizers’ Forum where she worked for a decade as its coordinator until she retired at the end of 2008, as she told me then, “…because she could.”
The other day talking to Mark about a list of email addresses, I asked him if he wanted me to edit the list and make up a shorter one, and he replied that it didn’t matter, “Barbara doesn’t have an enemy in the world.” That phrase stuck with me. It was precisely correct. People loved Barbara. She was a sweetheart. Leading delegations around the world with the Organizers’ Forum she was always willing to go the last inch of the last mile to make sure it worked, that people were taken care of, and that it all came together.
But, if that conjures up an image of a laid back, California girl who was in the first avant garde women’s class at Pitzer College outside of Los Angeles, and a “helping hand” VISTA volunteer, all of which she also was, you didn’t know Barbara Bowen or at least you didn’t know enough about Barbara Bowen. The Barbara Bowen I knew and worked with all of these years was a stickler for details with a thousand questions, both large and small. My first day on the job as her boss in Boston in 1970, she asked me to look at a flyer she had made for a meeting, something she had probably done a couple of hundred times at the point. I remember telling her she should probably be showing me how to make the flyer, rather than the other way around!
But whether it was details on the menu in Kolkata or the rooming arrangements in Jakarta, she always included me and wanted input. If she had a question you heard about it, and she forced the plans to be crystal clear so there was alignment of my big picture, “it’ll all work out world,” and her details, planning, and preparation. It was easy to appreciate why on all the houses that Mark and Barbara built in Boston, Washington, and then finally in Stinson Beach how Mark might be architect and master builder, but Barbara would be permits, general contractor, bookkeeper, and finish painter and punch list person. On the three international dialogues I have done since Barbara’s retirement in Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, I’ve always warned people in the first orientation that they were going to miss experiencing the trip that they would have had if Barbara had been with us….
My point is not that she was just a details person or a meticulous note taker, planner, and so forth, because that was not the core of the woman. At the heart of the woman was character and courage. Once she was convinced of the plan, had it clear, and committed to it, she was fearless and unstoppable. Once she was in, she was all the way in.
In the late 1970’s and early1980’s, US Air had something called “Liberty Fares.” For $700 for 14 days a passenger could fly anywhere throughout the US Air system from Boston or Providence to New Orleans or Phoenix or Memphis or whatever. It often meant circling back to the Pittsburgh or the Philly hub. Obviously USAir meant the ticket to work with one flyer, but as a fledgling union and community organization, we were “up in the air” and could keep various folks flying from place to place endlessly during that period just by passing them off to our fellow travelers in the hubs or wherever the connections aligned. You can imagine the stories, but the best and boldest often featured Barbara. In the post-9/11 world this is unimaginable, but Barbara would talk her way onto one flight after another with nothing but moxie despite the fact that the ticket seemed to be in a man’s name and often with little or no ID. She had the ticket, and for her it was a ticket to ride, and if she had a problem with one flight, she would walk away and jump another one.
Anyone who underestimated Barbara or her toughness did so at their peril! Like I said, you had to be careful with Barbara. If you asked her to go through a wall on an action, once she was clear where the wall stood, how it worked, and that it was important, then that wall was going down, one way or another. Barbara had your back, front, and sideways! I hate to think about the number of times she went on unemployment to do the work, including once with the Organizers’ Forum. I can’t even imagine the times she maxed out credit cards or whatever. I loved that woman. There was no quit or whine to her. Ever!
It took me forever to realize that almost all of our international dialogues were too close to her daughter’s birthday and often had her doing crazy things to get home in time or in at least one case, missing the event entirely. She was an elected member of the school board in her community for years, but it took me almost that long to hear her mention it and talk about it. She was never going to put herself ahead of the program, even when it was just the two of us figuring it out.
I’m glad on the back end, especially now, that she and some of the women in Kolkata moved to a better hotel after our wild experience at the Great Eastern (now torn down!) and that she took an extra day to go to Agra when in Delhi and a couple more to see the Iguazu Falls at the border of Brazil and Argentina. For all of the times I may have taken her for granted for 30 years as a friend and colleague, I was glad that in the 10 years with the Organizers’ Forum for the most part I could feel like, I did right by her. People loved her and could appreciate her contribution at every level. She saw the world in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, and Australia, and like all of us it made us better organizers and better people. We all became clearer about the larger community where we live and work. We had great experiences together. She was fun, and she had some fun.
In Sydney I had noticed her walking uncharacteristically slowly up a stairway near the harbor. I asked her about it then, and she just said she was being careful. The next year when she called me to say she was having some health issues, she reminded me of that conversation and how even then is seemed there were starting to be coordination problems.
Luckily she and Mark got to do some traveling in Europe and Hawaii. They visited with friends. She got to her college reunion. When I saw her last fall she was still fawning over Tera’s children and delighted over Manuel’s pending wedding.
She was a great organizer. She was a wonderful woman. She was friend, mother, wife, comrade, and sister. She had a great life, just not enough of it.
My life is better for having known her and all she did with and for me in large and small ways over 40 years. Like so many others, I will carry the flame forward for her into the future and spend the rest of my life time and work time paying back her loyalty, faith, and trust.
Over recent years Barbara and I learned together how to say and understand “hello,” “thank you,” “democracy,” “union,” “justice,” and “freedom” in many of the world’s languages. Her life and legacy has meaning in all of those words and every time they are spoken in the struggle of people everywhere. And, anywhere those words are spoken, sung, or shouted, the heart and soul of Barbara Bowen will still stand strong.