At the July West Coast premiere of Heather Booth: Changing the World, Lilly Rivlin’s remarkable documentary about the life and work of a community organizer, the audience responded similarly. Hushed moments of awe gave way to an exuberant standing ovation. The hour-long film gave the audience a sense of relief. Here was evidence that persistent, organized political resistance could block the blistering effects of injustice on the American political landscape.
Following the screening — which was part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — Lilly Rivlin and Heather Booth climbed the stage of the Castro Theatre for a brief discussion. For the most part, they peppered Booth with questions about the ins and outs of organizing. She took the opportunity to recognize the work of the significant numbers of social change leaders among the audience, calling on them to stand and show their faces: “Thanks to all of you, we can make a difference.” Her performance on stage displayed the same driving dynamism captured in the film. Outside, in the lobby, folks gathered up flyers about dozens of local grassroots organizations, whose social justice work dovetailed with struggles to which Booth has devoted her life: against capital punishment and for prison reform, women’s rights, civil rights, and economic and environmental justice.
I’d been involved in some of the same social movements but had never heard of Heather Booth before I learned Lilly Rivlin was making a film about her. Perhaps this is because Booth never craved the spotlight, preferring to do the hard work of organizing behind the scenes. In an opening segment of the film, Elizabeth Warren describes her early efforts to establish the Consumer Protection Agency: “They said to me, Elizabeth, if you really want to push for this agency, you’ve got to get organized, and I said, ‘Great. How?’ And they said, ‘I’ve got two words for you: Heather Booth.’”
Although I didn’t know of Booth, I did know the filmmaker, Lilly Rivlin. We met about a decade ago through our mutual admiration for Grace Paley, the subject of a play I’d written and also of the first film, Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, in what has emerged as Rivlin’s trilogy about Jewish feminist activists. The second film in the series, Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, profiled the writer who influenced the development of modern Jewish feminism with her establishment of the Feminist Passover Seder in New York City.
Lilly Rivlin has been a filmmaker for nearly four decades, but she came to it through a mid-life career switch.
I started out as a researcher; I think most women in film probably start out that way. And most writers. It’s a job available to women. I conducted interviews and background research for Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s O Jerusalem! … But in 1981, my family was having a reunion in Israel, and 2,500 people attended. So I thought, why not make a film about it [The Tribe (1983)]? That was a big enough occasion to start a film career.
Not wanting to be beholden to “other people’s whims,” even though she’d already won prizes for a script that was being optioned, Rivlin decided to take the independent path. “Being an independent filmmaker was a way for me to think of a concept and get it done; I’m a very get-it-done kind of person. One film leads to the next.” At 80, Rivlin hasn’t ruled out another film.
The “Heather Booth” project began circuitously, more than three years ago. “I was doing research for a film on abortion,” Rivlin recalls,
and I came across a movie, Jane: An Abortion Service, distributed by Women Make Movies, and Heather was in it. I thought, that’s interesting. I had seen her speak before, and we’d met once at a J-Street conference. We had lunch; I liked her. So when I decided I wasn’t going to make the film about abortion, because one had been made and it was really good, and because also I knew no film about abortion would ever be shown on television, I said to Heather, and we were talking regularly by then, I said, “Why don’t I make a film about you?” And that’s how it was.
Amassing 65 hours of footage, including original interviews with Booth’s family and colleagues, as well as with extensive archival footage and photographic stills, Rivlin had more than enough raw material for an hour-long film. “The most important elements of making this film were the time it took — three and a half years — and the archival research,” which consumed half the budget. But what was the story and how should she craft it?
“That was a question I asked myself over and over,” Rivlin says.
What is the story? One night I’m sitting here in my apartment reading the transcripts and I came across [Booth’s] son’s, who says, ‘”She’s very intentional, you know.” And I kept thinking about that. I remembered myself at about 12 or 13, when I said, I want to be a writer and live in Greenwich Village. And then I realized, “Oh, this is how it works: you have an intention, your brain is like a map from then on, and you take it in the direction of all the things that have to do with your intention” … But I didn’t want a purely linear arc … I think I showed that organizing is a profession, and I made a strategy chart interesting!”
Heather Booth: Changing the World is an engrossing film about the tedious, never-ending, and absolutely essential work of community organizing. Following opening cameos of Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani mocking presidential candidate Barack Obama’s career as a community organizer, the film pivots to track Booth’s many accomplishments in the half-century of her social activist work. Working to help plan a 2015 rally on the Washington Mall called “Moral Action for Climate Justice,” Booth explains how “part of organizing is dealing with the unexpected.” In many ways, the film charts the transformation of a shy young woman into an activist as an almost accidental event.
Although Booth was born in Mississippi while her father was serving in the military, she grew up in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn, New York. When her family moved again to suburban Long Island in her youth, she felt displaced, insecure. To satisfy her yearning to fit in, she took weekend trips to Greenwich Village in its Beatnik heydays. Her first activist experience was handing out flyers in Times Square to protest the death penalty:
I remember how frightened I was. It was a simple task, handing out flyers, but I didn’t even know how to do that … I’d get confused. And I realized that we need to give people confidence to even take simple steps like that. You need to train people, you need to support them, you need to encourage them. … We may feel [insecure] alone, but together we can have a new kind of power.
“She describes herself as an insecure person,” Rivlin notes, “because she wants to tell everybody, ‘Anybody can do this. If I can do it, you can do it.’ And I’ve noticed, in times we’ve been together, people love her; she has a following unlike anything I’ve seen. When the film was shown in Washington, DC, it was sold out — all 450 seats. And they want it again.”
Booth seems to have been everywhere any movement for social change was to be found. One of her colleagues describes her ubiquity by saying, “If you look at significant times in the movement, Heather is there someplace. She’s like Zelig.” After high school, in 1963, Booth worked on an Israeli kibbutz in the northern Negev: “Seeing the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto [at Yad Vashem] had a profound effect on me. Because this was a place where people stood up and fought back.” She returned to the United States to take part in the Civil Rights movement. In 1964, she went south to Mississippi to join the Freedom Summer project, doing both voter registration and freedom school training. Returning to Chicago, in 1965, Booth became instrumental in forming Chicago women’s liberation and consciousness-raising groups. But the tale of her work establishing the Jane Underground is among the most extraordinary in the film.
A friend had gotten pregnant and contacted Booth in 1965, seeking advice about an abortion. Consulting with the medical committee of the Civil Rights movement, she asked if they knew of anyone who could perform the procedure and was directed to a Dr. T. R. M. Howard. He was an extraordinary “black leader of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi who’d come to Chicago when his name appeared on a Klan death list” and started a women’s clinic. Booth contacted him by phone; they never met in person: “Already that was extraordinary, trusting a white woman talking about abortion at a time when it was a felony.” Word spread, and more and more calls came in, making Booth “realize we needed a system. And because I was living in a dormitory then, we called it ‘Jane.’ People could call up and ask for Jane.” Eventually, a women-run abortion counseling service was created to serve the needs of women before Roe v. Wade.
From civil rights to women’s rights, Booth’s activism continued unabated. After she married Paul Booth, whom she’d met during the anti–Vietnam War movement, and, soon after, had two children, she began to balance her political work with her personal life, pursuing political change while negotiating marriage and motherhood. The personal became political in the campaign she helped wage to secure decent childcare in Illinois, making it a central issue in the 1972 governor’s race.
Having initially learned about organizing through the training she underwent in Saul Alinsky’s program, Booth came to believe something different was needed — to make the movement more inclusive, especially for women. In 1973, with money she’d won from a back pay lawsuit, she set up the Midwest Academy, which would teach activists how to build the infrastructure of a multifaceted progressive movement. Many of the 45,000 who have gone through the still-flourishing Midwest Academy, such as Cristina Jiménez of United We Dream, have become the leaders of today’s social justice organizations, encouraged to “think strategically; how to figure out what to do when you don’t know what to do.”
In the 1980s, Booth returned to her earliest political cause, voting rights, heading the NAACP’s “Voting at the Center” campaign. Years later, she became involved with Elizabeth Warren’s successful effort to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Early in the film, a media strategist comments on Heather’s influence: “If you’re in a meeting with Heather Booth and you have an idea, the next thing she’ll say to you is: ‘Good, so you’ll take charge of getting that done.’” I experienced that firsthand at the San Francisco reception for the film. I had been talking to another woman about her efforts to find a home for an enormous collection of archives she had gathered from the 1960s Women’s Liberation movement and offered that I might know of a university that would be interested. Booth overheard me and, without missing a beat, turned to the woman and said, “Good, you’ll want to follow up with her about that now, right?”
Heather Booth: Changing the World is exactly the kind of sophisticated and inspiring story we need in these troubling times. The film serves as a reminder that “the idea of humanity,” as Hannah Arendt wrote, “implies the obligation of a general responsibility.” It’s up to each of us to decide whether or not we want to assume that responsibility. Go see this film if it comes to an area near you. And then decide whether you have the courage to block out injustice.