Washtenaw County residents prove that age is no barrier to activism

Activism is often seen as a pursuit for the young, but many Washtenaw County residents have reached retirement age without retiring from their advocacy work.


Lori Saginaw of Ann Arbor notes that older people's activism "takes a different shape" from younger people's, particularly when it comes to the role of social media, but there is a place for both kinds of activism.


"I recognize their idealism and their passion and appreciate it, and I often think, 'Gosh, I wish I had that much energy,'" Saginaw says. "But at the same time, I have learned how to approach (issues) in more ways over time, and that's the benefit of more years on the planet."


We talked with three Washtenaw County residents who are still involved in activism in their 60s, 70s, and even late 80s.


Lori Saginaw: A commitment to speaking out for others


Saginaw says she learned "the importance of being aware of what is happening to other people and standing up for them and speaking to what isn't right" from her mother. Her parents and grandparents, all of Japanese ancestry, were put in internment camps during World War II.


Though her mother rarely spoke about the experience, she did speak out about other injustices when she saw them, and that family legacy affected Saginaw from childhood. She remembers that her own high school history teacher didn't know about Japanese internment camps because they weren't mentioned in the school's history text.


"I think that lack of awareness and level of ignorance ... are the basis for people not having any understanding or appreciation for what is going on in the lives of people who are different from them," Saginaw says.


She says it seemed like everyone was protesting the Vietnam War when she was in college in the '60s, but her interest in activism became more acute once she had children. Saginaw began teaching conflict resolution in Ann Arbor Public Schools, taking her children in strollers to protest marches, and raising civil rights issues at the dinner table.


"I think my desire to make the world better was fueled by wanting it to be better for them," she says.


Some of Saginaw's early involvement with activism stems from her involvement with the hunger-relief nonprofit Food Gatherers, which her husband Paul Saginaw co-founded. Her most recent activism work, with Ann Arbor's Independent Community Police Oversight Commission (ICPOC), grew out of participating in race dialogues sponsored by Race and Conciliation Encounters (RACE) Washtenaw about nine years ago, shortly before she turned 60.


Saginaw says those dialogues enabled her to "use a muscle that had never been strengthened, and that muscle was one of entering an area of discomfort."


Advocating for the creation of the ICPOC and being vocal about the need for transparency and representation of groups most negatively impacted by policing also took Saginaw out of her comfort zone.


"It was an act of sticking my neck out that I hadn't really done before," she says. "I was not using a network where I was known, with people I have relationships with. There's comfort and security in doing activism in that context, but once a person enters the public and political arena, it's a whole different ball game."


At the core of all Saginaw's activism is an emphasis on connecting with people who are different from her.


"I think it's easy to say that a problem is not mine because it's either too far away, or other people will deal with it," she says. "Once we know someone who has an experience that is so compelling but not ours, that experience becomes part of us. I think that fundamental to a life that feels enriched is building relationships and actively seeking out relationships with people that have experiences that are different than mine."


Gail Summerhill: Making "necessary trouble"


Ypsilanti resident Gail Summerhill also found her way into activism through creating relationships with people who had different backgrounds from her own.


Many of Summerhill's jobs over the decades involved public service, from working on employment skills with incarcerated women to giving premarital counseling about sexually transmitted diseases at the start of the HIV epidemic. Summerhill's activism grew out of those early experiences of being a non-judgmental source of support for people whose lives had gone much differently from her own.


When she was a caseworker with Washtenaw County, she recalls asking someone what had made them start using drugs.


"I thought then that to be addicted to crack was a person's choice. I didn't understand how you could do this knowing how bad it was," she says.


The person told her a story about growing up in a home where their mother was on drugs, 2-year-olds were allowed to drink beer, and 5- or 6-year-olds were smoking cigarettes. Summerhill realized that in a house where the mother is on drugs, the situation can lead to everyone else in the family being on drugs as well.


"I never thought about how a person's environment could have been so different (from my own)," she says.


Summerhill says that today, her activism work in voter engagement and helping vulnerable seniors comes from the heart.


"If you're showing people your heart first, that you're calm and not judging, people open up and trust," she says.


Summerhill became interested in senior concerns and end-of-life issues after seeing how poorly her own father was treated when he developed dementia. Due in part to that experience, she has been educating seniors on their rights and the resources available to them, as well as teaching families how to prepare for end-of-life issues, for several years.


That work recently caught the attention of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who appointed Summerhill to a state task force on elder abuse. Summerhill says lawmakers are often too far away from a problem to see it clearly, so she is the person in the trenches reporting back on average citizens' experiences and making sure people understand the resources available to them.


For instance, nursing homes are required by law to display a poster about residents' rights and who to contact if they feel they are being mistreated. But what if a resident doesn't understand the word "ombudsman" or other terminology used in the poster?


"You didn't know that that poster was telling you something to help you," she says. "But I talk about it to people in a way that makes sense to them."


Summerhill also became interested in politics and the Washtenaw County Democratic Party around the time Barack Obama first ran for president. One of her favorite moments working with the county Democrats happened a few years later when she met legendary civil rights leader John Lewis. They were both at a meeting where everyone was talking politics, and she thought Lewis looked bored, so she decided to talk to him about something more interesting: food.


"I said, 'Tell me this. Now that Obama is in office, do they have any soul food in the White House?'" she says. "He started talking about his mama and how she made the best sweet potatoes. He's laughing. I'm laughing. We're talking about food, not politics."


When she was feeling discouraged earlier this year, she asked Lewis to write her a letter she could show others about the importance of voting and being politically active.


"I asked him for a letter that I might use to educate people on who he is and what he did for us to have the right to vote and ... how he must feel for us to not even show up at the polls because somebody told us voting doesn't matter," she says.


In his reply, addressed to the Washtenaw Democrats generally and to Summerhill specifically, he wrote briefly about his own activism, and encouraged her to continue to "make necessary trouble." Summerhill keeps a picture of the letter on her cellphone and refers to it when she's feeling down.


"This gives me the courage to make trouble for justice and to use my voice to make a difference," Summerhill says.


Jim Toy: "I'm more of a doer, not a theorist"


Jim Toy hadn't planned to come out as gay in the most public way possible, but that's exactly what happened during a Vietnam War protest in Detroit in April 1970.


Each of a dozen groups who marched down Woodward Avenue that day appointed someone to speak at the rally that followed. But the speaker in the group Toy was marching with got cold feet at the last moment. Toy and the other group members looked at each other, wondering what to do next, and then Toy volunteered.


"I'd never spoken in public before and I got up on the speaker's platform and, I can feel it now, it was like fire and ice," Toy says. "I began speaking out against the Vietnam War, and as I wound up what I had to say, I said, 'My name is Jim, I'm 40 years old, and I am a gay man.' That marked my coming out."


The Detroit News and Free Press both reported on the rally and quoted Toy, outing him to an even wider audience.


Since then, Toy has been a founder or founding member of a dizzying array of gay rights and other social justice organizations, including the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement; the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front; Out Loud Chorus (still performing today); the HIV/AIDS Resource Center Washtenaw County (HARC); Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - Ann Arbor; Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) - Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area; and the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project (WRAP). The former WRAP center was renamed the Jim Toy Community Center in his honor in in 2010.


Despite his astonishing list of accomplishments, Toy says his activism stems in part from feeling inferior growing up Asian-American during the anti-Japanese sentiment of World War II and feeling small and awkward compared to his star athlete father.


"Perhaps I've been trying to prove to myself that I'm a person of worth," he says.


Toy says he's not very introspective and doesn't know why he decided to blurt out in public that he was gay at age 40.


"I'm more of a doer, not a theorist," he says. "I never was. I'm too lazy."


Though he turned 89 in April and he has slowed down a bit physically, he still hasn't abandoned his advocacy work, and he continues to evolve in his understanding of social justice issues.


He says he avoided talking about race for most of his life, stemming from the deep shame he was made to feel about his ethnicity during World War II, but he's recently begun thinking about the "challenging" intersection of race and sexual orientation, for instance.


"It's difficult for white people to have that discussion with people of color, because queer people of color have that double burden," he says. "That dynamic is getting addressed, but painfully and slowly, in my experience."


He says it took him years to get on board with the "T" in LGBTQ, because he hadn't thought much about gender identity and "it took me a while to wrap my head around that particular concept."


Today, though, he puts the "T" in the front of the line, both when speaking to others and in his personal life. A bookshelf full of gay literature in his home, for instance, is labeled "TBLG." He says he puts transgender people first for two reasons.


"In my experience, we become aware of what's referred to as gender and gender identity before we become aware of sexual orientation concerns," he says. "I also put the T first because transgender people are the most harassed and discriminated-against members of this particular constituency."


These days, Toy considers himself mostly "homebound" because he doesn't drive anymore. But he keeps in touch with local advocacy groups and other activists by phone as much as possible, particularly with the University of Michigan's Spectrum Center, which provides support services for LGBTQ students.


"I'm doing what I can from here," Toy says.


Toy's story of gay rights activism kicking off in his 40s counters the common narrative that activism is the province of the young.


"It's true that many younger people become involved with advocacy, and sometimes what they're trying to do gets written off because of their being young," Toy says. "So when people in their elder years become involved, they may at first get met with disbelief, and then, I would hope, with (the realization that) older people have similar concerns, and they can address them with some degree of competency because of where they are in their lifespan."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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