University of Chicago alum and progressive activist Heather Booth has taken on what she calls a “David and Goliath” fight for financial reform. She recently became executive director of Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), a coalition of national and state organizations that have united to improve the regulations of the financial sector. Financial reform will be the next item in a long list of issues she has tackled during her career. Though she has relatively little background in the area, she agreed to take on the job because, she says. “Here we’re facing a crisis, and we need to do something about it.” Despite often being initially uncertain or intimidated, she has been plunging into crises of similar magnitude since her time at the University of Chicago.
Booth attended the University of Chicago from 1963 to 1967. She began her career as an activist during her first few weeks of class, when there was a school boycott in order to obtain integrated high-quality Chicago public schools. She now says that she was drawn to the idea that organizing enables people to achieve a better society: “I threw myself into the civil rights movement . . . I loved it. I loved the belief that if you organize, you can change the world.”
From this beginning, Booth became involved in a dizzying number of progressive organizations, first during her years at the University of Chicago and then after her graduation. She attributes much of her work to an upbringing that instilled in her a set of ethical values centered around the Golden Rule and the notion that she should act upon her beliefs. “People, if they have the option, should act out of their moral beliefs and values, and their passions,” she says. “My passion is building a better society.” Brought up in a Jewish family, she was steeped in traditional Jewish stories of struggles for freedom from bondage. She has been involved with such struggles of various kinds since coming to Chicago, and her method of action is centrally focused on the use of organization to change power relationships. In the words of her colleague and longtime friend Jeff Blum, who also attended the University of Chicago, “She has always been very good at being at the intersection of powerful agendas and organization.”
After her work with the Chicago Public Schools boycott, Booth became more and more involved in the civil rights movement through her work with city and student activist groups. In the summer of 1964 she participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, which drew national attention to civil rights issues when several activists attempting to register black voters in Mississippi were injured or killed. Despite or because of the human loss, Booth returned to Chicago with an increased dedication to civil rights action. On campus, Booth became the chair of the Student Political Action Committee (SPAC), the University of Chicago’s leftist political group, worked with members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and then founded the campus organization Women’s Radical Action Program (WRAP), one of the first women’s consciousness-raising groups in the country.
Her long association with social justice causes has given Booth a deep understanding of the relationship between personal and social issues. The early women’s movement adopted the theme “the personal is political,” and Booth explains it like this: “You think you are facing [a problem] alone and in isolation. You think ‘it’s my fault;’ then you realize it happens to other people in the same way…you must tie your political reality to a social end.” But Booth observes that in recent years, society has tended in the opposite direction. “Many things that need a social solution are treated as if they only have personal solutions,” she says. “Rather than saying ‘let’s all stand together for equal rights,’ people say, ‘I personally will treat other people with dignity and respect,’ or, ‘I will turn off my lights.’” That’s worthwhile, but insufficient according to Booth. “There needs to be a social aspect too; it can’t be ignored.”
When Booth was a student, she called upon a doctor in the civil rights movement to help obtain a then-illegal abortion for a friend. Over the years, Booth performed the same service for other women, and her project expanded into a network of women helping other women to obtain abortions. The organization, called Jane, eventually helped approximately 11,000 women obtain abortions before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.
As the chair of SPAC, Booth worked with other students to organize a sit-in protesting the University’s participation in Vietnam War-related policies in May of 1966. The sit-in was the earliest student sit-in against the Vietnam War. There she met Paul Booth, a full-time SDS employee. On the third day of the sit-in, he asked her to marry him. Two days later she agreed, and they married in 1967. The couple had their first child in 1968 and their second in 1969.
After graduation, Booth continued to work as an activist and leader for social change in a variety of areas. In 1973, she founded the Midwest Academy, a nonpartisan Chicago training center that instructs activists in community organizing. The Academy currently operates in downtown Chicago, and it has trained leaders of groups including the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Student Association, and Illinois Citizen Action. The Academy aims to enable organizers to achieve concrete changes. Its agenda stresses that any progressive improvements must be sensitive to larger trends in society; they must change relations of power so that they “expand the space of democracy and civil participation and shrink the space of private power in society,” according to Blum. Today, Booth is president of the Academy’s Board of Directors, and she applies the principles on which the Academy operates in her other areas of work.
Social change is needed in many areas, but Booth says that the real point of her work, and the real challenge to the Midwest Academy and its trainees, is building what she calls a “small-d” democracy. In such a democracy, people not only win improvement of their lives, but are also involved in the struggle for change and gain a sense of their own power. Organizing is key in this struggle. In a sense, organizing represents the kind of democracy Booth envisions, since it wins change by involving people in their own wider struggle.
Organizing gives activists access to what Booth refers to as “levers of power,” but early community organizers shied away from fighting their battles through electoral politics, believing that community organizing had a certain moral clarity that electoral politics could not have. They inherited the views of famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, who maintained that grassroots organizing that places pressure on those in power is more likely to lead to social justice than electing leaders to operate on the inside of the manipulative political world. But after the election of conservative Ronald Reagan, Booth says she realized that “we needed to do something about elections.” At the Midwest Academy’s annual retreat in 1981, she gave a speech emphasizing the importance of involvement with electoral politics. She declared that in a democracy, citizens must become involved with electoral politics in spite of the compromises inherent in politics because without that involvement, one of the main “levers of power” is denied to them. Her speech was “a brilliant analysis that treated on the cost of not [becoming involved with electoral politics],” says Blum, and it was “a very seminal moment of change for many of us . . . she did what she often does: articulates a trend or a challenge or a vision that then many other people follow.”
Booth’s influence is widely felt, both through her organizations and through her personal connections. According to Blum, at any progressive political event in Washington, D.C., it is easy to find someone of any age who would say, “‘I’m here because of Heather Booth. She taught me how to do this, she recruited me, she inspired me.’” For several decades, she has welcomed young activists and invited them to stay in her home when they are first coming to town or just beginning their work.
“She’s quite mythic in the progressive community,” explains Blum. Part of Booth’s ability to inspire results from her recognition that working for change provides empowerment, even if sometimes the work is unsuccessful.