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How Heather Booth Changed the World

Filmmaker Lilly Rivlin calls political organizer Heather Booth “the most influential person you never heard of.”

Over the past half century, Booth has improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans who never knew her name. But if you’ve met Booth, heard her give a speech or participated in one of her training sessions for organizers, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Rivlin’s hour-long documentary, Heather Booth: Changing the World, will be screened in a benefit for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy August 3, at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills, where she will appear for a discussion. (Click here for event info.)

“Heather is one of the most dynamic, inspiring and fortifying leaders that I have ever worked with,” says Madeline Janis, LAANE’s co-founder and currently executive director of Jobs to Move America.

“Heather is the most tenacious organizer and campaigner I’ve ever known,” echoed George Goehl, executive director of People’s Action, a community organizing network. “That’s her magic – her laser focus on what work needs to be done.” “Heather is one of the people who makes this all work,” adds U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. “I’m in awe.’’

Heather BoothHeather Booth

Like Woody Allen’s character in the film Zelig, Booth seems to have been everywhere there was a fight for social justice. She’s played key roles in battles for voting rights, child care, workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and reproductive freedom. She helped Harold Washington get elected Chicago’s first African American mayor. She helped Elizabeth Warren get a consumer protection agency through Congress.

In 2007, Warren, then a Harvard law professor, had an idea for a federal consumer agency. But, as she told Huffington Post reporter David Wood, she had no idea how to make it happen – how to mobilize the political influence to get Congress to push back against the powerful banking lobby.

A colleague said simply, “Call Heather.”

Booth became the founding director of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of labor unions, civil rights organizations, consumer and citizen action groups as well as unaffiliated individuals who were simply angry at the way financial institutions had abused ordinary Americans and triggered the epidemic of home foreclosures.

With Booth’s help, Warren persuaded President Barack Obama and Congress to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as part of the Dodd-Frank bank reform law of 2010. Politicians and other public figures gathered on stage for a gala signing ceremony in the Capitol’s Ronald Reagan Building. Booth was in the back of the auditorium.

In Rivlin’s film, Booth describes her first foray into activism when, in her early teens, she stood by herself in New York City’s Times Square handing out leaflets urging an end to the death penalty. In the late 1950s, Times Square was a dangerous area, dominated by porn shops and addicts. One person spit on her. Flustered, she kept dropping her leaflets. “I was really frightened,” she said.

But she didn’t give up her idealism or her activism.

As Heather Tobis, she arrived as a freshman at the University of Chicago in 1963. She volunteered at a mental hospital, tutored students at a nearby public school and participated in a folk music club. Then a friend of hers was raped at knifepoint in her bed in an off-campus room.

“When she went to student health for a gynecological exam, she was given a lecture on her promiscuity,” Heather recalled in an oral history of the Chicago women’s movement. “She was also told that student health didn’t cover gynecological exams. So we sat with her and they called it a sit-in.”

In 1964, the 18-year-old Booth participated in Freedom Summer, joining hundreds of other Northern college students who moved to Mississippi to help register black voters and organize Freedom Schools.

Booth was a founder of the modern women’s movement, a role that started in 1964 when she helped set up a covert abortion network, after learning that a friend was pregnant. The friend wasn’t ready to have a child. She was scared and possibly suicidal. She asked Booth if there was anything she could do to help. Booth called around to find a doctor who would perform an abortion, which was then illegal. Word got around and eventually others called her to ask for help. She recruited other volunteers and other doctors. Eventually it became on ongoing organization called the Jane Underground. By some estimates, the Jane Underground group helped secure between 11,000 and 13,000 abortions for women in need between 1965 and 1973, when the Supreme Court finally legalized abortions in Roe v. Wade.

In 1965, Booth attended a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).“I was talking and one of the guys yelled at me to shut up. And I was a really, really nice kid. And I stopped talking,” she recalled. “I went around and tapped the shoulder of every woman in the group and we went upstairs and made a separate group.”

They started a women’s action and discussion group, whose members eventually blossomed into leaders of various feminist organizations, including the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.

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Through the Midwest Academy, a training center for activists, and her many movement activities, Booth, now 71, has trained and mentored some of the nation’s most effective and influential organizers and activists.

If she had a resume, it would read like a “who’s who” of liberal and progressive groups and activists, including MoveOn, the NAACP, USAction, People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, Alliance for Citizenship and the Voter Participation Center, to the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Center for Community Change.

Heather Booth: Changing the World blends interviews from close friends and political colleagues to examine a legacy in progressive politics and organizing.

Through the lens of Booth’s life and work, this inspiring and entertaining film explores many of the most pivotal moments in progressive movements that altered our history over the last 50 years.

The film teaches us that at the center of any successful movement are people like Booth who combine a generosity of heart, a lifelong commitment to social justice and a remarkable talent for inspiring others and for thinking strategically.

“I tell the kids who ask me about Mississippi that it wasn’t pretty,” Booth once recalled, discussing her work registering voters in the early 1960s. “It was hot, smelly, and dirty. I got chiggers in my legs, and it was boring. You can’t imagine how incredibly boring and frustrating it is to knock on doors and try to get people to register. But one of the wonderful things about democracy is that people can change.”

“If you stand together and organize,” Booth says, “you can change the world.”

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