by Joan Wile
One had always thought of the Gray Panthers as an admirable organization advocating for the dignity and rights of older people, as so brilliantly represented by its founder, the magnetic Maggie Kuhn.
But, one would have been not fully informed. On Saturday, April 17, the Panthers celebrated their 40 years of existence, and held two actions in Washington DC which made it clear that they are a multi-issue group on behalf of persons of all ages. Their struggle against ageism is still a very important part of their agenda, but they vest other causes with as much weight.
The first of their actions on Saturday was a mixed-generation rally at the White House with unique features exemplifying the theme of environmental protection. They carried three faux open coffins with fabric effigies of a man, woman and child. Rally attendees wore white protective masks to symbolize the dangers of global warming on the air we breathe. Other colorful touches were the repeated throwing of many facsimiles of Earth globes made of cotton into the air, another symbol of how we are all affected by the dangers of global warming. Two people wore hazmat suits while pushing two wheelchaired participants. A Hazmat suit is a garment worn as protection from hazardous materials or substances and is generally combined with a breathing apparatus. Further, the demonstrators chanted repeatedly such slogans as "Don't Bury the Earth," and sang parodies of three familiar old songs, "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain When She Comes," "On Top of Old Smokey" and "God Bless America" with revised lyrics reflecting their environmental theme.
Hundreds of spectators responded with delight as they watched the Panthers' spectacular presentation. "I think we really connected with the crowds and got our message across, which is that the Gray Panthers are going green to protect the environment for all people, young and old, rich and poor," said Brooke Hollister, 28, Vice-Chair of the Gray Panthers National Board and an Assistant Professor at the Univ. of California San Francisco.
On Saturday evening, the Panthers repaired to the International Trades Center where they held a festive awards dinner honoring three persons of stature for their extraordinary efforts in three major areas of concern to the group -- health care, peace and the environment.
The first to be honored was Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was posthumously awarded for his decades-long championship of health care reform, the details of which need no reiteration here.
The award for environmental protection and justice went to to Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx. Ms. Carter is credited with many restoration projects in the area, such as, for instance, turning an illegal garbage dump into the Hunt's Point Riverside Park, and creating the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training program, one of the nation's first national urban green collar training and placement programs.
Colman McCarthy, long-time journalist, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, and teacher, received the award for peace activism.
Among his many activities, he founded the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit that helps schools begin or expand academic programs in Peace Studies.
And, reverting back to the issue it is most known for, Sally Brown, immediate past Chair of the Gray Panthers National Board, gave a speech about ageism, in which she stated, "We should be really proud of the ages we are and know that at any age we can contribute significantly to the world and lead productive, fulfilling lives."
The current chair of the National Board, Judy Lear, said that the two Washington events launched 40 actions planned to take place throughout the U.S. for the entire 40th birthday year. "We want to raise awareness of the Gray Panthers and highlight our three top priorities of the environment, health care and peace. We hope to raise our voices for everybody, all ages, about these urgent matters." she stated, "and we want to encourage people to be active -- everybody has a right and a responsibility to take some action in some way."