Newsletter HighlightsPortraits in Progressive Activism

by Laurie Williams with Susan Kravitz Ayer

The first time I met Susie, she was hosting an ACLU People Power meeting of several dozen people at Touchstone Cohousing in Ann Arbor. We had an energizing discussion over a potluck dinner afterward. Fresh from the Women’s March, Susie was lit from inside by a fire that I’ve since found is neither episodic nor dependent on circumstances, but apparently unquenchable. Susie is dynamic, sincere, open, and integrated — and after spending time with her, you come away warmed by her internal, spiritual fire.

Walking toward her home in Ann Arbor on a beautiful summer morning, with perennial and annual gardens abloom in riotous color, I was reminded not only of Susie’s vivacious nature, but also of the well-kept, brightly colored, connected townhouses (or “row houses”) found in most neighborhoods of any typical, large Danish or Swedish city.  Interestingly, Susie, a seasoned traveler, was about to leave for Denmark and Iceland in a few days!

Susie is an apparent Renaissance Woman, with an obvious passion for living, art, and living artfully. The natural beauty of her gardens was enhanced by an amazing 4×5 foot flag near the entrance to her home — it was something she designed and sewed from colorful parachute fabric to resemble a Matisse print. Inside, I was treated to her latest art project of extraordinarily beautiful ink-dyed ceramic tiles. She tends multiple gardens, creates art and produces professional-quality photography with the same amount of enthusiasm and love she applies to her activism, to living cooperatively in Ann Arbor’s Touchstone Cohousing Community, and to publishing/editing the Washtenaw Jewish News and the Protectors of Equality in Government newsletter. A voracious reader, she reads a paper copy of The New York Times daily, and her house is filled with books.

Coming from a family with strong involvement in the Jewish community (her grandfather was president of the Orthodox congregation where she grew up and her mother was president of every Jewish women’s group in Cleveland), Susie has been actively involved in many Jewish and secular organizations throughout her life. She was a B’nai Brith group leader at a young age, served with Hadassah (a Jewish women’s organization that supports hospitals and other projects in Israel), and was president of their young women’s group here in Ann Arbor. She was also on the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor board for 9 years. She ran Lamaze mothers’ groups when her kids were young. Susie taught preschool at the Ann Arbor Y. She was involved with the food co-op here and was one of the original members of the Touchstone community. She joined Touchstone in 2003, and it opened in 2005. The fact that she has been consistently involved in the co-operative movement is something Susie is justifiably proud of. Whether nursery co-ops, food co-ops, daycare co-ops, or housing co-ops, she’s happy to have been able to participate cooperatively with others in such meaningful ways.

Returning from a semester abroad experience in Israel, Susie transferred from Washington University in St. Louis to the University of Michigan her junior year, and has lived in Ann Arbor ever since. While in Missouri, she became politically active for the first time, working for a state senator’s campaign. With dual degrees in psychology and sociology, Susie also earned a teaching certificate at UM. She student-taught at Earthworks High School (which later merged with Community High) and realized during that experience that she wouldn’t be happy teaching in a conventional high school. While earning an MSW degree in interpersonal relationships, she did her field placement with the juvenile court system and UM student counseling services. She worked at the Harold Center of Northville Psychiatric Center with in-patient teenage boys until 1980, stopping one week before her first child was born. Later in life, she did an internship at the UM School of Natural Resources. Since 1991, Susie has been the editor of the Washtenaw Jewish News and currently has her own photography business, selling her photos and doing photography for Crazy Wisdom Journal and various local organizations.

In 1972, Susie met her husband, Ray. They were married for 30 years, and during that time he worked with Ann Arbor city government — something that gave her a good deal of insight into how city government — and government in general — works. Early in their marriage, Ray and Susie helped spearhead a fight against the development of a hotel and convention center where the NEW Center and Bandemere Park is now.

LW: Here’s a wide-open question: how would you describe your activism?

SA: Well, I’m a pragmatist. I have voted in every election — even school board elections — and I believe that’s important. It’s a duty. For years, I also worked on getting out the vote by calling Democratic voters on Election Day. I learned from my late husband, who worked in city government, that the only way to make a difference is to get involved with the people who have power. I love it when people are passionate. But, being passionate without also being pragmatic is not the recipe for success. I don’t care about having power or control because I’m secure enough in who I am, and I know I have almost everything I need. I don’t have the need to be in charge, as long as things get done. I’m well-organized in my personal life and feel it’s just as important to be well-organized in politics. So, I’ve worked for political organizations and the people with the power.

I worked for the Obama and Clinton campaigns; I even canvassed in Toledo for both candidates. I went to President Obama’s first inauguration with my daughter, and it was a life-changing experience!

I believe that voters need to understand that political candidates sometimes need to compromise on some issues. Government officials and members of Congress have an endless number of issues they focus on, and they can’t afford to take super controversial stands if they want to accomplish anything. It’s one thing to be passionate about an issue, but if you can’t get enough people to vote on a bill, you’re not going to get anywhere.

LW: Who were or are the people who have inspired you as you’ve gone about doing your work as an activist?

SA: Believe it or not, my children! My children are my heroes. They have always been activists. Dan helped with recycling programs at Community High School, and worked on the school newspaper, as did Ben. As seniors, both won the State Street Photography competition. Lizzie, an artist, helped with the art room at CHS and won the Ann Arbor Art Association senior art competition. She was also involved in groups that supported civil and LGBTQ rights. Dan and Liz were active in SEED (Students Educating Each Other About Discrimination). Ben ran the Amnesty International group at CHS and organized Comstock. After graduating university, Dan helped organize the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Ben and Lizzie worked on protests against the Free Trade Area of Americas in Windsor, and then, Ben did the same in Miami. Lizzie also worked on the World Bank protest in Washington, DC. All three kids were involved in the Food Not Bombs movement of the 1990s. Each of them has started and been involved with housing coops. Lizzie was one of the first Americorp interns at Growing Hope, and from there went to NYC to teach kids to grow their own food. She has a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz, and has been active in national farm organizations, and helped work on the Farm Bill. She’s now back at Growing Hope as farm and garden manager. Ben, my youngest, is the most politically active. At Western Michigan University, where he worked as director of The Peace Center, he studied non-profit leadership and environmental studies. He most recently worked for Columbia River Keeper in Portland, Oregon.

LW: Sounds like your heroes learned from their family heroes! If you had to narrow it down to one or two issues, what would you say is the most pressing issue we need to address and fix today?

SA: Income inequality is something we MUST focus on. When people ask, “Why don’t more inner-city poor people vote?” they don’t understand that some of these folks are just trying to stay alive. I have the luxury of not having to worry about that. I can be an activist. I know I will always have a roof over my head and a car I can count on. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from. Too many people do worry about that. I think they also have come to believe their vote doesn’t count.

I would have to say that voter suppression and disenfranchisement is a huge issue. When people don’t have a say, they go away, and take the attitude “leave me alone” and give up hope. That apathy also happens because this administration has so broken up the country that some people aren’t participating as citizens — and that’s just a horrible thing.

LW: So, given the apathy we are seeing, how would you encourage others to go about finding their role in contributing to pro-people, pro-planet, positive change?

SA: Embrace Tzedakah. That’s a Hebrew word for “charity.” But interestingly, it also means “justice.” I think focusing on that — doing a mitzvah (which means “a good deed”) — is critical. I live by the belief that I should do a mitzvah every day. That’s how I maintain my humanity. You give to other people. You give your time, your effort, your money… I feel so lucky. I have so much. And, if I can’t spend a small amount of my time helping people who are less fortunate, then I don’t deserve what I have. I don’t understand people who go into politics without a commitment to public service. They have no business making decisions about our government. Being a politician should be an honorable job. If you get into it for any other reason than to help people, you shouldn’t be in it.

I try to make people understand that government affects every aspect of one’s life. If you’re not voting for candidates who make decisions that benefit everyone, then you’re not voting for the right people. Every chance I get, I also speak to people about making phone calls, voting, and becoming involved in the political process. I ask the people I speak with to talk to others, too. I’m always encouraging others to act — even if they only tell me “no,” or “It’s great that you’re doing it.” I think one of my strongest skills is connecting to people. I’m basically a social worker and teacher at heart.

I love the group I work with, Protectors of Equality in Government (PEG). I feel like I have the skills to help get the newsletter out, and I want to do it. It’s one of the things that really calls to me. I give out business cards for PEG, and I talk to others about it. PEG is one of the groups I’m most passionate about so I volunteer as a writer and copy editor for the newsletter, and help maintain the PEG website. And, the people I’ve met through this work are amazing.

LW: What do you find most appalling about our current situation?

SA: I woke up the other night crying in my sleep; I was having a dream about the Holocaust and all the children who were taken from their parents. And, we’re doing that here now. We’re taking children from parents who came here seeking asylum from horrible things. When I visited El Salvador recently, our tour guide talked about the gangs there. Parents are leaving that country and risking all sorts of danger just to escape a violent, horrific life because of the drugs and gangs. They only want a better life for their children. You know, people don’t make changes in their lives unless there’s a really good reason. And they don’t make big changes — like leaving their home country with their children — unless there’s a compelling reason. Yet, we are separating children from their parents and imprisoning families who have left their country for no other reason, in many cases, than to stay alive. It’s just shameful.

I have traveled all over the world, taking photos, and having serious conversations with people I meet. Up until this year, I always felt the US was the best country in the world. The things that are the best are still here, but the horrific things being done by the people who have the power right now is making it hard to see the good stuff.

LW: What do you do to recreate and replenish?

SA: I do my art. I do my gardening, and I go out with friends. I accept support from my friends, and I love to give it to others. Without getting support from others, what we’re doing can be overwhelming.

LW: Susie, you are like the Energizer Bunny, and I can clearly see that you are profoundly motivated by a love for others. Is there another essential or critical belief that keeps you going?

SA: Tikun olam. It’s a Hebrew term that means “repairing the world.” Repair — that’s why I’m here, that’s what I’m here to do. That’s what we’re all here to do. Now, after raising my kids, I can spend more time doing this vitally important work.

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