Social Activism in a Time of Social Distancing

Social activism is for more than the young. Lifetime commitments to peace, social justice, and community don’t fade away when we turn 70 or even 80 years old. Our values remain strong, even as the forms of engagement we choose may change.

When COVID-19 forced us to shelter in place, these four elder activists—ages 73 to 89—turned to technology to keep contributing to the activism space. Using the telephone, Zoom, and face-to-face meetings separated by the required six feet of distance, these women continue to serve as mentors and advocates for change in their communities.

Frances Carr is a community citizen advocate who in the 1970s helped found Seattle’s first women-owned bank, Sound Savings and Loan. Later she served as director of diversity for Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services. She’s been a lifetime advocate for equality, equity, fairness, social justice, faith, diversity, and community capacity-building. Not surprisingly, as conversations about systemic racism gained momentum in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, people turned to Carr for her elder’s perspective on diversity, inclusion, and how to keep faith in positive social change. While she could do much of her mentoring by phone, she eventually made the leap into the world of online meetings.

Guided by her daughter, who helped her to get started with Zoom, Carr stayed connected to the “Encounter Group” within her church that has been exploring the relationship between social issues and the Bible. The group was formed at Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church 50 years ago and is still going strong. As tragic events related to racism and police brutality swept the news, church members used Zoom to have much-needed conversations about justice and faith. Now comfortable with the technology, Carr uses it to hold family meetings, celebrate birthdays, and speak with her mixed-raced grandchildren about how to prepare for today’s challenges.

Anne Stadler has spent all her adult life working for peace, against racism, and to build communities where people can come together in love and respect. In the 1960s, Stadler and her husband David created a peace organization that later became World Without War Council, an organization she directed for seven years. Stadler’s skills in mobilizing community and connecting people were so strong that KING-TV recruited her to become a producer of the program, “People Power.” For 17 years, she produced programs that highlighted important community issues.

Although her work has taken her repeatedly to India and other countries around the globe, Stadler believes that “The work always starts in my front yard.” She coaches friends and mentees to attend to their inner lives, listen to what they love and calls them, and take responsibility for living from that place.

In the early 1990s, Stadler was a pioneer in the uses of “Open Space Technology” to help people self-organize meetings and conversations around what is most important to them. When social distancing put face-to-face meetings on hold, Stadler jumped into Zoom and discovered how online technology, with facilitation, could provide a platform for deep conversation and intimacy between participants across continents. Now online community building has become another of her passions.

Sought for her wisdom around fostering compassionate communities Stadler, at 89, inspires with her drive for lifelong learning.

In her new YouTube series, “Let the Ancestors Speak,” Dr. Joye Hardiman stands with her carving of Sankofa, a Ghanaian symbol of a bird that is moving forward and reaching back. The symbol, she notes, illustrates how one must work with the past in order to move ahead. Hardiman is continuing a lifetime path of service, education, support for the community, and travel. Her work taps her knowledge of history, culture, and ancestral origins.

After retiring as Executive Director of the Tacoma Campus of Evergreen State College, a position she held between 1989-2007, Hardiman continued working on temporary assignments. She took her final leave in 2019 to spend much needed time in gratitude, reflection, and relaxation, including a three-month trip to Mexico. While there, she had a vision of how she and her daughter could use their homestead, Hardiman House, to host salons and events.

Unfortunately, those plans were put on hold when COVID-19 hit. With spunk and inventiveness, Hardiman pivoted and decided to produce a series of videos based on her house, its artifacts and rooms, and African American history. With her doctorate in Ancient Egyptian literature, eloquence, and storytelling skills, Hardiman knew how to make artifacts come alive.

Each episode weaves together tales of her family, frank talk about racism, cultural insights, and art history, including items she collected during her many trips to Africa. At age 76, Hardiman’s gifts now shine before an audience that extends far beyond her Tacoma neighborhood.

When Susan Partnow had knee replacement surgery last year, at age 72, she discovered that by using emerging online meeting technology, she could offer classes on compassionate listening, her longtime passion. An organizational consultant, Partnow embraced how the Zoom platform allowed her to teach at home while reaching potential participants who were feeling isolated or might have trouble traveling to Seattle for classes. Using Zoom, she also connected with an international community of spiritual activists dedicated to consciousness change. By the time COVID-19 hit, Partnow was a pro at using meeting technology and could offer classes on facilitating meetings online.

For years Partnow led Global Citizen Journey delegations around the world as part of her commitment to citizen diplomacy. The pandemic and family health issues have limited her travel, but she’s as busy as ever with initiatives to shift the world toward more love, generosity, and compassion.

Like Stadler, Partnow believes in healing the world from the inside out and sees her activism as part of her spiritual practice. She may have slowed down physically from where she was 20 years ago, but her engagement as an activist is as strong as ever.

These four women model social engagement, abundant curiosity, and desire to continually learn. As elders, they understand that social change requires perseverance, perspective, and a positive spirit. As Hardiman says, “I believe in the reciprocal nature of the universe. You put good things out and good things will come back to you.”

Sally Fox, owner of Engaging Presence, is a coach and writer who helps individuals tell their stories and follow their creative callings post-midlife. Read her blog at and listen to her podcasts at


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