Committed for the Long Haul
Clockwise from upper left: Sue Skaskiw, Howard Shaffer, Katie LaJoie, Craig Stowell, Val Mullen and Nichole Hastings were among the 13 activists profiled in "The Cause." (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Valley News staff photographer Sarah Priestap
Val Mullen, of Vershire, has been an activist for peace and social justice since 1963. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Colby-Sawyer student body President Nick Ciarlante takes a chair in Alumni Lounge, where student government often meets. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Like most photojournalists, I fairly often encounter activists of various kinds in my work. Whether they are picketing, petitioning or persuading, they are almost always passionate about their cause and eager to talk about it. So when I was asked to consider producing a biweekly photo feature for the Perspectives section this past year, I thought that focusing on activists, their stories and their causes would be a way to investigate a vibrant part of Upper Valley life. So “The Cause” was born.
When I began in March 2012 searching for subjects to interview and photograph, I thought it would be difficult to find people over age 30 who were activists. Maybe that was because as a relatively recent college graduate, I am surrounded by friends who have plunged into everything from the Peace Corps to Occupy Wall Street to PETA. To me, it seemed as though activism was mainly something for twenty-somethings to pursue before they got down to building a career. How wrong I was. That misconception was shattered as soon as I met Val Mullen, 91, of Vershire, who has devoted more than 50 years — while also pursuing a career and raising children — to the worldwide quest for social justice. In fact, the majority of Upper Valley activists I found to photograph were over the age of 30, many of them running advocacy organizations while also working at full-time jobs. One example is Craig Stowell, who plays a prominent role in running Standing Up for New Hampshire Families, an organization dedicated to fighting for marriage equality, while working full time in the information technology field in Claremont.
The first job, of course, was defining just exactly what an activist is. How is an activist different from a volunteer? Do activists have to stand for radical causes or can their goals be more in the mainstream? Are they rebels with a cause, or ordinary people caught up in something larger than themselves? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I scoured websites, read posts on list-serves and asked friends and colleagues if they knew any activists in the area.
I didn’t answer these questions completely, but once I met, interviewed and photographed a baker’s dozen of activists, I discovered some common threads.
True activists are committed to their causes for the long haul, and often through personally difficult circumstances. More than half of those I spoke with and photographed have been involved with their causes for more than 10 years, and a handful for more than 30. None of those I spoke with had any intention of “retiring” from their cause, even in the face of obstacles such as lack of funding or difficulty in attracting interest.
Another common thread is that the driving force behind the activists I featured was overwhelmingly personal. Lisa Olney of Orford, for example, has worked daily to ensure higher safety standards for children’s toys since her daughter Ellie died in an accident involving an unsafe play yard. Her dream is a world in which no more children will be killed by the toys they play with. Wynona Ward, of Vershire, who grew up in home afflicted by domestic abuse, went to law school and eventually founded Have Justice Will Travel, which provides legal representation to women who have been abused, often providing services at their homes. These are but two examples of activists taking personal, life-altering circumstances and trying to change the lives of others for the better.
Though this feature has drawn to an end, the work of activists never ceases. I have seen a world of change through the lives of those I interviewed, and I hope that through their pictures and stories, some readers will find inspiration to take a stand of their own.
Sarah Priestap is a staff photographer for the Valley News.