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Political Activism at Webster U

Then And Now

By Josh Sellmeyer, BA ’13, MA ’13

THEN

Eleanor Craig, SL, couldn’t help but smile and laugh as she recounted stories of political activism from her youth that riled her beloved granddad.

Take the one that occurred in the spring of 1962. Craig — who grew up a fourth-generation Webster Groves resident and was a sophomore at then-Webster College — decided to enter the order to become a Sister of Loretto like many of her teachers and role models. Before she’d move to Kentucky for nearly three years to train to become a nun, though, Craig participated in picketing at a small Webster Groves restaurant. With civil-rights activism in full swing — particularly efforts by Freedom Riders in the south — Craig’s conscience was stirred, and she felt compelled to take action.

“I joined with a group of people to picket that restaurant for equal accommodations for black people,” Craig said. “My parents sat me down at the kitchen table and said, ‘What in the world do you think you’re doing? Your grandfather is disgusted. He’s driving past that place and there you are in the picket line.’ My father said, ‘If you persist in this and get yourself arrested, those sisters of yours are not going to let you join their order.’ And I said back, ‘Dad, if I got myself arrested it would be my ticket in. They’re the ones who put me up to it.’”

There’s also the event that took place in the fall of 1966. Craig had returned to St. Louis from Kentucky the year prior to complete her degree in mathematics. The Vietnam War was just beginning to heat up but wasn’t yet on the forefront of many Americans’ minds. Craig wanted to get actively involved without taking a stand, as her point-of-view on the war was not fully developed. So she organized an on-campus teach-in and wrote an open letter to the Webster student body, inviting them to come spend six hours studying and discussing together. She laid out books and materials on tables and notified the local press of the event.

“Newspapers and TV stations showed up, all eager to find out,” Craig said. “My grandfather again called my mother that night and said, ‘What is Eleanor doing now?’ Because there I was, this young nun in a habit talking to the TV station, saying we have to educate ourselves about this really horrible war. And make up our minds about whether it’s a just war or not.”

Just a few months after Craig picketed at the Webster Groves restaurant, Barbara Ann Barbato, SL, was engaging in some activism of her own while studying in Boulder, Colo. during the summer of 1962. Barbato, who taught at Webster from 1963 to 2001 and held multiple additional roles at the university, attended a speech by Robert F. Kennedy on the University of Colorado’s campus. Barbato recalled Kennedy standing on a set of rocks three steps up from where hundreds of attendees had gathered for his outdoor address.

“I was standing close enough to untie his shoe. That’s a very memorable moment, I’ll tell you,” Barbato said. “Most of the people in the crowd brought quill pens and small bottles of ink to give to Kennedy. His brother had promised during his campaign to sign the Civil Rights Act. And we were there to say to him he was to get his brother to do that. I had my bottle of ink and my quill pen.”

Barbato’s upbringing and diverse educational background helped groom her for a lifetime of teaching and political involvement. Barbato, who described herself as an “army brat,” had a father who was the only board-certified psychiatrist in the entire U.S. military at the time of America’s entry into World War II. Living in the Deep South of San Antonio, Houston and Mobile — and earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Denver’s Loretto Heights College as well as a doctorate in modern European history from Saint Louis University — gave Barbato a strong and unique perspective to share with her students.

Barbato’s extensive studies and teachings on China, Japan and Southeast Asia proved invaluable during the complex and multifaceted Vietnam War. Barbato — who entered the Sisters of Loretto in 1952 — passed along her knowledge on the war to future Loretto teachers in the early ‘60s. Since campuses across the country were organizing and hosting teach-ins, Barbato and her colleagues decided to do the same at several St. Louis-based colleges in the mid-‘60s. These included lectures, films and small group discussions.

“I was one of several people who participated. I just put on my teacher hat and went and did it. That was all there was to it. We had a group of people who said, ‘What can I do?’” Barbato said. “It came out of the circumstances in which I lived, the parents I had and their circumstances. It meant you did the work that was obvious, that needed to be done. You didn’t wait for somebody to ask you. I come from a family of teachers. All of those instincts are there.”

Barbato — who earned a master’s in management from Webster in 1981 and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Pedagogy degree from the university in 2015 — taught classes on politically related topics such as international relations, refugees, immigration and socioeconomic issues throughout her Webster tenure. She participated in a 1964 protest of the Vietnam War and attended a couple of the major demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Barbato coordinated traveling workshops on racism, negative income tax, poverty and urban/social issues held in states such as California, Texas and Alabama. The Sisters of Loretto traveled around the nation to serve as experts at these workshops in the late ‘60s. She saw firsthand the toxic working conditions at maquiladoras in 1989, where she said bright silver medals dangling from her peers’ necks turned black within a half-hour. Barbato visited refugee camps in Texas coordinated by the Red Cross and was so impressed by the organization that she resolved to become a disaster volunteer, which she did from 2003 to 2012.

“I’ve always tried to get my students to see there are multiple reasons why things happen and multiple ways people understand,” Barbato said. “You have to read your audience, see what they can hear and how they can hear it. You have to listen to them. Just because this is the way it’s always been done, it isn’t necessarily the only way.

“You just have to scratch a little bit, look around, look at history or even go next door sometimes. And you find someone doing it very differently just as successfully. That exists still. But it’s not a thing you can explain. And it’s not immediately obvious. You’re only aware of it over the long term. You have to have that process of hearing everyone talk and teaching them how to listen to one another.”

As with Barbato, Craig’s awareness of political and social issues has been a constant throughout her life. After graduating from Webster, Craig earned an MAT in mathematics education from Harvard University in 1968 (she’d later add a doctorate in adult education from Boston University in 1986). While attending Harvard, Craig picketed in the early mornings when trucks delivered produce as part of the United Farm Workers’ Delano grape boycott.

She later got involved in anti-war work, the anti-apartheid movement and utilizing shareholder power to exert influence on companies, a tactic she remains involved with today. One of her favorite moments of action came after she discovered Nestle was convincing mothers in third-world countries — who typically only had access to contaminated water — to use formula instead of breastfeeding their babies. Craig stood on a corner of downtown Boston with an ironing board and a petition, urging passersby to sign against Nestle.

“It was very colorful,” Craig said. “I’ll tell you what — if you want to attract attention, take an ironing board to a busy city street. I had to take it on the subway because I didn’t have a car.”

Craig worked on socially responsible investing during a 20-year period, calls her legislators regularly and meets with like-minded people to respond to various needs. She is a lifelong teacher both formally — including time at Webster — and mostly informally, as a community organizer. She is in her sixth year as executive director of the Loretto Heritage Center in Kentucky, which includes an archival collection and a museum. It’s that Sisters of Loretto influence — which Craig credited Barbato with continuing at Webster and she preserves at the Heritage Center — that continues making an impact today.

“The real legacy of Loretto is conscientious attention to the needs of the times. And people can come to very different conclusions of what the needs of the times require as a response,” Craig said. “If they’re really attentive, then people will bring awareness of what’s going on and what’s needed. Then they can dialogue openly about what’s the best response. There will be left-leaning responses and right-leaning responses. If people are willing to come to the table, they’ll be able to put those together in thoughtful solutions.”

NOW

A multitude of emotions coursed through Zoe Burton on Sept. 19, 2017. That afternoon, Burton — a Webster University junior — and five of her classmates organized and led one of the largest on-campus protests in Webster history. Nearly 200 people participated in the demonstration, which came in the aftermath of St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley being found not guilty in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.

Protestors weaved through the home campus before blocking a typically busy intersection, with Webster Groves police standing by but not having to make any arrests. Burton, a political science and film studies double major, had engaged in various local demonstrations before and had observed other Webster on-campus protests. She knew what worked and what didn’t, so when Sept. 19 came, Burton was prepared to give it her best shot.

“I was ready. My heart was ready. ‘Are we going to do this? Let’s get this done. I want y’all to hear me,’” Burton said. “Then we started and I was like, ‘Oh, my heart is beating kind of fast. What’s going to happen? What’s going to come out of this?’ It was terrifying. ‘All right, we’re doing this. We’re actually doing this. We’re out here on this street.’

“It was encouraging seeing other people. ‘OK, yeah, get involved. This is what we’re about. This is empowering.’ Then I became concerned. ‘OK, wait a minute. I don’t want anybody getting hurt. But we need to be doing this because it’s the right thing to do. We need to be heard.’ It’s like that feeling when chills go down your spine, but just all over your body. It was exhilarating in a sense, but surreal.”

Megan Price, a senior economics and marketing double major, participated in the on-campus protesting as well as additional off-campus demonstrations in the wake of the Stockley acquittal. Price noted how the Black Lives Matter movement’s St. Louis roots afforded her and other Webster students a particularly strong opportunity to partake in a national movement. As a freshman, Price was a bystander during protest response to the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Price said she didn’t fully grasp what was going on around her at the time. She credited Webster with helping her cultivate an improved worldview, which was part of what drew her to the university in the first place.

“Everybody so openly shares their cultures and who they are with you. And you get to learn,” Price said. “I am from a middle-class family in Joplin, Mo. where anything I’ve ever needed has been provided for me. When you go to St. Louis, you see people from all over the world — people from different socioeconomic standings, ethnicities and religions. First and foremost, you become friends with them. Then you start to learn more about them and how they have had different experiences than what I have had in this country. They’re not afraid to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I believe in.’ And I really think that is contagious.

“It’s not only taught me about the world and definitely things I was maybe too naïve to know before coming to Webster, but just being able to have a deep respect for wanting all of us to have a fair shot at opportunity and being happy. Because at the end of the day, no matter how different we are, that’s what all of us want and what all of us need. … I attribute becoming aware of politics or how policy affects our lives because of being at Webster. Webster allowed me to step into who I wanted to be.”

Price said the college atmosphere’s open environment has enabled her to more freely find her voice and express her beliefs. That was a bit trickier at the high school level, where Price said she “stuck out like a sore thumb in a private Catholic school in blood-red southwest Missouri.” Despite that, Price was heavily involved in high school extracurricular activities — something she has certainly carried over to her time at Webster.

Price is in her second year as president of Webster’s College Democrats group. She has served as a Webster Student Ambassador for three years and is likewise the organization’s president. Price studied abroad in Vienna, Austria her sophomore year, an experience she said significantly contributed to her taking a concern with the world’s ongoings. She works in the Walker School of Business & Technology and interned last summer for the St. Louis Mosaic Project, a regional initiative with a goal to “transform St. Louis into the fastest-growing metropolitan area for immigration by 2020,” according to its website.

Price rebooted the College Democrats organization prior to the 2016 election cycle and, by doing so, said she learned politics is “really a local effort that creates the national impact.” The group recently held an event where students could make contact with elected officials in support of Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children — and to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Several hundred people participated, with better than 300 postcards sent and 200 signatures accumulated.

“It’s really important for young people just to know if there’s a political organization on campus — regardless of party affiliation — you can get involved. That can cultivate a lifetime of being politically engaged,” Price said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport. You’ve got to get involved if you want to see the things you believe in happen. There are a lot of students — maybe especially in this generation — who think it’s just going to happen, or it’s out of our control. And it’s not true.”

Price volunteered for the campaign of Jason Kander during his run for Missouri’s Senate in 2016. She helped make a visit from the rising star politician possible, as Kander spoke to more than 120 students on Webster’s campus during October 2016. That involvement led to Price speaking at a rally for Kander that also featured the support of former Vice President Joe Biden. Additionally, Price has worked for Missouri State Senator Jill Schupp since August 2017 and plans to do so until her potential re-election in November.

Price said she and Burton have become friends through their activism and co-planned an event featuring a panel of female community leaders in February. Burton is in the midst of her second year as a Webster resident assistant (RA). She’s vice president of the Webster University Gospel Choir and aided in the group’s 2016 reboot after a hiatus. She volunteers heavily at her church, New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, where her father is the pastor. Burton was born and raised in St. Louis, and Webster’s strong film program and proximity to her home were reasons she cited for wanting to attend the university.

Burton spent the fall semester as ambassador for student inclusion, a Student Government Association (SGA) executive board position. She noticed during her time at Webster some cliques and divides, and has sought to promote acceptance and admittance among the university’s communities through her SGA role. She spearheaded a hashtags campaign, #WeAreAllWebster, and wrote a corresponding pledge at the outset of this school year. Burton also hosted a heritage week to celebrate understudied cultures. She became SGA’s vice president at the beginning of the spring semester.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of the process,” Burton said. “There is always that one kid in kindergarten who is like, ‘Oh, I want to be president of the United States.’ And then later on they are doing something else. But, like, I was literally that kid. There were parts where it faded away, but every time I’ve been brought back to politics. ‘OK, that’s what I need to be doing.’ I just love helping people, trying to fix things and do what’s right and effective for the most people.”

Burton’s Christian upbringing has influenced her activism, as she believes it’s her responsibility to help and love people. She has visited Jefferson City, Mo. to meet, talk with and learn from government officials as part of the Missouri Governor’s Student Leadership Forum and Active Advocacy Coalition. She would like to one day run for office herself. Burton said “everyone has potential,” and it frustrates her when individuals are aware a situation could be improved but take no action to unearth a solution.

“The first reason I want to be involved or want someone to care is it affects us — we’re affected by a decision. That’s the basic answer,” Burton said. “It’s worth having a voice and doing something. Why should people care to go vote? One vote doesn’t seem like it counts or matters, but it really does. We have power to make change. Why sit down and waste it? Sometimes it can seem like a lot of work, but it’s really not. Everyone doesn’t have to be radical.”

Price would like to work on some specific policy issues before potentially vaulting into a career that combines her passion for government and business, specifically economic development. She’s seen firsthand the volatility of politics but has enjoyed studying and working during a crucial stretch of American history.

“This is really a time I think will go down in history as political-defining or political-changing, like the 1960s,” Price said. “Some of the people from that time I’ve talked to say these are literally the same things we fought for, and hopefully you can get the job done now. It’s important for those people. And for us to learn from what they did.”

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