Interview: Lani Roberts
After twenty two years of award-winning teaching of moral theory, feminism, and ethics of diversity at Oregon State University, Dr. Lani Roberts retired and eventually moved to eastern Oregon. Soon after she moved there, she began teaching again, but this time, she taught citizenship classes as a volunteer for the largely Mexican immigrant community of Hood River, Oregon. She also helped to create a local chapter of the international group, Women In Black.
What are the sorts of experiences in life that led you to become an activist?
I would say the underlying principle that guides my (political) activism is “silence is consent” and I do not want to be seen by anyone as a consenting to the wrongs I am able to address. This, I believe, explains my continued activism even in retirement. My politics is who I am and I have not ceased being that woman in retirement. One of the highest values I hold is integrity.
I was raised in a home where no racist language was permitted whatsoever. That doesn’t mean my parents weren’t racist in some sense because they did not see the treatment of the local Indigenous folks for what it was even given the “No Dogs No Indians” signs in local stores. The utter degrading harm done by the isms has always been in the forefront of my awareness thanks to my parents, thus my focus on the philosophy of oppression through my career.
During high school, I hung out with a group of friends (some are still friends to this day) who were in a borderland between the Beat generation and before the Hippies. We talked politics all the time. This was in the early 60s, and our awareness included the civil rights movement.
My political activism began in fall 1964 when an instructor in Writing 121 assigned this question: What do you think about what’s going on in Viet Nam? I went to the library at the University of Oregon and did research and came to the conclusion that it was a civil war and we (the US) had no business being involved there. It was mostly young men in my age group who were being drafted. So, I became an antiwar protestor, marched in the streets, often taking my older son along with me, from the time he could first walk. Since then, it’s been a matter of moral integrity to me to resist wars.
For a while, I did research for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1970. It was a cooperative where everyone earned the same, and it was a small amount. Part of our obligations was to attend a Mao meeting every Sunday afternoon. Mostly, I researched the life of Che Guevara at the Cal Berkeley library for one of the playwrights. It was all done on microfilm in those days.
My Hippie/Counterculture years introduced me to, and made me a believer in, growing our own food, communal living, cooperative stores, home birthing, taking care of the natural world, etc. It amazes me sometimes how much the Hippie culture is widely embraced today.
I went back to school in my mid-30s after my mother’s death when I fully realized or groked (Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land) that life was finite and I’d better get busy. I began my Ph.D. program at age 40, as a single mom to my younger son. Even though Epistemology was my first love in Philosophy, I consciously decided to focus on Ethics, as a sort of counter balance to what I saw around me. Studying moral theory only heightened my desire to act against wrongs and for the good, as well as giving me good reasons for doing so.
Since you retired, you started teaching citizenship classes and started standing with a group of women called the Gorge Women in Black, in Hood River, Oregon. What motivated you to get involved in this work?
I started standing as part of the international Women in Black at OSU within one week of the United States bombing in Afghanistan just after the 9-11 event in NYC. I was distraught that we were destroying peoples who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9-11. A friend asked me if I knew about Women in Black. I looked it up and it was a perfect fit. We stood once a week for 10 years at OSU until I retired. Standing with Women in Black is me using my own body to interrupt the unconsciousness of passersby, to call attention to the wrongs and pains done to other folks. It is also a focused meditation for me. A friend here in Hood River and I were agonizing over the world wide war the US was waging and I mentioned Women in Black to her. We began standing weekly on the main street downtown in February of 2015 and continue today with others joining us. For me, it is entirely voluntary with no obligation for anyone, including me. It is one of the best things I do for myself and others on a regular basis.
Teaching the citizenship classes here (just finished the twelfth one) is one way I can use my skills as a teacher, do something I love, and make a concrete, real difference in peoples’ lives. It does not suit me to attend meetings and talk about things. But, when there is something real and concrete I can do to make a difference, that’s when I get involved. I have also been tutoring English learners at the community college here, twice a week when classes are in session for the past six years. It’s another concrete action that makes a difference. I also get to use some of the linguistics I studied as an undergrad.
What gives you hope for the future?
I have been struggling with this given the state of affairs in the US today, but it is young people who have compassion and a consciousness of the harms we (United States) do both here and abroad.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?
Lack of awareness and compassion for others.
Are there any lessons you think you have learned from all these years of sustained activism?
I think the thread throughout my now 50 plus years of political activism is concreteness– embodied action that makes a difference, whether helping folks become citizens or interrupting the thoughtlessness of most people’s lives.
Interview by Joseph Orosco March 2018