Stephanie Hamm


As Interviewed by Karina Gaul, March 9, 2012

Stephanie Hamm: In Her Own Words

My name is Stephanie Dillon Hamm. I started being an activist when I was about 16 years old. Before I was the Regional Coordinator of Moveon.org, I did a number of things; I was active before I got married, but then things somewhat quieted down after that, and then I became more active once we retired.

During the Bush administration I became more active because I felt it was more urgent to do something because the country was in such a bad place. I started with online petitions; I read a lot to try to figure out how we got to where we were politically.

My job with Moveon.org, actually came about when my husband got me involved. My husband (Bill) is a retired Air Force Colonel, and he was very much against the war in Iraq. Moveon.org was organizing vigils against the war. He signed up to attend the vigils, and after we attended two or three in a row he actually got up and spoke at one. We became interested in working with Moveon.org because it felt very empowering the way things were set up. They set up actions and send emails out to get people to sign up and volunteer to host different actions. Then you decide on the venue, where you want to meet, like at the capitol, etc. Then they provide all the tools needed for each event, for example, how to contact the media, how to recruit more people, and how to get your message out. They also give you suggestions of what to do at the event, like invite speakers, or musicians, or having random people take turns speaking out, like at the event where my husband spoke out the first time, where there was the lighting of candles, reading of stories from soldiers. There’s usually a conference call ahead of the action that prepares you for everything, and you feel like you become a part of a community, it’s kind of fun that way.

In January, 2007, we received a call from a young woman, asking if we’d attend a meeting to discuss starting a Move On council in Austin. My husband said, “Lets go!” It was a rainy, cold night, a lot like this one, we met up at a library up around N. Lamar, and got lost, so we got there about ten minutes late. When we walked in there were about 35 people in the room. We divided up into groups of Recruitment, Media, and Logistics. I ended up in Media and Bill ended up in Recruitment but we both ended up being chairs of the next event which dealt with President Bush’s surge in the war, when it was left to the Senate and Congress to vote on whether they approved of adding more soldiers to the war in Iraq, the war that was failing. We carried that event out is, we all showed up with “surge protectors,” at Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s office. It sounds silly but it was our little “hook” to get the media to show up. We only had one media person show up, but Doggett’s Chief of Staff did come down and talk to us and then from then on, we started becoming a regular part of the council.

Bill and I began by sharing the council coordinating position, which is responsible for organizing an action every month. The actions are decided by votes by Move On members, the tactics of how to carry out the action, once the issue has been decided comes from either the council or from the staff. If it’s a rapid response, in other words it has to be done within 24-36 hours, then a lot of times the orders are given to you from the staff of Move On, because you have such a short time to figure out all the details. If it’s a longer term event then the people decide the details of the event.

So anyway, gradually I made the decision to come in as a Regional Coordinator. It’s a volunteer position that works with different cities in the region. Actually your mother helped me out with that when Bill and I went to Europe. She helped out with San Antonio and Bell County during the Health Care Reform issue. I “hand-hold” those councils, right now I’m struggling with San Antonio because it doesn’t have leadership, but I have very good councils in Dallas, and in Austin. And a very interesting council in San Angelo, with an older gentleman, who is African-American, who just amazes me, because when he starts up an action he usually starts up with just one or two people, but by the time the action takes place he has at least 25 people volunteering. So that’s what I did before becoming Regional Coordinator, I kind of went through the positions that are in a council. I’m still a Recruitment coordinator. This position recruits the kind of people who are willing to work on the phone, because even though Move On is more an email based, member service organization, it’s model for communication is based on the women who supported the bus boycott in Montgomery. You know who that was? [Yes, Rosa Parks] They didn’t even have email back then, they used the phone. Forty women would each call forty other women who would also make calls, and that’s how they shut down the bus service in Montgomery, Alabama.

A lot of our rallies are related to classism in America, like the Iraq war rallies, that were pointed at we as a country, that needs so much oil to fuel our businesses, and our life styles, and it’s put on the backs of those who have no power to make decisions. Their leadership makes all the decisions, and we in turn are able to use the natural resources for ourselves instead of sharing with the actual citizens of the country. So I think the Iraq war vigils had something to do with classism, and who fights our wars now? It’s not people in my class (upper-middle class), it’s kids in families who don’t have any other option, or they haven’t had support in their educational aspirations past high school.

We’ve also gotten behind green energy, so we’re not dependent on a substance that we have to go to wars in order to have oil. And of course the issue of Health Care, which I worked hard on with your mother, you know that, with your father being from Germany that there are wonderful health care systems in other countries, which we don’t have. It impacts the price of our goods but mainly impacts the health and well-being of our people. Now, although we worked really hard, once again I believe your mother was a part of this, on the Three Point Pledge. To step back a little, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, which gave corporations the power to spend huge amounts of money in elections to influence the outcome. So in 2010, we focused on a Three Point Pledge that we asked all the candidates to sign if they wanted our support in any way, shape or form. The first part was to undo Citizens United, the second part was to establish publicly funded elections like they have in many, many other countries, and the third part was to pass real lobbyist reform. So we did that, and that is definitely related to who is able to have power, when money is what has power than those without have no power. From there we went on, after actually being inspired by Wisconsin, when their people took to the streets when they were denied bargaining rights, and the people may defeat a lot of those policies by the Republican Governor, because they attempted to limit bargaining rights (busting unions). That was in the winter of 2011.

Our next issue was Occupy Wall Street, we are the 99%, and the 1% needs to become part of the human race again, not just part of an elitist group. Even though I’m speaking for Move On, Move On also collaborates with other groups on issues, like the Occupy Wall Street issue, and sometimes Move On leads on issues which other groups join in support.

As far as feeling threatened by opposing groups, I’ve felt disappointed, frustrated, angry that we’ve gotten to this place but at the same time maybe not so surprised, and yeah a little bit threatened because I don’t think I was at some of the rallies were people were really ugly, although I was at one rally up North were people had signs of Obama with a Hitler mustache, people yelling and screaming calling us socialists and things like that, but they were clearly outnumbered but as we turned out backs on them and focused on the speakers such as Lloyd Doggett and others, we realized that was the best thing to do, just ignore them. There was one event where we joined Doggett at a grocery store because he was being mobbed by Tea Party people, and a very large person came right up in front of Doggett and started yelling at him. My friend and I were a little bit afraid at that time.

The kind of people that support Move On are often older, with more time on their hands, from like 40 and up, which is another reason we’re inspired to interact with the Occupy Wall Street group, because there are many young activists and they have a different philosophy. We’re kind of galvanized on certain issues, like on Civil Rights, Women’s Right’s, immigrant Right’s etc. where they have another set of issues, which if you lay them over each other they make sense, but I was 16 when I went to my first Civil Rights demonstration in Oklahoma City. I went there for several reasons, first of all my mother when we lived in Dallas, and my father was also an Air force pilot, a test pilot, she had seven children by that time, though ended up with eleven, she had a house keeper who came about every week or two, who was African-American and she took her home, and came back and was crying. I was about five years old then and I was sensitive to her emotions so asked her why she was crying. She said “I don’t think people should have to live that way Stephanie”. That had an impact on me which is why I think I’ve always gravitated against civil rights as an issue. Although my parents were very conservative in their nature, they were very thoughtful when it came to others, and they taught us to be caring and accepting of others. They always encouraged us to have our own view points. My father being a Colonel in the Air Force was very conservative, and when we went through the Vietnam war my brothers all protested against it by ripping up their draft cards, and even though my father disagreed and thought they should serve our country, he respected our different positions on issues. My family had a great influence on my political activism even though we have very opposite opinions.

Living in Italy helped me to see other ways and taught me about different systems like education and healthcare and unions, and even having a communist party in your country. The communist party in Italy I was told was not like a “real” communist party, but it was still an experience. It did allow me to see other options for people and understand ways of helping people feel more balanced, and quite frankly we went through a horrible experience with our older son, and if it wasn’t for socialized medicine we’d be paupers today. If someone uninsured goes through what we did, they’d owe millions of dollars. Our daughter cracked her head open in Austria, we took her to the local hospital where she was taken right away to a very clean, pristine environment, the doctors and nurses were very caring. They stitched her up, I took her out and wanted to pay for the service but did not have to pay anything. My friends in Norway are very protective nationally, but they have the attitude of “what do I want for my children? That’s what I want for all people”. They have the best interest in mind for all, and in fact I believe that is very much a Germany attitude also. I remember berating my daughter at the train platform in Austria because she’d wet herself, and this older Austrian woman stepped in between us so I would lay off. I was told many years later that it’s a community effort that every child is treated the best they can be and it’s everyone’s responsibility to see that people are taken care of. The Europeans have a love of life, art and all things that are real, not like the US where we care more about cars, clothes, material objects, etc. They care about things which I think have true value.

Some times when we are so involved in local and national issues, like I am with Move On, we forget the larger impact some of these issues have on the rest of the world. I think we do a lot of good, but sometimes not enough or it turns out bad. Like we went into Haiti after the devastating earthquakes to help them, but it turned into a big commercial enterprise. That didn’t help the Haitians or their children who are wondering the streets without housing. If we are going to help internationally then we need to really help and I haven’t really had the time or energy to look into those things and connect the dots.

A lot of credit goes to our country as far as what motivated me to become an activist. Even if all the movements I’ve talked about, the Women’s Movement, Civil Rights Movement, Peace Movement, even if those were hard fought and led to really bitter battles, and I mean bitter battles, people died for those things, you still had the opportunity to open your mouth. I think that’s what we need to make sure we have going forward.

On healthcare, it makes sense in the human sense but also financially, if we really are a country that bases everything on the “bottom line” than we are really messing with the bottom line when we don’t care what happens to others, and we don’t care for children or their families or catch things that can be treated early saving more lives. I feel like every child deserves good access to healthcare, and therefore their parents, and cousins, etc. If what we’re going to do is compare the two options, no healthcare with healthcare, and how expensive it is to run, it’s a hell of a lot more expensive without healthcare and pushing it on to the emergency rooms across our country.

When I was a kid I was pretty protected from classism and social injustice. I lived in middle class neighborhoods, so I don’t think I noticed that stuff until I was in high school and studied about different issues. In this country there are a lot of people that cannot experience things that more affluent people experience, however there are some social programs set up to help poorer people. There’s sort of a safety net for those people, but not a very reliable one, since most social programs are funded by nonprofit organizations and struggle to earn money to keep them going. It’s really not a very secure system but without them we would not even be able to help the few that we are helping.

Why does the term “Socialist” have such a negative connotation in this country? I think it’s from a lack of understanding. It is a system that makes a lot of sense because it recognizes the inequalities that exists in almost any system of government. It tries to eliminate those with health care, housing, good roads, electricity. I think people are afraid of communism and they associate communism with socialism even though there is a difference. There are good and bad parts of both systems. I have to say personally I prefer socialism and have no fears of referring to the word. I personally like President Obama but I don’t think Obama is necessarily a socialist, but he’s an American. I think he has a very American outlook on how we should resolve our problems, which is very much based on a free-market system. I think we need to get more people in policy areas who are willing to push these boundaries, because right now people are suffering, and we’re causing a lot of suffering by steering clear of terms like “socialism”.
What I recommend to young people about getting involved and making a change? Boy I wished I was young again, and could put myself in the position of young people because I think they have a very, very different experience. I just hope somehow, whether their parents are sensitive to the issues or not that they can develop a sensitivity to other people’s needs. I just hope they’ll do that, push beyond their own neighborhoods, I hope they’ll question the fairness of it all and not make excuses. I have to admit, being a white girl in a middle class family, I did make excuses a lot of times. Like “if they’d do this or that they wouldn’t be in that situation”, but I think I’m grateful for the moment in time that I’m living in, because of all the issues that came before, the movements of the 1960’s and civil rights and women’s movements pushed you to think about why you think the way you think. I think that’s it, think critically, look beyond your own society, ask why there are differences between what you have or someone in Africa or Asia has. You have to question the consumerism society we live in, having stuff that we throw away soon after acquiring it. What happens to this stuff when we grow tired of it, how do we recycle it, or reuse it? How do we keep this from becoming a burden on future generations? You’ve always got to think critically and question things. I commend your school for having you think this way in this project. I hope all schools would present this type of opportunity to question the society they live in. That’s the only way we descend from being a “me first” society. I thought to want to be educated was the American dream, or the norm. Not something elitist as Obama was accused when he encouraged education. Women shouldn’t have a voice when it comes to their healthcare? What-it’s our healthcare.

To finish off, we need to have an open mind, listen to other’s ideas, learn from the people who headed these issues before you. Although the young generation will experience things for the first time and feel it’s their unique experience, others have experienced these things and paved the way already and we can all learn from each other. We need to expand our thoughts from what’s here and now but look ahead to the future, like “water,” we need to look ahead before we find ourselves without water. We need to always look ahead at the next issue that needs to be addressed right now.