For decades, family and friends have been asking me, "Sylvia, why are you such an activist?" Before I had time to come up with a complete answer for them - or myself - they began to ask me another question: "Why are you still an activist?" At age 62, facing Social Security, Medicare and arthritic knees, I decided to tackle these questions before dementia sets in, too.
To explain the "why," I'll start with the "what": to stop war, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, capital punishment and other assorted horrors and to promote peace, justice, sisterhood and other non-negotiables. The "how" includes meeting, petitioning, lobbying, marching, fasting, getting arrested and shaving my head.
Much of this horrified my parents, who posed the "why" question often. When I replied that they were my mentors, they were shocked and insulted. But my dad was a labor organizer and a Democrat in a Republican stronghold. My mother went to Cheyney University for her master's degree in special education and socialized there with her black professors and fellow students. There is no doubt in my mind that they set the example for me as a child.
My career as an activist continued to be influenced by other caring and courageous role models. While I was still supporting the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam), Jeff and Ann McConaughy, my pastor and his wife, were holding lonely vigils on street corners in Norristown, handing out literature against the war. After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a black woman named Julie Robinson challenged groups of white people to look at our personal and institutional racism. The staff at Eagleville Hospital and Rehab Center, where I worked for five years, pushed me to examine the other "isms."
People like them motivated me to take my first steps as an activist - against war, racism, nuclear weapons and the slumlords of Norristown. Those steps led me to places I never dreamed I would go. Each step seemed to take me deeper into an understanding of the injustice and hypocrisy in the world around me and emboldened me to take more risks to change the status quo.
Initially, I was also influenced by the teachings of my church. Over the years, I have become agnostic, but my belief in the sacredness of all life and my love for the earth continue to propel me to work for a better world.
Now, after 30 years of activism that has taken me to live in Nicaragua and Central America for two years and to reside in Kensington and North Philadelphia for eight years, I see that some of my fellow activists have retired. Some have burned out, some have pressing health and family problems and some have sold out.
So what keeps me going as I continue to go to meetings (ad nauseam), write and agitate for children, organize for universal health care and against the death penalty, and march for debt forgiveness for poor countries like Nicaragua?
Part of it is luck and life's circumstances. I am single and live alone; my children are raised. I have a good job with a comfortable income, so I can work part-time. I have good friends in the struggle who are like family with their love and support.
The other component is that my consciousness has been raised and my conscience has been jolted by an escalating series of revelations over the past 30 years. I know too much now to be able to turn back or to remain silent. To do so would be to die spiritually.
My mother used to protect herself from becoming senile by playing bridge. Unfortunately, it didn't work for her. Maybe building bridges will work for me.
Sylvia Metzler of Philadelphia will be joining the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Health Care, a coalition of 40 organizations that is sponsoring a march and rally in support of universal health care, on July 29. The march begins at 11 a.m. at Franklin Square, Sixth and Arch Streets, with the rally at LOVE park, 16th Street and JFK Boulevard, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. For more information, call 267-253-5074 or visit