Cultural Anthropologist and Writer
2006 Women's History Month Honoree
Betty Reid Soskin’s deep, ingrained sense of culture, place, and purpose are obvious in the way she lives her life. Raised in a Creole-African American family, her life changed dramatically when in 1927 at the age of six, a horrendous hurricane in New Orleans destroyed her family’s home and business. With her mother, two sisters, and one shared suitcase, the family took refuge in California. Her dad was not able to join them until several months later. Facing adversity from childhood, Betty Reid Soskin’s life experiences encouraged her to develop a vision of community in many diverse forms.
The rich diversity of her ancestry encouraged her to become a bridge between cultures and races. Yet, she was unprepared for the hostility and danger she and her family faced when in the early 1950’s they moved to a northern California suburb. Against this milieu of brutal racism, she found support from people who were part of the Unitarian-Universalism community. Over the next 20 years, this community, beginning with 25 families meeting in living rooms and then growing to a congregation of over 300, encouraged, sustained and supported her values and beliefs.
The recognition of the extraordinary poverty and every growing sense of hopelessness in a neighboring community caused her to decide to leave the safety of her world to work in another. She embraced the role of black social activist and became a small merchant in the poverty community of South Berkeley, California. Using the skills she learned in one economic and social class, she was able to amplify her voice toward constructive change in another. With her strong commitment to community she helped create a housing development corporation with an all community board, which helped bring change to a high crime, drug infested welfare community. The result was the razing of a two-block, crime infested, slum area and in its place the construction of 41 units of market rate and subsidized housing. In recognition of this amazing accomplishment, Betty Reid Soskin was named a 1995 “Woman of the Year” by the California State Legislature.
Today, she has chosen to face the hopelessness and fear that surrounds her in the Richmond community in which she now lives. She is unafraid to say that one of the major influences in her life came with a mental breakdown in midlife. She describes this experience as opening up avenues into herself that she had never known. It was at this time in her life that she started to write and to sing and to create music and paint and to recognize the universality shared with everyone else on the planet.
Helping to make our history authentic, she persuaded the Rosie the Riveter/
World War II Home Front National Historical Park to acknowledge the role of Black neighborhoods surrounding the Richmond, California site, which had been bulldozed after the war.
Her diverse talents as a mother, researcher, academic, merchant, writer, dancer, artist, and activist testify to her ability to find and follow her own dreams as well as to respect and nurture the dreams of others.