Seasoned Liberally

Back in a dark corner of America's post-war baby boom, a small contingent of kids grew up in a manner directly counteractive to the suburban ethos that ruled through the '50s and '60s. They're known as the "red diaper babies"; their parents were left-thinkers active in the civil-rights movement and other causes of the day.

Now a few grown RDBs will talk about their coming-of-age experiences during a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Center on Thursday evening. Moderator Susan Barnes-Gelt, a Denver city councilwoman in her fifties, became involved because she thinks of the red diaper baby stories as a contemporary call to action. "I'm not a red diaper baby--I'm not really even a pink diaper baby," she says, noting that her own parents weren't radical enough to be caught in the McCarthy era's commie-baiting jaws. But she had one relative who was: an uncle who lost his job. "It's important for us to not forget what our government is capable of doing to us," Barnes-Gelt says.

She hopes people attending the panel will better understand their own civic responsibilities in modern times. "You've gotta be vigilant," she says. "And part of that vigilance is engaging in the process. If you're not registered to vote, you don't count. The right to vote is the first article of civic engagement." But young people aren't clear on the concept, she adds, and Thursday's discussion could be a good place to make that point.

One panelist, who is Jewish, lesbian and prefers to remain anonymous in print, says her parents' commitment to political issues paved the way for her own involvement in the gay-rights movement. And the consequences they suffered could explain why she and several of her cohorts on the panel still prefer not to draw too much attention to themselves decades later.

"Those who came of age in the '60s got a lot of energy telling them it was a brand-new phenomenon--that it was the first time anyone thought about feminism or civil rights," the anonymous panelist says. "That's absolutely bullshit. There have been progressive movements all through human history. I feel a real sense of respect for people of my parents' generation who were deeply and politically involved during times when it was harder--they went to jail, they lost their jobs, they were physically attacked," she continues. "We have much to learn from them."

Although not all red diaper babies were Jewish, "a substantial number are," adds the panelist, citing the Jewish concept of mitzvah as a factor in the development of her own sense of commitment. "You don't get into heaven based on whether you sinned or not; instead, your good deeds outweigh the bad," she notes. "The more difficult the situation is, and the more anonymously you're doing the good, the more credit you earn in the mitzvah sense. By growing up in a progressive family, I learned that there is nothing more important than being part of a community. This is not something that knocks on your front door."

She hopes she's passed on that legacy of social action to her own son. In a non-capitalistic sense, it's the best heirloom she can offer: "If you're only looking after yourself and your own narrow political interests and you're not expanding your consciousness to include new issues that are difficult and challenging to you--if you're not watching out for other people and living consciously, what kind of a world is that to live in?"


"Red Diaper Babies: Growing Up in the American Left," panel discussion, 7:30 p.m. March 25, Shwayder Theatre, Mizel Arts Center, Jewish Community Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, $2, 303-316-6360.


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