Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin an author, musician, activist—the list actually goes on and on. (Check out her full bio below!) She is also the oldest living park ranger, where she still currently works at the National Park Service in California. Betty sat down with host Tiffany Lanier to talk about her life, having
lived nearly 100 years, and all that she’s learned in terms of history, activism, and what it means to redefine democracy.
What the F@%k?
After a brief reminder of what WTF breaks down into, Betty explains to host Tiffany Lanier that with all the radical changes she has experience, and the “grand improvisations” that she has made in order to adequately function through life, that there is no real “what the heck” moment. It’s all about finding context that did not exist before a certain period of time, and learning how to adopt and adapt.
Betty shares that over the years, one thing that she has learned about democracy is that is was not created to be a stagnate movement—instead, it is redefined with every new generation is what seems to be like extended moments of chaos. But, this “chaos is cyclical,” and that it is the responsibility of each new generation to recreate what it means to live in a democracy that reflects the current times.
Activation as a Reaction
Becoming an activist for Betty was more of a reaction to the various situations in which she has found herself throughout her life. And, while in times she felt alone in her standing sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally as she at the time was the only African American family in her suburb – she learned that it was important to remember that activism is harnessing a collective voice.
Running alongside her work as an activist, Betty explains how at different points in her life, there could have been an assigned term for what type of Betty she was. An activist, a mother, and later on a park ranger and now an author. She goes on to mention that while she may have been reinvented every decade, through it all she was still “Betty.”
Irony for Non-Politicals
While everything is political, which is why Betty admits to harnessing confusion for those who actively choose to completely “stay out of politics,” she also relishes in being fascinated more by questions than finding definitive answers. She talks about how her political identity can be found in every other identity that she claims, and how that has helped to shape the way she approaches questioning the norm.
Are We Reverting?
While it may seem like these times are the most polarized in history, Betty disagrees. There is no set time scale in which change is enacted. Instead, “some change is immediate, and some change takes a decade and other change a generation and all those things are simultaneous.” What makes these divisive times different (and thus more progressive) than the past, Betty explains, is that everything is now out in the open. It’s not just one group fighting for their rights—it’s a collective fighting for
Ranger at 85
Reluctant (yet proud) to discuss her age, Betty tells about why her admittance into being a park ranger was so important for upholding history—one that would not have been accurate without the integration and acknowledgment of stories and lives lived by those whose voices were often made silent.
Keeping the Sanity and Finding Joy
Having admitting to going through a mental breakdown in her life after numerous factors began to take their toll, Betty discusses how she learned to keep herself from completely falling apart. Eventually, this small goal of making it to tomorrow turns into an unwavering self-confidence and the ability celebrate that she is a complete and whole being with the power and courage to redefine herself as she saw fit.
What Can Be Advised for the Future?
Nothing, really. For Betty, it is admittedly hard to try and give advice to the future for there is no certainty or guess as to what that looks like. She explains how the rate of change for now compared to when she was younger is vastly different, prohibiting her (and possible our educational system?) to understand even a fraction of what the future may look like.
While predictions and advice may be harder to form, Betty does lay down one fundamental and evergreen concept: that of conflicting truths. She and Tiffany discuss what it means to have individual truths differ (not to be confused with “alternative facts”), while both remain valid and accepted. They also dive into cultural relativism, which really sets the stage for what it means for cultural truths to form completely independent of one another, but the significance they have when happening simultaneously.
From Builders to Residents
As she’s literally lived through periods in this country’s history where segregation and equal rights were still being initially challenged, Betty releases her feelings on being able to see the first African American president of this country, a man and his family of the same skin residing in a house built by their ancestors, and what his impact really means for the future.
“I think we have never been in better shape.”
– “These periods of chaos are cyclical, and they have been happening to democracy since 1776.”
– “In all those times, in all those instances, I’ve still been a Betty.” 11:22
– “I’m not sure that I’m very big on answers because I’ve always been fascinated by questions.”
– “Some change is immediate, and some change takes a decade and other change a generation
and all those things are simultaneous.” 15:50
– “All of you, just get out of their way!”19:12
– “I’m waiting for the world to adapt to me.” 33:52
– “I’m all I need. I am all I need.” 35:29
– “The truth lies in the composite. None of us has it.” 54:17.
– “It was a momentary point in history. But that’s enough to have change history” 54:15
– “I think we have never been in better shape.” 58:29
Betty Charbonnet Reid Soskin is an author, composer and singer, social and political activist, entrepreneur, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, historian, blogger, public speaker, and National Park Service Ranger whose remarkable life spans the great American fault lines of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Born into a Cajun/Creole African-American family in 1921, she spent her early years in New Orleans in the era of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation. Her family later settled in Oakland, California, following the historic floods that devastated the City of New Orleans in 1927. As a file clerk in an all-Black segregated union hall during World War II, she was witness to the flood-tide of black and white workers who poured into the Bay area wartime shipyards, a mass migration that changed the face and social fabric of California and helped usher in the civil rights era.
Along with her first husband, Mel Reid, Betty helped integrate the East Bay suburbs by moving their family into a previously white neighborhood. Betty and Mel also founded one of the first Black-owned record stores in Reid’s Records in Berkeley, California. After working with elected officials to rehabilitate the block on which the record shop was located, Betty served on the staff of a Berkeley City Councilmember and then as field representative to two members of the California State Assembly.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, she was active in the Bay Area’s civil rights and Black Power
movements, as well as the movement to end the Vietnam War. In 1995 Betty was named a “Woman of the Year” by the California State Legislature. In 2005 she was named one of the nation’s ten outstanding women, “Builders of communities and
dreams” by the National Women’s History Project in ceremonies in both Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C.
As a State Assembly field representative, Betty was instrumental in the establishment of Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, in 2000. She was later hired to work at the Rosie the Riveter Park, and is the oldest ranger in the National Park Service at 96. She is a highly sought-after public speaker and her blog, CBreaux Speaks, has thousands of followers. Betty continues to work for the National Park Service. She lives in Richmond, California.