Betty Reid Soskin & Luvvie Ajayi | 2018 MAKERS Conference
96-year-old Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin interviewed by Luvvie Ajayi, Author, Speaker, and Digital Strategist, about her incredible life of service
- Ladies and gentlemen, Betty Reid Soskin and Luvvie Ajayi.
LUVVIE AJAYI: OK.
[SHOUTS FROM CROWD]
This is the best fan section ever. You have bars. You're amazing. I basically feel like I'm sitting on the stage with a unicorn. Right? I'm just like, wow. Just reading your story and reading about, first of all, how many career changes have you had?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Oh, I have no idea. I reinvent myself every decade.
LUVVIE AJAYI: OK. Out of all of those, which one was the most fulfilling?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Oh, I think-- I think that I'm using everything I have ever learned right now. And this is probably the most gratifying period of my life.
LUVVIE AJAYI: That is awesome. So we just heard from Gloria Steinem and Barbara Smith about hidden stories. Your work is devoted to sharing your own hidden experience, which is almost overlooked. Is sharing our personal truths a political act?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I think there's probably no more political act than sharing those truths. Because that's what separates us from everyone else. That's where the gifts that we give, that we bring into the world, exist, in those personal stories.
LUVVIE AJAYI: Where did you find your courage to tell the truth, to be this person?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: That's hard to answer. I'm not sure that most of the real truths haven't been learned in retrospect. I've never anticipated them. I lived a complete life in a complete state of surprise. I'm not a planner. I'm not a list maker. It's only in looking back that I really have any understanding of where I've been.
LUVVIE AJAYI: Wow. I'm just over like-- OK. You know when you're just, like, staring at magic. That's what I'm doing right now. So, you're 96, which is, like, completely hard to believe. Because you-- you are so active, you're so, like, present. And you're here. And it's because we don't have examples of what 96 looks like.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: But I don't either. I have outlived all of my peers, so that I'm living in uncharted territory right now. I've lost my sense of future. And in compensation, my sense of past has been amplified. So that though I don't have any idea what tomorrow's going to be like, because there are no models left for me, I have to make it up as I go along.
But in exchange I'm finding myself looking out on a world today in chaos and realizing that ever since 1776, we have been a democracy in chaos, cyclically. That we're on an upward spiral, we keep touching the same places at higher and higher levels. That I'm not enslaved like my great grandmother was.
There's still much, much work to do. But every generation I know now has to recreate democracy in its time because democracy will never be fixed. It was not intended to. It's a participatory form of governance that we all have the responsibility to form that more perfect union. And that has been what has kept you going now over this past decade. The sense of responsibility to do that, that I really do have a role as an extraordinary ordinary person, that I have a role to do that. And that's been amazing.
LUVVIE AJAYI: When you look back to-- what was that, 1953 you moved to the suburbs?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Yes.
LUVVIE AJAYI: --with your family. And you were talking about your son's school did the minstrel show.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Yeah.
LUVVIE AJAYI: How do you think we've moved forward since then?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I think that because we are not a monolith we move forward in waves, individual waves, in various parts of the country and in various segments of the population. And that there are always many of us lagging back. That there are those of us who are on the cutting edge, and that's what I see here in this room. That's an incredible place to be in. Makes me want another 20 years.
But I'm not sure how to answer that question. Because I think that some change is immediate, and some change takes decades, some change is generational. And all of that is happening at the same time. That's a complex thing to have to manage under governance.
And we, as a democracy, because we have a constitutionally-protected right to be wrong, we have a constitutionally-protected right to be bigots if that's what we want to be, that there are all of us going through these different phases at different times. And so it's hard it's hard to catch that wave because you don't ever know where the edge is.
But I think that you guys are on it. I think that I've probably been on it too. And maybe some of us only get on it for short distances-- we catch the wave and then we fall off. But there are enough of us right now that I see us in a new period of chaos. And it's in those periods, they're cyclical, that the democracy is redefined, that that's when we have access to the reset buttons, and that we're on another one of those right now.
And that's the opportunities that I hope that you guys have enough sense to seize. Because I think that that's probably the greatest hope that we have, because we're in one of those periods where everything is up for grabs. And we can shape it. And I think that's what I've done with the National Park Service, without ever knowing that that's what I was doing. Because it's only obvious to me in retrospect.
LUVVIE AJAYI: So you've talked about this crazy--
So you talk about these chaotic times that we're going through. And I think having and holding on to joy is a form of resistance.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Yes.
LUVVIE AJAYI: And I also think hanging with a wolf pack of women is a form of resistance. What brings you joy? What, like, makes you bolt out of bed in the morning?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I think maybe it's that at 96 and still having new experiences for the first time, I never know what the day is going to hold. I have found myself in a conference room at our park, in a Skype session with a class of 11th graders in Eugene, Oregon, or sitting there participating on a panel that's in the Annual Flower Show at Philadelphia.
I never know when those experiences are going to come out. But they're constant because we're in a state-- we're in a stage here in history where there are such constant and regular changes happening. We used to-- to count generations in generations, and now they're in five-year cycles. And my sense that it's moving so fast, the excitement that I never know what tomorrow's going to bring. And it guarantees me a new experience at least once a week.
LUVVIE AJAYI: So we are blog twinsies, in that we started blogging the same year, 2003.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: 2003.
LUVVIE AJAYI: I started blogging as a freshman in college. And you started blogging before the Park?
LUVVIE AJAYI: I started-- No, I started blogging because I was doing a family history. And in trying to trace the women in my family, I was using the Mormon's Family Centers. And in trying to trace the women, they get lost. I couldn't find them because the names would change, their circumstances would change, and they'd drop out of history.
And I began to want to know more about the fascinating women. I got my mother's family back to 1631, and my father's back to the 1400s. But I kept losing the women. And then I'd hit the slave curtain, because in both sides of my family there was slavery. And then I'd hit that curtain and I couldn't get beyond it.
I guaranteed that my children and their children were going to know what my life had been like. And so as a way of leaving behind tracks that I had lived for my own kids, I began to blog. And I was under the illusion that because I was sitting in my den at home with my iMac, or with my Mac One, or whatever it was at the time. Because I began-- I got my first computer 25 years ago.
But here I was in my bunny slippers and my PJs, and I would think that I was just talking to myself. And now there are thousands of people reading that blog. But I' am still only talking to myself. Because it's become the way that I process life as it goes out every time a new experience happens. In order to know-- because as I say, I don't have any peers anymore. There's no one to compare notes with. And so I'm putting the words out in front of me so that I can tell where it is I'm going. Because I'm my own model.
LUVVIE AJAYI: I was reading one of your blog posts. And you were talking about Imposter Syndrome. You didn't call it that, but you made a mention of how you're like, I'm afraid people are going to look up and be like, wait. What is she doing here?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: What do you mean, here?
LUVVIE AJAYI: You read-- you wrote a piece about not being sure-- basically, we consider you extraordinary. I don't think you do. Do you consider yourself extraordinary?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Now I do.
LUVVIE AJAYI: What made you switch?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Because on the street I'm known as Notorious BRS.
LUVVIE AJAYI: So Notorious RBG and then Notorious BRS. You own that. So what did you-- when did you finally say all right, I am extraordinary?
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I think when I began to have the sense that I had outlived my peers, I outlived my parents, I've outlived my sisters, I've outlived one child. I'm on the edge of life, without a sense of future.
I know that life has become so precious now, not only in the months and the days, but now the hours. I wouldn't have it any other way. Because every single hour has so much more meaning than it ever has had. That along with advanced age, fear of dying begins to diminish. There's a rightness to mortality.
I think that to the extent that I've arrived at this stage with my senses intact, without dementia. That I can appreciate this, that that is what makes me exceptional. Because I'm here and can share that. That's an amazing thing. Yeah, I think that says it.
LUVVIE AJAYI: So-- and before we go, I want to congratulate you because today is the pub day of Betty's first book, "Sign My Name to Freedom, a Memoir of Pioneer Life." Let's give Betty, Ms. Betty Soskin, a round of applause. And buy her book. Order her book.