If you don’t know who Heather Booth is, you are probably not alone. In fact, the tag line of Lilly Rivlin’s new movie, “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” is “The most influential person you’ve never heard of.”
Despite the lack of recognition, it only takes the 80-year-old Jerusalem-born independent filmmaker 60 minutes to present undeniable evidence of Booth’s footprint as a community organizer in America for more than half a century. During that time, she has left her mark on the national and political stage as she fought — and continues to fight — for civil rights, economic and immigration reform, equal access, child care, women’s reproductive rights, and any form of social justice that strips citizens of their rights or traps them in unjust government policies.
“She’s not that elusive,” Rivlin says of her subject. “Just unknown. Because of this film, she’s become a star.”
The filmmaker discovered Booth, 72, when she saw her featured in a film about abortion, a subject the filmmaker was considering for her next project.
“I saw the best abortion film ever made and she was in it,” Rivlin recalls. “It was bashert [preordained] because when we finally connected, she told me, ‘I’ve followed you because of your organizing.’”
The two began to talk on the phone and despite Booth believing that it was her job to remain in the background, she reluctantly granted her first official interview to Rivlin in 2014.
“Heather Booth” premiered at the 92nd St. Y in New York and will be at the 36th Annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 20 as part of its national tour.
The film is told through a series of audio diaries recorded by Booth that present different insights and inspirations. One documented moment is when she visited Yad Vashem. After seeing an exhibit about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Booth declared, “It’s better to go down standing up than living on your knees.”
There are photographs and videos that document dozens of marches, rallies, and meetings that she organized, as well as appearances by fellow organizers, longtime and up-and-coming activists, and politicians such as former president Barack Obama, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who shared how she came to meet Booth.
“They said to me, ‘Elizabeth, if you really want to push for this consumer agency, you’ve got to get organized,” Warren states about the genesis of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “I said, ‘Great, how?’ They said, ‘I’ve got two words for you: Heather Booth.’”
Warren goes on to credit Booth with helping to create the office, which spearheaded the return of $5 billion to consumers who had been cheated by banks, mortgage brokers, and other financial institutions.
“I view my role as an organizer and I view it as one of the highest kinds of praise you can give to someone because it is based on a belief that if people come together and gain confidence in themselves because they are able to work with others, people can build a better world,” says Booth.
Her foray into community activism began in Mississippi, where she was born into a social justice-minded Jewish family who moved first to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and then to Long Island. Viewing herself as a misfit in the suburban social setting, Booth would escape to New York’s Greenwich Village where she was introduced to social change.
Her first organizing job was handing out flyers against the death penalty. She remembers how incompetent she felt as she dropped them or didn’t hand them out to every person. She realized then that people needed confidence to do even simple tasks.
Years later the University of Chicago graduate actualized her early experience when co-founding the Midwest Academy, which trains organizers to fight for social justice. Since it began in 1973, the Academy has graduated 8,500 activists and trained 45,000 others.
Director Rivlin debuted her first film in 1984. “The Tribe” documents 2,500 years of her family’s history in Jerusalem, including her relationship with her first cousin, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Everything that followed reflects the filmmaker’s own entrée into the social change arena, which she honed as a graduate student at UC Berkeley where she studied political science.
Since “The Tribe,” the journalist, author, activist, and organizer directed and produced six movies about politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and social justice issues. “Heather Booth,” she says, completes a trilogy about female activists, with Esther Broner and Grace Paley preceding the current film in 2013 and 2010 respectively.
“These women are different parts of me,” Rivlin explains, turning to her own experiences as an organizer with the likes of Bella Abzug and Letty Pogrebin, with whom she organized the first and last International Jewish Feminist Conference, out of which came the Women of the Wall in 1988.
Having no idea when she began shooting that the film would hit during the current political climate in the US, Rivlin says the documentary is relevant because it is a “how to” that shows people ways to organize in order to create change.
“People will start to understand they can change things by being political,” she emphasizes. “The film shows one human being who started her activist life by going to Mississippi and then took what she learned and applied it. They will see that you can organize and change what exists now. You can’t do anything alone. You must be part of a group that aspires to make change. She is remarkable and wants to inspire others to be like her.”
The filmmaker reveals that it was only in making the film, which took three-and-a-half years, that she saw the full arc of Booth’s life and in the process, her own as a progressive activist. While she emigrated to the US with her family in 1945, she went back to Israel in 1963. By the time she returned Stateside in 1972, she found the feminist movement in full swing.
“One of the most important aspects of my life, except for being from Jerusalem, was being in Berkeley during a very vibrant time in America,” Rivlin says, sharing how she organized campus programs and was one of the founders of the Graduate Students Association. “It was the beginning of everything as far as I was concerned. I was studying political science. That in itself says something about who I was. I came to Berkeley and it was the opening of the world.”
Rivlin went on to become an award-winning filmmaker, contributing segments to numerous works including Israel TV’s 18-part series on the history of Zionism in 1983. She is also a published author, her work appearing in Newsweek, Ms. Magazine, and the Washington Post, among others. She gained prominence as a Jewish history expert with her work as the principal researcher for the 1972 best-selling account of the 1947 siege of the Israeli capital in “O Jerusalem.”
“It’s a long life for a person who thinks and acts and is political,” she says, adding, “It’s not surprising that I came to Heather Booth.”
And after five decades and counting, Booth shows no signs of slowing down. Currently busy conducting “Summer of Resistance” training for the democratic party, she continues to be the voice behind Rivlin’s message of the film, which, Rivlin says, is “for people to be inspired and organize and become something bigger than yourself.”