THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I was sitting in a boring class just after Kent State, and I was thinking, what am I doing in Grad school? I want to be out on the streets doing something.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, December 2021
JW: Good morning, Devon. It’s December 6. How are you today?
DD: I’m very good. How are you?
JW: Would you please give us your full name and when and where you were born?
DD: Devon Lindsay Davidson. I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey on February 13th, 1945.
JW: Great. Could you give us a little background of your childhood and siblings, your ethnic background, neighborhood, that kind of thing?
DD: Well, I grew up in a white suburban neighborhood. I have one brother who is 15 months younger, and my parents were associated with Rutgers University and Douglass College. Our background is pretty WASP. My mother was, for her time, pretty progressive and worked most of her life. Because part of the time she worked for a women’s college, she did have a strong sense of what women can do and what women should be empowered to do. My father was a specialist in orchids.
My mother was much more liberal than my father, certainly on political things. She was a Democrat, and he was Eisenhower Republican. I was brought up with a lot of strong values on honesty and integrity. My mother talked positively about African Americans. But if you look deeper, there were things like, “Be very nice to black children in your class because there but for the Grace of God go you.” That’s definitely a very mixed message! My grandmother, who lived with us as I was growing up, actually got an award for being a suffragette in the teens.
JW: Now you got politically active?
DD: Yes. My mother planted the seeds during high school. It was around school bond issues. The next step was Oberlin, which is a pretty socially active school. I was set to become more politically active from my background and it was the civil rights era. I was part of the NAACP, which was the main group that ran programs around race. Then I was, well, peripherally active in the student peace movement. Supportive. I might even have belonged to SDS, but it was before it got quite as wild as it did.
JW: What did you do after you graduated?
DD: I moved to Philadelphia and worked for a few years for the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC became a really major organization in my life. I was thinking my involvement with the women’s movement began more when I moved to Cambridge. Before I left Philly and went to grad school up here, I was mostly in support roles. But I was beginning at the time to question roles and hierarchy. I was part of a group of young people who were in all different levels of positions in the organization, and we called ourselves, obnoxiously, “Flowers under 30”.
We pushed for equal salaries for everybody. That salary should be according to need. It was really in that group that I found my voice. I was in some ways, pretty quiet and shy and I was sitting in that group one day, and I realized, I had been here longer than some other people and they felt free to speak. Something just clicked in me, and I felt like, yeah, I had something to say, and it was the first time I really spoke up in a group like that. So, while it wasn’t explicitly working on women’s issues, it feels related. There were women’s issues in there. What I mostly remember were the organizational structural issues we were fighting for, but definitely women’s issues were part of that.
JW: I wanted to ask you about the organizational, the structural issues because I hear that from a number of people. What were the fights about?
DD: A lot was around salaries; a lot was around all staff should be part of decision making. We were in a Quaker organization, so that wasn’t as far out as it would have been in other organizations. Even before all this supervisors and staff would have lunch together in the cafeteria. There weren’t those strong lines that would have been in probably most institutions. But I still didn’t feel equal. It was valuing everybody’s work equally whether that person was doing the typing or the head of the program.
JW: I hear a lot of that about, trying not to have a hierarchy.
DD: We didn’t even like the word professional. Well, it’s blending into where we were at Vocations for Social Change. It’s hard to separate things and when different things started. But I also remember there is the questioning of the hierarchical structure.
JW: What were the issues of greatest concern to you?
DD: Vietnam War was definitely number one… I also worked for the welfare department. I mean certainly anti-poverty, that was the time of the Great Society and other projects at AFSC. We were doing a lot of anti-hunger work.
JW: I’d like to know, if you can remember, one memorable experience.
DD: I moved to Boston, and I was in grad school at Brandeis in political science, because at Oberlin people majoring in political science were all the activists on campus. But I got to grad school, and they were coming from Rand Corporation and other places. I was surprised because I just assumed anybody in political science would be an activist. That spring was Kent State, and I decided I was never going to be a serious academic or I didn’t want to be.
There was a magazine called Vocations for Social Change that came out of Hayward, California, and it listed social change positions all around the country. I was sitting in a boring class just after Kent State, and I was thinking, “What am I doing in grad school? I want to be out on the streets doing something, and why not set up a Vocations for Social change office out of a storefront in Cambridge?” I was living in Cambridge, and that’s what I did.
So, I dropped out of graduate school, and I went into the regional AFSC office, which I had had some contact with because I had worked in Philadelphia, which is the national office. I suggested this, and they gave me a little room in their office and said I could give it a try. Just about the same time, a couple of other people came in with more or less the same idea, and they put us all together. We began developing a list of both paid and volunteer positions in social action groups around well, mostly Boston, Cambridge, Somerville area.
Early on Larry, a graduate student from BC, was volunteering with us and he and I were at a peace meeting about stopping the Vietnam War. Someone stood up in the meeting and said, you know what, other groups like the Black Muslims, have a black Muslim grocery store and black Muslim dry cleaners and there should be, maybe, he even said, a Yellow Pages for the peace movement because that would keep our money out of the war economy. Larry and I looked at each other and we said, “A People’s Yellow Pages!” So, we went home and started one.
That’s what became the first People’s Yellow Pages, which was a directory of work and volunteer positions in social change organizations around the area. I guess, the first one was around 70 pages. We added some pictures and some quotes, and much of it is pretty hippy dippy as you look at it, but it really served a need, and it caught on. Eventually we did three other additions, and it caught on around the country. Folks in at least 10 other cities around the country did similar ones.
Then after the first year, we moved to a storefront on Broadway, around the corner from where the AFSC office was. We continued to be a project of AFSC, then we gradually got $3,000, $4,000 seed money from them, and we set up a whole library of magazines from progressive groups, loose leaf notebooks of every job opportunity in those groups. As we got to be known, people began sending us information. We’ve gotten feedback since that career counselors at colleges were saying, “Where are all my students going?” Basically, we were encouraging people to have a vocation for social change. So, we called it Vocations for Social Change or VSC.
Then we began also having mid-career discussion groups with somewhat older people who wanted to make their work more meaningful.
Of course, this was during the height of the Vietnam War. We were also part of a group called the Nonviolent Direct-Action Group. We were demonstrating in front of the Central Square post office several times a week. That’s where the army recruiting office was and we were demanding that they turn that into an office of vocations for social change. We never succeeded in that, but we got a little publicity.
While those of us in VSC were heavily influenced by the Vietnam War, it was also the time of the explosion of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement. The disabilities movement was also beginning, and we were trying to be supportive of all those groups. We certainly had copies of Second Wave magazines. We grew to be a collective of about nine people, and some of them were much more explicitly involved in the women’s movement than I was. One person came out during it, and she got very involved. Another person who joined the collective in later years was Katie Tolles, who had been in New Harmony Sisterhood Band.
I would say feminism was a huge influence in our lives. What we did was support anybody who wanted to work directly with a feminist organization and publicize opportunities, because by then we had a significant circulation among activists in the Boston area. We were very much a collective. We did do salaries according to need; different ones of us gravitated to different things. One person ended up really stressing counseling, and I was probably most involved in fundraising and administration and management kinds of things, as were a couple of the men. None of us had a title.
I was especially involved with putting the People’s Yellow Pages together, in fact we all worked hard on it. It got to be a pretty huge time-consuming project. We did a little bit of media work because we even began getting calls from media.
JW: Many groups at this time also started what we are now calling consciousness raising.
DD: Yes. I started a women’s consciousness raising group among my friends. Interestingly, many of the men we were associated with formed their men’s group at the same time. Our women’s group met weekly. Probably went on for a good 10 years. Although we weren’t one of the longest, by any means.
JW: That’s pretty long.
DD: I think one’s fantasy of a women’s conscience raising group is you’re talking about women’s oppression all the time. I mean, it became a personal support group, and we spent a lot of time-sharing autobiographies and talking about whatever issues were coming up in our lives. Later in the 90s, I got together with some mothers because we all had daughters who were 11, 12 or somewhere around there, and Carol Gilligan’s work had come out, so we formed a group to help our daughters keep their voices.
The other thing I did just after I left Vocations for Social Change, was to take a job as the adult adviser to the Waltham Group at Brandeis, which is a student volunteer group similar to the Phyllis Brooks House at Harvard, but without an endowment. One of the projects I helped young women students, who were undergraduates, start was a women’s health project. I should say, Our Bodies Ourselves was a big influence on us. That came out just before we published the first People’s Yellow Pages. We copied their layout, printed on newsprint, and we put a big photograph on the cover just like they did.
I also would say feminism permeated my personal life. I got married in my mid 30s and I certainly wanted it to be an equal marriage. It never is completely, that’s for sure, but our roles were very, very different than my parents’ roles had been. I also felt like I tried to live it out with raising my children. First child was a boy and the second was a girl.
I find now that in my daughter’s generation and that of my daughter-in-law, they don’t necessarily use the word feminist. I think they take the second wave for granted like I took the suffragette movement. We grew up with women being able to vote and it was part of life. Well, I’m probably talking about privileged white young women too, to a very large extent – that’s an important qualification – who came from pretty progressive families in addition to that. And they take some of it, a lot of it, for granted although they also have their own concerns. But somehow “feminism” the word to them… I try to get it out of them like “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” They don’t say no, but they don’t relate to the word.
JW: But they relate to having equal pay and having responsibilities shared and all that stuff?
JW: Yeah, but somehow the word seems old fashioned or something.
JW: I noticed that. I teach too so I noticed that among my students as well. Do you have any final words you’d like to say?
DD: I guess my final words would be ultimately my contribution was bringing up a son to be less sexist than he might have been otherwise and helping my daughter feel that she had a lot of agency.