How many times has Frances Crowe been arrested? ‘Not enough,’ she says.

  • Frances Crowe at home, 2014. Stan Sherer

  • “Seeing how she made her life’s vocation the ending of war changed me. ... I found myself turning to art with a mission,” says Harriet Diamond. Submitted photo

  • Frances Crowe with Carolyn Oates at her home in Northampton, Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carolyn Oates at the home of Frances Crowe in Northampton, Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Frances Crowe at her home in Northampton, Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Frances Crowe with Carolyn Oates at her home in Northampton, Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Frances Crowe at her home in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Working with Frances, I find that she lives exactly how she believes — leaving a small footprint and living simply so that others may simply live,” says Carolyn Oates. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ed Russell created a pirate radio station to broadcast Democracy Now! until he and Crowe found the program a permanent home on WMUA. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Frances Crowe at her home in Northampton, Monday, Mar. 4, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Harriet Diamond of Northampton installs her nearly life-size ceramic sculpture of Frances Crowe in the mezzanine of the Northampton Community Arts Trust on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. According to her friend Claudia Lefko, Crowe is emphatic that her signs say "No War" rather than just "Peace". —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of a ceramic sculpture of Frances Crowe by Harriet Diamond on display at the Northampton Community Arts Trust on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Harriet Diamond of Northampton touches up her ceramic sculpture of Frances Crowe while installing it at the Northampton Community Arts Trust. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A ceramic sculpture of Frances Crowe by Harriet Diamond on display at the Northampton Community Arts Trust on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This ceramic likeness of Frances Crowe, foreground, by Harriet Diamond is among a cast of characters drawn from the long-time Saturday vigils at the corner of King and Main streets in downtown Northampton. This collection of figures is on display at the Northampton Community Arts Trust. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Harriet Diamond of Northampton with her nearly life-size ceramic sculpture of Frances Crowe at the Northampton Community Arts Trust. Photographed on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lois Ahrens, photographed in her Northampton home on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

  • Lois Ahrens, photographed in her Northampton home on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

  • Crowe “thinks of everything she can do and then she does it,” says Lois Ahrens, founder of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization dedicated to abolishing the carceral state. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For Hampshire Life
Published: 3/7/2019 4:15:05 PM

My husband and I moved to Northampton in 1977, found work, bought a house and began a family. The world outside our door — pressing national and international issues — often took a back seat to demands on the home-front; accomplishing “just” the basics at that phase of life was a challenge. Still, I was active in the community and served three at-large terms on the Northampton School Committee, making me a somewhat recognizable public figure.

I didn’t know Frances Crowe when she approached me at the transfer station one summer day in 1995 when I was sorting my recycling, but I knew who she was and she knew who I was. “Claudia,” she said, handing me a flyer, “have you heard what is happening to children in Iraq? You care about children; you should care about them.” So began my 20-plus year relationship with Frances and with Iraqi children.

Lots of other people have had similar experiences; an encounter with Frances could — and often did — change your life. It isn’t “just” that she’s tuned into the world and has ideas about how she should — as a person of conscience — respond to it. Frances lives her life in a way that connects her to people and connects people to one another. She has dedicated herself to building and to being part of what her Quaker tradition and Dr. Martin Luther King call the beloved community.

There is method — organizing with kindness and determination — and, there is mystery. How has one diminutive woman managed to play such a significant role in so many critical issues of our times, to have such a long reach and touch so many lives? I have asked four thoughtful, committed citizens to weigh in.

Ed Russell on bringing Democracy Now! to the Valley

At Ed Russell’s apartment in downtown Northampton, a topographical map of Mount Tom is taped to his refrigerator, and the living room is cluttered with musical instruments, recording and broadcasting equipment, cords and wires — all tools of the trade.

A long-time local media activist, Ed says he’s always been into music, playing in various bands. “I was interested in Afro-pop and reggae and also in social justice and media issues. It all went together,” he explains. “I started recording with a small, multi-track tape recorder and eventually accumulated good stuff that enabled me to do high-quality sound, recording and producing.”

Ed moved to Western Massachusetts and set up a website where he posted his recordings of talks on critical local, national and international issues. In the early 2000s, he got hooked on “Democracy Now!”  a daily New York City-based radio news show hosted by journalist Amy Goodman.  This independent news reporting — this news — was important and not available in the Valley.

Ed went to work, creating what is known in the business as a pirate radio station — one broadcast on an unoccupied frequency. Here’s where the topographical map comes in. Each day Ed downloaded Democracy Now! onto a CD, then drove to Mount Tom and hiked up to a particular, well-situated high point from which he could re-broadcast the program into the Valley.

Frances was also hooked on Democracy Now! and had been working on a campaign to get a local station to carry the program. When Ed heard about this, he contacted her. The rest is history. They threw their lots together, becoming friends and media co-conspirators. Ed needed a new broadcast location; late fall weather was making it difficult for him to access his mountain trails. And Frances needed to develop a larger audience, a more powerful lobbying group to get Amy Goodman on the local airwaves — legally. Having the program available for people to hear every day was just what she needed.

The mountaintop transmitting sites were abandoned for a radio tower and antenna in back of Frances’ house, which just happened to be well-located for broadcasting — but also illegal. It was, as Frances says in her 2015 autobiography “Finding My Radical Soul,” a delightful act of civil resistance. This risky joint venture has had a long-lasting impact on Valley media and Democracy Now! found its permanent home at WMUA.

Lois Ahrens on Frances Crowe’s steely persistence

Frances Crowe called me in the early ‘80s to ask if I would produce “Handy Dandy,” a play by William Gibson at a theater company I was managing in Northampton.  The two-character play tells of the complex exchange — about conscience and the law — between a nun who is arrested for protesting a nuclear power plant in Cambridge and the judge she comes before. Of course, Frances related to the play since she had been —  even then — arrested innumerable times. When asked how many times, she said, “Not enough.” I agreed to produce the play, and that’s how our work together began.

In the almost 40 years I’ve known Frances, these are things I think are true: she does not suffer fools gladly and she can spot hypocrisy from miles away; she is unrelenting (persistent is an understatement); she sees what it will take others years (maybe even decades) to see; she thinks of everything she can do and then she does it. A very partial list includes showing thousands of films, handing out probably millions of leaflets and petitions, committing acts of civil disobedience and being willing to suffer the consequences; using social media like Democracy Now! before there was social media; organizing thousands of protests, public events like the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorations and more. Finally, she enlists everyone she can think of to help carry out the work.

Carolyn Oates on how Frances lives simply so that others may simply live

One of the people Frances has enlisted and befriended over the years is Carolyn Oates, an organic farmer who sold produce at Northampton’s Saturday market where Frances was a regular customer. The two found friendship and solidarity through food and anti-war politics. An early proponent of “buy local,” Frances started eating only what was in season and urging others to do the same. Strawberries and melon in the winter?  Never!

Shortly after they met, Frances hired Carolyn to help with general tasks and errands at her house. “Working with Frances, I find that she lives exactly how she believes — leaving a small footprint and living simply so that others may simply live,” Carolyn says. Frances sets her thermostat to 60 or so during winter, eschews air conditioning in summer and does not use a clothes dryer. She keeps the lights off unless someone is in a room working. For years, Frances was determined to walk everywhere rather than drive her car. And, if the distance was long, or she was tired while trekking up that long hill on Elm Street in front of Smith College, notes Carolyn, she hitch-hiked.  “Daily, I get a hands-on lesson in just how she does it,” says Carolyn.

Harriet Diamond on changing minds through art

I met Frances Crowe on the street in Northampton before the Iraq war. She gave me that broad smile and probably a flyer. My husband, Bill, and I fell under her spell because what Frances was saying then and what she’s saying now makes sense. It’s pretty simple stuff: stop war and weapons sales; save the children — ours and theirs — from senseless suffering and death.

Bill and I had young children. Imagining planes dropping bombs on other people’s children spurred us into action. We found ourselves on the weekly vigil line, making posters, marching and traveling to protests. Frances affirmed something in me. Seeing how she made her life’s vocation the ending of war changed me. As an artist, my sculptures tended to chronicle my family and friends, but I found myself turning to art with a mission.

I’ve made a number of sculptures and drawings of Frances. She isn’t easy to capture — so much humor and passion rolled into one. One of my pieces celebrates the weekly vigil organized by the Northampton Committee to Lift the Sanctions on Iraq. I sculpted the many individuals who stood on the line, with Frances out in front, speaking to two soldiers. To Frances, everyone is worth attention, deserves respect and is worth convincing.

Frances’ passion simply washes away other concerns. She’s not bothered or constrained by her physical size, her sex or her age. Sometimes I think our instinct is to minimize these things, along with race, social class and stridency, in order to fit in. This may very well keep us from our most forceful action. But Frances uses every part of herself to advance her cause. And this is some of what it takes to make a good piece of expressionist art. A recognition that our voice and our message is more important … well, than anything. It’s nearly an act of faith that in getting the message into the world our shortcomings will actually be transformed into assets.

How is it that Frances’ welcoming, challenging message has sunk so deeply into our psyches? Every day I think we borrow a piece of her courage and conviction, the conviction that there can be a better place and a better way. For now, it may only be a place held in the mind’s eye, yet it feels real, this place of No War.

Claudia Lefko is a long-time educator,  activist and advocate for children. Her project, the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange (iraqichildrensart.org) was inspired by her work with Frances Crowe.




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