Remembering Shirley Williams
RESULTS has lost a number of people recently who were pivotal to its growth and development in the 1980s and beyond, people who set the tone for the kind of courageous action that was required and possible for the end of poverty. Shirley Williams was certainly one of those people. Shirley tells her story in a two-page section of Reclaiming Our Democracy. This excerpt epitomizes her gift to RESULTS, a gift that others were summoning all around the country. Her husband Sumner, another pioneer in RESULTS and our first treasurer, had asked Shirley to fill-in for him and attend the monthly conference call. At first irritated, she was thrilled when she heard the roll call of groups around the country. The year was 1985. Shirley was assigned to get a meeting with the Pasadena Star News and tells it like this:
…What happened next permanently changed the way I thought of myself and the world.
I paced the house getting up my nerve to make the call. At first, I reached a secretary who said the editor would call me back within 20 minutes. I rehearsed my two-minute talk over and over again. The 20 minutes stretched into an hour and a half. I was getting a pounding headache. Secretly I was relieved and felt I had done my duty. It wasn’t my fault if he didn’t call back. But this wasn’t about me, I reminded myself, it was about dying children, and I called again. This time I was able to speak with the new editor, Hall Daily, and I delivered my prepared talk carefully. He was interested and said he would call me right back, which he did.
“Could you come in tomorrow and talk to my senior staff?” he asked. “Would an hour be enough?”
I gulped and said, “Yes!” I had been thinking more along the lines of five minutes. I started going over the material for the presentation with Joyce Moore, another member of the RESULTS group. We studied for several hours and carefully planned what each would say.
The next day we carried in a VCR and video tape. In our nervousness we’d forgotten to turn the TV on and couldn’t understand why the VCR wasn’t working. An editor politely pointed out our omission. From this shaky start we proceeded to talk about vitamin A.
After the meeting a science writer stayed to thank us for the presentation.
“I should be doing what you’re doing,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I should be out telling people about this.”
“No,” we told him. “You should write about it and you can come to our meetings.”
As we went down in the elevator Joyce kept repeating, “Beyond my wildest dreams—Beyond my wildest dreams.” We were ecstatic and the ensuing editorial was beyond our wildest dreams.
“No one would be surprised if it was reported that the Pentagon had been paying as much for its bullets as it has for its ash trays lately,” wrote the Star-News. But the best weapon available to capture world opinion and protect able bodies may be something called Golden Bullets.”
“The Golden Bullets,” the Star-News continued, “a megadose of 200,000 units of vitamin A that costs only 2 to 4 cents—can reverse the trend of nutritional blindness among malnourished children in the world….
“The megadose is a particularly effective tool since it needs to be taken only twice a year by victims of malnutrition. And the $30 million in seed money for the program supported by Rep. Mickey Leland, Chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, will buy more productive lives in areas of the world where enough hardships already confront humankind.”
Congress appropriated $8 million that year for vitamin A.
When I sent my condolences to one of Shirley’s sons, he wrote back, “My mom felt that her work with RESULTS was the most important work she did both for others and for herself.” When Shirley was taking those actions in 1985, UNICEF reported that 40,000 children were dying each day from largely preventable malnutrition and disease. Today UNICEF reports that the child death rate had dropped from 40,000 a day to 15,300 per day, still scandalously high, but going in the right direction.
Author Frances Moore Lappé says that the kind of courageous action Shirley described above is what the founders had in mind when they spoke of “the pursuit of happiness,” the happiness inherent in making a profound difference.
I love the drawing that shows a small circle on the left labeled “Your comfort zone” and the much larger circle on the right labeled, “Where the magic happens.”
On the other side of the fear and trepidation is where the magic happens. I feel so blessed that Shirley Williams got to where the magic happens with RESULTS and did so on behalf of the world’s children.