If you've ever been to a women's march in the Triangle, you've probably seen a group of elderly women donning pink with their fists held high.
The Raging Grannies is a self-proclaimed international disorganization with a Triangle chapter of more than 40 women over the age of 65 who gather and perform songs to bring a message to the public that may otherwise go unheard.
“That message is that as grandmothers, we’ll do everything we can to ensure a safe and sustainable future for our grandchildren,” said Vicki Ryder, a member of the group. "Wherever we see that that future is threatened, we will raise our voices.”
The Grannies have protested against a wide range of causes both domestic and international, including Duke Energy dumping coal ash into local ground and water, United States military intervention abroad and inadequate public education.
“We do it in a unique way, mindfully, purposefully," Ryder said. "We do it by writing our own lyrics to old familiar melodies and singing our messages wherever we think they need to be heard. Sometimes we’re invited, sometimes we’re not, and that doesn't stop us."
Ruth Zalph, an 89-year-old member of the Triangle chapter, helped establish the local division more than 20 years ago during her time as a resident in a co-housing community in Carrboro.
Zalph, along with six other women, heard about the then-Canada-based group of women who wrote songs about issues they were facing and was inspired by the idea.
“When they talked about what was going on in Canada, we had the same concerns about what was going on in the U.S. and the issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear ships and war,” Zalph said. “As a Quaker, I believed that war is not the answer. You will never come to peace by making war.”
The Grannies attend their gigs dressed up in fun hats and sometimes eccentric outfits, but despite their lighthearted outward appearance, they said they believe in their potential to provoke change, and take their activism seriously.
“We don't take invitations to perform," Ruth Gibson, a granny who has been involved with the group for more than a decade, said. "Performance assumes we’re entertaining an audience, so what we’re about is protesting."
Gibson joined the group shortly after her retirement, during a time when she found herself seeking community. After spending some time seeking a local church to belong to, she said she settled on the Community Church of Chapel Hill because of its reputation for social action. She was connected to the Raging Grannies through the church’s Charles M. Jones Peace and Justice Committee.
The members of the Triangle chapter have formed a broad network of friendship and support. They decide what and when to perform by proposing ideas at monthly meetings and through email, and they adopt causes that are meaningful to one another.
“A good voice is not required, but the passion for justice was then and remains today a driving force," Zalph said. "The issues and policies on racial, political, economic and social justice come before all of us, every American, every day."
Despite positive intentions, their activism does not always come without consequence. Many of the Grannies have been arrested for civil disobedience throughout the course of their involvement. Zalph, for example, said she was arrested four times in five days during the 2018 Kavanaugh protests in Washington, D.C.
“I think we all share the sense that we need to put our bodies where our songs are and walk the talk in terms of being willing to sacrifice because we can,” said Zalph. “The goal is never to be arrested, but to assert the message and exercise our constitutional rights."
Zalph and Gibson both noted the fact that the benefit of their white privilege has prompted a sense of purpose.
“I’ve got some privilege," Gibson said. "And I can speak up for people, and that’s important to me because there are plenty of people whose whole life is the struggle. And if by getting up there and singing the song with my funny hat and crazy shoes makes them laugh and gives them a little more heart to keep on going on, then it’s worth doing."
Zalph said her privilege inspires her work and activism.
“Because I am a white woman with privileges and rights, not for any special things that I’ve accomplished, but solely because of the color of my skin," she said. "I would not rest until every woman had the same rights and privileges that I do.”
The Grannies said they feel a responsibility to pass a healthy, safe and positive environment to future generations. Some of their most treasured gigs are going to local schools and working with students and helping them write their own protest songs.
“Freedom isn’t free, and neither is justice," Zalph said. "If you want freedom and if you want justice for all, you’ve gotta be willing to get out there and sacrifice."
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