Hilleaster Pat Taylor Talks about Her Path to Activism
by Larry Janezich
Pat Taylor has been an activist in Hill East since she moved to 17th Street SE in 1988 but her commitment to public policy issues stretches back decades before that.
In Hill East, she is best known as a strong advocate of repurposing unused private space and is one of the founders of Kings Court Community Gardens.* Taylor also found and helped acquire the land for the Green Seed Community Garden,** and is currently involved with helping Greenfield Community Garden own its land.*** She hosts an annual get-together of all Capitol Hill’s community garden coordinators.
But Taylor also convinced DDOT to alter traffic patterns at two 17th Street intersections – one at C Street, the other at Potomac Avenue – to make those intersections safer for drivers and pedestrians. She was a longtime advocate for putting the defunct Hill East Boys and Girls Club into a good community use before the city finally accepted a proposal from a developer to convert it to senior cohousing. She has lobbied the ACLU to take up the cause of reforming communication policies for inmates. In the late 1980s Taylor worked with fellow Hill East activist Jim Myers to focus the city’s attention on the crack cocaine epidemic that was destroying lives and community in Hill East.
Taylor came to DC upon resigning from the State University of New York after 20 years of teaching political science to seek ways to be more involved in social policy. Capitol Hill Corner asked her to reflect on her path to activism.
Taylor said, “I grew up in the northern Vermont town of Richford – one mile from the Canadian border. There were 24 in my high school graduating class – 2/3 were girls. Only three of the 24 – all of them girls – went to college. My mother had gone to college and was determined that her three daughters would as well. I wasn’t interested until I visited my older sister at Antioch College and found that I liked it.” She walked over to the admissions office and enrolled. “Antioch College was the most liberal college in the US when I went to it. Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and unable to get work in many venues, came every year to perform at Antioch. It was here I developed a profound commitment to social justice.”
An unofficial but significant benefit for young women in the 1950s came from Antioch’s off-campus work program. Six months a year students worked at full time jobs all across the nation – living in new places, finding their own housing, learning about public transportation. From these work experiences – a different one each year – Taylor says, “I learned that I could always find a way to live in a strange place and make enough money to live on. They gave me the confidence to travel to strange places. They gave me a kind of freedom that few women my age had.”
After college, Taylor didn’t know what she wanted to do so she went to Europe and stayed there for four years, living in Spain, Germany and France. Most of these years she worked for the US Army in recreation centers for enlisted personnel on Army bases and traveled widely in Western Europe.
After four years, she had enough of being an on-looker in foreign countries and returned to the US to get a Master’s Degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Connecticut. Six interviews for college teaching positions produced six job offers. “In five of them, she said, “the faculty was close to 100% male and plainly awkward around this potential first female colleague.”
She accepted an offer from the State University of New York – “That’s where I became an activist. I joined a group of female faculty, most of whom felt discriminated against by male colleagues. We used to meet and share stories about discrimination.” When the state legislature passed the Taylor Law (granting New York public employees the right to unionize) faculty formed a union to oppose the already existing faculty Senate that Taylor says was effectively an arm of the administration – “One of the first things we did was ask for a list of faculty salaries, and published it. This was during the Vietnam War and I soon joined students and fellow faculty members in protesting the war. The FBI tried to recruit faculty members on our campus to spy on war protestors.”
Speaking of her 20 years at the college, Taylor said she liked teaching and appreciated the freedom to teach what she wanted but came to the realization that she needed to make a change. Asked why, Taylor said that being the only faculty member in comparative government and subscribing to a political theory that governmental forms are determined by economics rather than the dominant paradigm that democracies like the US are the highest form of political evolution left her feeling like an outsider in her own field. She decided that to be effective on social justice issues, she needed to get into policy, eventually settling on health care.
She started getting involved inhealth care policy while still at SUNY, becoming a community representative in Rochester’s regional health care program, volunteering “for every committee and task force I could” and in the process getting a free education in health care policy.
A sabbatical from teaching allowed her to go to Washington where she knocked on Congressional doors, offering her services. She was hired by the Senate Special Committee on Aging for the duration of her sabbatical to work on Medicare legislation. In that position she had a major role in planning committee hearings and writing a Medicare reform bill.
The experience strengthened her resolve; she resigned from SUNY and moved to DC – “I had a difficult time getting a job – this was a young town and nobody wanted to hire their mother.” To support herself, she worked a series of temporary jobs.
She finally landed a job at the Department of Health and Human Services, in the agency housing federal programs that worked to improve health care for low income people, minorities and rural residents. She ended up at the Office of Rural Health Policy where she “created an academic grants program for the study of rural health care access issues and policies”.
On urban living, Taylor says, “My idea of cities was formed in Europe – people walking, parks, public transportation, and low rise buildings – and DC had sun all winter whereas Rochester was grey for five months a year. DC was the American city I’d been looking for.” She had lived that first year in the 200 block of Maryland Avenue and after returning to DC, in a group house on Seward Square.
In 1988 she received an inheritance and bought a house on 17th Street for $100,000. She said she was one of those who Jim Myers characterized as “risk oblivious,” adding, “When I moved in, there were open air drug markets within blocks of my house and drug dealers shooting at each other in the night. Also, this neighborhood of white collar civil servants was 98% African American. Many of my white friends thought the neighborhood dangerous, but I’ve never been mugged and never had my house broken into.” She joined Myers in his public relations campaign to heighten awareness of the crack cocaine epidemic infecting Hill East. “Myers, she said, “had a wonderful knack for creating eye-catching posters and messages on tee shirts to call attention to Hill East drug problems.”
Taylor wonders whether such committed public activism which she has been a part of is possible anymore – “organizing and advocacy have moved to cellphones and social media and that has made it difficult for a neighborhood to come together in meetings. Without getting people in a room face to face, to engage in back and forth discussions, how do you develop consensus on community issues? How do you know your neighbors.
*bounded by 14th and 15th Streets, South Carolina and C Street
**bounded by 17th and 18th Streets, D and C Streets
***bounded by 16th and 17th Street, Independence and Massachusetts Avenues