As the eldest of six children growing up on a dairy farm in Connecticut, Mabel Leon’s fight against what she saw as injustice started early.
“My parents had some prejudices which I fought as a little girl,” remembered Leon, a Schenectady resident who moved to the area in the late 1960s. “I would argue and stamp my feet, and my father would say, ‘you’ll find out when you get out in the world.’ But I never stopped. Our world is interconnected, and an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.”
Leon has continued her battle for truth and justice for well more than a half-century now. At the age of 80, and despite a heart operation in November, she continues to stamp her feet and make noise, protesting for peace at Schenectady’s busiest intersection every Friday at noon (Erie and State), as well as throwing her support behind every cultural and environmental cause you could think of.
“I realized my desires to have a safe world where my children had food, shelter, security, education and health care were universal desires of families across the world,” said Leon. “In my high school yearbook I put that I wanted to make the world a better place.”
Despite her occasional flare-ups with her father when she was growing up, Leon says her family always came first. And even when she didn’t always get her way, she learned from the experience.
“I feel like my activism was based on the love of my family,” said Leon. “Sometimes you are taught things, and sometimes you learn in reaction to things that happened. My siblings and I dragged all kinds of different people to the farm, and my parents welcomed everybody. Yes, they did have their prejudices but they were wonderful people, and I feel like we brought them along with us.”
Leon has brought along many people to her side since she started protesting against the Vietnam War on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the turbulent 1960s. She insists, however, that she is neither a leader or much of an organizer, but instead just a foot soldier in the battle for peace and the planet.
“Seeking the truth is a good foundation for a life of activism, but it takes a lot of people and I am just one person in a group of committed people,” she said. “Sometimes you initiate, but usually the life of an activist is a process of give and take, organizing and building coalitions. And mostly it’s a lot of hard work.”
Leaving the farm
When she left the family farm just north of Litchfield and headed to New Britain and Central Connecticut State, her plans were to become a teacher.
“I was starving for reading material when I went to college because there weren’t a lot of books in our house,” said Leon, who majored in history and had minors in English and sociology. “It wasn’t an intellectual household, and while my parents were very bright they were conservative. My father always expected me to return to the farm, live there and teach at one of the local schools.”
That didn’t happen. Leon got married during her junior year and moved to the Capital Region in 1965 with her husband. She eventually finished up at the University at Albany in 1968.
“I kind of piecemealed the end of my education because I had two babies to take care of by the time I was 21,” said Leon. “But my husband was very involved in the anti-war protests like I was, and we went to Washington [D.C.] a number of times. It was a tough year. I had a daughter in ’68, I graduated from college, and there were a lot of bad things that happened during that tumultuous year. But I also look back and think of those times as wonderful years.”
Many trips, causes
Leon’s activism has included at least 10 trips to Cuba, where she supported much of what Fidel Castro was doing in that country, and two visits to South Africa, where she marched against apartheid. She has also demonstrated in support of health care for all, native Americans, civil rights, women’s rights and police reform, to name a few. Her current major cause is preserving the planet.
“I have protested against many diverse things, but the environment is the most important issue facing us today,” she said. “If we’re going to continue to exist, we need an Earth, and that is under threat right now.”
Leon’s strong desire to make the world a better place didn’t stop with her activism. It also consumed her professional career. Soon after graduating from college, she got a state job in the mental health department, working with the Eleanor Roosevelt Development Services in Schenectady and Albany counties. A little more than a year later in 1972, she was named director of a new non-profit in Schenectady; Community Coordinated Child Care or 4-C, where she worked for two years before becoming director of the Christ Church Day Care Center in 1974
“It was a coordinated effort to bring all the pre-K programs, Head Start and all the day care centers together to share resources,” Leon said of C-4. “Then I eventually took over a day care center and worked there for more than 10 years. Seventy percent of the cases were with families in crisis, with parents who didn’t know how to take care of kids. And it was important to show compassion to these children. They needed help, and they didn’t need to feel any less about themselves.”
Leon’s activism has gotten her arrested twice; once for her work with the Poor People’s Campaign just two years ago and once much earlier in connection with her visit to Cuba. Both arrests came at the U.S. Capitol.
“When you get arrested for civil disobedience you do it kind of spuriously and intentionally,” said Leon. “We didn’t make it to jail, but you get processed each time right at the U.S. Senate, and we did have to get a lawyer and go to court.”
‘A straight shooter’
At times, Leon has become active in local politics. Schenectady Mayor Gary B. McCarthy remembers Leon was a big help to Democrats when they wrestled control of the City Council away from the Republicans back in the 1970s.
“She was always involved and concerned, and we considered her a good friend and a community leader,” said McCarthy. “She was a straight shooter, and she tells you when she agrees with you and when she doesn’t. She builds consensus within the group and rallies people to the cause.”
In 1981, she spoke out publicly in front of the City Council and other groups against the federal budget cuts being proposed by President Ronald Reagan, fearing that the action would hurt day care centers and other non-profit groups. She’s also marched with Women Against War and Grannies for Peace, and alongside Abbie Hoffman and his Yippies movement.
“I’m not someone who is doctrinaire, so I’m not going to join an organization where you have to follow this or that rule,” said Leon, who also helped drive a 10-wheeler filled with supplies to Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. “There’s probably not another person on Earth who has the same exact views that I do. That’s what I love about doing things collectively. You contribute your tools to the cause, and you work together to see what you can do.”
Scotia’s Jim Murphy, one of the Capital Region’s top activists back in the 1960s and ’70s when he was a practicing Catholic priest, said Leon was the kind of person who stood out in a crowd.
“She was always vibrant, very engaging and a very attractive woman, and she still is,” Murphy said of Leon. “During Vietnam, when we had our peace vigils every Thursday at Veterans Park, she was always there. She was a very impressive fighter for all liberal causes. She was always active doing something.”
Mother of four
Despite all of her activism and a full-time job for much of her life, Leon also had four kids (three biological and one adopted) and a host of grandchildren to look after. Now divorced, she continues to keep tabs on her large extended family as well as a host of friends, the number of which continues to grow. She draws inspiration from many different people, including good friends such as Sue Clark and Pat Beetle, as well as men and women many years younger than her.
“I have such admiration for the exemplary lives of some of my older friends, who are in their 90s and after spending their whole lives working on social action, are still at it,” said Leon. “And I love that so many young people are becoming engaged, and I support locally all the young people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. When you look at their 13 demands, they’re all very reasonable. Every single one of them.”
Sometimes the message protesters are trying to send could be a little clearer, according to Leon, but she’s not about to tell anyone how to make their voice heard.
“Young people in the midst of anger and in the midst of a movement often tend to shout and do or say things to get attention,” she said. “I would never use some of the terms they do, but I also feel like I’m not the one to reprimand them. I understand their anger, and they have every reason to be angry. It seemed like for a while it was only us gray heads out protesting, so I think it’s wonderful that now we have a number of young people getting engaged.”
Leon says she’s a regular churchgoer, but not in the typical way, and not on Sunday mornings.
“I’ve probably been in more churches in Schenectady than anybody else you know,” said Leon. “But I go there for a lecture or for my work on the Poor People’s Campaign. I’m not a member of any church, but there’s good in all religion, and even in my family I have diversity. I grew up a Congregationalist, my ex-husband was Jewish, and I have non-believers, buddhists, pantheists, and even an evangelical. There’s room for everybody.”
What’s important, says Leon, is to celebrate that diversity, and not let it get in the way of collaboration for the greater good.
“The thing I don’t like about religion is that people can become divided from each other,” she said. “They feel like they are the chosen one, and I don’t like that. I do have a spiritual side, but I always feel like I can pick and choose the good things from whatever religion or philosophy is out there. We can celebrate our diversity and all work together to make the world a better place.”