What makes an activist? You can take any group of like-minded liberals and some at the inactive end of the spectrum will become couch potatoes screaming at their TVs and baying at the moon. But a very few will toil away at the action end of the spectrum, rising early every day, seven days a week, to till the rocky soil of hard social and political change – someone like Betsy Cawn of Upper Lake in Lake County.
Her route to activism wasn’t always smooth and was never a sure trajectory. Its fits, starts, and new beginnings landed her in Lake County over a decade ago for all kinds of unrelated reasons: practical, emotional, and just plain serendipitous.
Cawn and I agreed to meet in Upper Lake, at Double D’s Coffee at 9453 Main Street, on the left side of the street after turning off Highway 20 from the west. Refreshingly, parking was not a problem. When none of the friendly faces in Double D’s belonged to Betsy, I asked two older gentlemen settin’ on the raised wood sidewalk in front if they’d seen Betsy. “Sure,” one said, “she’s two doors down.” He pointed to a sign for the EPI Center, short for Essential Public Information Center, which Cawn established back in 2005 and runs with a friend.
Stepping into the EPI Center’s space is a dream come true for the restless fact-seeker. Every surface is covered with information about Lake County: detailed maps of multiple fire areas, a cornucopia of maps and stats on county water use and treatment, information about poverty, services for seniors, and dozens of other subjects and needs that face both the county’s poor and concerned residents interested in reading between the lines of their elected officials’ obfuscations and other shenanigans.
Somebody’s got to read and understand the frequently numbing fine print.
At the epicenter, you might say, Betsy Cawn stood in her coat of many colors, studying a map. “Local papers don’t cover anything,” she said. “One is online middle-of-the-road mush and the other is the county’s newspaper of record, the Lake County Record Bee. She said one of her top goals is to fill that communications vacuum. She also wants to keep county supervisors and other officials on their toes, if not hold their feet to the fire.
“They don’t want the public to know how any of this works or how to understand statutory regulations,” she said. “They’ve never figured out the real anthropological or societal needs of the county.”
Plugging that informational black hole hasn’t been easy, she said, and official Lake County has been spectacularly unappreciative of her efforts. Of the county supervisors, she says, “Some of them just groan when I walk into the room. They think I’m a pain in the ass. I call some of the supervisors Civil War recidivist rejects.”
But she said she never gives up and is never intimidated. “My shield is my openness,” she said.
Getting information out to her fellow Lake County residents is a many-pronged affair for Cawn. For starters, she works on her many community projects from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. The opening page on her laptop is so crowded with icons for her senior advocacy, government and environmental documents and other projects that it’s hard to read them they’re so tiny. She does regular weekly radio shows on KPFZ Radio, 88.1 FM, on Tuesdays from 5pm to 6pm and on Sundays from 2 to 4, which she started in November of 2015 after the FEMA-declared disaster that was the Valley Fire.
“We haven’t run out of material to discuss so far,” she said. “I was politely merciless on the radio [last] Sunday, criticizing three current board of supervisor proposals that baffle everyone and are so poorly explained [that] it is a form of civic bullying,” she said. “Two of my 20-year objectives for Lake County are implementation of environmental programs, including wildfire prevention, and implementation of services for older adults and their caregivers.”
To the latter end she works with other volunteers at the Lucerne Alpine Senior Center for several hours a day – for seven days a week, of course. She took me on a tour after an enjoyable quick bite at the Bistro in Lucerne, where Cawn and a Native American man drinking coffee at the next table shared their joy that a Native American had just been elected as county supervisor. Cawn also knew the folks running the café, one of whom ran out to get eggs for her omelet since they had just run out. In fact, we didn’t run into a single person she didn’t know the whole day we spent together. She’s a force of nature and a cheerful one, to boot.
The senior center is one block off Highway 20 in Lucerne, on the north side of the highway. It’s housed in an imposing 82-year-old building (“a beast to operate”) that used to be Lucerne’s elementary school. An art historian by education, I loved the big old drafty building with its impossibly high ceilings, its intricately patterned glass doors and woodwork, and its cavernous rooms where generations of Lake County kids attended school. We visited its modern kitchen where, until this year, food for home delivery to house-bound seniors was prepared (today it’s cooked elsewhere but deliveries are made out of the senior center, where outreach volunteers identify recipients, maintain delivery lists and routes, and follow up with the seniors they visit.
“I became trained [as a certified peer counselor] which allowed me to go into their homes,” Cawn said. “I’d get calls like ‘I live in Kansas and my mother lives in Nice. Can you check on her?’ I take the information and give it to the kitchen, which puts it on the schedule for delivery. We also go into their homes to try to get additional resources.” Are they alone? Is there a caregiver? Do they take medications? These are some of the questions the outreach volunteers explore. Cawn also added a new component to develop a disaster plan, which didn’t exist until she and her fellow volunteers created it.
“You need a shelter in place or a grab and go plan,” she explained. Disaster preparedness is particularly vexing to Cawn.
“I have been directly antagonistic to the board of supervisors over the absence of emergency preparedness,” she said. “I couldn’t get a copy of the emergency operations plan (a public document). It took six months for those people to show me the goddam plan!” She said early on that she tried to find a copy at the library. “The librarian unlocked the file cabinet and opened up this sealed envelope. She had no idea what she was supposed to do. When I finally got to see this piece of shit it was dated 2006 – and it was 2011!” Cawn said that the county lost out on $12-million because of its outdated, non-compliant emergency plan, which she said was actually “100%” out of compliance. “FEMA’s not gonna help you!” she said, "when you have an emergency plan that is that deficient.
“One supervisor said there’s no sense planning because there’s nothing you can do anyway so why bother? “The people who actually run the county are the builders, the bankers, and the brokers,” she said. “They’re the ones who churn the money machine.”
Cawn says her work brings her into direct contact with the sufferers of governmental indifference, adding that a good example was the “local assistance center” following the Ranch/River fires. “2,298 unique families stood in long lines under sweltering/ashy skies with their walkers and canes and bags full of nothing but needs to be filled,” she said, adding that for many it was a first-time look at community members and the limited resources available to help them. [If you saw it]…”you’d understand that the sordid underbelly of Lake County’s bloated fiefdom is a week away from Lord of the Flies.”
It’s not like Cawn grew up protesting or anything. Born in Philadelphia, she and her family moved 28 times before she was 18 years old, following her father who was a career NCO in the US Army. Three of those moves were to Japan, the first during the critical first decade after the war.
“The culture and society were very Asian,” she said. “By the middle 1950s the alteration of the culture was nearly complete.” Cawn said her father’s second wife was Japanese and she has two half-Japanese siblings.
One of the most interesting tidbits from Cawn’s youth is that she quit high school in the 11th grade, never to return, opting instead for a clerical job at 17 in the booming southern California aerospace industry. That job was her first step to a high-tech career still years in her future.
“I raised myself up from being a high school dropout to a tech manager; my life has been a miracle, I did whatever I could with the jobs I had,” she said. Cawn caught an early activist bug in Los Angeles, where she went to L.A. City College for a semester. “I was such a misfit, it just didn’t stick,” she said. She was married for a short time. Her life took a major turn one day as she was sitting in one of LA’s coffee houses, which she said in those days were a big deal with bongos and jazz.
“I was reading the paper and drinking my coffee when somebody came in and asked, ‘Does anybody here know how to type?’ That’s how I ended up working for the weekly Los Angeles Free Press,” she said, where she worked as a copy fitter for three-and-a-half years. The paper was credited with being the most widely distributed underground newspaper of the 1960s. The Free Press folded in 1978, but returned in its new incarnation in 2005. Cawn also volunteered at KPFK radio, a 90.7 FM listener-sponsored station based in North Hollywood. “You talk about being an activist,” she said. “That’s what I was.”
Many steps still awaited Cawn before her journey north to Lake County, including a 12-year stint where she managed publications at an international global tech corporation that developed a revolutionary silicon wafer smaller and more powerful than older versions, and is still the standard today. I asked her what it was like to switch gears and work in an international and sophisticated business world. “I just worked for those people,” she said.
As a rabid Lenny Bruce fan, Cawn said she treasures an artifact from her corporate days; one of her bosses gave her a plaque that reads “The Lenny Bruce Memorial Office of Proper Usage.”
“After the 70s lots of my friends migrated north,” Cawn said. She had friends in Ukiah, and with her trunk full of camping gear she started exploring. Then, it happened. Coming in from the east on Highway 20 on a late March day, she rounded the bend at Clearlake Oaks where she got her first look at the lake. “Wow!” she said, leaning back in her chair at the memory. “In the angle of the sun it was brilliant, sparkling!”
After driving around and checking things out, she ended up at an inn in Lakeport. She woke up at 7am and opened the drapes to a winter wonderland of Douglas firs dusted with snow. “There was a mama duck with all her little babies walking alongside the lake. It was freezing cold and there were three guys sitting on a little pier, fishing and drinking Budweiser and I thought ‘This is pretty cool!’”
Cawn took her time checking out the county, looking for a niche.
“In 2005 I wondered if there was any way I could fit in given the stupendous ignorance of some of the supervisors,” she said. But she kept on pushing, getting herself appointed to subgroups to the board of supervisors, researching and writing about subjects that needed official action, picking up like-minded volunteers along the way. She finally took the plunge and bought a mobile home in Upper Lake, where she still lives today with her disabled brother.
“For the first time in my life I have a washing machine!” she said. Ironically for such a life-long wanderer, she discovered that she’s related to people in Lake County; one cousin is the water district manager, another is the retiring registrar of voters.
“I love these people,” she said. “I give as much as I can and live in a world of generosity and kindness. That’s why I’m not leaving. I’m home and I’ve never been home before.”
What is she proudest of? “I think it’s been the ability to empower the people here who have knowledge, to network and collectively work with the people in power,” she said. “The art of empowerment is an act of spiritual anarchy, success is measured in living to bitch another day.”