The Life of David

The Columns - The Life of David

Mary Zepernick’s activism career began in 1972 with an ad–a little announcement in the back pages of a local Washington, D.C., newsweekly for a meeting of the National Organization for Women (NOW). An apolitical sorority girl at Denison, Zepernick, now 69, describes her mindset during college as “straight out of the 50s.” But the ad grabbed her. “It was just one of those ah-ha moments,” says Zepernick. “I thought, ‘I need to go to that.’”

She continued to go to NOW meetings, at first sitting in the back, soaking in the scene, but then diving in head first. She would eventually lead a march around the White House on the anniversary of the adoption of suffrage, she and her friends clad in long dresses, armed with bullhorns. She picketed the Papal Nuncio (the Vatican’s representative in D.C.) in support of abortion rights. She marched with Shirley Chisholm–the first black woman to be elected to Congress–around the South African Embassy during an anti-apartheid protest.

Remnants of Zepernick’s history of political organizing cover the walls of her office, located on the second floor of her home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A bumper sticker on a chipped aquamarine file cabinet calls for a “G.E.-Free” Sonoma County. A vintage poster announces a 1983 S.T.A.R. (Stop The Arms Race) march on NATO headquarters in Brussels, a campaign by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They are badges of honor from struggles waged. Her computer dings to announce the arrival of a new email–maybe a student looking for sage advice, maybe a new volunteer looking to join one of her causes. She is dressed in what she calls her uniform–a white t-shirt with black text that reads: “Slavery is the legal fiction that a Person is Property. Corporate Personhood is the legal fiction that Property is a Person.”

Corporate activism is one of Zepernick’s main causes these days. She is one of 11 people who make up the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD), a national research and activist group that seeks to educate the public about what its members see as “illegitimate corporate rights.” Her POCLAD duties include speaking on the history of corporate power, explaining how, in 1886, corporations were granted constitutional rights typically reserved for individuals. It has resulted, she says, in corporations becoming too powerful–institutions that are not beholden to people, and even exerting authority over them.

Lately, Zepernick has devoted most of her POCLAD time to the Cape Care Coalition. “One way to go after corporate rights is to create our own institutions to provide for our own needs,” she says. Cape Care is working for a single-payer healthcare solution–a kind of publicly funded universal health insurance. “It’s one pot that collects the money from many sources and then pays it out to the providers,” says Zepernick, noting the plan’s parallels to the U.S. Medicare system. “It can save up to 30 percent on administrative costs. And it covers everyone effectively, efficiently, and equitably.”

She first heard the idea in 2005, and immediately loved it. But it needed a campaign, she thought– something to get people interested and spread the word. The group decided that a non-binding resolution– one that showed support for a single-payer system in Cape Cod–would be the perfect vehicle to build the campaign around, allowing them to get the word out at town meetings and build momentum. It was a year-long process, with Zepernick and others spending most of 2006 collecting signatures, speaking to Rotary clubs, and reaching out to the media.

It’s the kind of ground work she loves. “I like to talk, not write grant proposals,” she says. “My favorite part is organizing and planning and helping run meetings. I have a lot of background in meeting facilitation and training in consensus-building–all the ingredients of good social change work.”

The Coalition’s work resulted in a series of votes on the resolution in 14 Cape Cod towns during the summer and fall of 2006. Every vote night was a nerve-wracking experience for Zepernick, who had managed teams of volunteers in every town and would field their latenight calls when results came in. “I’ll never forget the feeling. I’m lying in a bed like a board, and the phone would ring,” says Zepernick. “It was so harrowing.” But the news was usually good. The resolution passed in 11 of the 14 towns. “That was critical, because we needed a strong show of support,” she says.

Cape Care became a member of a state-wide coalition called MassCare, and together, the groups promoted the adoption of a policy question on the state’s November ballot, asking voters whether or not their legislative representatives should support a singlepayer system. For Zepernick, now part of the group’s 14-member steering committee, it meant another round of grassroots work–more signature-gathering, more hammering down yard signs, more speeches. All 10 districts where the question was on the ballot passed the measure–including the three in the Cape Cod area–by an average of 71 percent, a number that Zepernick says is “almost unheard of.”

Cape Care’s single-payer plan has since been fleshed out, transformed into a bill that has the backing of some state and local legislators, and is now facing the prime time. Cape Care still has work to do–it will be up against powerful lobbyists from the big insurance companies. And the bill itself has to get through a maze of committees in the state legislature. The timing is tight, but even if it they can’t get a vote on it this session, Zepernick promises they’ll come back until it passes. “We’ll just keep at it and wear them down,” she says with a laugh.

It’s always been the way Zepernick has had to operate. But it’s a bit of an inspiration. One of her favorite posters in her office shows a tiny Chihuahua staring up at a Great Dane. The caption reads “F– you.”

“I don’t know why I keep being David,” she says. “I guess I wasn’t cut out to be Goliath.”

Published August 2009