- Radical organizer/activist since the early 1960s
- Co-founder and president of the Midwest Academy, which teaches tactics of direct action, confrontation, and intimidation
- Board member of the Center for Community Change
- Board member of USAction
Born in 1945, Heather Tobis Booth was raised in a liberal Jewish family in New Jersey. In high school, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality in New York City. From 1963-67, she attended the University of Chicago and became active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1964 Booth participated in the Freedom Summer Project, a voter-registration initiative for African Americans in Mississippi. During her college years, she served as chair of the Student Political Action Committee, a leftist campus organization that was active in the antiwar movement. In this role, Booth worked with members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She also founded the Women’s Radical Action Program, one of the first gender-based “consciousness-raising” groups in the United States.
In 1965 Booth organized the clandestine group “JANE,” which helped some 11,000 women find abortion providers in the years prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
At a May 1966 antiwar protest, Heather met Paul Booth, a national secretary with SDS. On the third day of the protest, Paul asked Heather to marry him. Two days later she agreed, and they were wed in 1967.
In 1969 Heather and Paul Booth, along with onetime SDS field secretary Steve Max and radical community organizer Harry Boyte, published a pamphlet titled Socialism and the Coming Decade. This screed said that because the U.S. had entered a “non-revolutionary period,” socialist activists should eschew confrontational tactics in favor of a stealth, incremental approach to social change. It further advised community organizations to agitate for concrete issues like urban redevelopment and health care, thereby giving “the socialist movement relevance to the daily lives of the people.”
In the summer of 1971, Heather Booth enrolled in Saul Alinsky‘s Chicago-based, organizer-training institute. According to Booth, “Alinsky is to community organizing as Freud is to psychoanalysis.” One of Booth’s classmates at Alinsky’s institute, Jerry Kellman, would later serve as a training mentor to a young Barack Obama in the mid-1980s.
Also in 1971, Booth co-authored Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement. Asserting that community organizers should strive to “weake[n] the power of the ruling class,” this pamphlet promoted such radical agendas as free universal healthcare, the disarming of police officers, and collective societal responsibility for childrearing. Nonetheless, Booth in her personal life was cautious not to reveal too much, too quickly, about her radical agendas to women who were not _“conscious socialists”_ like herself, preferring instead to use a gradualist approach with such people.
In April of 1972, Heather and Paul Booth, along with Day and Robert Creamer, taught an organizer-training workshop sponsored by the fledgling New American Movement (NAM), a group that advocated radicalism and revolution rather than quiet infiltration into establishment politics. By 1975, Booth would leave NAM and ally herself instead with Michael Harrington’s more pragmatic Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a predecessor to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
In 1973 Heather Booth and Steve Max co-founded the Midwest Academy, a training institute for leftist activism and socialist ideology. There, Heather taught the Academy’s continuing “socialism session,” which included lessons covering everything from Marx, Engels, and Lenin through Michael Harrington’s democratic socialism and SDS.
In a 1975 address to a conference of socialist feminists, Booth cited Ralph Nader’s methodical anti-corporate campaigns as useful models for the types of activities that could lay the groundwork necessary for a revolutionary showdown. Notwithstanding her commitment to incrementalism, Booth confided to the conference attendees her secret belief that “truly reaching socialism or feminism will likely take a revolution that is in fact violent, a rupture with the old ways in which the current ruling class and elites are wiped out.”
In April 1978, Booth became co-leader of the newly formed Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition (C/LEC), which used popular discontent with the era’s energy crisis — typified by high gas and oil prices — as a pretext to justify nationalizing America’s energy industry and, eventually, socializing the entire economy.
That same year, Booth helped organize five state activist groups into Citizen Action, a consumer-advocacy organization that focused also on such issues as environmentalism and socialized medicine. Booth served as Citizen Action’s co-director until 1988. By 1999 the group had become moribund, and Booth helped resurrect it that year under the name USAction, where she continues to serve on the board of directors.
On May 9, 1987, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America presented Booth with its annual Norman Thomas-Eugene V. Debs Award, named after the famed American socialists.
In 1990 Booth became director of the Coalition for Democratic Values, a partisan organization of leading left Democrats, formed as a counterweight to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
In 1992 Booth was director of field operations for Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun’s successful run for the U.S. Senate.
In 1996 Booth was one of the original 130 founders of the Campaign for America’s Future. Other notables included Mary Frances Berry, Julian Bond, Robert Borosage, John Cavanagh, Richard Cloward, Peter Dreier, Barbara Ehrenreich, Betty Friedan, Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Denis Hayes, Roger Hickey, Patricia Ireland, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, Frances Fox Piven, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Arlie Schardt, Susan Shaer, Andrew Stern, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumka.
In January 2004, Booth spoke at the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) at American University. There, she participated in a panel discussion with Elaine Brown (a former Black Panther Party leader) and Cathy Wilkerson (former editor of the SDS magazine New Left Notes and a former member of the Weather Underground). Popular themes at NCOR conferences include anarchism, anti-capitalism, black nationalism, animal rights, climate change, revolutionary strategy, classism, “indigenous resistance,” prisoner rights, and immigrant rights.
Also in 2007, Booth asserted that the conservative movement in America was on the decline, and that if leftists could unite and seize the moment, “the extraordinary work which has been tak[ing] shape over the last 30 years really will pay off.” Booth’s vision of uniting various leftist factions has also been the subject of her two books: Toward a Radical Movement (1968), and Citizen Action and the New American Populism (1986).
In June 2009, Booth praised the scandal-plagued ACORN as an organization dedicated to “building a better society and a better world.” That same year, she appeared at ACORN’s 39th anniversary celebration.
Booth was a guest speaker at a June 2010 Network of Spiritual Progressives conference in Washington, DC.
Booth currently serves as a board member of the Center for Community Change. She also occupies a seat on the editorial advisory group of the leftwing journal Social Policy, along with such notables as Noam Chomsky, Frances Fox Piven, and Peter Dreier. This periodical is published by ACORN founder Wade Rathke, and its Organizers’ Forum Board includes Tides Foundation founder Drummond Pike.
In addition, Booth sits on the advisory committee of Wellstone Action, a self-described “national center for training and leadership development for the progressive movement.” Fellow committee members include Robert Borosage, Julian Bond, Peter Edelman, Keith Ellison, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, Leo Gerard, Tom Harkin, John Lewis, Frances Fox Piven, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Andrew Stern, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Apart from her work with the aforementioned organizations, Booth has been a consultant to such groups as the Campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the National Organization for Women, MoveOn.org, Working Assets, and TrueMajority.
Booth also founded Americans for Financial Reform, a labor-backed pressure group that advocates a “financial speculation tax” on all Wall Street trading activity involving financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, derivatives, futures, options, and credit default swaps. Said Booth in 2010:
“A big battle still needs to be waged to curb the incentive for speculation and to get our money back to fund jobs and health care, climate and more. This fight against Wall Street is part of an even larger fight over who matters in the society, over our values and our priorities, over whether or not we have corporate control in banking, whether BP can destroy the coast, whether the insurance companies can deny our health care, whether companies can dominate our politics saying that money is speech.”
Over the years, Booth has contributed a great deal of money to political candidates and activist organizations.