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Raging Grannies dispel stereotypes, build community, and advocate for social causes
They arrive at meetings, protests, and other events decked out in long, flamboyant skirts, shawls,, aprons and flowered hats.
Sometimes they are invited; sometimes they just show up. They re-write lyrics to familiar songs to impart their social concerns. They are witty, self-depreciating, and concerned with social justice. They are the Raging Grannies.
The Raging Grannies represent a social justice movement that began in Victoria, B.C. in 1987 when a group of older women joined together to protest the presence of United States Navy vessels in Canadian waters.
"The original Raging Grannies in Victoria were all 'of a certain age' as we say, and thought they might draw more attention by dressing up," Sandra Vida, member of the Calgary Raging Grannies says. "The stereotypical 'granny' was just a brainwave of that moment.
"They did get attention and kept it up," Vida says.
The idea of using the persona of angry old women as a tool for advocacy caught on. It has spread across Canada and the world. Local, self-contained chapters of the Raging Grannies are called "gaggles." A gaggle was established in Calgary in 1998 and currently has a core group of about eight to 12 members, according to Vida.
Humour and song fuel advocacy efforts
"Using humour and song," the mission statement of the Calgary Raging Grannies reads, "our objective is to communicate our message, to charm and challenge our audiences to become involved and participate in bringing about social change."
A great deal of the Grannies' humour and charm is found in the clothing they wear when singing and protesting.
"It is usually a flowered hat that becomes gradually covered with pins for various causes, a shawl, a longish skirt and boots or runners," Vida says.
Although the outfits are designed to play into — and poke fun at — stereotypes of older women, they also serve a deeper purpose.
"I guess the 'message' might be to deconstruct the granny stereotype that we just sit and knit, and to use the respect people might have for older women that they may have some wisdom to offer," Vida says.
The Raging Grannies compose the songs they sing while protesting. The songs are carefully crafted to suit the causes that the group supports. Vida says singing is a very effective means of advocacy for both the Grannies and the audience.
"We have a vast number of songs written by us and other 'gaggles' of Raging Grannies across the continent and beyond. We often update older songs in our 'index' or write new song lyrics to 'classic' older tunes.
"It's a lot more fun to do and to witness than lengthy speech-making or marching with a sign. All of us were activists of some sort before joining up, and wanted to get in on the fun while drawing attention to causes," Vida says.
Increased awareness for social causes
Vida says that by calling attention to them, the Grannies bring awareness to social issues that affect marginalized groups as well the wider community.
"Many of us are fond of dressing up and acting up. The songs get attention, are often recorded by the media, and get the point across quickly and effectively.
"People are drawn to the music, and then might consider the message," Vida says.
Group relies on consensus
The Grannies meet on the second Tuesday and fourth Wednesday of each month to plan their advocacy efforts and practice songs. They meet at the Unitarian Church at 1703 - 1 St. N.W.
"We rotate chairing meetings and use a consensus model rather than majority voting," says Vida. "Members can abstain or just not participate in any gig if they are not keen. If they are opposed, we have a fairly lively discussion and hope to come to at least a better understanding of the issues."
"Groups invite us to sing, we ask to be part of programs, and we also go as a group to malls and colleges and sing to whoever we can corner," Vida says.
"One Granny will agree to be the liaison for each gig, talk to the organizers of the event, and will suggest songs. Others may have better or further ideas and we discuss this at the meetings.
"The Raging Grannies were supportive of the Occupy Calgary movement and are interested to see where it may go in the future. Homelessness and poverty are big local causes for us, and we support Take Back the Night and other local initiatives," Vida says.
Strong sense of community
Developing a network of support and building a sense of community is at the heart of the Raging Grannies' work. Group member Penny Clipperton says the Raging Grannies strive to support the activist community in Calgary.
"For the most part, what we do is support other activists in their various enterprises," Clipperton says. "So we get to meet and mingle with and learn from a range of people."
"I particularly enjoy interacting with the youngest people."
The camaraderie among the Grannies themselves is also an important aspect of the group.
"The fun and laughter, the warmth and friendship and the opportunity for creative inspiration mixed in with a little bit of theatre make this participation very important to me.
"We value and appreciate each other because there aren't all that many of us," Clipperton says.
Sharon Montgomery, another Granny, agrees that the group offers a unique opportunity for women concerned with social justice issues to engage with each other — and with other groups and communities — in a meaningful manner.
"We are old enough to know that it doesn't matter what people think of us," Montgomery says. "We are who we are, and we are just fine.
"Being part of the Raging Grannies tells me I am not alone in my opinions, and what I have to say has value. It means I'm not a lone voice in the wilderness; I am part of the world, and I matter."
"I like being with women who are strong feminists, have opinions, sing them in creative ways, and enjoy celebrating their existence," Montgomery says.
Unique position to advocate
A social worker by profession, Raging Granny Diana Everatt says she has always been concerned with social issues. "Through my work, I endeavoured to make what changes I could in delivering services to people in a responsive and respectful way," Everatt says.
However, Everatt says she felt that her ability to advocate was somewhat constrained prior to her retirement from a career in the health care sector.
"When working within the 'system,' there are limits to what a person can do and also to how vigorously one can 'protest' without risking sanctions and censure," Everatt says.
Everatt found inspiration in an interview she heard given by one of the original founders of the Victoria group.
"She spoke about how she felt it was her responsibility as an older woman to advocate and speak on behalf of others who could not speak up for fear of reprisal," Everatt says.
"I too believe that as an older, retired woman, I am not at much risk in expressing concerns about the government and social injustice.
"I can do so more freely than others may feel they are able."
Everatt says humour plays a vital role in social activism.
"I think the volume of concerns can be very overwhelming and that social activists fizzle out in the wake," Everatt says.
"The Raging Grannies provide a humorous, fun and theatrical way of being a social activist. This keeps me going where more serious protest often feels disheartening."
Vida says she believes the reason some people shy away from activism isn't simply due to apathy.
"I think people feel isolated and disempowered, and it is usually good for the agenda of, for instance, a majority governing party if they stay that way," Vida says.
She encourages Calgarians to seek out opportunities to engage with others who share similar concerns.
"The Grannies work because we are like-minded women with generally similar experience and values. Coming together makes us stronger," Vida says.
"I'd say anyone can talk to their friends and family about issues, they can write to their elected representatives," Vida says, "And they can, at least, vote."
The Calgary Raging Grannies are always recruiting new members. Find them on their Facebook page. [Calgary Raging Grannies]
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct a misspelling of Diana Everatt's name. We apologize for the error.
I am a third year student in the BSW program at the University of Calgary. I first heard about you today in one of my social work classes and immediately thought what a great way to advocate for social change. I am a mature, mature student in the faculty and good indeed be a grandma myself but instead I decided to go back to school. Call me crazy, but you are never to old to learn...right?!?! I would like to hear more about your cause and look forward to hearing from someone in the near future. Thanks for your time.