Michaelann Bewsee interviewed by Joyce Follet, May 16-17, 2005
Scope and Contents
Bewsee describes a quiet, book-filled childhood restricted by chronic illness. She details a young adulthood immersed in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s and recounts the trauma of losing custody of her daughter. Much of the oral history focuses on Arise and the challenges of grassroots organizing, including the struggle to promote radical popular education while serving immediate needs, with specific attention to organizing around homelessness. (Transcript 100 pp.)
Dates of Materials
- May 16-17, 2005
- Follet, Joyce (Interviewer, Person)
- Bewsee, Michaelann (Interviewee, Person)
Conditions Governing Web Access
The interviewer and narrator for this interview have agreed that it may be placed on the web.
Conditions Governing Access
This interview is open for research use without restriction. This interview was formerly closed at the direction of the narrator until January 1, 2016.
Conditions Governing Use
The interviewer and narrator have transferred copyright of this interview to Smith College.
Biographical / Historical
Michaelann Bewsee was born December 21, 1947, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The daughter of Emery Martin Bewsee and Ann Marie (Davison) Bewsee, she was the eldest of four children in a working-class Catholic family. After serving in the military, her father worked as a civil engineer for town highway departments. Her mother worked in area department stores until children's chronic illnesses, including Michaelann's rheumatic fever, forced her to stay at home. Home-tutored until her early teens, Michaelann then attended Catholic school, graduating from Cathedral High School in 1964.
A single mother at the age of 19, Michaelann moved to Boston where she did clerical, factory, and waitressing work. She spent the next few years searching for personal, spiritual, and political moorings while involved in communal living arrangements and social movements. She was a foot soldier for the ERA and cooked for the Black Panther Party's free breakfast program. Michaelann struggled with poverty in these years, and, against her will, Michaelann's parents took custody of her daughter. Beginning in 1973, Michaelann and a partner homesteaded in Maine. When that relationship ended in 1977, Michaelann moved back to Springfield, pregnant with a second daughter. After a few years on public assistance, she began work as a decisional trainer with prison inmates.
Bewsee continued political activism. She became involved with the Hampden County Peace Coalition (1980-83), the Communist Labor Party (1981-85), the Rainbow Coalition (1983-89), and the McKnight Neighborhood Council (1980-86). She also joined a few other women on public assistance to protest welfare policies. In 1985 their efforts led to the formation of Arise for Social Justice, where Bewsee remains a key leader.
Arise is a grassroots "poor people's rights organization" whose purpose is "to learn to speak for ourselves to advocate for positive changes in the treatment of poor people and in the welfare system." Most members are women who are or have been on welfare and who come from diverse racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds. The group aims to educate, organize, and unite poor people to know and stand up for their rights, to educate the community to its common interest in economic justice for poor people, to educate low-income people about and encourage their participation in the political process, and to promote self-esteem among low-income people. Recent high-profile activities include sponsoring a tent city for the homeless, running a controversial needle exchange program, suing the city for its at-large system of representation, and protesting construction of a new women's prison.
Language of Materials
Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063