Her mom worked for the ACLU—and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—in the 1970s. Now Alison Beyea runs the ACLU of Maine and her daughter is planning a career in environmental activism.
At her home in Cumberland, Alison Beyea sits at a sunny table with her daughter, Annabelle Adams-Beyea, and her mother Patricia Ramsay, talking about the family business: social justice. Alison is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Patricia’s involvement with the ACLU has spanned decades, and Annabelle has her sights set on a career in environmental activism. The women are close; they’re joking about the blondies Beyea—who is “not a baker”—is cooking for the office bake-off. But as they discuss their work, warm banter takes a backseat to a chronicle of civic purpose, hard work and tenacity.
At 76, Ramsay has an understated, easy confidence. She knew when she left Mount Holyoke College in 1964 that she wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, even though she didn’t know exactly what that meant. “To me it just meant, ‘I want to do good,’” she says. “People kept telling me to join the Red Cross.””
Unable to find the right do-good job, Ramsay took a position at a publishing company, but was fired while pregnant (with Alison). When she saw an ad in the newspaper looking for ‘someone to deal with civil liberties,’ she thought, “Perfect,” even though given how vague the ad was, she wasn’t exactly sure what she was getting herself into. The job was with the ACLU in Worcester, Massachusetts, and it was listed as quarter-time. “I spent all my time doing it,” she says. “I was the office. Classic non-profit, very little money, no backup, a volunteer board. I got a little bit of money, I gave it to the babysitter.” Ramsay pauses, and her voice softens. “But what a great job.”
Ramsay spent five years in the Worcester office, learning all about civil liberties, constitutional law and the legal system. By then she had two young daughters, Alison and Brigit, who often accompanied her to ACLU events—but not because she had a grand plan to expose them to her work. “It was either bring them or we didn’t do it,” she says. “It was practical.”
“We still don’t have child care for women when they want to do events,” Beyea says. “We’re really not any further on some of this stuff.”
“None of us can believe we’re fighting for access to birth control. But we are.”
By the mid 1970s, the social justice movement was gaining momentum. “Across the country, people were saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was illegal’,” Ramsay says. Many injustices were running largely unchecked, in part due to lack of knowledge. The ACLU sought to inform the public of their rights by publishing a series of paperback books with straightforward instructions on how to legally combat discrimination. Each book was its own project, and Ramsay leapt at the opportunity to work for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in New York City, where her boss was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “She was everyone’s boss!” Ramsay says, laughing.
Ramsay recalls sitting around a table with the team as the future Supreme Court justice worked through the issues facing their project. “That experience of listening and watching her think was pretty amazing. The body of law and the thrust of the women’s rights movement came from that office.”
Ginsburg’s approach was simple and logical: If they don’t understand, we’ll have to teach them. Ramsay did just that, traveling to educate other ACLU chapters and the public. She saw significant change in women’s understanding of the issues, but reflecting on the current state of women’s rights, she says, “I find myself thinking, Haven’t we already done that?”
Beyea agrees. “None of us can believe we’re fighting for access to birth control,” she says, “but we are.”
A graduate of Kenyon College, Beyea, 48, majored in politics and went on to attend the University of Maine School of Law. She worked as a legal services lawyer specializing in juvenile rights at Pine Tree Legal Assistance and spent a few years as the director of admissions at the University of Maine School of Law. In 2014, Beyea took the executive director position at the ACLU of Maine after Shenna Bellows left the organization to run for Senate. At the time, the ACLU had prioritized abortion rights and criminal justice reform. While working on these issues, Beyea encountered a general unwillingness to talk about inequities in America, particularly in the criminal justice system. “The criminal justice system is just another way of oppressing low income and people of color,” she says. “It is a re-entrenchment of discriminatory laws.” Here in predominantly white Maine, she explains, it has been historically easy for some to deny racism is an issue. “Not only is it an issue,” she says, “but not shining a light on it as progressive organizations was making it worse.” One of her first objectives as executive director was to refocus the lens, looking at issues with sharper attention to racial equity. She believes since the 2016 election, the view that there are systemic prejudices has gained broader support.
“I’m excited to see how many people want to join in this work and have uncomfortable conversations,” Beyea says. “We need to figure out how all of our systems, including the nonprofit systems, perpetuate institutional racism.” Changing inherent bias is hard work, “but it’s important work, and we are committed to doing it,” she says. Since 2016, Beyea says the organization has been consistently combatting attacks at the state and federal level on the established rights of immigrants, people of color, and vulnerable populations. Beyea’s office employed seven people in 2015. Now they’re a staff of 15, and they could easily double in size again. ACLU membership in Maine went from 1,800 in 2015 to over 10,000 since the election. Nationally, membership is 1.7 million, up from 400,000. And although that growth is ultimately positive, it also puts new demands on resources.
Beyea and her team work in the courts and the state Legislature as well as at the local government level, fighting against aggression and discrimination. There is public speaking and coalition work as well, collaborating with other nonprofits that have similar missions. “None of us do it alone,” Beyea says. “We rely on each other.” Her office is also committed to educating the public. “People want to participate in their democracy now, and they may not understand the rules of engagement,” she says. “We serve as a resource for that.”
Beyea wants people to see the ACLU as an organization that works to expand the protections of the constitution, and has been doing so for nearly a century (the ACLU turns 100 in 2020). “The constitution is a set of ideals. It’s never actually been realized,” she says. “All people are not treated equally in this country. All people do not have equal rights. It’s a daily job.”
From the other end of the table, Ramsay adds quietly, “Like doing the laundry.”
“Yes,” Beyea smiles, “like doing the laundry.”
Annabelle Adams-Beyea, sitting between the two older women, nods. This is a simile she has clearly heard before. Home from her first semester at The New School in New York City, Adams-Beyea recalls her first memory of political activism, at age 8. “Obama was running for his first term, and I had the Obama t-shirt. I don’t think I really knew what I was doing or understood the larger implications, but I remember going to events where I had to wear the t-shirt,” she says with a laugh. As a teenager, she attended her mom’s speaking engagements and ACLU events, to show support and because she was interested. She rallied and canvased and also volunteered for Environment Maine. Today she’s majoring in environmental science.
Adams-Beyea is following the path of her grandfather, Jan Beyea, a physicist, environmentalist, and former Chief Scientist and Vice President of National Audubon Society, and her father, Kurt Adams, who has worked in the alternative energy industry and exposed her to conservation at a young age. But her mother’s and grandmother’s dedication to social justice are very much at play in her career plans.
“This first semester at The New School has shown me how much social justice is involved with the environmental science movement,” Adams-Beyea says. “It’s not all about climate change. It’s about public health and disparities. Social justice is tied into every course.”
“Everyone in my classes agreed racism was bad, but they weren’t having the hard conversations about it. The idea of pulling the curtain back on the issues was done at [my] home, not anywhere else.”
This is a different approach than Adams-Beyea was used to at school in Yarmouth. Although her peers generally shared the same political views as she did, they weren’t engaged at the same level. “Everyone in my classes agreed racism was bad, but they weren’t having the hard conversations about it. The idea of pulling the curtain back on the issues was done at [my] home, not anywhere else.”
Her mother and grandmother have influenced her thoughts on generational activism as well. A family of her own may be years off, but Adams-Beyea knows this: “I would be so disappointed if I raised my children in any other way other than as good activists.”
During her first week in New York, Adams-Beyea almost got arrested at a protest. “I was so proud,” her mother says, laughing. Then Beyea gets serious, clarifying that she has told Annabelle to avoid arrest and reminded her of the privileges she likely has in these situations. “As white women, there are things we can do that women of color cannot do without risking their safety. There are things I can say that if I were a black women, I could not safely say. Ultimately that’s why we’re doing this work. There are still people being left out.”
Nothing about Beyea’s responses feel rote; she is clearly a woman who lives and breathes her work. But she has a harder time finding the words to describe how grateful she is to be doing what she loves. “I’m very aware that I’ve been able to do this work because I had opportunities. I went to a great college, had no debt, got into a strong law school. I had advantages and I’m delighted to pass those on to my kids.”
That privilege seems to weigh on her, though, perhaps because she knows it does not extend to all women, or to all people. “I think about how hard it is for me to keep it together, and I have support, a steady paycheck, and health insurance that I’m not afraid of losing. I try to keep that in the center. It doesn’t always stop me from complaining about how tired I am,” she laughs, “but I do keep it center, because we’ve been very lucky and privileged to get to do this work.”
At the other end of the table, Ramsay is nodding. “We don’t stop to think about how lucky we are and have been,” she says thoughtfully. For this family of activists, “we” is the operative word.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.