Seeing racial injustice, a group of Irvine seniors takes a stand

Irvine residents Jan Wilson, 74, Vivian Johnson, 85, and Francesca Cancian, 83, of Seniors for Racial Justice.
Irvine residents, from left to right, Jan Wilson, 74, Vivian Johnson, 85, and Francesca Cancian, 83, are three of the eight founding members of Seniors for Racial Justice.
(Kevin Chang | Staff Photographer)

In the weeks after George Floyd died while a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck, a group of Orange County seniors formed a racial justice advocacy group and organized a series of vigils to draw attention to the unjust police killings of Black Americans.

With the threat of a deadly virus in the air, the elderly group gathered on a street corner, some in wheelchairs, others with walkers in-hand and caregivers nearby, and they held up signs that read “Silence is Violence” and “Seniors for Racial Justice.”

People who drove by honked in support and gave thumbs up.

The sight was irregular. Usually, protesters are much younger.

“They were just pleased to see us taking a stand for something instead of just sitting and playing bingo,” said Vivian Johnson, 85. “We just decided we needed to do something, and we couldn’t just sit and listen to the news.”

The eight founding members of Seniors for Racial Justice live in the Regents Point senior community in Irvine. Johnson said about 60 people from the community took part in the vigils.

Following the Floyd demonstrations, the seniors teamed up with the organization Vote Forward to write more than 400 letters encouraging people to vote in the presidential election.

The group is also looking to partner with the local National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to provide youth mentorship.

“Many of us feel we want to continue to make a contribution to society in spite of being elderly,” Johnson said.

Flowers planted in snow surrounding a black-and-white mural of George Floyd
A mural of George Floyd is seen in George Floyd Square in Minneapolis.
(Associated Press)

Amid increased reports of rising racism and violence against Asian Americans throughout the country, the group is currently working on plans to support the local Asian American community.

The group will be meeting Monday to discuss a vigil in honor of the Asian American community.

“One purpose is to educate ourselves and our community regarding our inherent racial bias,” Johnson said. “Our biases result in injustice, so we needed to really take a look at our own biases, and we would encourage others to do likewise. And I have a belief that when there is an unjust system, being kind is not enough.

“People can say, ‘Oh I haven’t done any harm to people of color, it’s not my fault that there’s injustice.’ But being kind is not enough when you have an unjust system. To claim to be politically neutral in the face of injustice is actually a very political position, because it upholds the status quo. And it’s on the side of oppression.”

Johnson’s husband, George, passed away in October. But before his death, George took part in all four vigils following Floyd’s killing, despite being ill with Alzheimer’s and kidney disease and bound to a wheelchair.

“He said, ‘It’s the right thing to do, I must do it,’” Johnson said of her husband.

George was a Lutheran minister. In his 40s, he became so concerned with helping the disenfranchised, he became director of the World Hunger Program for the entire Lutheran church, Johnson said.

Fairhaven Memorial honors longtime volunteer Susan Papiri with Oliver Halsell award for her work with seniors.

Johnson and George were exposed to poverty all around the world, many times living among the impoverished. In the 1990s, Johnson and her husband witnessed the injustices of South Africa during the apartheid era.

All of these experiences influenced Johnson.

“It’s no wonder that I feel very strongly about these issues,” she said.

Johnson and another member of the group, Jan Wilson, are both part of the Irvine United Congregational Church, which Wilson said is a progressive church that aims to fight for dignity and equity within the community.

Wilson, 74, said her family was influential in forming her drive for social justice. In particular, her mother was involved in fair housing issues in San Gabriel Valley and advocated for farm worker’s rights.

Wilson grew up in a predominately white community in Arcadia, or as she put it, “a bubble.” She said it was made that way through real estate covenants, which were used to deny housing to non-white people.

She now sees the bubble for what it was. She said the Santa Anita racetrack, where proms were held and teenagers learned to drive in the parking lot, was once a massive internment camp. Thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to live in converted horse stalls for six months during World War II.

“Nowhere in our education did it ever mention this,” she said. “It was totally omitted from our history.”

Wilson, who worked as a librarian mostly at the collegiate level, came of age in the 1960s, so she was involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement. In her college years, she volunteered for a few summers at a community center in Watts, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles and a site of historic protests and racial tension.

“I think more of us white people are really honing in on the idea of white privilege and our part in it,” Wilson said. “It’s not enough just to try to do nice social programs, we need to really understand the systemic nature of it, and try to use what influence we have to influence that.”

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