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Facing climate and social justice crises, older people are getting back into the protest battle

Older activists seek to draw on ‘generational DNA’ to redeem legacy

Sue Donaldson, who retired as a psychiatrist in 2014, said boomers like herself, who’ve led comfortable lives as the planet has warmed, have an obligation now to change its course.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

When protesters marched through downtown Boston last October to demand that banks and insurers stop doing business with the fossil fuel industry, the young activists who organized the rally were joined by a surprisingly large contingent of gray-haired supporters.

Some hoisted signs that read “Old and Bold” and “No Time to Waste,” artfully highlighting their stage of life and sense of urgency.

“It’s definitely time for people to spring back to action,” said author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, 61, who took part in the Boston march on his way to the UN climate change conference in Scotland.

Four months later, McKibben and like-minded contemporaries are launching a movement called Third Act. It aims to mobilize Americans over 60 — mostly baby boomers and the so-called silent generation that preceded them — as advocates for the climate and voting rights, which the organizers see as deeply intertwined.


“They’re unfinished business for this generation, and they’re existential,” McKibben said. “I don’t think we can solve the climate crisis without a functioning democracy.”

Environmental and social justice champions are seeking to activate, or reactivate, older folks as a potent force for change. Many seniors are at a juncture, after decades of finding their way and chasing their dreams, where they begin to rethink their purpose. And they have more time on their hands, networks of contacts, and with luck, wealth to deploy.

Third Act has amassed an e-mail list of tens of thousand of names. These “Third Actors” are marshaling a “democracy force” to promote fair elections in the midterms and beyond, while putting pressure on lenders and investors that bankroll coal, gas, and oil companies.

Some recruits are new to political engagement, roused by efforts to restrict voting in multiple states and environmental threats that seem ever more dire. Others are veterans of the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s and 1970s who, after many years of pursuing careers and raising families, are ready to return to the fight.


Jody Woos, in red coat, took part in a climate change rally at the State House in Monteplier, Vt.Caleb Kenna for the Boston Globe

“I need to make up for time lost,” said Jody Woos, 67, who retired last summer as director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Burlington, Vt. Woos was a stalwart at Vietnam and civil rights protests in her youth but was politically dormant for years. Then, after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, she joined Black Lives Matter protesters in Burlington and stepped up her environmental activism.

Third Actors seek “to draw on that generational DNA,” said McKibben, who wrote a seminal 1989 book on climate change called “The End of Nature” and leads the climate campaign group 350.org. McKibben, whose father, Gordon, was a Globe business editor and foreign correspondent, grew up in Lexington and is now a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Recalling the headiness of the March on Washington in 1963 and the first Earth Day in 1970, McKibben warned that many of the gains that followed, from voting rights to clean energy legislation, are being erased, threatening to undermine a generational legacy.

“There is a reasonable chance we will be the first people who are going to leave the world way worse than we found it,” McKibben said.

Third Act president and cofounder, Vanessa Arcara, a farmer in rural upstate New York, is only 36 but describes herself as an “aspiring elder.” Noting that young people have flocked to the climate and racial justice movements, Arcara said their parents and grandparents have a responsibility to support those efforts. “The most important work of our time should not be left to 17-year-olds as their homework,” she said.


The movement is national, but a strong core are environmentalists, like McKibben, from the Boston area and northern New England.

Kathleen Sullivan, 77, of Freeport, Maine, an early Third Actor, has experienced all three of the life phases alluded to in the organization’s name. She was involved in nuclear power protests in her youth. Then she focused on her work as a therapist while raising two children. She also bought a second home further up the coast in Addison.

“I haven’t been involved for years,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been living the good life.”

But last summer, when a plume of smoke from the Western wildfires made its way across the country, she noticed the rising sun over Eastern Bay in Addison had turned a ghastly shade of scarlet. “It was like a call from the gods,” she said. “It was so troubling. . . . I got really depressed for about three weeks.” Then she decided to sell her vacation home, return to Freeport, and rededicate herself to activism with Third Act.

Retired software developer Fred Hewett, who's now an avid birder, said he's become more involved in the climate movement.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Cambridge resident Fred Hewett, 65, a retired software developer, described himself as a “science-math kid” who wasn’t active in politics growing up. But he spent plenty of time outdoors and is now an avid birder and rower on the Charles River. Since he stopped working, Hewett had been writing code and organizing for climate groups.


“If when I die, the world is seeing the fossil fuel era fade into the sunset, then I’ll feel that my generation has not failed,” he said.

Another boomer drawn to the group is Dan Quinlan, 64, who became aware of global warming in the 1980s when he was a physicist at Bell Labs. He now works for a Burlington, Vt., nonprofit that promotes renewable energy and helps hospitals reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Quinlan said Third Act responds to many seniors who feel a sense of duty. “Older people are worried and frustrated by the two big issues — what’s going on with the democracy and the climate,” he said.

The group draws inspiration from the Black civil rights activists who organized civil disobedience protests and successfully pushed for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The typeface on the Third Act logo is called Bayard, named for Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington in 1963, and is modeled on banners from that march.

But the leadership of the US environmental movement has been largely white. One goal of Third Act is to create a multiracial campaign that connects environmentalists to advocates for voting rights — and, potentially, a range of other issues, said lead adviser Akaya Windwood, 65, of Oakland, Calif., who retired in 2018 as president of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, which trains leaders for social change.


Windwood said Black and brown people in many locations face greater exposure to environmental hazards. A longtime economic justice activist who marched with farm workers in her youth over poor pay and work conditions, she takes a holistic view of Third Act’s direction.

One goal of Third Act is to create a multiracial campaign that connects environmentalists to advocates for voting rights — and, potentially, a range of other issues, said lead adviser Akaya Windwood.Jan Sturmann for the Boston Globe

“I’m very interested in a cross-movement movement,” she said. “Back in the day, it was the gay movement or the women’s movement or the antiwar movement. They were all separate and you kind of had to choose.” But many now see “it’s all needed and it’s all welcome,” she said.

And many Third Actors who have departed the workforce in recent years now have the time as well as the motivation.

Sue Donaldson, 72, who retired as a psychiatrist in 2014, moved from Cambridge to Northampton last year and has become a full-time climate activist. Boomers like herself, who’ve led comfortable lives as the planet has warmed, have an obligation now to change its course, she said.

“We have done more damage to the planet than any other generation,” Donaldson said. “I’m a poster child for white privilege and I just feel like I should be paying back.”

Organizers are well aware that older folks are as politically split as the nation at large, reflecting fissures dating to the Vietnam War. Survey data show Donald Trump edged out Joe Biden among voters over 65 in the 2020 presidential election, while Biden racked up huge majorities of those under 40, according to the Pew Research Center.

The mostly progressive seniors gravitating to Third Act are still a substantial demographic. But given that they are outnumbered in their age bracket, they’ll have to find ways to extend their outreach.

Third Act has the chance to attract independents and ordinary people in both political parties who are alarmed about climate change but lack nonpartisan “safe spaces” to address it, said the Rev. Jim Antal, 72, of Norwich, Vt., who spent 12 years as the Framingham-based conference minister for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts.

Despite the political divide, Antal thinks outright climate deniers have shrunk to a “squishy little minority.” He’s now mobilizing a Third Act “faith cohort” that can appeal to others through houses of worship.

“The continuity of creation has been broken” by climate change, Antal said. “Our generation doesn’t have a choice. We have a universal calling to engage this challenge.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com.