Looking at Jan Harwoodâ€™s silver-and-white-streaked hair, kind eyes and wrinkles (some of them from decades of smiling), an unsuspecting passerby might take the 85-year-old for a typical grandmother type.
She is a grandmother, but sheâ€™s anything but typical.
â€œI think Iâ€™ve been arrested 11 times,â€ says Harwood, with a hearty laugh. A majority of those arrests were at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she and others annually protest on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
For more than 50 years, Harwood has been a vocal activist in the fight for nuclear abolition and peaceâ€”a history that will be recognized Sunday, Feb. 5, when the Womenâ€™s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) celebrates her larger-than-life story, in an event entitled â€œHats On to Jan Harwood: A Celebratory Tribute to an Unconventional Activist.â€
Harwood is also a founding member of the Santa Cruz Raging Grannies, a self-described â€œgaggleâ€ of women dressed in long skirts and flowery hats, who satirize popular songs to reflect progressive issues, local and nationwide.
â€œWe started singing when life was so grim under George W. Bush,â€ she reminisces. â€œSo we started singing songs with a humor in them to cheer people, and ourselves, up.â€
The Grannies still perform as needed, at protests and gatherings, or sometimes on a whim, singing at the farmers market or throughout downtown. The songs pack a powerful message, but not all of them are humorousâ€”such as the Grannieâ€™s somber tune, â€œBring â€˜Em Home.â€
â€œThat one is set to the tune of â€˜Country Roads,â€™â€ Harwood explains with a heavy-hearted sigh. â€œWe sang that one a lot during the Iraq War.â€ Â
Others know Harwood for her work with the local chapter of WILPF, which is throwing Sundayâ€™s celebration. For the past two decades she has been an active member of the century-old organization, spending the past seven years as the local chapterâ€™s newsletter editor. Â Â
For a sliding scale of a minimum $15, attendees get a seat at the De Anza Park Clubhouse party, which has sing-a-longs, tribute speeches, and even a comedic roast of the always-laughing activistâ€”plus a copy of Â WILPFâ€™s tribute book to Harwood.
â€œYouâ€™ve gotta keep on singing and dancing if you want a revolution,â€ exclaims longtime WILPF member, local activist and friend of Harwoodâ€™s, Patricia Schroeder. â€œAnd thatâ€™s our Jan! Sheâ€™s always singing and will even do a two-step for you.â€
For her part, Harwood says sheâ€™s â€œgrateful to have been singled out.â€
â€œThere are so many people working forever on these important issues, trying to make the world a little better,â€ she says.
Harwood still maintains her blog, grannyjansantacruzblog.com, where she has already posted two songs about President Donald Trump. And she showed up in full force for the Santa Cruz installment of the Womenâ€™s March on Washington. â€œIt was the greatest thing Iâ€™ve ever seen in Santa Cruz,â€ she says.
Born in 1931, Harwood began her life of activism at the age of 30. At the time, she was living with her then-husband, a sculptor, along with their three children on an isolated farm in New Jersey. To pass the time, she would read progressive magazines such as The Nation and I.F. Stone Weekly, which regularly featured articles on the growing threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, something that weighed heavily on her conscience as she thought about her growing children.
She soon contacted the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and began her own committee chapter. A year later, Harwood went to Washington D.C. to picket the White House, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. â€œI still tense up when I think about it,â€ she says with a pained sigh. â€œThe congressmen and senators we talked to in Washington were feeling just as hopeless and scared as we were.â€
After she and her husband moved to California and later divorced, Harwood decided on a career in social work. In 1969, at the age of 38, Harwood graduated from UC Berkeley with a masterâ€™s degree in social welfare and began a 30-year career in mental health care, spending 17 of those years with Santa Clara County and continuing her life of anti-nuclear activism along the way.
In 1995 she retired and moved to Santa Cruz the following year. â€œAfter retirement Iâ€™ve been able to do exactly what Iâ€™ve wanted to do,â€ says Harwood. â€œAnd itâ€™s been just marvelous.â€
That includes joining WILPFâ€”which has a rich history dating back to the Womenâ€™s Suffrage Movementâ€”as well as tabling with the Santa Cruz chapter and, of course, penning political parody songs.
A few years into the President Bush administration, Harwood joined other WILPF members in founding the Santa Cruz chapter of the Raging Grannies, which has Canadian origins dating back to the 1980s. To date, the Santa Cruz Raging Grannies have sung more than 500 politically charged, satirized songs, with Harwood as the main lyricist.
â€œIt turns out Iâ€™m pretty good at writing them!â€ she laughs. â€œAnd itâ€™s so much fun to go out and educate with our songs while bringing humor into gloomy subjects.â€
Her active lifestyle and constant involvement led Harwood to write a novel in 2011, for her 80th birthday, of fictionalized mysteries involving the Raging Grannies, titled Dangerous Women: A Raging Granny Mystery with an accompanying CD of a handful of the Grannies songs. Three years later, she released the sequel, An Unconventional Murder: A Raging Granny Mystery. Â Â Â
But even with all of the important issues of todayâ€™s world, such as global warming, facing humanity, Harwood still sees nuclear annihilation as the greatest hazard.
â€œThe nearest [issue] to my heart is still getting rid of these damned nuclear weapons,â€ she says, emphatically. â€œThey could wipe us out in a half an hour and then thereâ€™s no need to worry about the other stuff.â€
Even though the Cold War has ended and there hasnâ€™t been a major threat of nuclear war in years, Harwood warns the peril is still very real. During President Barack Obamaâ€™s administration, he announced $1 trillion in new spending to modernize and increase Americaâ€™s nuclear arsenal over the next three decades.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of old, rusting missiles around, with new ones being built,â€ she says. â€œAnd anyone of them can have an accident at anytime.â€
â€˜Hats On to Jan Harwoodâ€™ is from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 5 at the De Anza Clubhouse at 2395 Delaware Ave., Santa Cruz. People are encouraged to wear hats.