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Hyper Activist 

With radical cred dating back before World War I, Robin Lloyd lives out a leftist legacy.

click to enlarge JORDAN SILVERMAN

At high noon on a bone-chilling Inauguration Day, Robin Lloyd joins a rally in front of the Federal Building in Burlington. She is holding a sign that asks the question on the minds of everyone who voted for Al Gore and Ralph Nader: “What happened to democracy?”

The demonstration is just one of many crusades on the weekly agenda of the 62-year-old activist, filmmaker and philanthropist. Lloyd’s global perspective — and her significant financial resources — propel her from one issue to another on a life-long mission to save the planet and all its inhabitants. “It’s the family tradition,” she notes.

It all started with the “anarchist cows.” That’s how Lloyd describes the cattle her paternal great-great-grandfather, Texas pioneer Sam Maverick, stubbornly left unbranded in the mid-1900s. Thanks to the San Antonio rancher’s ornery attitude, in 1867 the word “maverick” entered the vernacular to indicate anyone who marches to the beat of a different drummer.

A founder of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington, Lloyd comes from a long line of non-conformists. One of the most colorful was her grandmother, Lola Maverick Lloyd, who helped launch the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom after sailing to Europe on an unsuccessful 1915 expedition to mediate an end to World War I.

These days Robin Lloyd has pared down her commitments to a range of causes in order to devote more time to WILPF. “It’s the job I take most seriously now,” she explains over a bowl of soup to soothe her stomach, which has been unsettled ever since a recent fact-finding trip to Haiti. “I’m the person on the national board most responsible for fundraising.”

This decision began to take shape in 1995, when Lloyd attended the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. “My consciousness was raised about the ongoing plight of women around the world,” she says, citing the chilling litany: dowry deaths in India, female infanticide in China, genital mutilation in parts of Africa, domestic violence everywhere. “I found it very moving.”

Lloyd’s focus on WILPF seemed inevitable in light of Lola Maverick’s involvement. The noted pacifist had married William Bross Lloyd, who hailed from a family with its own strange brew of capitalist wealth and leftist beliefs. At one time a member of the Communist Party, he was arrested and defended in court by attorney Clarence Darrow for making a rabble-rousing speech from a soap box. His own grandfather, one of four original owners of the Chicago Tribune, was vehemently anti-communist. William’s father, Henry Demerest Lloyd, turned into a socialist muckraker who wrote an exposé of the Standard Oil Company.

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Lloyd doesn’t just show up for meetings and protests. She has made her two-story Burlington Hill Section home into something of a waystation for refugees from Central America, the Caribbean and Africa, many of whom are passing through en route to sanctuary in Canada. Sometimes that has meant sheltering people whose suffering is profound.

“About two years ago a teenage boy from Rwanda stayed here,” Lloyd says. “Many of his family members had been killed, he was wounded on the back of his neck by a machete, and he could never go back home because he’d been a witness to atrocities.”

Lloyd’s dedication never fails to impress Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle. “She’s the conscience of the community,” he suggests. “Robin is a tireless advocate on issues of peace and justice. There’s no one who works as hard or is as driven by principles and values.”

But the mayor also suggests Lloyd “can be a pain in the butt sometimes.” While his kids were folk dancing in a recent First Night performance, for example, Lloyd was outside Edmunds Elementary protesting the sponsor of the show: General Dynamics. “We’re political allies,” Clavelle says, “but she doesn’t hesitate to get in my face.”

Although it was virtually pre-ordained that she would begin livin’ la vida maverick, Lloyd’s path took many less obvious turns: As one of four children born to two writers, William and Mary Lloyd, she was raised primarily in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka. During World War II, the family moved to California for two years; William was a conscientious objector required to do alternative service as a firefighter there. In 1949, the Lloyds relocated to Switzerland because he was writing a book, Waging Peace: The Swiss Experience.

“When we came back to Winnetka in the early 1950s, it was the worst year of my life,” Robin Lloyd recalls. “I was faced with the eighth-grade social order of the public-school system. My hair wasn’t right. I didn’t dress the same way. And the fact that we’d lived in Switzerland made me an oddball.”

By 1956 Lloyd was a student at Ohio’s Antioch College, her parents’ alma mater. As a 20-year-old junior she married Dan Papish, then dropped out to follow him to Brandeis University in Massachusetts. While he was enrolled in graduate school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in art history.

“We were socialists then, supporting any revolution you could find,” Lloyd says. “In 1961, we moved to New York City and Dan became a stockbroker. He started to be obsessive with this; I couldn’t bear it.”

When the marriage dissolved, she remained in Manhattan as an art editor at a publishing house. In the turbulent late ’60s, Lloyd was at ground zero — Columbia University — earning a master’s degree in fine arts from the teachers college. After graduating she immersed herself in a demimonde of experimental filmmakers, shooting a 12-minute “Jungian” short that depicted the intricate world of Portuguese fishermen.

In 1970, Lloyd was in the midst of a film project about her artist boyfriend — “a bona fide madman” — when he committed suicide. Shattered, she finished the piece and headed north to Vermont, where her parents had purchased an old Rochester farm on 250 acres as a getaway home.

There, the urge to create “Jungian art films” continued, resulting in a non-narrative short called “Turn of the Year” that was partially financed by a grant from the state’s Council on the Arts. She let her 16mm camera capture the movements of an elderly man and the seasonal changes of an apple tree.

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During the two years Lloyd lived in Rochester she taught art in local schools and met Doreen Kraft, a fellow cinéaste who is now director of Burlington City Arts. The two moved to the Queen City and formed Orchid Films.

One of their earliest endeavors was Medusa, about an ancient conflict between the dominant male patriarchy and rebellious Greek goddesses. The duo collaborated with various departments at the University of Vermont, where Kraft was then a student, on projects such as Red Fall of Time, which stemmed from an alchemy course Kraft was taking. “It was very cryptic,” Lloyd admits.

In 1973 they traveled to Haiti — where Lloyd had gone a year earlier with her boyfriend to attend Mardi Gras — in search of voodoo. Their role model was Maya Deren, the avant-garde surrealist. “She went to Haiti in 1944 to make a film about dance, but she got involved with voodoo, gave up filmmaking and became a priestess. She wrote a book about this experience that we loved. We sort of wanted to walk in her footsteps.”

And so they did. “By the second night we were sleeping in a voodoo temple — because it was cheaper than a hotel,” she recalls. “We made a documentary, Painted Buses of Haiti, and parlayed that into funds for Black Dawn, shot later the same year.” The latter film was an animated folktale with political overtones that tapped into the so-called “primitive” painting style popular in Haiti.

Black Dawn, which took five years to finish, premiered at the Brooklyn Museum in conjunction with an exhibit of Haitian art in 1978, a sea-change year for Lloyd. Along with Kraft, she bought a 100-plus-year-old house on Maple Street, and Orchid Films became the Green Valley Film and Art Center, now Green Valley Media.

Then 40, Lloyd gave birth to a son, Jesse. “Motherhood sort of jolted me,” she says. “I didn’t want to bring children into the world without doing my utmost to make it a safer place.”

Jesse, now a college student, was born in July; a month later, Lloyd gave her first public speech — to mark the bombing of Hiroshima. She also co-founded the Burlington Peace Coalition during this time and stopped breast-feeding Jesse to spend several weeks in Nicaragua, where Kraft and Northeast Kingdom filmmaker Jay Craven were working on a documentary about the Sandinista literacy campaign, Dawn of the People.

Then, out of the blue, Lloyd decided to campaign for the U.S. Congress on the environment-friendly Citizens Party ticket, which was running Barry Commoner for president. The Democrats had no candidate, so her only real opponent was Jim Jeffords.

“I got 14 percent of the vote statewide and 25 percent in Burlington,” she points out. “It was a tremendous education, getting to know Vermont, traveling the back roads, learning about things like milk parity prices.”

Defeated by a wider margin in a three-way 1982 congressional race, Lloyd was not the first person in her quirky lineage attracted to electoral politics. Old Sam Maverick was a slave owner who reluctantly sided with the Confederacy, but, as a relatively enlightened Texas state congressman during the Civil War years, he worked to secure equal rights for his Mexican and German constituents.

At the beginning of the Reagan era, Lloyd turned her attention to nuclear weapons because, she says, “his presidency was a descent into mass terror.” She fondly remembers participating in a 1981 anti-nuclear “die-in” on Church Street. “The newspaper ran a photo of me sprawled on a pile of dirt, playing dead.”

Twenty years later, at the dawn of the “Dubya” presidency, Lloyd looks like a hip raging grannie at the anti-Bush protest. She is flanked by two pre-teens — Gerald Washington, 11, and Jeremiah Williams, 12 — who are performing in Vermont with the Newark Boys Chorus. She is playing host to the two singers for the weekend.

Lloyd, Williams and Washington huddle against the cold wind to belt out a few stanzas of alternative lyrics set to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she has downloaded from the Internet: “We will take back our great nation/From for-profit corporations/With a new emancipation/To make the people free…”

After about an hour the 100 or so demonstrators march down Church Street, but, unlike in her die-in days, Lloyd succumbs to the cold. She and the Newark kids duck into Ben & Jerry’s for some hot chocolate.

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Robin Lloyd’s resumé would take your breath away. The last 20 years have been a whirlwind of grassroots political organizing, filmography and third-world travels. Not surprisingly, there are times when Lloyd can come across as a bit scatter-brained, as if all the responsibilities have taken their toll. But she is remarkably self-effacing about her own accomplishments.

Lloyd helped foster an ambitious tree nursery program for Burlington’s Nicaraguan sister city, Puerto Cabezas. She took over as de facto publisher of Toward Freedom, the monthly progressive political journal Lloyd’s father started in 1952. Greg Guma, Jesse’s father, is the current editor.

She took her camera back to Haiti, Central America and, for the first time, to China to attend the 1995 U.N. conference. She recalls, “When I heard of the plan to send a train from Europe to China, I contributed some money and made a 60-minute film about it, Peace Train to Beijing.”

At the end of the 1990s Lloyd, a Quaker, pursued yet another interest. The Courageous Women of Colombia is her documentary about conditions in the impoverished Latin American nation torn apart by revolution, government corruption and the U.S. war on drugs.

To find time for such projects, Lloyd gave up board positions with the Amherst-based Peace Develop-ment Fund and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. Nonetheless, her schedule is still full. This week she begins teaching a class called “The Dialectic of Violence/ Nonviolence: Oppressive Regimes and Human Responses” with attorney Sandy Baird at Burlington College.

“If I had another 24 hours in the day, I’d go to talk with the city’s police chief about the drug issue,” adds Lloyd, a Progressive Coalition supporter who feels increasingly drawn to the forward-thinking marijuana policies of the Grassroots Party.

“Robin has tremendous energy,” observes Dave Conrad, a recently retired UVM education professor and long-time activist in his own right. “You can always count on her to be there, out in front. I’m always amazed. She takes on so many things. It must be hard.”

Not so, Lloyd demurs. “I lead a very happy life. It’s exactly what I want to be doing. And I’m able to [give so much of my time] because I have independent wealth, thanks to an inheritance from my Chicago Tribune relatives.”

That wealth never dimmed her parents’ social consciousness as they grew older, either. Mary Lloyd spent a few weeks living in an Alabama sharecropper’s home just after Martin Luther King’s 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; her husband was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. And, of course, what maverick could resist being inspired by tales of anarchist cows?

“We have a curious family dynamic,” Lloyd says. “Being the black sheep is sort of the mainstream thing to do. I feel the force of my ancestors pushing me along.”

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