One Rad Mama
Alamedan Kate Schatz is an educator, author, and feminist whose voice is being heard around the country and the world.
Miriam Klein Stahl, left, and Kate Schatz, right, hold a book signing for Rad Women Worldwide.
Photo by Nano Visser
Five years ago when she was pregnant with her second child, writer Kate Schatz and her family moved to West Alameda’s famously fun 300 block of Haight Avenue. “The night we signed the papers, I just had no idea about this neighborhood — and how engaged and informed they are,” Schatz said. She spent the next day at the annual block party, and thought, “OK, this is our new life. It was great.”
On the day of this year’s Haight Avenue block party in late May, her household was actively engaged in the neighborhood shenanigans. In her front yard, one of two bounce houses on the block rocked with laughing children. World music floated through the speaker on the porch, and a wicker couch and Adirondack chairs invited conversation and a cold beer. In her home’s windows, posters told the passerby to VOTE, that Black Lives Matter, and insisted NO BAN NO WALL Sanctuary for All.
“The kind of camaraderie here is unusual,” Schatz said, looking at the crowd of neighbors eating and laughing. “Halloween is huge! Progressive dinners, Easter, the New Year’s party — people will pull up chairs, and people just show up!”
On the sofa on their lawn, Schatz and husband, Jason Pontius, 47, clinked beers and took a moment together, keeping an eye on their daughter and son, and their veggies on the barbecue. Schatz has been a vegetarian since age 11, and the kids are, as well.
Schatz was merely looking to read her then-toddler daughter a story that wasn’t about the same old thing when she wrote her children’s picture book Rad American Women A-Z in 2015. “There wasn’t a lot out there” that was feminist in tone but engaging enough to read to a child, she said. Schatz didn’t expect that she would be propelled from behind her desk teaching creative writing at Oakland’s School of the Arts to The New York Times best-seller list for children’s literature, travel around the country talking about women who made history, or find herself addressing some 20,000 members of a Facebook activist group almost daily.
But times being what they are, her book made a splash, the nation elected a rogue president, and Schatz has found herself penning one after another children’s books about women and girls changing the world, all the while creating the very change she so often writes about. In essence, Schatz and Berkeley illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl created a new subgenre of children’s illustrated books about real girls and women. One online site, Refinery29, called Rad American Women A-Z “the most inspiring children’s book we’ve ever seen.” Both Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide made The New York Times best-seller list for children’s literature, with spotlights in Elle, 7x7, Teen Vogue, NPR, MTV, The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Schatz’s new book, Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women, just released in July by Ten Speed Press, is the natural next step in her enterprise. Also illustrated by Klein Stahl’s papercuts, Rad Girls Can encompasses 50 stories of young women who made a difference or accomplished something seemingly impossible before the age of 20. From young historical figures like Joan of Arc or Khutulun, the wrestling princess of Mongolia, to modern girls like Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai; Trisha Prabhu, who created an anti-bullying app at age 13; and singer Lorde, who was signed to a record label at age 12, the book runs the gamut of famous and not-so-famous. Some girls, like Misty Copeland, principal ballerina for American Ballet Theater, went on to have amazing careers as women, and some, like Jewish Holocaust victim Sophie Scholl, were cut down in their youth. It makes for compelling reading, and would be a strong addition to any school library or classroom or summer reading for tweens and teens.
The new book is a natural extension of the work she has been doing all along — activism from the get-go, always with a feminist core.
“If her training in life was for anything, it was to be a feminist author,” said Pontius. “She didn’t set out to write children’s books but she had this idea. Her [work] has always been explicitly political, intentionally. There’s a reason that page one is Angela Davis. And she wants to push it harder. The new book is more like that, more political. It’s radical work. I think she intends it to be that way.”
A native Californian, Schatz, 39, was born and raised in San Jose, descended from a German braumeister who settled in Oakland early in the last century. “As a child, Kate was hilarious — always challenging, forthright,” said her mother, Barbara Schatz. “Always passionate. Kate does not suffer fools gladly. She was — and still is — an amazing young woman.”
Kate Schatz grew up surrounded by books, as did her mother. “A generational love for books,” Barbara Schatz called it. “Kate wrote her first book and won her first award in first grade.”
“I was a total activist hippie kid in high school,” Schatz remembered. “I only wanted to go to UC Santa Cruz. My gateway drug to activism was the environment and animals. I wanted to teach outdoor education.” She was president of the environmental club in high school and missed a week of 11th grade to go up to Humbolt County to defend the Headwaters Forest against devastating logging. She wrote a letter to her local community newspaper calling out white racist parents who were “concerned” about a growing Latinx demographic at her public high school. “I did my first political phonebank — for Nader — and attended my first march in 1996.” It was the National Organization for Women’s Fight the Radical Right march in San Francisco.
But in her first semester at college, she discovered that Introduction to Ecology began at 8 a.m. while Introduction to Feminism began at noon. “Out of pure laziness, I took the later class, never expecting [the passion she felt]. It exploded my brain completely. I didn’t know Women’s Studies was a thing.”
Soon after, she auditioned for the creative writing program, fell in love with writing fiction, and ended up a double major of women’s studies and creative writing. The two programs were parallel paths, she recalled. “They did not seem like the most practical choices for a career path — but now I’m totally using them in a very concrete way.”
After graduating from UCSC, Schatz applied for the MFA program in fiction writing at Brown University in Rhode Island, living on the East Coast for three years, but finishing her degree in two, experimenting with short fiction. She met her husband, Jason Pontius, on the East Coast, but he was from the West and they knew they’d end up back here. They married and lived in Oakland.
“I was really serious about being in the writing world. I wanted to understand the whole breadth and scope of it.” A 2001 internship at Small Press Distribution, a nonprofit literary organization that helps tiny publishers distribute their wares, helped her see the other side of the literary world and how the writing connected with publishing and booksellers. One thing it taught her was to “find where your book lives — who it lives with, clusters with, sits on the shelf with.”
Schatz had a book accepted into the 33 1/3 RPM series by 333 Sound/Bloomsbury, a literary novella about PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. She had published short stories in places like Joyland, Oxford American, and Denver Quarterly, and did freelance work for the East Bay Express and the San Francisco Chronicle. She had wanted to write children’s books, but it didn’t just come together so simply. In the meantime, Schatz worked as an adjunct English professor at several Bay Area community colleges, and then joined the Oakland School of the Arts faculty, where she led the creative writing department.
“I turned 30, I bought a house, I wrote a book, I got pregnant — in one year.” But she felt stuck, as many writer-parents do, with a new baby and an inability to tap into previous levels of energy or creativity. “After I had my daughter, about a year and a half, I felt extremely uncreative. I had a career [crisis] moment — am I really a writer?”
She toyed with some other career options, perhaps working in the women’s health advocacy field. “Reproductive rights are important — I’d been volunteering at Planned Parenthood. Maybe women’s health is what I’m going to do?” Then she had the idea for a children’s book about important American women, and was encouraged by San Francisco publishers City Lights Books to try the word “Rad” in the title. “That, to me, felt like this real culmination or convergence of all these things that had been meaningful to me, part of me: activism, feminism, teaching, history, children’s literature. I’d been teaching. I really credit my husband. He was really encouraging. My best friend is also a writer and she was a motivating force.”
She told Schatz, “You can’t stop writing!”
And yet, at heart, Schatz is still a teacher. “That’s like the foundation of everything that I do – how do you engage an audience? How do you make young people pay attention? How can you make politics feel engaging?” A handful of teacher’s tricks in her pocket are part of her secret to success — asking open-ended questions or guiding listeners toward a point.
At a recent spring book event, Turn the Page at Children’s Fairyland, she took the stage like a teacher: with cheerful authority. “Can my friends in the back hear?” She read aloud from Rad American Women A-Z, holding the book so the audience could see the sharply cut illustrations. “B is for Billie Jean — what do you think Billie Jean King does?”
“Plays tennis!” a child responded, pointing at the book.
“Right! Have you read this before?”
She read aloud about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to fly an airplane, before Amelia Earhart, adept at barnstorming and wing-walking. “They called her Queen Bessie Coleman because she was the best and the bravest female pilot out there.” To help the history stick, she told the audience to look for the Bessie Coleman monument near Oakland International Airport, making the story relevant and local.
As Schatz spoke to the assembled children, illustrator Klein Stahl, 49, quietly cut out a black paper silhouette of a bird to show how the artwork was created. The self-described introvert said later, “Kate likes to talk about our work, and I kind of like to hover behind and just pop out the imagery.”
Schatz and Klein Stahl met when they both contributed to an anthology, and when Schatz had her idea about Rad American Women, she contacted Klein Stahl with a pages-long email describing her vision. The artist replied with a one-word, “Sure,” and their collaboration began. A writer and artist working together is kind of “unique in the book world,” Klein Stahl said, even “strikingly unusual. It’s a true collaboration and partnership. I feel really lucky. It feels really right.”
Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. (Ten Speed Press, 2018, $16.99, 112 pages, 100 illustrations.)
The stories in Rad Women and Rad Girls are more than mere biography, Pontius said. “At a certain point that’s not enough. You have to write about what they had to put up with – usually from men – to get where they were.” Schatz has purposely shown just how these heroines got to their goals. “‘People thought she couldn’t do it. Only men could do it.’ Kate always points it out. It’s not enough to say, ‘She was the first.’ Kate thinks it’s important to say what they had to struggle against to get there.”
Is Schatz’s husband a feminist? “Of course. I can’t imagine a man who would be worthy of being friends with who wouldn’t claim to be a feminist. Has being married to a feminist helped me to deepen that? Absolutely. Absolute equality is a place to start,” he said.
The Haight Avenue neighborhood in West Alameda is connected by more than just geography. It’s also the seat of a political movement, founded by Schatz and two friends, called Solidarity Sundays. Leslie Van Every, Haight Street neighbor and cofounder of Solidarity Sundays, has lived in Alameda 13 years. “Kate and I and [friend] Jennye Garibaldi started Solidarity Sundays in January 2016. We were reacting to the San Bernardino shootings.”
On Dec. 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 others seriously injured by a terrorist shooting and attempted bombings. The friends felt helpless in the face of continued gun violence and news of police brutality. Van Every said they all felt that “I can’t just post a video to Facebook and just do nothing else.” So they put their heads together to plan a once-monthly meeting where they could “get people comfortable with the idea of activism, a monthly space or meeting to educate themselves on issues.” The founders started by creating what they call an info-script, which gives members a roadmap of how to talk about the issues. Activities at meetings include writing emails or letters and postcards to elected representatives, responding to issues, writing thank-you notes or letters to the editor, and listening to outside experts on topics or issues.
Schatz is “the powerhouse behind the info-scripts,” said Van Every. “I really wanted her to be the main voice because she is a writer. Her work in feminist writing really goes lockstep with what Solidarity Sundays is all about. It’s more than just a fit — it’s a calling.”
Solidarity Sundays began as one group in Alameda, with 20 to 40 regular members. But after the 2016 election, on the next Sunday, Schatz’s house was packed with about 100 people. It was raining, and everyone in the house was crying, Schatz recalled. The election seemed to cause a groundswell of people toward activism, changing how they interact with their government and communities. “For a lot of people, engagement has become really normal,” she said. “I think there has been a cultural shift. It is not weird to ask people to call their senators.”
The Facebook group snowballed after the election, to nearly 20,000 members, and there are now some 200 individual Solidarity Sunday groups across the country each with their own Facebook pages. With as many as 200 to 300 phone calls and letters arising from each of those Solidarity Sunday gatherings per month, that adds up to a lot of political impact across the country. Many of those chapters have formed relationships with local elected officials. Leaders from Bay Area chapters, including Schatz, had a one-hour sit-down meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2017.
“It’s been this great thing — we’ve watched people really learn how to be an activist. A lot of these groups have blown up with 50 to 100 members,” Van Every said. “We’re so in awe of it. ‘That’s us!’”
Van Every credits Schatz with helping to teach newly ignited activists how to proceed. “She’s incredibly intelligent and has this wonderful educator background — of breaking down complex issue,” Van Every said. “She is always incredibly gracious and down to earth in a way that resonates so positively with young women.”
In front of Van Every’s house for June’s Solidarity Sunday meeting, a sandwich board sign directed guests indoors. Turnout was low, just a dozen women, as many members were on vacation. Children played in a back room or ran in and out the door; child care is always included at meetings, usually with kids at one house and the meeting at another.
Schatz began the meeting with her hair up, barefoot, yet anything but casual about the topic: discussing whether the group would like to endorse candidates and take positions for the November election. Members ran the spectrum of local residents, wearing a “We Can Do It” T-shirt, comprising straight, queer, white, multiethnic, tattoos, bare skin, from high school-age to grandmothers. Their footwear bespoke their diversity: Converse, Birkenstocks, clogs, jeweled sandals, cowboy boots, painted toenails, bare toes.
“We try for intersectionality,” which strives to cut across stratification between class, race, ethnic groups, and other divisions. Van Every said. The Solidarity Sunday advisory committee includes women of color from various backgrounds. “We always try to be open and are willing to learn. Our advisory committee will tell us if something is not in line. It’s very easy to do wrong” in the effort to do good, Van Every said. “We really try to make sure our information comes from a really good resource.”
Advisory committee member Sia Kollo Sellu elaborated. “There is a concerted effort to learn something, to have the difficult conversations about race, about white saviors and marginalized gratitude.” Solidarity Sundays is the only group in Alameda that she knows of where that challenging discourse happens, where members are trying to unlearn old ideas, she said.
As activists, “There’s something for everyone to do, no matter what you are,” Schatz said. She has addressed the concerns around liberal white women in activism who still quietly harbor racism and said she is willing to have a conversation with them about that. “One of my skills is talking to white women [about] systemic white supremacy and how we can effectively identify our privileges, move beyond guilt and shame, and be proactively anti-racist. I’m a white, cisgender, educated, healthy, able-bodied, employed, home-owning American citizen, all of which amounts to an enormous amount of privilege and access. I am 1,000 percent committed to leveraging that in service of social justice and equity as much as possible in all the work I do, from books to parenting to organizing to social media and public speaking.”
Van Every, whose father was the first black journalist for Newsweek magazine, said she has “always been an advocate of civil rights. It’s something that is essential for me. As a light-skinned black woman, I try to use my white privilege to open doors for others.”
With Solidarity Sundays activism, “Small, everyday things have become normal,” said Schatz. She cited changes she has seen both online and in her travels since they began their meetings: “A huge shift around race and police brutality. Being willing to have conversations with racist family members. Intersectionality. We’re still in the murky thick of it.”
Solidarity Sundays is a family affair; membership is 99 percent female, so husbands and partners manage the child care. “We’ve had elementary kids phone-banking for Hillary. Our daughters were both helping.” Van Every’s daughter loves the Rad Women books and has played with Schatz’s daughter dressing up as historical women from the pages of the books. The movement is generational as well; daughters, sons, and partners of Solidarity Sunday members also marched in the 2016 Women’s March.
At the recent meeting, Schatz read from her agenda and gave some pointers on what to tackle that day. “Our reason for doing this is to have clarity, and there are Solidarity Sunday groups all over the country who are already endorsing candidates,” she explained. “We just want to be clear. We want everyone to have a say in it.”
“That’s our spiel. Now it’s action time. There are emails to be written, or you can do an actual paper and note card, postcards, thank-you cards. Get to it!”
The living room took on an air of studiousness, as laptops snapped open, keyboards clicked, and members wrote in longhand on provided stationery. A handful of members discussed a news story quietly by the snack food on the kitchen table. But the focus was action. How many letters? How many emails? “It varies,” Schatz said, but the actual number wasn’t the point. “How do we quantify impact? It’s hard. I don’t think we can underestimate the emotional impact, what it means to these people to come together. There’s no quid pro quo.”
When Schatz, Van Every, and Garibaldi began Solidarity Sundays, “It was really hard – how do you contact your representative?” Schatz recalled. “I do a lot of shepherding.” People did not know how to make an effective phone call or focus on the essential issues. She helped give some “Civics 101” lessons to fledgling activists, and she said she can really see the difference now in her own circle and beyond. “People are super aware. People are so much more attuned to how government works, because it’s dysfunctional now and it’s not working.”
“Activism is an essential thing,” Van Every said. “I think people were really asleep at the wheel under Obama. Not just because [Trump]’s a Republican, but because we have cellphone cameras, social media, the 24-hour news cycle — that have opened people’s eyes.”
Like a painful back muscle you didn’t know you had until it hurts, people are seeing how their government is feeling twinges, not working as it should. People are remembering how to be active citizens and learning how to effect change, said Schatz.
Van Every is grateful for the random karma that put Schatz into her neighborhood. “It’s really nice to have a kindred spirit you can have a cup of coffee.” And she thinks Schatz is a shero. “Kate writes about all these amazing rad American women – and she is really one of them herself. She has taken a note from her own book; with Solidarity Sundays she has done it.”
Curious about where to find out more information? Start here: RadGirlsCan.com, SolidaritySundays.org, KateSchatz.com, MiriamKleinStahl.com.