The city of Springfield and the activism community reaching much further lost a committed champion this week as former Arise for Social Justice executive director (and former Valley Advocate staffer) Michaelann Bewsee died from complications of lung cancer. She was 71.
Bewsee was described by many as a person committed to the causes of justice and someone who was forgiving to a fault.
Holly Richardson, a community organizer with Arise, said Friday she got to know Bewsee through their mutual work on HIV prevention and with women in the sex industry in Springfield. Over the course of 20 years, Richardson said she worked with Bewsee on stopping a women’s jail coming to Chicopee, establishing a Springfield needle exchange program outside the law when the city wouldn’t allow it, and fighting for ward representation on the Springfield City Council rather than an all at-large council as existed prior to 2009. Bewsee was one of her dearest friends, she said.
“Michaelann is somebody who does not stand for injustice, and she maintained that commitment through and through,” she said.
Richardson said Bewsee was someone who was always for the people, and lived with a “we” mentality rather than an “I” mentality.
She also worked on advocacy and education right up until her health failed on Saturday, Aug. 10, Richardson said. By then, she had been dealing with lung cancer for more than a year.
“She was a very important person,” she said. “What Michaelann did was help unite and educate many of us to learn about and fight for our rights together. So we have that — we have the tools and we will continue to use them to fight for justice in Springfield and beyond.
Jessica Bewsee, the older of Bewsee’s two daughters (the other is Emily Konstan), remembered her mother as a permissive parent. In the early 1980s, Michaelann Bewsee worked at the Valley Advocate, and her daughter, then a young teenager, asked if she could put in a personal ad for someone to go to the movies with her. Now 52, Jessica Bewsee recalled that she got about 200 responses. “She indulged me,” she said Friday.
While her work with Arise was important to her, Michaelann Bewsee had a whole other life with her family, though Jessica Bewsee remembers having to share her mother with her advocacy work.
“I think what she thought was her activism was so important because of her children,” she said. “She wanted a better place for her children and grandchildren and for everybody’s children.”
For members of her family, that activism carried over in various ways — each of them is opinionated and never afraid to say what they think is right or wrong. At the same time, they sometimes resented being dragged to meetings or events for activist causes, Jessica Bewsee said.
Michaelann Bewsee loved the beach, and for 40 years she spent two to three weeks on Cape Cod, often going to Wellfleet. Jessica Bewsee said her mother had collected 40 years worth of seashells in her home.
“She was a poet and Wellfleet is an artist community,” Jessica Bewsee said. “It was a time for her to sit on the deck of the cottage and write her poems.”
Even as she was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2018, her thought was to go to the Cape one last time. As it turned out, she had longer than she expected, but treating the cancer took a toll on her body.
She had been planning to head back to the Cape one more time this month, but she died on Thursday, Aug. 15. Her last lucid words to her two daughters were, “I love you.”
“That sums up who my mother was as a person,” Jessica Bewsee said. “She always wanted people to know that she loved them.”
As she read so many messages of people on Facebook sharing stories of her mother, at times saying she was the only one who supported them, Jessica Bewsee said she found herself comforted.
“I never realized how absolutely important she is to so many people,” she said.
Savina Martin, who served with Michaelann Bewsee as a co-coordinating chairwoman for the Poor People’s Campaign in Massachusetts, said she had lost a “friend, sister, and comrade” in Bewsee. The two had known each other for decades doing advocacy work on poverty issues.
“She’s a poverty scholar, passionate about issues affecting people of all colors, sexual orientations, religious affiliations,” Martin said Friday morning. “She was a woman ahead of her time and I am feeling the effect of her passing as I’m speaking.”
Martin believes that Bewsee’s work was felt not only in the city of Springfield and the state of Massachusetts, but well beyond.
“The Poor People’s Campaign nationally will feel the loss of her,” she said.
Martin said she would come across Bewsee in poverty summits throughout the country, and said she fought for people who did not have much of a voice.
“She understands what it is to be a woman and mother raising children while living paycheck to paycheck,” Martin said.
She added that she was hard-core.
“She didn’t take any shit; she was very outspoken and would tell it like it is,” Martin said. “That’s what we need on the ground today.”
Bewsee’s work is continuing at Arise for Social Justice under the leadership of Tanisha Arena. Arena said Friday that she only got to work with Bewsee for a short time before taking the helm of the organization in November, but that Bewsee remained committed to advocacy right up until her death.
“People love her,” Arena said. “Here’s somebody who has selflessly given of herself for her entire life. What sticks with me is she gave her entire life to Arise, from its inception to her last breath, everything was about Arise and the good of Springfield and communities and the people that she loved and cared for.”
Bewsee was among the founders of Arise for Social Justice in the 1980s and served as its executive director in recent years, until passing the torch to Arena. Arena said the organization was founded on the principle of giving a voice to the underdog, including poor people, immigrants, and people of color, and teaching people that they have rights and can fight for them.
“Michaelann used her privilege for good,” Arena said. “She has been arrested and she can do that and have a different experience getting arrested than me [as a woman of color], calling out injustices, demanding change, and holding people accountable.”
Arena said she is committed to carrying on Arise’s mission, helping people to organize and taking people to task, and living up to a motto Bewsee used: “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
“Her legacy is going to be about fighting for your rights, standing up for truth and for what’s right, and living in your truth and being resistant,” Arena said. “She will definitely be missed, and Arise will continue to honor her legacy and her life’s work.”
A GoFundMe page to help pay for her funeral services is at https://www.gofundme.com/f/michaelann-bewsee-burial-and-memorial-services.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.