DONA SPRING: AN ACT OF KINDNESS
- Joan Clair
Dennis Walton, Dona Spring’s partner of twenty-seven years, says he first met Dona at Joshu-Ya, a Japanese restaurant located at that time on Telegraph Avenue near Dwight Way in Berkeley. He had been living in Oregon and had just returned to Berkeley. Shortly before returning to Berkeley he had a dream in which he saw himself roughly in the same location where the restaurant was located.
In the same neighborhood as Joshu-Ya, he had just visited the Center for Independent Living (CIL) hoping to pick up referrals to help disabled people. He did not know that Dona Spring, who he was shortly to meet, had worked for CIL in their attendant referral service, trying to connect clients with attendants, before becoming disabled herself.
His meeting with Dona at Joshu-Ya was the result of a small, but significant, act of kindness. Dennis seated himself at the last remaining table in the restaurant after which a couple came in. He gave up his table for the couple and went to the restaurant’s bar. Shortly after he did this, Dona came into the restaurant and took the seat next to him. Dennis broke the ice by pointing out a bottle on the counter which said, “Fill only with Kikkoman’s soy sauce.” He thought this was amusing considering once the bottle was empty, it was empty; and what kind of claim on any particular soy sauce can be made by an empty bottle? Dona thought this was amusing too, and after talking a while each discovered a rapport with the other. Dona was looking for a live-in helper, and Dennis was looking for exactly that kind of job. Dona offered the job to Dennis, and he accepted it. Dona told me that later she cried tears of gratitude; she felt Dennis was a helper divinely sent and meant!
This turned out to be true. Dona had found not just a round-the-clock live-in attendant but a soul mate, a spiritual companion and a brother who would help her in every aspect of her life, most recently as her primary City Council Aide. Just as Dennis felt guided to return to Berkeley and to the location where he met Dona, she recognized a soul mate and friend, one who would be by her side in all the challenges she would meet.
Dennis says if he had not given up the table in Joshu-Ya, he might not have met Dona. One small act of kindness led to a relationship which provided a foundation for Dona’s work - work which in itself was and remains an act of kindness and a gift to all beings. Essentially, Dona and Dennis served together in a model of relationship which is almost unheard of in our time.
When I first met Dona in the early eighties she had founded an organization named DIIAAR, Disabled and Incurably Ill for Alternatives to Animal Research. The purpose of the group was to make the statement that disabled people did not want animals experimented on and tortured in their behalf. Dona, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was already in a wheelchair, said she would rather suffer herself than have animals suffer in the name of alleviating her suffering. She did not believe the alleviation of human suffering should be based on animal suffering. Her thinking in this regard came very close to Gandhi’s thoughts. He has been quoted as saying, “I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. All the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence.”
For most of the time I knew her, Dona was a vegan as a result of her concern for the abuse and suffering of animals who are used for food production. A few months before she passed on, however, she regretfully told me that her body was rejecting plant protein and that just to survive she was occasionally consuming small quantities of seafood, usually scallops. I report this here because I believe that her choice not to allow herself to die as a result of holding on to a principle to the point of no positive benefit to herself or others, including the many others who depended on her, showed the depth of her spirituality. Dona Spring was not a dogmatic purist who persecuted herself or others.
I like to think of Dona as a practical prophet. Dennis Walton says she was a practical prophet, not a practicing profiteer! Michael Parenti, a well-known author, after a recent showing of a film created by Lindsay Vurek and Valerie Trost, Courage in Life and Politics: The Dona Spring Story, says Dona was incorruptible and couldn’t be bought which can be troubling to the powers that be. He said she was uncompromising on matters of truth, but not immune to reality issues. Most prophets don’t traditionally hold posts in government, but Dona held a government office for the longest period of time of any Green Party member in the United States.
As a Berkeley City Council member, she was truly a voice for the voiceless whether she was advocating for animals, disabled humans, the environment or homeless and low income people. For the most part, her work bore fruit for all she advocated for. When she didn’t get initial support she would keep fighting for what she believed. Her popularity or the popularity or unpopularity of an issue had nothing to do with the stand she took.
For example, she passionately opposed all laws that would criminalize the homeless. She was one of a minority on the Berkeley City Council along with Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson, who voted against the “public commons for everyone” legislation proposed by mayor Tom Bates. The legislation, in fact, would have limited the access of homeless people to the public commons.
According to Kriss Worthington, as a result of Dona’s efforts the more Draconian parts of that legislation were not passed. The City agreed to study several measures that might assist homeless people such as providing more public toilets. Worthington pointed out that this would help customers in business places as well.
Another measure Dona proposed, that the City Council has enacted is the “Berkeley Host Program.” In this program, according to Worthington, rather than sending the police to harass homeless people when issues arise; an outreach team will try to find out what is going on. The team will inform and educate homeless people about quality of life infractions as well as help them to obtain services in areas such as drug and alcohol recovery and emergency shelter. As of the writing of this article, however, Worthington was concerned that the mayor and city manager were choosing the wrong groups to manage this program. “The Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) and the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) both have a history of attacking the homeless,” Worthington said.
Dona Spring opposed sweeps of homeless people, the outlawing of sitting on sidewalks and making it criminal to be homeless in a society which, according to Worthington, has no serious economic agenda to provide jobs and housing for all its citizens. She was instrumental in helping homeless individuals as well, in particular when their vehicles were towed. In a vicious circle, tickets for vehicle violations may be sent to a homeless person’s mailbox. By the time the homeless person checks his or her box, other tickets have accumulated at which point their vehicles are impounded. A homeless person, barely surviving, cannot afford these fines.
Dona helped people get their vehicles out of impoundment. She called companies and owners of companies and raised money to help people get their vehicles back. She connected homeless people to lawyers when their vehicles were illegally impounded.
Dona was also in the forefront in budget battles in behalf of the homeless. She would passionately stand up against budget cuts for the homeless, and she organized people to come and protest when budget cuts for the homeless were proposed. Thanks to her advocacy, she got proposals that benefit the homeless funded through Berkeley, such as funding for women’s shelter services, as well as through the state and federal governments. At one point in her career, she led the charge to open up the Veterans Memorial Building in Berkeley as a homeless shelter service.
Kriss Worthington says that Dona was his closest associate on the council and that talking to Dona always brightened his week. “She was a trailblazer with a lot of visionary ideas. She gave me courage and hope that we could get these things done some day.” Among the many causes in which Dona was actively engaged, he mentioned animal rights, the peace movement, landmark and historic preservation, environmental issues, homelessness and disabled issues. “She went way beyond lip service and really got involved,” he said.
One of the causes that Dona was dedicated to was preserving the oak trees in the Memorial Grove at the University of California Berkeley. On June 22, 2008, LA Wood made a short video of Dona’s last public appearance at the Oak Grove. She was in great pain and weighed only 75 pounds [her healthy weight was between 115 and 120 pounds]. Lindsay Vurek commented that Dona “…endured so much pain, and did so much for us when most of us would have checked out of life years ago. For a long time her spine was curving into her lungs, and she could barely breathe.”
In her last public remarks at the Oak Grove as recorded in LA Wood’s video Dona said, “We must stop the corporate giant from crushing not only our community but our earth.” In an ironic aside she said the oak trees were more deserving of living than the regents of the university.
Dona Spring gave herself up to the path of the prophet, a vehicle and messenger for justice in our world. Just as easily, she could have taken the path of a visionary artist and spiritual counselor. In some respects she combined all these paths.
When I first saw two of her paintings hanging on a wall in her home, I thought they were Georgia O’Keefe reproductions. One is a medley of flower petals, so joined together that the universe itself becomes the petals -beautiful, soft, and allowing all petals to be. This was Dona’s vision which she tried to externalize in our world. The oneness manifested in this painting she knew as internal and eternal truth. The second painting, equally remarkable, portrays a bird in its ascending and descending aspects.
According to Dennis Walton, Dona at one time identified herself as an artist. Although she never relinquished her identity as an artist, after she was elected to public office her focus of identity changed to that of a public servant. Whether as an artist or a public servant, Dona could empty herself of ego and let the spirit come through whether in the political arena or in paint on canvas.
Although she never practiced professionally, Dona was also a spiritual counselor and guide to many. As Dennis Walton puts it, she had an “intuitive generosity.” She would call someone up not knowing they were going through a depression and leave a message sharing positive feelings that would lift their spirits. “She brought light to a lot of people. One way or another she was a counselor, whether a civic councilor in public or a spiritual counselor in private,” Dennis said. All of her work was spiritually based.
One can talk about the fact that Dona meditated for many years, enjoyed sacred chanting in the East Indian traditions, and enjoyed learning about the wisdom traditions of all cultures, in particular the Judeo-Christian heritage in her last years. According to Dennis Walton, “She was a seeker of truth in all traditions.” He says that although she rejected most guru cults, she was particularly drawn to the Vedic cosmic all inclusive vision of things.
However, Dona’s spirituality went beyond all the aforementioned “practices.” Dona was not religious in the sense of attending church or any other culturally defined and based religious group. She did not practice any religion exclusively in an external sense. She was, however, a very spiritual, sensitive person who lived, breathed and embodied her spiritual religiosity.
What I do know about Dona is that she believed her purpose on earth was to serve others. She was one of those rare people who could do that without becoming fanatical or power hungry. She was not afraid of death as she knew her body, frail as it was, was a temporary home for her spirit. When she requested an end to medical intervention and said, “It is done,” she knew only this chapter was done, this great act of kindness which was her life among us - with the help of her ever faithful companion Dennis Walton .
Dona Spring is one of the few humans who did and could leave her body without guilt and remorse, having only brought about good in the world while she was here.
Also please see Dona's art referred to in the above article