When John Stephens, 69, was told by a Kaiser oncologist recently that he had "a 50 percent chance of surviving two more years," his mind went right to the book How to Lie with Statistics. Without missing a beat, he asked her, "Does that mean I have a 100 percent chance of surviving one year?" He laughed at his own wit when he reported this to me over the phone a few weeks ago, right before launching into some current event over which he was concerned.
Stephens, whose cancer is attributed to the asbestos-wrapped water pipes he fixed while working as a plumber for Napa State Hospital, is a unique specimen of social gadfly. His letters appear frequently in the Napa Valley Register, and his presence at board of supervisor and city council meetings has come to be expected after years of tireless activism in Napa County.
A familiar sight in Napa is John pedaling his high-handled bike, complete with handle fringe, as he delivers a self-produced newsletter, Activist News, launched in 2003. "It ties together activists in the Napa Valley," explains Stephens, "so we come from a common understanding of the issues." His Activist News supplants the conservation newsletter he produced while serving as a Napa Sierra Club officer, until he was booted out for being too radical.
"Too radical" is not a status difficult to achieve in Napa, where business drives discourse in a wine-dominated economy. Stephens and a colleague became infamous over a decade ago by suing the county of Napa under California Environmental Quality Act laws three times and winning all three suits. "Since then, we've challenged timber harvest plans in Napa," explains Stephens.
Stephens is a dedicated social activist, though, he remarks, "most know me as an environmentalist. I feel good being on the cutting edge of change for social justice, whether it's gay rights or immigrants rights or peace efforts."
Stephens' social activism has deep roots. At 19, he participated in an East Coast peace march from Canada to Cuba, calling for nuclear disarmament. When the marchers reached Washington, D.C., in 1964, they joined the march of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Then the group continued their journey south. "As soon as we crossed the Mason-Dixon line," said Stephens, "our peace march instantly became a Civil Rights march because our group was integrated." They walked from Quebec to Georgia in five months, but crossing Georgia took another five months because they were arrested so often. Once, Stephens was put in jail for driving with a black man in the front seat.
"My training in the Civil Rights movement," said Stephens, "taught me that when you face a threat, you don't run." Stephens, now facing cancer as well as social injustice, stands firm. "We are on the side of angels," says Stephens, "the side of history. Our children will thank us for our efforts."