Pin It
favorite

Gadfly at Large 

John Stephens provides constant reminders for environmentalism

click to enlarge SPREADING THE NEWS John Stephens distributes his Activist News by bicycle. - JULIANE POIRIER
  • Juliane Poirier
  • SPREADING THE NEWS John Stephens distributes his Activist News by bicycle.

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."

  • Napa activist John Stephens provides constant reminders for environmentalism

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Features

  • Crop Circles

    How confusion over GMOs undermines the organic movement
    • Mar 25, 2015
  • Wild Meets Mild

    Do elk have a place in Pt. Reyes?
    • Mar 11, 2015
  • Dish by Dish

    For Sonoma County chefs, inspiration comes from near and far
    • Mar 4, 2015
  • More »

More by Juliane Poirier

  • Power to Persuade

    It takes salesmanship to preserve nature
    • Jan 23, 2013
  • Elder States

    Feeling awe, remembering what we already know
    • Jan 16, 2013
  • Where's the Money?

    Citizens group calls for Napa County treasury to move funds away from disgraced big banks
    • Jan 9, 2013
  • More »

Find It

Submit an event

Boho Beat

Mar. 28: Big Top in Sebastopol

Mar. 29: Classical Narration in Yountville

Mar. 31: Pizza Party in Santa Rosa

More »

Facebook Activity

Most Commented

  • Cosby Conundrum

    Venue tries to distance itself from Bill Cosby show—tickets on sale now!
    • Feb 11, 2015
  • Game Over

    Napa chef Ken Frank celebrates the end of California's foie gras ban
    • Jan 14, 2015
  • More »

Twitter

Read more @nbaybohemian

Copyright © 2015 Metro Newspapers. All rights reserved.

Website powered by Foundation