Stand on the Shoulders: Barbara Wolf
In our blog series, “We Stand on the Shoulders of those Who Come Before Us,” IJPC honors area activists for their perseverance in the struggle to end injustice. Thank you, Barbara Wolf, for graciously accepting our invitation for an interview and allowing us to share your story. Let us turn to her for inspiration and advice on how to respond to violence and inequality with creativity and peace.
Though born and raised in Motown-era Detroit, Barbara Wolf’s life story really begins at a farm in Loveland, OH. Wolf first explored Loveland’s green oasis, Grailville, during the mid-1960s with the wife of one of her Mt. Saint Joseph University professors. The Grail, a group of predominantly Catholic women who developed and grappled with feminist theology, founded and operated Grailville as a center of agriculture and women’s issues. Fascinated with and intrigued by The Grail’s values, Wolf returned to Grailville every weekend to gain new perspectives and lose track of time in her new favorite bookstore. In 1967, the bookstore staff asked Wolf to make a slideshow about the changing role of women in society. As a mathematics major, she knew almost nothing about film and photography. As a young woman, she had little personal experience with female oppression. Yet, she accepted the job and fell in love with the art of slideshows in the process.
From that moment on, Wolf began to make her living as a slideshow maker. She covered issues of racism, sexism, and poverty and worked for any organization that came to her. She hosted public slideshow parties, where people danced, ate, and organized to take action. “It was all very ‘60s,” she reminisces, “It was a very intense period of young people figuring out what the [heck] was going wrong.” Her actions may have been uncommon at the time; she divorced her husband, trading domestic duties for a degree. While studying filmmaking at the University of Cincinnati, Wolf started working with the Urban Appalachian Council. She spent five years empowering impoverished Appalachian people in Lower Price Hill and Over-the-Rhine to express their desire for change through film.
Wolf returned to freelance work, making investigative journalism style-documentaries. She exposed the truth behind homecare workers, landfills’ impact on community health, regionalized waterworks systems, and adjunct professors. Her clientele included IJPC (she made a film in 1987 about our work and mission), Peaslee Center, NAACP, Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, Drop-Inn Center, and the Sierra Club. Regardless of the content, Wolf has always strived to leave viewers hopeful. She defines herself as a documentarist not a documentarian. “A documentarist,” she says, “is an activist who makes change with film.” She mentored aspiring documentarists, guiding April Martin in filming and editing Cincinnati Goddamn and The Color of Justice: A History of Cincinnati’s Race Riots from 1792-2001. Wolf also taught people how to watch media and become critical viewers during her time working for a public access channel.
Throughout her career, Barbara Wolf has actively participated in the work she filmed. She has organized, rallied, and protested all with a camera on her shoulder. Being a passive, uninvolved person doesn’t exist her films. She passes the camera to someone else and joins them. Having been arrested during acts of civil disobedience several times, Wolf somewhat jokingly offers tips for jail: wear long sleeves and nothing with a metal zipper or snap; they keep the cells cold. In 2008, she came to IJPC to learn about keeping the peace during contentious moments with author and activist Arthur Gish. She planned a visit to Rep. Steve Chabot’s Cincinnati office and was going to sit-in should he refuse to sign the Iraqi War-ending “Declaration of Peace.” IJPC found lawyers for her and the six other participants, who later represented them in court. “The judge sentenced me to 28 hours of community service, but I said my whole life is community service! So, I took ten days in jail,” she tells. In jail, she spent her time in conversation with women interested in becoming involved in social justice, advising them on where to go and people to meet. She organized the inmates in her pod to register to vote. The stories she heard and the people she met influenced Condemned, Keith Lamar, a film about an innocent man sentenced to death and the injustice of capital punishment.
Barbara Wolf has spent nearly her entire adult life dedicated to stopping violence and inequality, but has never become discouraged or burned-out. Today, she focuses on the Israel-Palestine conflict, primarily working for Cincinnati Solidarity with Palestine in conjunction with Black Lives Matter. She envisions a world in which people get along. In her opinion, we need peace in our homes and neighborhoods if we want peace nation and worldwide. Barbara Wolf is fearless; she has had a self-described amazing life. When asked why she continues in this line of work, she replied, “It’s fun! It’s life! Why would one not do this? Everyone else must be so bored. There’s so much to be done!”