When Carolyn Corbelli saw a photo in the newspaper of older musicians on a street in Mill Valley protesting for peace back in the early 2000s, she knew she and her spouse needed to be part of it.
“We said well, that’s the place for us,” said Corbelli, 82, who has been involved in activism throughout her life. She said it was something she did not intend to give up in her later years.
The demonstration she saw at the corner of Miller Avenue and Camino Alto was perhaps one of the first for Seniors for Peace. The group was founded in 2003 by Rolly Mulvey, a resident at the Redwoods community for seniors, to oppose the United States’ involvement in Iraq.
At the time, many of the members had experienced war firsthand, and were concerned about the loss of life on both sides, according to Nancy Miller, co-chair of the group.
The group is celebrating 20 years as an organization, which is still going strong with its ranks growing. It has more than 100 members and volunteers across the county.
“The mere fact that we’re still around shows that we’re persistent and we have resilience,” Miller said. “We know that change is in small steps and we don’t get too discouraged.”
The participants — mostly residents of Mill Valley, specifically the Redwoods — are activists, both new to or previously involved in advocacy. The average age of the group is 86.
The members write postcards, make phone calls, organize speakers and help with voter registration. They also meet with local middle and high school students to discuss current events.
At 4 p.m. every Friday, the group holds a “special demonstration,” where participants can pick a sign about a topic they care about, Miller said.
“People honk and wave as they drive by to show support,” Miller said. “So we conclude that people enjoy seeing us out there.”
Late last month, the demonstration focused on the Israel-Hamas war. Participants advocated for U.S. support of a cease-fire and the release of all hostages. About 40 people gathered, signs in hand, and sang along as guitarists’ played songs such as “This Land is Your Land.”
“What could be better?” said demonstrator Audrey Hazen, 81. “Everybody laying down their weapons, laying down their hearts, to talk, to share, and we need this. We need to have this relationship going between us as older people, with the Tam kids, with the town, with the world.”
Hazen, a member for 17 years, said Seniors For Peace was one of the main reasons she moved to the Redwoods with her partner. She was an activist in Berkeley for many years, and has worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Freedom Riders.
“But more important than the big names are the small people, the little people like me, ordinary people just doing the work every day, and that’s what the Seniors For Peace does,” Hazen said.
Since its founding, the group has tackled a variety of issues, such as voting rights, racial justice, election campaigns and global conflicts. Hazen said that while the topic at hand might change throughout time, the root of the problems have not changed. She said war has always been a hot topic for the group.
“The issues are pretty basic and they’ve been around a long time, but they get more press now and some people seem to be more conscious,” Hazen said.
She said while progress has been made concerning LGBTQ+, women’s and voters’ rights, issues surrounding poverty and education have worsened. The group, she said, has helped keep her out of a “bubble” and engaged in today’s societal challenges.
A more recent addition to the list of topics is climate change. Miller said the issue has garnered significant interest from seniors in the area — the impending flooding near where she lives by Bothin Marsh inspired her own interest in the group. Many members wonder how climate change will affect their families in the future.
The group added the climate crisis to its agenda around 2019, according to Miller.
“The climate crisis threatens all the values we hold dear,” the mission statement says.
“It’s an ongoing threat and many of us have been blessed with grandchildren,” Miller said. “We just think, God, what kind of world are we leaving them?”
About 28% of Marin’s population is 60 or older, according to a 2019 assessment by Marin Aging and Adult Services. By 2023, seniors were projected to make up 37% of the population. Recent U.S. census data show that Marin led the Bay Area in its average age of 48.2 in 2022.
Corbelli arrived at the Redwoods around 2017 and got involved in the group. She said the first meeting she attended spooked her because many of the members at the time were in their 90s. When they began to speak, however, she realized the wisdom they offered.
“And then they opened their mouths and they were so smart,” Corbelli said. “A lot of them were from a previous generation, and they had life experience about what it is to go through a war and a depression.”
Teri Dowling, a member of the Marin County Commission on Aging, said older adults are an underutilized and undervalued asset in the community. She said jurisdictions and organizations should be reaching out and making opportunities for seniors to get involved in the community.
“What a remarkable resource,” Dowling said. “There are so many smart, interesting people that live in this community, and sometimes you have to make that opportunity.”
Dowling said research shows loneliness and social isolation can be risk factors for seniors. Jenay Cottrell, a program manager at Marin County Aging and Adult Services, said nutritional deficiencies, dementia, depression and even the risk of falling can increase due to isolation, which seniors are more likely to experience. About 31% of seniors in Marin live alone, according to Healthy Marin, a county public health program.
“It’s wonderful when we see groups like Seniors for Peace because it’s a great example of older adults doing what they want to do, but in a group, which has social benefits,” Cottrell said. “Being in a group just multiplies the positive effects of things, and older adults have so much to contribute. They know how to navigate life. Just because you turn a certain age doesn’t mean you should retire from doing things you love or contributing.”
Miller said she believes the importance of giving back to the community combined with the camaraderie is one of the most beneficial aspects of Seniors For Peace.
“It is working toward a better future for our descendants and it is the personal satisfaction of making a contribution that gives meaning to our lives, that we’re doing something constructive and not just recreational,” Miller said. “It doesn’t hurt that it keeps up going as long as we’re healthy.”
Corbelli said the group has kept her in touch with not only the community and politics, but also with her youth.
“It keeps me young, youngish, because it appeals to that time of my life when I was protesting, so for me it’s really important, and it’s important to be able to connect back to the issues and there’s a community here that you can talk to about those issues,” she said.
Hazen said activism and the group has kept her grounded in the things that matter in life. It has kept her following the “spark” in order to find the “fire” in her to advocate for change.
“It’s in your bones to really want good representation, good voting, good education,” Hazen said. “It will always be in our bones, I can’t imagine not caring and not being an activist.”