By Julia Richards | Photographed by Hillary Schave
Just after graduation season we may think of idealism as embodied by young people seeking to make a difference in the world. But don’t discount the AARP set. They’ve got years of experience and perspective to help solve the challenges facing our community today. In our Thrive After 55 series we feature women who are energized by lifting others up and who aren’t stopping anytime soon.
Mary Fulton, 69, was brought up with the value of standing up for justice. One might even say social justice work is in her blood. Raised by two professors who taught all over the world, Fulton saw her parents take principled stands for what was right. While living in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s, her father invited Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to stay at their house and speak at the island’s colleges. Fulton was in eighth grade at the time. The family then followed King back to Birmingham, Alabama, where Fulton’s father was arrested with King in the Good Friday march. “Throughout our lives our parents taught us it was important to stand up for the things that are right and that are just,” Fulton says.
To that end Fulton has volunteered for the past 19 years with Madison-Area Urban Ministry (MUM). The nonprofit’s programming focuses on the people and families directly impacted by the criminal justice system. “Really looking at the whole way that we’ve continued the curse of slavery and racism by mass incarceration is…what’s really opened my eyes, really changed the way I think about things,” Fulton says.
Fulton has volunteered with MUM in various capacities, including serving on MUM’s board and helping with its Family Connections program, where she accompanied children on monthly visits to their mothers in prison. The program also offers incarcerated mothers the chance to make recordings of themselves reading books to be sent to their children. As a mother and grandmother herself, Fulton calls the experience these mothers in prison are going through “mind-boggling.”
Fulton, a retired physical therapist, has also volunteered with MUM’s Circles of Support, which uphold formerly incarcerated people (whom they call returning citizens, rather than ex-cons) as they reintegrate into the community. A group of six or so community members meets weekly with the returning citizen for six months to offer empathy and encouragement as they set goals and face the hurdles of establishing transportation, housing and employment.
The circles offer a support system, especially for people who may not have family support or who are struggling to reconnect with their families, explains Rev. Stephen Marsh, pastor at Lake Edge Lutheran Church, who served on a circle of support with Fulton a few years ago. Even though the returning citizen may have skills they can contribute, years in prison wears a person down and the circle of support can help build them up again, Marsh explains. “The system makes sure that you realize that you are literally the scum of the earth, that no one cares about you and that’s why you are in there. That low self-esteem was one of the lingering effects and the circle helped [the returning citizen],” he says. Marsh describes Fulton as “a gentle and compassionate and caring person,” in her work with the circles.
One of the issues Fulton is passionate about is voting rights for people who have been incarcerated. In Wisconsin, formerly incarcerated people do not regain suffrage until they are no longer on probation or parole, which, depending on the circumstances, can take years, Fulton explains. In some states the voting rights of people convicted of felonies are taken away permanently. Fulton is passionate about restoring this population’s voting rights. “Keeping people disenfranchised is wrong,” she says. Like Annie Weatherby-Flowers, she believes in caring for one’s neighbor and counts this oft-forgotten group in that category. “We all do better when we all do better. That’s part of our ‘we the people’ philosophy I think that we forget about a lot of times. It’s not just ‘we the wealthy’ or ‘we of white privilege’ or ‘we of the ruling class’…‘We the people’ is something we have to get back to. We have to take care of each other,” Fulton says.
Fulton is also active in her congregation’s social justice work at Temple Beth-El. The members of the circle of support that she and Marsh participated in were from a range of faith traditions. “Different spiritualities combined in supporting this particular child of God,” Marsh says.
For her service with MUM, the United Way recently awarded Mary Fulton the Mike McKinney Community Volunteer Award.