Kathy Change: Her legacy burns on

Nearly 18 years after the campus icon self-immolated, her life is still impacting friends and former Penn students

· April 30, 2014, 8:27 pm   ·  Updated May 1, 2014, 2:43 am

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“I’ve tried to do this several times before,

And failed.

If this is the right thing to do,

Heaven help me.

If not,

Well,

Never mind. I’ll be seeing you around.”

-Kathy Change, “A Note to Sympathetic Penn Students,” October 1996.

Kathy Change tried.

She tried loudly and visibly enough that almost everyone at Penn knew who she was. Day after day for a decade and a half, she made a scene on College Green. She danced nonstop for hours on end. She waved enormous homemade flags featuring political messages that warned of imminent economic collapse and nuclear holocaust. She screamed through a megaphone at students passing by. She played the freak and felt the part too.

But the message wasn’t getting through. Penn students may have changed with each passing year, but their rejection of her didn’t. Change had only one hope left.

On Oct. 22, 1996 at 11:15 a.m., Change stood in front of the “Peace Symbol” sculpture, doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire. As she ignited, a rope of fire shot up 10 feet into the air. Approximately 50 bystanders, including several students in nearby Van Pelt Library, looked on as Change began to dance. Penn Police Officer Bill Dailey ran towards the fire, not realizing a person was burning until he came closer. Dailey and a bystander covered Change in his patrol jacket and rolled her on the ground to smother the flames. She was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was pronounced dead at 11:48 a.m. with burns over 100 percent of her body.

In a letter known as her “Final Statement,” Change wrote, “Primarily I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself.”

But for whom? A Penn community that routinely ignored her?

Then-freshman Ludmila Zamah had taken pamphlets from Change on Locust Walk in her first few weeks at Penn — the same semester Change killed herself — but that wasn’t the norm. More common was “the quintessential frat guy going up to her and mocking her movements and her performances and sort of giggling about it with his friends and walking off,” Zamah said.

“People would see her around doing the flag stuff all the time, day in and day out,” said West Philadelphian artist and musician Justin Duerr, who shared mutual friends with Change. “But people didn’t pay her too much mind.”

In death as in life, Change imposed herself on an unwelcoming audience. And yet, in death, her legacy burns brighter than it ever did before she set herself ablaze.

Change has inspired many works of art in the 18 years since her self-immolation. New York percussionist Kevin Norton released his multi-movement piece “Change Dance (Troubled Energy)” in 2002. Philadelphia artist Anthony Campuzano appropriated text from one of Change’s flyers for his 2004 “Portrait of Kathy Change” collage. New York multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey performed a jazz composition entitled “For Kathy Change” in 2011. Performing artist Soomi Kim is presently working on “Chang(e),” an original 70-minute hybrid dance theater work. And Anita King, Change’s best friend, founded Friends of Kathy Change, a group formed to commemorate her life. King also created KathyChange.org, a website featuring some of her writings.

“I do see her in the tradition of martyrdom,” said Adam Corson-Finnerty, the director of development at Van Pelt Library at the time of Change’s death. “Like Norman Morrison, like Medgar Evers, like Viola Liuzzo, like Jesus.”

“What she was saying in her mania or in her kookiness or in her writings, all of what she was saying kind of came true,” Kim said. “Talking about the economy, the corruption of capitalism, all these things, it just seems they really have come to affect the state of the world today.”

At the root of Change’s cause was the Transformation Party, an affiliation she created advocating a community-based direct democracy and a cooperative barter economy. The dollar was dying, Change insisted to anyone who’d listen, and the economic status quo in America was about to follow.

“She was pointing out ills in our society before her time like the economic collapse in 2008,” Zamah said. “She was predicting something like that was going to happen.”

Most people aware of Change’s political message also knew that it anticipated Occupy Wall Street perfectly.

“You could almost look at it as like a precursor to that,” Duerr said. “But I bet if you asked a lot of people who were involved in that who she was, a lot of them wouldn’t have a clue about her. I feel like Kathy was kind of into that thing like, ‘We’ll just go into the banks, we’ll just be like partying.’ It seemed like a cool way to resolve that stuff.”

Plenty of left-leaning Americans would think a lot of Change’s political ideas were cool. She left the Philadelphia branch of the Green Party in 1989 after it refused to include legalization of marijuana in its platform, even though nearly all of its members privately favored legalization. She criticized U.S. antiprotectionist free trade policies enabling job outsourcing. She denounced President Bill Clinton for enforcing unreasonable No Fly Zones in Iraq and warned that a United States-instigated war with Iraq was imminent.

Desperate or not, Change’s engagement with the issues was concrete. After all, if you knew there was a peace activist who foresaw the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, predicted variations of the economic collapse of 2008, refused to back down from advocating marijuana legalization and touted environmentalism, you wouldn’t call her crazy.

What is crazy is how quickly the memory of a woman burning herself to death in the middle of an Ivy League campus has faded.

The Transformation Party that Change desperately tried to publicize no longer exists. Precious few current Penn students and faculty know who she was. She self-immolated with one final hope of inspiring reform, but the site of her fiery exit immediately reverted back to a sphere of leisure. For one day, the ultimate sacrifice for a new democracy. For the next 18 years, frisbee for fun.

Nevertheless, Change’s admirers have continued to keep her memory alive through many different forms of art and media, revealing how precarious her legacy is — and how vital.

‘It was so wretched’

Kathy Change was born Kathleen Chang in Springfield, Ohio, in 1950. Her family moved to the Bronx when she was 2 . She grew up feeling “stared at, giggled at” for being Chinese. Her father, Sheldon Chang, was an engineer who also served as a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before retiring in 1980. Her mother, Gertrude, was a writer.

“I grew up a really lonely girl,” Change said on the WQHS Penn student radio show “PennTalk” in November 1995.

Kathy’s parents divorced when she was in her early teens. Gertrude and her precocious daughter fought every night.

“It was so wretched, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to go kill myself,’” Change said.

But as she remembered nearly three decades later, she “flubbed it,” only slicing out the tendons in her wrists instead. Neither her scars nor her reputation for hysterics would ever go away.

Shortly thereafter, Kathy found her mother dead when she tried to wake her up the morning after they had a fight. Only a well of tears in the hollow by the bridge of her mother’s nose remained to show Kathy that Gertrude had been hurting as badly as she had. Her mother’s death was ruled a suicide by overdose of barbiturates. Kathy felt responsible for the rest of her life, and Gertrude had succeeded where her daughter had “flubbed.”

“She did it successfully, so I thought, ‘Boy, she really showed me up,” Change said. “But I didn’t have to answer to anybody after that.”

The next few years were a whirlwind. Kathy flunked out of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., the only school that had accepted her, after five months. For another six months, she lived with her grandparents and went back to school at NYU thanks to connections through her parents. Later, she met Frank Chin in Chinatown.

Considered one of the pioneers of Asian-American theater, Chin founded the Asian American Theater Workshop in 1973. Kathy was attracted to what she perceived to be Chin’s radicalism, and the two struck up a relationship.

“Eventually I said, ‘Why don’t you marry me?’ Change remembered. “He said, ‘Hmmm ... all right.’”

And so in 1971, he did, taking Change back to San Francisco with him. Change participated in the Asian American Theater Workshop during their marriage, and in 1976 she published “The Iron Moonhunter,” a children’s book.

That same year, though, her marriage ended and Kathy sank into despair again. The failure of her marriage resulted in another suicide attempt, this time with pills and a fifth of Canadian whiskey.

The College Green dancer

By the fall of 1978, Kathleen Chang needed change so much she became it. She started going by Kathy Change to reflect her newfound belief that she was going to change the world. After stays in New York and Berkeley, Change moved to Philadelphia in 1981.

“The late ’80s and early ’90s in West Philly, outside the jeweled strongbox of Penn, was full of folks like Kathy,” said Joseph Shahadi, Change’s former neighbor who went on to earn a Ph.D. in performance studies at NYU in 2011 and write the essay “Burn: The Radical Disappearance of Kathy Change” for The Drama Review the same year. “Artists and activists lived in the dilapidated old Victorians and warehouse squats. We went to hardcore shows, shopped at the co-op, ate cheap Ethiopian food and went to the same half-dozen bars.”

Sure, Change never fit in at Penn. But to a great extent, that was the point. If you want to crash the Ivory Tower, it helps to have a little bit of color.

The first time Zamah saw her, Change was dancing dressed completely in black, with a pointed cone above her head to signify that she was a missile protesting nuclear proliferation. Sometimes she’d carry a dollar sign around to warn of imminent financial crisis. Often, she’d don large bird wings and a mask along with spangled panties and high heels. On other days, she’d dress up in a costume that she simply called “Satan’s dick.”

And yet, in the long run, she was easily ignored.

“I’m not aware of her actively trying to have a conversation with people,” said Brendan McGeever, a WQHS Penn student radio DJ who interviewed Change on his “PennTalk” show in November 1995. “That was just not her. It’s unlikely that there were very many students besides myself that actually talked to her because she wouldn’t open up that way.”

McGeever interrupted one of her dances on College Green to invite her on his show.

“One thing that I was certainly surprised by was how normal she was to talk to,” McGeever said.

McGeever posted flyers all around campus advertising the upcoming appearance of “the College Green dancer” and featuring her headshot. It didn’t help.

No one called in. Since “PennTalk” was in an unpopular 10 a.m. Tuesday slot and the only way students could listen in was through on-campus cable television sets, it didn’t attract many listeners.

Fortunately, McGeever recorded his shows because he was sure no one would hear them otherwise. He held onto the recording of his episode with Change and gave it to Kim, the performance artist, after she reached out to him for her theater work on Change.

“If anybody is at all interested in talking to me, I would welcome it,” Change said on “PennTalk.” “I would love to meet people. I love for people to talk to me. Anybody!”

The fire that Penn forgot

At some point in the last year of her life, Change decided to go out with a smolder. Philadelphia police inspectors would later deduce that she had been experimenting with different accelerants on various cuts of meat, eventually deciding on gasoline because alcohol did not burn hot or quickly enough.

The morning of her death, she delivered packets of her writings, including a seven-page letter explaining why she was choosing to end her life, to The Daily Pennsylvanian and WXPN, along with six Penn students and two local residents with whom she had previously discussed her beliefs.

“There was certainly no wake-up call or anything like that,” McGeever said about the campus’s reaction to her suicide.

A week after her death, approximately 70 people attended a memorial held at Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall. The service was organized by the Office of the Chaplain in cooperation with Change’s friends.

But most of the audience consisted of Change’s friends, with only a few students attending.

Nevertheless, Zamah remained interested in what Change had to say, enough to join Friends of Kathy Change during the spring semester of her freshman year.

“Although self-immolation is kind of a shocking form of protest, I didn’t really understand it,” Zamah said. “But to me, anyone who is so passionate about their causes to protest them in that way, I just kind of wanted to understand it more.”

Corson-Finnerty, the former Van Pelt director of development, understood perfectly. In 1964, a 20-year-old Corson-Finnerty saw the 1955 documentary film “Night and Fog,” which highlights torture, scientific “experiments,” prostitution and executions throughout two Nazi concentration camps.

“My reaction was not, ‘Those Germans were evil, and we were justified in killing them,’’’ Corson-Finnerty said. “My reaction was, ‘We did that — we humans — and this is absolutely horrible.’”

Then, as an undergraduate at Penn, Corson-Finnerty learned about the history behind the United States' treatment of Native Americans, lynching and slavery.

“And I watched the war in Vietnam turn into an act of evil by my people — my tribe — my elected government,” Corson-Finnerty said. “And my protests and those of other students seemed futile against the juggernaut.”

But what could a Penn student possibly do to gain attention for his marginalized beliefs?

“I started thinking about throwing myself in front of a munitions train,” Corson-Finnerty said.

Then on Nov. 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker pacifist, burned himself to death at the Pentagon, at a spot estimated to be 40 to 100 feet from the window of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

“He did what I had been thinking about,” Corson-Finnerty said. “I respected that act profoundly. I felt I understood it deeply. But it didn’t end the war.”

Spreading Change

“Hippie-like” is how Zamah describes the older crowds at the Friends of Kathy Change meetings she attended at the group’s weekly meetings at 38th Street and Lancaster Avenue. Zamah was the only student who attended the meetings. Eventually, having to walk nine blocks there and back, just beyond the edge of where Penn Transit’s vans would go, took its toll. So did the group’s lack of direction.

“I just remember feeling like it wasn’t terribly organized,” Zamah said. “So I just stopped going.”

Like Zamah, Justin Duerr remains attracted to the power of Change’s message.

Duerr obtained a video copy of Change’s 1991 play “The Transformation” and uploaded it to YouTube in full in February 2012. Now, almost a quarter-century later, Soomi Kim is looking to do a Kathy Change performance of her own.

Kim first heard of Change in 2011. Having performed dance theater pieces on female martyr figures before, she started researching Change and, as a fellow Asian-American performance artist, instantly felt a connection.

“The thing that is really personal for me and about Kathy is that she lost her mother at a very tender age through suicide. She was abandoned and left alone. That’s like the biggest ‘fuck you’ in life to have your parent do that,” Kim said. “To me, that’s the biggest source of pain. When I was 12, I lost my mother — she died in a car accident. So I think there’s a larger connection for me in terms of exploring what happens to the human spirit.”

Kim’s development of “Chang(e)” was set up to be a three-year process and will premiere as a full-length production at HERE Arts Center in SoHo in the fall of 2015.

One of Kim’s first steps toward putting on a show was reaching out to McGeever, who she noticed had been quoted in a Daily Pennsylvanian story on Change a month after her death. McGeever gave Kim the recording from Change’s “PennTalk” episode and even played himself interviewing Change (portrayed by Kim) in four early showings of “Chang(e)” in January and February 2013.

“I just want people to know who she was and that her life had meaning,” Kim said.

But “Chang(e)” wouldn’t have been possible without a community of friends and fans of Change beyond McGeever who hooked her up with archival materials and people close to Change. Duerr’s friend Eric Chocolates lived with Change at the Killtime — a communal warehouse of West Philadelphia artists at 3854 Lancaster Ave. — and distributed some of Change’s writings and materials to him. Duerr also obtained a copy of “The Iron Moonhunter” from San Francisco via interlibrary loan, scanning the pages for Kim.

“I was glad I was able to act as like a catalyst for that,” Duerr said. “I’m just trying to get information out there.”

The crazy and the universal: A legacy continues

On a cloudy evening earlier this month, College Green is teeming with performance art on display for Quakers old and new. It’s Quaker Days, a time for newly admitted students to experience Penn, many for the first time. What the oversized Penn community sees on College Green today are about two dozen blue, yellow and red cards made out of construction paper tied to a small, thin tree in front of the peace sign. They were hung there by a theater arts class on a mission to make performance art public at Penn for a course project. The class gathered around the tree, holding each other’s hands and smiling in unison.

Now, though, the sun is setting and College Green is empty. All that remains are the cards bobbing in the wind. Each card has a word written on it in marker. A yellow card featuring the word “crazy” sways on its string next to another yellow card with the word “universal.” Just a few feet from where she killed herself, what very well might be Change’s legacy is on display — the universal at odds with the crazy, a thoughtful piece of performance art fighting to be seen. Its words are there for a new class of Penn students to see, but no one’s looking.

So is this Kathy Change’s legacy? A few spreading the message and nobody else looking?

“I personally don’t think she was successful in what she wanted to do as an artist — that’s what drove the whole thing,” said Jonny Meister, who interviewed Change and several other activists participating in a nude protest at Penn on his WXPN morning radio show. “I’m sure there were people that remember her suicide. But if you didn’t know her, it’s just one more awful tragedy.”

Three Penn students have committed suicide this academic year alone. Penn continues to be an ultra-competitive, pre-professional institution, not at all the countercultural hotbed for social revolutionaries that Change reveled in at Mills and NYU, however briefly. Penn may have hardened Kathy Change, but Kathy Change didn’t soften Penn.

Beyond Penn, Duerr estimates that just five people still actively share Change’s writings and other materials.

“It would be a shame if her story went away,” McGeever said.

Once she transformed herself from Kathleen Chang to Kathy Change, her life was nonstop performance. Her body and mind were constantly on display to challenge the status quo. But it’s telling that what resonated most with Zamah, McGeever, Kim and Duerr, even more than the content of Change’s ideas, was the conviction behind them.

“You can argue the success or failure of what she was trying to do, but you can’t argue the dedication behind it,” Duerr said. “And I think the success part of it comes from the dedication.”

“Her life I don’t think immediately had the impact that she wanted,” Kim said. “But there’s something still there to be admired in what she was trying to say and do.”

Her cause may have died with her, but the indelible image of Change creatively demanding transformation remains.

Change’s legacy remains precarious because it hinges on her few most dedicated admirers continuing to share and discuss her works. But although it takes two to pass something on, it only takes one to start the process, whether it be Duerr’s “Iron Moonhunter” scans or McGeever’s “PennTalk” recording. Apathy kills legacy, and fortunately for Change’s legacy and those who choose to hold a stake in it, apathy is what she spent her entire life fighting against.

“I would say above all she was very critical of apathy, playing along with business as usual,” Zamah said. “That’s what she was trying to draw attention to.”

“She wasn’t just addressing Americans, or rich countries, or the West,” Corson-Finnerty said. “She was addressing the human condition, at all times and everywhere.”

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