Drawn to a cause

Chico’s Pamm Larry helped lead the effort to label GMOs

Pamm Larry, next to her anti-GMO car, “Sally.”

Pamm Larry, next to her anti-GMO car, “Sally.”

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

According to her business card, Pamm Larry is the “Initial Instigator and Chief Rabble Rouser” of the Proposition 37 movement. If you ask her, she’s just “a grandmother from Chico.”

Larry has lived in Chico for 34 years, although for the past two years or so she’s been “houseless,” crashing on friends’ and relatives’ couches while traveling the state to qualify Prop. 37 for the ballot and then promote it to voters.

Larry’s credited with leading the massive and unprecedented grassroots effort to pass Prop 37. She helped organize and lead some 10,000 volunteers statewide.

“History will show,” she said in a recent interview, “that we got 971,126 [ballot-qualification] signatures in 10 weeks.”

Larry was born in Chicago, lived in Detroit for a while, where she attended Western Michigan University before moving to California with the man she would eventually marry and with whom she would have three children. They spilt up nearly 20 years ago.

She moved to Chico to finish university and, like so many other longtime locals, she’s been here ever since.

The past two years have been hectic.

“I haven’t stopped traveling,” she said. “I was volunteering my time for the first 16 months.”

Larry’s passion is visible. She speaks in sort of a stream-of-consciousness style that is both informative and sincere.

“I got paid for four months and then volunteered the last month because I couldn’t give money to the campaign,” she said of her time on the road. “But I could at least donate my time. With no income, you’ve got to watch your pennies, so I lived off of savings for over a year. It seemed stupid to rent a place when I’m never here.”

In her earlier life, before Prop. 37, Larry was a midwife and, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, an organic farmer and business owner. “I ran a company called From the Garden,” she said.

More recently she’s been a consultant to therapists working with couples on relationship issues.

“I’ve worn a lot of hats,” she said. “I got my degree from Chico State in religious studies. I’m a deeply passionate person about life. I did the birth thing as a midwife, and the death thing with dried flowers. I care about the planet and the people on it, and that is where it comes from. And I have a strong sense of rage at people who are violating what I consider to be ethics.”

She started the ballot-initiative effort on Jan. 20, 2011.

“Who knows how these things come about?” she said. “I’ve always been interested in real food. And I know enough about science to make me a little dangerous.”

She says she has long mistrusted America’s big businesses, and that uneasiness eventually led to Prop. 37.

“I don’t trust the whole corporate system and what is going on with our world,” she said. “I got very depressed, felt catatonic and started becoming like a multi-level marketer to all my lovely friends here in Chico, who, when they saw me walking up to them, would say, ‘Oh God, not that GMO stuff again.’”

She was living with her friend Donna Garrison at the time and started a website with the help of one of Garrison’s “couch-surfer people.”

“I studied how to do a ballot initiative and developed a plan, part of which was to reach out to all of the other organizations because nothing was going to happen if it remained a grandmother-from-Chico thing.”

Soon after, she jumped in her Toyota Camry, “Sally,” with its license plate “GMO OMG,” and began her journey up and down the state. Little did she know that the effort to require GMO labeling in California would turn out to have national and international impacts.

Larry said her parents were not activists, but they raised her well.

“My father was a lawyer and taught ethics,” she said. “He used to grill us at the kitchen table about these larger questions in life, and he would always play the devil’s advocate, so we’d have to think about these things. My mother was an artist. No, they weren’t really activists, just a basic middle-class family, whose dad had heart attacks all the time.”

She has three daughters—one in town, one in Los Angeles and one in the Air Force. And, of course, she has two grandchildren.

“I encourage people to get involved in those things that concern them,” she said. “Don’t believe the lie that you can’t make a difference. The people who are angriest right now are those who did nothing. You know, people would say to me: ‘Why are you doing this?’ I would say it’s really self-serving. I want to be able to look at myself in five years and say, ‘I did everything I possibly could.’”