Nancy Romer’s 50 Years of Activism

Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with your current work on pension divestment. Has this been a long-standing concern of yours?

Nancy Romer: Actually, no. I don’t have much interest in finance— but once I understood that divestment is about workers’ money and the planetary harm that results from fossil fuels, I was hooked. Working on divestment is a way for unions to join the climate justice movement and a way to get the climate justice movement to join efforts to improve workers’ lives.

EJB: How has working at that intersection influenced you?

NR: A few years back, we organized a Halloween demonstration in front of New York’s City Hall. Our signs asked, ‘What can be scarier than fossil fuels?’ While leafletting at the demo, I started asking people if they knew what fossil fuels are and many didn’t. This made me realize how important it is to speak plainly, in a way that people can understand.

I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that more than two million people in the US work in the fossil fuel industry. These are high-paying, often six-figure jobs that are socially isolated and hazardous. If we are going to convert to renewable energy, we can’t ask workers to take jobs paying $15 or $20 an hour. This is why it is so important to infuse the climate justice movement with a pro-worker perspective and vice-versa.

EJB: How did you first get interested in organizing?

NR:  After I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1967, I married my boyfriend in order to join the Peace Corps since we wanted to work together. We went to Colombia, but we quickly realized that the Peace Corps., at least at that time, was a sham. We also thought that this was a time to be in the streets at home, so after less than a year, we left. Since Steve had gotten accepted into social work schools in Michigan, we went back to Ann Arbor.

Our first night there we went to a benefit concert for the local tenant’s union. Joan Baez performed. By the next week we were involved in the housing movement. I had a teaching job that year, but would come home from school, take off my dress—women teachers had to wear dresses in those days—put on jeans, and go door-to-door on behalf of the group.  I listened to people’s concerns and was incredibly moved by what I heard. It was also a lot of fun. The people in the tenants’ union were terrific. They were high-energy, determined, radical and creative. We formed a Third Party, the Radical Independence Party which eventually merged with the statewide Human Rights Party. The HRP had been started by renegade Democratic Party members who’d left the Party because they opposed the Vietnam War.

EJB: What kind of work did the party do?

The Human Rights Party did electoral work, petitioned to get a line on the ballot, and produced a 50-page platform that described our positions on pretty much every issue. We also did a lot of strike support and got to know activists from the Teamsters, teachers’ union, and United Auto Workers.     

It was an amazing time. Our energy and passion are similar to what I see today among young people drawn into activism by the Democratic Socialists of America.

EJB: Can you say more about what your found so compelling about community organizing?

NR: Well, by 1970 I knew I wanted to stop teaching and become a fulltime organizer—I just loved it—but the only way I could support myself to do this was by getting a waitressing job or by going back to school. I applied and got accepted into the University of Michigan grad school and was awarded a grant of $2000 a year plus tuition. This was so much better than waiting tables! My plan was to organize full-time; I had no intention of finishing my PhD, but during my first year of doctoral study my advisor introduced me to his wife. She had just gotten tenure—one of the first women to do so—and was a grateful beneficiary of Second Wave feminism. I’d been part of the women’s movement since 1969, but her mentorship meant that I, too, got the immediate benefits of feminist organizing. I was given great support and ended up completing the degree while working as an organizer.

EJB: Were you raised in a political family?

NR: My maternal grandfather was a socialist visionary. He ran a unionized women’s clothing business and raised a lot of money for causes he believed in. He was a complete atheist but he raised money for kibbutzim in Israel and for Yiddish poets and theaters here in the US. He was a big personality and had huge influence on me.

EJB:  What would you say are the main issues you care about?Image-1

NR: I’ve always had what is now called intersectional politics. The Human Rights Party had addressed every issue and Second Wave feminism had brought together issues of race, class, gender, the family, and women’s work. I’ve always seen separating issues as illogical since the whole cake is baked together. In addition, as soon as I came across socialist ideas, a light bulb came on and it just made sense to me. Over the course of my life, I’ve followed the movement. I’m most interested in mobilizing people and raising consciousness. But perhaps the issue I’m most compelled by is bigotry.

EJB: As part of your work at Brooklyn College, you started a community partnership that continues to run an after-school arts program for kids. How did that evolve?

NR: The partnership came out of the Crown Heights rebellion. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were tensions between the Caribbean and Hasidic and Orthodox people who live in this Brooklyn neighborhood. Since students from each of these communities attend Brooklyn College, people decided to get together and plan an anti-bigotry conference. Students, staff, and faculty were involved. We brought in grassroots activists to talk about issues they faced. The conference took place for two consecutive years and led to ongoing campus-based anti-bigotry work. One outgrowth of this was the creation of a fieldwork site where students could work with people from outside their communities. This eventually led to work with several public schools and ultimately morphed into the Brooklyn College Community Partnership. The Partnership brought in dancers, poets, musicians, writers, and visual artists to create a vibrant after-school program for teens from underserved Brooklyn high schools. A staff was hired to run it and while I helped with grant writing, after my initial involvement, it took on a life of its own.

EJB: How about your food justice work?

NR: About 12 years ago I joined a committee at the Park Slope Food Coop on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Through the committee I started learning about food. Then, in 2006, Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia. A friend’s daughter went there to write a dissertation about the landless peasant’s movement. She invited me to visit and we became fast friends. It was wonderful.  While there, I learned about the hazards of industrial food production and indigenous people’s movements. When I got back to Brooklyn, I suggested that the Food Coop sponsor a conference to bring organic farmers, chefs, anti-GMO activists, community gardeners, food workers, and the general public together. The first Brooklyn Food Conference took place in 2009 and drew 3,000 people. There years later, 6,000 people attended.

Everyone recognized the relationship between agriculture and climate change. You talk to farmers and you’re immediately talking about this. 

EJB: Are you optimistic that we can reverse climate change?

NR: We don’t know how it will shake out but I believe in people’s capacity to stand up to challenges and create a decent world. But I recognize that individualism and materialism will have to end. I was born in 1947, so my time is limited. But I know that difficult situations often yield positive social movements.