Felice Yeskel, a peaceful warrior for economic justice, has left us. After a 2-year battle with cancer, Felice died on Tuesday Jan 11, surrounded by loving family and friends in Amherst, Mass.
Felice was a remarkable trainer and public speaker on issues of class, human liberation and economic justice. Her irreverent sense of humor and big-hearted embrace of everyone will be greatly missed.
Felice grew up on the Lower East Side of New York, the only child of Phyllis and Harry Yeskel. Her father drove a truck that collected flour sacks from bagel and bialy bakeries around the city. Felice writes, “When I asked him what I should tell people when they asked what he did, he said, ‘bagman.’ But, even as a young kid, I knew I didn’t want to say that. He said I could also say, ‘peddler,’ since he bought them from the bakeries and then sold them to be recycled. I wasn’t sure ‘peddler’ was much better.”
She was a bright child and attended a special program for “gifted children” at Hunter College Elementary School. A lot of her classmates were economically privileged. She remembers going home to play at their houses and realizing that her family’s entire apartment could fit into the foyer of some of her playmate’s Park Avenue apartments.
Because of feelings of shame and confusion, she never invited any of her classmates home to play at her house. Later in life, she would work so that no other child would ever be ashamed of the circumstances of their family –believing that her solid working class upbringing was a huge gift and asset.
Her first organizing campaign was to eliminate a school dress code requirement that girls wear dresses. She won – opening the door for generations of girls in pants at Seward Park High School.
Her organizing experience was many faceted. In 1978, she worked with San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk to fight the Briggs Initiative, an anti-gay California ballot initiative. In 1983, she was a leader of the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment, protesting outside of the Seneca Army Depot against the deployment of Cruise missiles.
Dr. Felice Yeskel was the first person in her family to pursue a college education. She received her doctorate in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts and in 1985 co-founded the Stonewall Center, one of the first GLBT centers at a major university –and model for hundreds of other higher education institutions.
Personally, the loss of Felice is a huge absence. She and I have been comrades for over thirty years sharing a lifelong commitment to working against classism and inequality. We both became parents around the same time –and loved singing to our daughters, Nora and Shira. Our two families had adventures together including several weeks traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Felice and I had very different upbringings. Felice was Jewish, female, working class, and lesbian. I’m a straight white Christian guy who grew up owning class, from a meatpacking clan. As we joked, together we were “Oscar Mayer hotdog meets the Bagel Bagman.”
Felice confidently reassured me that “I could overcome the debilitating circumstances of my upbringing” and that, with help, there was “hope that I could develop working class sensibilities.”
She believed that each of us holds a piece of the puzzle in terms of human liberation. Different race and class experiences give us complimentary insights and information about the world. She didn’t buy the idea that everyone should aspire to traditional norms of white middle class culture. She believed that people who were raised poor and working class had tremendous skills, knowledge and insight that came from their life experience. She fumed at how useful trades and working class skills were undervalued –while phony wealth-creators and speculators were overvalued.
We had a lot of fun doing public speaking together –and playing off our differences. In 1994, we teamed up with S.M. “Mike” Miller to start an organization to draw attention to the growing disparities of income, wealth and power. Originally called “Share the Wealth,” we changed the name in 1996 to United for a Fair Economy. Together, we designed a popular education workshop called the “Growing Divide” that creatively engaged tens of thousands of people in the data and meaning of our nation’s extreme inequalities.
In 2001, we co-wrote a popular classroom book, Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity, now in its second edition. Co-writing this book and many articles with Felice gave me an insight into her keen mind. She had original theories about how people moved from oppression to liberation –and how social movements interacted with individual identity. On a few occasions, she said, “Chucky, take a letter” as she rattled off the main points of an article that we were to co-author.
Felice was always called to work directly on issues of class. In 2005, she teamed up with Jenny Ladd to co-found Class Action (www.classism.org), an organization dedicated to eliminating classism through education. In 2006, I founded the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.inequality.org). We continued to collaborate on writing, training and speaking. Class Action recently moved into the Boston offices of the Institute for Policy Studies and the projects are merging for the long haul.
Over the last two years, as she battled cancer, Felice has been editing an anthology reader about class, with 52 different contributors. The book, with the working title of “Caviar, College, Coupons and Cheese: An Anthology on Class,” is almost complete and we are currently seeking a publisher.
Felice once wrote out her vision of a world without classism:
- Meets everyone’s basic needs
- Treats people from every background, class status, and rank with dignity and respect
- Supports the development of all people to their full potential
- Reduces the vast differences in income, wealth, and access to resources
- Ensures everyone has a voice in the decisions that affect them
“Wouldn’t you like to live in that world?” she wrote.
There’s no question that the best way to honor the legacy of Felice Yeskel is to work toward that vision.
Our love goes to Felice’s amazing partner, Felicia Mednick and daughter Shira. May the light perpetual shine upon her.
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