In honor of this lifetime achievement award, Felice’s good friend and WCSA colleague Barbara Jensen penned the following tribute:
Why Felice Yeskel Mattered to Working Class Studies
We are honoring Felice Yeskel tonight for a lifetime of investigating and agitating to understand and improve working class life in the United States. The daughter of a rag man (selling items for reuse!) from the lower east side of New York City, she found herself, by age five, in an elite elementary school on the upper eat side. Based on her mother’s determination and her test scores, Felice had the kind of Ivy League training that many of us working to middle class crossovers only dream about. From there she could have sailed into some happy Horatio Anger sunset among the privileged. But she refused to forget where she came from. She dedicated herself to raising awareness of working class people, cultures, activism and rights. When she wrote Economic Apartheid in America with Chuck Collins, the clearest manual on class in the U.S. you are ever going to find, she designed it to be used by activists in community and educational settings. Real social change was always Felice’s first concern.
In working class studies she was never without a crowd around her, her big laughter and personal warmth drew others to her. An outspoken lesbian feminist that founded and staffed the Stonewall Center at University of Massachusetts for 25 years, she pushed the boundaries of the working class studies constituency, welcoming queers, sissies, dykes and big women who are unashamed that their goddess bodies take up space in a man’s world. But she alienated no one, everyone was welcome at Felice’s table. She built community as easily as breathing, far more concerned with building a movement than in having an individual career. She demonstrated working class values of inclusion, solidarity, great personal warmth and “keeping it real” every day of her life.
Finally, she had a burning passion and an extraordinary ability to find and connect with working class people wherever she went, in Ivy League colleges, on the streets, in workshops and in working class studies. She changed lives. She labored hard to forge deep and permanent connections that touched and supported other working class crossovers. She made us cry and laugh and shout, Hell no. she helped bring us to the inclusive, amazing collection of working class scholars and activists we are today. Her heart was big enough for all of us, and we love her. Like so many of those she cared about, I will be homesick for her the rest of my life.
Barbara Jensen is a Licensed Counseling and Community Psychologist who counsels mixed-class couples and professionals from working-class backgrounds in Minneapolis. She also works in a variety of community settings including schools, psychiatric facilities, and homeless shelters. You can get a copy of her insightful and entertaining book Reading Classes: On Culture in America in the Class Action Store.
Read more about the Working Class Studies Association here.