A memory of Helen Ladd, 1924-2012

Years before I met Class Action’s co-founder Jenny Ladd, I met her mother, Helen Pratt Ladd, who passed away last week. Our first encounter revealed what a great cross-class ally she was.

In 1989 I was a tenant organizer at a very small affordable housing group – so small, in fact, that I was the one and only staff person. The whole office of the Anti-Displacement Project (ADP) was a rented cubicle. I had written a grant proposal to the Threshold Foundation, and one day I got a letter with the alarming news that they wanted to do a site visit. Even more alarming, they said they were going to send a large donor to meet me and some tenant leaders. I looked around our tiny, scruffy office and thought “Uh-oh! The donor is going to think we’re too funky to fund!” I also imagined that a rich charitable donor would be used to measuring social service outcomes, like number of meals served, and thought that our long-term leadership development strategy might make no sense. The site visit was going to be a disaster, I feared.

When Helen Ladd arrived, my first glimpse of her from across the lobby only intensified my fears. She had the upright posture and handsome patrician face of a traditional New England WASP lady.

But as soon as our conversation began, my fears dissipated. Helen asked me very savvy questions about our strategy; clearly she was well-versed in community organizing methods. She really listened to my answers, and expressed empathy for our struggles. She shook the hands of the low-income members and asked them about their housing complexes and their tenant groups with humble curiosity, as if she assumed there was something she could learn from them.

She was friendly to us, and affirming of our work. I discovered that she planned to advocate for a grant to the ADP with the other decision-makers at the foundation. She was already on our side from reading our proposal, and her purpose in doing the site visit was to gather evidence to convince them to fund us. Thanks to her persuasive powers, we got the grant.

In the following two decades, Helen was also a steady donor to the next three nonprofits I worked for, including Class Action, her daughter’s visionary initiative. Whenever I talked with her, she radiated a steady good cheer, a delightful family trait that I also see in Jenny.

As I gradually learned of Helen’s political commitments, I came to understand that my 1989 site visitor had been able to put the ADP’s grassroots work into a context of decades of philanthropy and work for social justice.

I know I’m speaking for everyone in Class Action when I say that our hearts have gone out to Jenny and her family since we heard that Helen had passed away. The movement for social change has lost a great cross-class bridge person.


For those who would like to honor Helen’s memory, Jenny asks that “in lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to the Obama or Elizabeth Warren campaigns or to the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington DC, http://www.edf.org/.” Helen’s progressive influence will continue!

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