Learning from Unfinished Business

Community Works Event with Nancy Gertner
Photograph of Judge Nancy Gertner at an event at the Radcliffe Institute, by Kevin GradyPhotograph of Judge Nancy Gertner at an event at the Radcliffe Institute, by Kevin Grady
@ The Radcliffe Institute
November 25, 2015
By Ivelisse Estrada

Nancy Gertner, a former US federal judge and senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, was the featured speaker who joined a panel of social activists this fall to discuss lessons learned from the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1970s. With input from Gertner, the panelists—including Arline Isaacson, Judy Norsigian, and Toni Troop—all present and former leaders in local nonprofit organizations working on social-justice issues, further explored how these lessons apply to their current activism. The event, “Looking Back on the 1970s: Lessons from Unfinished Struggles in the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements,” was cosponsored by Community Works and Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library.

Joan Rachlin—the executive director emerita of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research and chair of the board of directors of Our Bodies Ourselves—introduced the three panelists and Gertner, calling them “feminist icons” before presenting each of them with a goodie bag representative of her esteem. These included a Wonder Woman necklace, a copy of the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou, and chocolate kisses. The nonprofit Our Bodies Ourselves is formerly known as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, and its records are among the holdings at the Schlesinger Library related to women’s health.

In her featured remarks, Gertner journeyed through her 40-year career, noting that bias looks a lot different now than it did then: whereas bias was once explicit, it is now implicit. After decades of judging, she feels the need to recommit to civil rights and social justice issues. “I left the bench to be able to speak,” she said. Gertner told the room about an op-ed she wrote for the Boston Globe about mandatory minimum sentences, which began, “Over a 17-year judicial career, I sent hundreds of defendants to jail—and about 80 percent of them received a sentence that was disproportionate, unfair, and discriminatory.” She is now reviewing hundreds of her past cases with the hopes of undoing some of that damage.

Arline Isaacson, a representative of the ACLU of Massachusetts and cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, brought 30-odd years of experience advocating for oppressed populations and the LGBT community in particular. She pointed out that a political movement, after achieving its “big win”—such as marriage equality—has two major concerns: sustaining the movement and then using it to “pay it forward” to the people just one rung below on the ladder. “The big solution would be to invent political Viagra,” she joked. She urged education and increasing awareness as effective ways to convince people that there’s much more to do.

The director of communications and development at Jane Doe Inc. and Community Works board member Toni Troop focused on unfinished business and mistakes from which the domestic violence movement has learned. She bemoaned the movement’s ties to the criminal justice system, when it could have focused more on ending violence. “It’s about creating safe communities so that people can be free and whole and productive in their lives.”

Judy Norsigian, cofounder and former executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, and another Community Works board member, talked about the women’s movement and how far it still needs to go. “We learned early on that you can’t address any of these social-justice issues without recognizing issues of class and race,” she said. “It’s been hard for the women’s movement to address the internal racism and classism that many of us have grown up with.” Norsigian urged facing this bias head on to universalize equality.

The spirit of the event and the remarks were true to Community Works cofounder and activist Kip Tiernan BI ’89, who died in 2011 after spending her life working to promote awareness of the challenges facing the underserved poor and homeless populations and to provide meaningful solutions. She donated her papers to the Schlesinger Library, where scholars and students can use them to learn more about both her values and meaningful ways to advance social justice. 

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