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WMK Connects: Dr. Nancy Nystrom, lifelong activist and organizer

October 31, 2017

This week, we have the pleasure of introducing you to Dr. Nancy Nystrom. Dr. Nystrom has been a lifelong activist, having gotten her start working with Cesar Chavez in the Farmworkers Movement. She has since organized for various social justice movements, attained a PhD in Social Welfare, and is currently writing her memoir.


Dr. Nystrom's organizing principles come from the teachings of Saul Alinsky. She will be presenting on Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" at the Kitsap Progressive Action Network Meeting this Wednesday, November 1. (Meeting starts at 7 pm at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 700 Callahan Dr, Bremerton.) We encourage you to come out and hear more from this remarkable woman.





Robin: So you first got involved in social activism as a teenager, working alongside people like Cesar Chavez. How did you get involved in that work?


Nancy: I was a homeless teenager, fourteen. And this nun and priest, they were worried about me being on the streets, so they connived this plan to have me paint the playground equipment at the Catholic school in exchange for food because I wouldn’t take food for free. So they couldn’t seem to get me to just take their gifts, you know. So I started painting the playground equipment. And I did that for a year and a half and I would get free lunch for that. And, of course, the priest at the church had to have that playground equipment painted probably fifty times just ‘cause he was trying to keep me there, you know, to not disappear on him.


One day he came out and he said, “I have a young man in the parlor. I’d like you to meet him. He wants to start a farmworkers union.” And I also picked tomatoes and onions and asparagus and other things in Northern California over the years, you know. And so I was interested in how things get corrected, that things didn’t seem to be very fair. And I am the daughter of an immigrant family, so that was really important, you know. And so I went into the parlor and met this guy named Cesar Chavez. And I was fourteen at the time. And I very cockily said, you know, “Anything I can do to help you, Cesar, you just let me know.” Shook his hand and sat there and talked with him for hours, and that was it. I was sold. He started talking about power and action and knowledge and, you know, constructive building of power, things like that. And I just thought, “Mhmm. Okay.” So I said, “You teach me what you know.” I asked him if he would teach me what he knew, and he said he’d be happy to but I had to start back to school. I was an eighth grade dropout at that point. And he said, “You have to go back to school.” And so I hedged on that a little bit, then finally said okay, I would do it. And so I wound up working for him for fourteen years.


Robin: And you went on to hold a leadership position in the Farmworkers Association.


Nancy: Yeah, I was Director of the Northern California Farmworkers Office and Organizing Tactics for the Northern California branch of the movement, of the union. And did that for several years. But then also, at that point, at that time, the very same time almost exactly, other issues were popping out—like anti-poverty, hunger in America, race and social justice issues on race and class lines. And so I got very much involved in those. And then, of course, the next big one was the Anti-War movement. And then the Women’s Movement. And movements, issues kept arising as each social justice issue was being addressed. And eventually I wound up leaving the Farmworkers Movement in 1974 and getting more involved in the Anti-Poverty Movement and Gay Rights. And I’ve been involved in Gay Rights ever since.


Robin: What has your involvement in those movements looked like?


Nancy: Organizer.


Robin: Organizing people for events?


Nancy: Yes. Yeah, I was one of the people who called for the March on Sacramento in 1990. I was one of the original eight people who called for the March on Washington in 1993. Pushed for protest rallies about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. And so on and so forth. One of the original intern members for Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, one of the charter members of Sacramento Lesbians Creating Change. Totally involved in the LAMBDA Community Center in Sacramento and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Sacramento AIDS Foundation, ACT UP Sacramento, ACT UP San Francisco, one of the co-founders of ACT UP Seattle and Queer Nation Seattle. So, yeah, a little involved.


Robin: Yeah, just a little. And you’ve talked a lot about how Cesar Chavez, he kept saying, “Know your people. Know your issue. Know your goals.” So did you feel you were able to take a lot of what you learned in the farmworkers movement and apply it to your work elsewhere?


Nancy: Oh yeah, absolutely. You have to remember that much of what Chaves was teaching was based on Alinsky and the Power Movement from Saul Alinsky and the Power Institute in Chicago. And that’s where Cesar had gone to train. And that’s what he brought back to California. So that’s what we all learned, and that’s what we kept practicing.


Robin: Got it. So you went back to school and then you went on to attain several degrees.


Nancy: Yeah, I graduated from high school. I went back to school and went ahead and graduate from high school, but I didn’t start college until I was forty-four. And went straight through. Three years for Bachelors, two years for Masters, three years for Doctorate.


Robin: And your Doctorate is in Social Welfare, is that right?


Nancy: Yeah.


Robin: So did you get to delve into these social justice topics more in your research and teaching?


Nancy: Oh yeah. My dissertation is about it and my courses that I taught were about social justice and empowerment, community organizing.


Robin: So your students got to learn from you kind of about the work that you had been doing all this time.


Nancy: Mhmm, I hope so. I hope so. You never know, you know. But I hope so. They tell me that’s true, that they did. I still hear from many of them. And they’re working in different issues. That’s really good to see.


Robin: Yeah, that’s cool that you get to see that work continue in other people.


Nancy: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Well, first of all, the fact that I graduated from high school was a major event for me. I didn’t ever think I really would. You know, as a child from a poor family, you don’t really plan on that, or back in those days you didn’t. So that was a big deal. The idea of going to college, I mean, that all by itself was a social class issue because I had eventually gotten a job as a Welfare Eligibility worker in Sacramento, California. When Nixon was elected president, Cesar said to us, you know, “Better start looking at getting real, salaried jobs because the whole notion of social justice may be tossed with this guy.” So I was teaching people in the farmworker community how to take civil service exams and try and get jobs. And I had taken one and passed the test for Welfare Eligibility worker. At the very same time that we were talking about, “What are we gonna do now that Nixon’s president?” So I took the job as a Welfare Eligibility worker. And I did that job for nineteen years.


And one day, my boss came in, and she said—she had three new people with her, they were all Masters of Social Work—and she said, “Would you train these folks because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing and we need to get them on board.” And I looked up at her and I thought—I was forty-one or two at that time—and I thought to myself, “What the heck. I’ve been here nineteen years. You’re asking me to train these folks literally to take over my job. And not only that—I’ll be making less in my retirement because I couldn’t promote.” I was prohibited from promoting ‘cause I had no college. So I thought, “You’re always telling your clients to go to school. You’re always encouraging them to be what they want to be. How come we never did the same thing?”


So, at forty-four years old, I walked over to Sacramento State College and said, “I don’t know if I can prove I graduated from high school, but I’d like to start college.” And they got me in, and I was on my way. And I didn’t waste any time because I knew, because of age discrimination, I had to get as far as I could as fast as I could in order to be able to get a assured of a job, you know.


And when I got into the Masters program at Sacramento State, I had already been a guest lecturer of theirs several times on poverty and homelessness because I worked that so long. And so, when I got into the School of Social Work, they said, “You already know more than we do. You should go on.” And originally, I was just gonna get my Bachelors so at least I could make the same as these new workers who were being hired, right. But when they said, “You should go on,” I went on. And got that and was going to go get my Masters at Sacramento State.


But then the Christian Right reared its ugly head and was chasing us around town and killing our friends and threatening us. As a community, there were four of us that were kind of the leaders of the gay rights movement then, and lesbian rights movement. And we decided that the four of us—‘cause the Christian Right put our names on the internet, looking for somebody to kill us—they decided we’d better get out of town. So I was escorted up to Seattle, put in safe housing by the FBI. And I refused to change my name or give up my activism. And came up organizing the March on Washington already. That was in 1992. So I started the Masters program up here. And then, while I was in the Masters program, I was encouraged to get my PhD, so I did that too. And that’s the story of my college education.


So I graduated in 1997 with my PhD and then went off to Michigan State to become a professor of Social Work there and teach social justice and community organizing. So that’s kind of a synopsis of the life, right?


Robin: And now you’re back in the Pacific Northwest and you’re working as a counsellor, right?


Nancy: Well, what happened was that—Michigan is kind of a tough place to live, you know. It’s flat and it was somewhat progressive until GM and Ford left. But one of the things I found out there was that, if you die, only a blood relative can authorize your burial. And I had a partner at the time, and she would not be authorized to have anything to do with burial. And I had no blood relatives left, so it was like, “Uh oh.” You know, that means the state decides. And I said, “I’m not gonna live in a state that does that.” So I said, “I wanna go back to Washington.” So came back in 2004 because UW wanted me to work there. So I came back and assumed a lectureship at UW for eight years. And that’s the story of that. Because I didn’t want to die in Michigan.


Robin: And so what does your activism look like these days and has it changed in the last year?


Nancy: Yeah, well, it kind of has because I left UW in 2012. I finally taught my last classes in 2012 and opened up a practice. In the meantime, in 2008, I had opened up a clinical practice, a counselling practice here in Bremerton. And so I kept doing that. And, in doing that, that's when I started getting involved in some other issues, particularly homelessness in Kitsap County and immigration issues in Kitsap County, as well as lesbian and gay rights still. But mostly economic injustice issues and immigration injustice issues as well. So it’s changed a little bit that way.


And now, I have to say, in the last year—I retired in June, and prior to that, I recognized that I was becoming much more cognizant that the system isn’t necessarily working for everybody who is living in a state of lack of justice or lack of power, you know. Not that it was working for anybody before, but, I mean, right now there’s an overt move on the part of the big system to make those who don’t have power, don’t have voice, make them the enemy, the victim of their power. And so I’ve become much more, I would say—I don’t want to say radicalized in a militant sense because I’m still a pacifist organizer—but much more radicalized in recognizing that we have to confront this overt hatred that’s going on.


We’re literally reverting back to the 1920s in terms of our attitudes about people who are different or that kind of thing. Of course, that’s confirmed just by, yesterday, Donald Trump announcing that he’s taking some of the Title IX money in the budget out of that budget to give to $350 million to groups that will advocate to use only the rhythm method of birth control in this country. And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” I have nine godchildren thanks to rhythm, you know. You know, birth control wasn’t legal in this country until 1970. Abortion, of course, wasn’t legal until 1973. People forget that people actually lived a whole life of trying to contend with not having resources to plan their own families. And here we’re going right back to it. And here in 2017, we’ve got the President of the United States taking money away from, ironically, Title IX, which is designed to give women equal access to programs and services—instead, taking the money out of that budget part and putting it into a mandating rhythm only as being the birth control. I’m like, “Are we crazy? We’re going all the way back?” So, yeah, I’ve become a little bit more radicalized in recognizing those details, you know.


Robin: So I have one last question for you. So I know that you have lots that you could share in terms of how to support various communities and different movements, but one that has stood out to me that you’ve mentioned—you’ve talked about in past conversations that you’re connected with the undocumented community in Kitsap, and you’ve said that a lot of these people are too afraid to even seek out help from groups like the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center.


Nancy: Absolutely, yeah.


Robin: So, for those that care about this community and want to help them but don’t know how, what would you encourage them to do?


Nancy: I would encourage them to put pressure on their Congressmen, particularly Derek Kilmer, to get relief from ICE raids and relief from political pressure to frighten these people anymore. You know what I mean?


Robin: Yeah.


Nancy: For people who want to work directly with the immigrant community, then you have to get yourself known in that community. Which means you have to take the time to go to the places where they might be, and that means getting to know someone who might know that and who would only take you into that area once they determine that you really are for real, you know. I mean, it’s a very guarded situation right now. So that would be the best that I could advise people at this point. You know, just because you think you’re a friend doesn’t make you one, so everybody has to kind of be patient with that and understand why people would not necessarily trust them, you know, and be okay with that. I mean, it’s not about them personally. It’s about the immigrant families personally, you know. Because you never know what your actions might be that might give it away and get them in trouble. So they have to be able to trust you, really trust you, you know.


So that would be the primary thing—for the general population who disagrees with this push—would be to push at Congress to get ICE out of here. And then, for those who wanted to become more personally involved—which would be working with people trying to help them being able to stay here or get some papers or whatever—then that’s a slow, slow process. Does that help?


Robin: Yeah, thank you. And then you are writing a book.


Nancy: Yes, I am.


Robin: When is that expected to come out?


Nancy: Spring.


Robin: Spring. Very cool. And that’s an autobiography?


Nancy: It’s a memoir. And it’s gonna be about five predominant movements. It’s a story of my life, you know, growing up, and that kind of stuff. But then also five predominant movements. I can tell you what they are. So I’m gonna talk about the Farmworkers Movement, of course, the War on Poverty and Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement. And then I’m gonna also talk about, you know, where we are today and what we need to be doing. And the whole book—it’s a memoir, but it’s also a primer on how to organize. So I’ll be integrating all the steps and tools.So the book is gonna be called “Forgotten Fighters”—so far, it’s gonna be called that. Could be changed, you know, by some publisher.


Robin: Well, I’m excited to read it. It sounds really fascinating. Thank you for talking with me more.


In summary, Nancy explained:


What I meant to say earlier—and I should have said this in the beginning—is that all of my community organizing that I’ve done throughout the years is based on the model of self-help, building power from within, and that’s entirely based on the Alinsky model, which is what Cesar Chavez taught. So, for example, this coming Wednesday, when I talk about the Power Model that he talks about—the thirteen rules of power—that’s what it’s about, building resources. So, for example, I, with two other guys, when I was nineteen—Lyndon Johnson became president and he called for a war on poverty in order to meet Kennedy’s goal to end poverty and hunger. So we co-wrote a program called Operation Grassroots and that was the first program granted under the War on Poverty. And the entire program was built on self-help—self-help housing, self-help migrant education, self-help Meals on Wheels, you know what I mean, the whole bit. And the whole thing was built on communities building power within their own confines in order to be able to maintain continuation of services and things the community needed. So that kind of puts in context for you in terms of what my history as an organizer has been. The most successful movements we have ever seen have been those that have built power from within. For example, the labor union fights, you know. Those have been power movements from within, and that’s what we believe in—the notion of self-help and building power within ourselves. And that’s been the premise of every single organizing effort I’ve ever done.


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