Memories of Felice and class

A few memories of Felice and class from Betsy Leondar-Wright

I remember when Felice first identified herself as working-class. When she was in her mid-20s, members of Movement for a New Society (MNS) began caucusing by class background, and she joined a middle-class caucus. After all, she had always known that she’d be going to college; wasn’t that a marker of being middle class?

But Fai Coffin, a Jewish working-class woman, took her aside and told her she was not middle class, she was working class; that values about education and class worked differently for Jews. Felice had grown up in a small rented apartment; her parents had high-school degrees, worked at working-class jobs; but Felice hadn’t put those pieces together into a class identity before. Fai became one of her mentors in discovering the impact of her class background on her life.

It was like flipping on a light switch. Felice was suddenly as fiercely working class as she had been fiercely feminist since the late 1960s; she started blasting middle-class people as she had earlier blasted men. For example, one cold winter weekend when a group of MNS women went on a retreat in a big drafty house, Felice gathered us at one point for a tirade about how some women from upper-middle-class backgrounds weren’t suffering from the cold because they had thick wool sweaters, but she and Fai and other working-class women were freezing in their thin clothes. She told us wool-wearing women in no uncertain terms how oblivious and classist we were being about the temperature problem. How could we not notice other women shivering? What was wrong with us? She was right, but I know I wasn’t the only woman there to find her loud challenge scary.

I remember something similar happening once during MNS’s process of cost-sharing, a way of dividing up the expenses of an event according to ability to pay — not by a sliding scale formula, but by a process of discussion and discernment about many facets of participants’ past and future lives. A woman from a middle-class background had suggested that she should pay almost nothing for a weekend retreat because her income had been low ever since she went down to part-time work to make time to do her art, and her expenses were high because of therapy that was helping her recover from childhood abuse. “Those are CHOICES!,” Felice told the woman fierce. “You have OPTIONS! You should be paying at the TOP of the scale!” Once again, Felice was right, but she was scary.

If Felice had stayed at that stage of rage, she probably wouldn’t have chosen to specialize in facilitating classism workshops with mixed-class groups. I’ve heard from other raised-in-poverty and working-class people that they’d rather have a sharp stick poked in their eye than have to listen to the guilt, defensiveness and confusion of class-privileged people as they get their class consciousness raised. “Cross-class dialogue? No thanks.” That could have been Felice.

But in her late 20s she had a revelation. This is how I often heard her describe it: “I figured out that they need us.” She realized that many middle-class and owning-class people didn’t grow up with the amount of laughter, blunt communication, warm bonds and loose boundaries in their families and neighborhoods that she and many other working-class people had. Things that were second nature to her — feeling her own gut feelings and expressing them, intuiting others’ gut feelings and spontaneously responding to them – were actually difficult for others, she realized, in particular for some upper-middle-class and owning-class white people. She figured out that the reason so many of us more privileged people were stiffer, colder and less communicative was that we had been injured by the strictures of proper good manners, which froze some good people into ice. She took it upon herself to melt away that ice.

I was one of the middle-class people she took under her wing. When we first became friends, she called me her “stiff white girl.” She would ask me how I felt emotionally, and was amazed when I would say, “I don’t know.” “How can you not know how you feel?,” she would ask me. Her constant challenges had an undercurrent of compassion that was very moving to me.

The cross-class dialogue group that led to the founding of Class Action was made up of half people who grew up working-class or poor (including Felice, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez and Linda Stout) and half owning-class people from multi-millionaire families (including Class Action co-founder Jenny Ladd). Their assumption was that all of them were harmed by the class system, that all of their dreams had been blocked by their class conditioning, though in very different ways. Those without material constraints and hardships nevertheless had inner constraints distinct to their class. They worked towards the deep transformation of each of them to become more fully themselves, explicitly seeing those at opposite ends of the class spectrum as midwives for each other.

With this new approach towards class-privileged people, Felice was able to become one of the most remarkable facilitators of cross-class dialogue ever to walk this earth. She could tune in to and draw out workshop participants of all classes, races and nationalities, ages, and political opinions, including the most timid and the most skeptical. She became one of a small, small number of people able to focus simultaneously on the structural political and economic inequalities harming poor and working-class people and on the special strengths of working-class cultures.

I’m sure I’m one of tens of thousands of people awed by those moments when she suddenly channeled what a group felt, and then did just what the group needed. She would get an intent, focused look; she’d ditch the agenda; she’d speak from the gut; and the room would erupt into some raw, unplanned conversation that had been itching to happen.

I remember once she was supposed to give a keynote speech at a women’s conference. She threw aside her written speech, sat on the edge of the stage, and talked about how fraught it had been for her to decide what to wear as a keynoter, about her tortured feelings about clothing generally; then she described how every woman in that room had decided that morning what to wear to the conference with a fear of being judged, of being condemned for being too formal or too casual or too sexy or too raggedy; and she put forward a vision of how powerful radical acceptance of each other could be.

That was Felice: starting from her own story, empathically connecting with others, speaking difficult truths and challenging us to embrace our fullest humanity. Her strengths were rare ones. She leaves a huge hole.

12 Responses

  1. Diane

    I was blown away by Felice when I attended a workshop about working class folks in academia. It was the first time I was able to put language to why I always felt like I had feet in both worlds, why I connected so well to students who were struggling financially, why I resented colleagues who starte their careers without staggering debt, why I always had an unspoken fear of waking up one day with nothing. She also helped me appreciate my resilience, by creativity and my appreciation for all of the things that my upbringing gifted me with. She gave me the language with which to talk about this really important, often taboo topic. She connected me with others who shared the struggle.

    Safe journey, Felice. We will continue your work. And we will rejoice together if the work is every complete.

  2. Felice, I will miss you. I will miss the opportunities I had been hoping for and planning in my head as I worked to find space for Class Action in my work and life. You touched my life four years ago at a house party in the burbs somewhere. I was late, I was new, but you made me feel completely unashamed and completely welcome and at ease, and I found what I thought was a very caring ally in my efforts to understand classism and work to deconstruct it in society. Your candidness and caring and honesty and encouragement again inspired me during an all-day retreat in North Hampton. The world of ideas was an honorable place where real work could be done – that was the tone you set that day for everyone, and it was amazing how clear and engaged everyone was able to be that day. I have not seen you since that day, but always looked forward to reuniting with you and working with you in various ways. I am stunned and devestated to learn of your death and saddened to learn that you must have struggled long and hard with cancer. My wife has had cancer for the past ten years, so I know somewhat of your struggle, but I grieve at the thought of your suffering or struggles over the past years since I last saw you. You have inspired so many with your frankness, your courage, your expressive and insightful abilities, and I wish to stay with you, Felice, in spirit, throughout my remaining years of life as I work to deconstruct classism – it is with your gifts and leadership and love that I go forward. God hold you and bless you, Felice. The world loves you. You made our world a better place for me and so many others, and I want to remember your ways as I, too, work to make the world a better place. Your example lives with me.
    – Adam Gibbons

  3. Barbara Jensen
    Barbara Jensen

    Thanks, Betsy, for sharing about Felice. I have been crying for days without anyone (that knew her) to talk to about Felice, as I live so far from all of you. The loss of our friend is so huge, I can barely believe she is no longer in the world. I can’t imagine who I will call when I need to talk to Felice, because she was one of in a million. She was my kind of person. I keep thinking about the Judy Grahn funeral poem, “Kind of my kind…”

    Felice enlivened working class studies with her presence and my own life with her kindness and generosity of spirit. I posted this today on the working class poverty class academics list:
    Dear Friends,

    I don’t know how many of you knew her, but Felice Yeskel died this week. She was the founder of Class Action, a non-profit that teaches about class issues, including workshops in how to redistribute one’s own wealth for rich folks. She really “got it” about class, cultural differences, the psychology of class, and redistribution of wealth– She co-wrote Economic Apartheid in America with Chuck Collins. She first showed up at working class studies conferences in Youngstown in the early 2000’s, attended most of them, Youngstown, SUNY, and WCSA, but not this one, since that time, and brought a wealth of understanding about the psychology of class.

    Born on the lower east side of NYC, her father was a rag man but her mother got her into a fancy upper east-side school by the age of five. Educated in Ivy league institutions all the way through her doctorate, she was down to earth, emotionally intelligent, and “real” in all the ways I love about working class folks. She was bright and outspoken and, more personally, she changed my life– just knowing she was out there knowing all the things she knew, changed my life at a time when I felt really broken…

    The loss of her, to working class studies, to Class Action, to her family and thousands of friends is so great it is almost impossible for me to bear. so I thought I would write something here, where people care so much.

    Good-bye Felice, we are so much poorer without you!!!

    Love,

    Barbara Jensen

  4. Andra

    Betsy,
    Thank you for sharing these stories. The transformation of Felice from roaring to facilitating is so clear in your examples. I hope to read many more stories from many others here soon.
    Andra

  5. Cherie Rankin

    I met Felice for the first time at a Working Class Studies conference in Youngstown, OH. I think the very first one I attended. She sized me up, taking a bit to warm to me, making sure I was who I said I was… By the end of the week, we were having late-night conversations, academic “pajama parties” of sorts, with our small group staying in the Youngstown dorms… She was one of a kind, and she will be missed. Peace to her family.

  6. Leon A Rodrigues

    I was very sad to get the news that Felice passed on. I feel the loss of a strong advocate and activist that made us all look a little deeper at how we can work inclusively, opposing class trappings in our society.
    Felice made a great impact on me and my colleagues when we attended her workshop at NCORE in Chicago. I have used much of the work of Class Action in my social issues class. I appreciate the warmth, depth of experience and inspiring conversations I had with Felice. Her compelling story of her childhood in a Jewish community and the prejudice she experienced was something many of us can identify with. Together with my colleagues, we are truly committed to addressing class issues and teaching about it. This is how we will remember you.

  7. In reading this article I find myself saying “YES, YES” aloud over and over. Felice was a most honest, tender and open person! She didn’t just speak of change: SHE CREATED IT! She got to the core of each matter and of each person to help us grow as individuals and as a community. She provided to many of us young college folks (as well as many folks in the surrounding communities) an opportunity to feel safe in looking within and being raw. I have found that to be a rare gift that people like Felice are able to give to others. I recall a weekend workshop that I attended with fellow UMass students where the group fell raw and went on to have unspeakable conversations. Powerful stuff!

    I feel like one of the oh so blessed peoples to have been touched by Felice’s gifts. <3

    So much love and gratitude,
    Alysia

  8. Pilar Gonzales

    My reply to Chuck Collins upon receiving & reading his tribute to Felice:
    —————————————————————————————
    Chuck,

    Thanks so much for sending this today. Thank you for sharing your friendship and love of Felice with me, with us.

    Felice used to call on me when she was coming to the West Coast for leads, for job prospects, for ideas. If she was leading a workshop that I was attending, and it was mostly dominant culture folks in it, she’d say: Pilar, I’ll need ye in there. Share only as much as you feel you want to, or feel safe. But I’ll be there with ye.

    And I did. And she was. Because I knew she’d have my back.

    I remember the last time we had dinner together on the west coast, and even the last time we traded emails. I shall treasure the faith and respect she had in my perspectives & opinions. It was having her recognition of my class-knowledge which was like “a bow from a queen,” to borrow Margaret Drabble’s words. Felice embraced the realistic joy & repetition of doing social justice work. I remember talking with her about the small wins and what they looked like from her perch and mine. We compared notes, laughed, and cried as friends & colleagues in this movement.

    The years we all share here on this earth are far too short. I want a hundred more–a hundred more in that world Felice described.

    Pilar

  9. I wrote this up the day after Felice died. There is so much more but its a start. Thanks Betsy for opening this up. Jenny

    A Tribute to Felice Yeskel, April 6, 1953 – January 11, 2011
    From co-worker and friend, Jenny Ladd

    Felice was a powerful, articulate, committed activist for equity and justice. She challenged sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and heterosexism, class and classism, and all forms of oppression. She touched thousands of people’s lives with her speaking, teaching, listening, facilitating, writing, and living. She had a remarkable gift of presence in large groups and was able to inspire and move people to examine their own lives and commit to making this a more just world. She also was gifted in group facilitation – able to perceive subtle (and not so subtle) dynamics charged with pain and anger – and able to help people speak their truths by naming what she saw, non-judgmentally, opening up space for authentic and transformational communication.

    She dearly loved her family – Felicia, Shira, and their extended family. She would often come to work with stories of trips to the local farm, craft projects, game nights, group singing and meaningful Jewish ritual. She had a terrific sense of humor and play – often available in the most difficult times.

    Felice was curious and made a life of asking difficult questions with others in deep conversation, inquiry and action. This curiosity and commitment to truth and self awareness is what drew me to her and kept us connected. Felice and I had our struggles and challenges but we also shared a deep desire to cross personal and societal class barriers and in doing so we shared very vulnerable experiences and tender connections. My relationship with Felice has been one of the most intimate friendships I have ever had with anyone. This is very much due to both the intense friction and our face-to-face, side-by-side openness.

    These last two years she has focused her laser attention on healing and receiving and giving love on a personal level and, in the process, has created even stronger and more loving community with so many of us. I feel, as many others do, that her illness catalyzed and cohered an already existing network, near and far, into a true community of love that was shared not only with Felice but with each other.

    She was and is a great, complex, and beautiful spirit. I deeply miss her.

    *Background: Felice and I connected in the fall of 1989 at a meeting about creating a social justice training center. Over coleslaw and cold cuts we both acknowledged our different class backgrounds – she came from a Jewish working class background, brought up on the lower east side in New York and I was brought up White Anglo Saxon Academic from an owning class family in Cambridge, MA. Four years after meeting we had worked together with others to create Responsible Wealth based at United for a Fair Economy which she co-founded with Chuck Collins. We decided to start a cross-class dialogue group in 1995 which ran for 6 years; out of that we co-founded Class Action as a non-profit with the help of Dana Gillette, Chuck Collins and board members Juan Carlos Aguilar, Charles Bodhi, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Betsy Leondar-Wright, David Rosenmiller and Linda Stout. I left working full time for Class Action in 2006; Felice continued to hold and build the organization until her cancer diagnosis Feb 2, 2009.

  10. Kristin

    I was relieved to discover this website because it validated the unspoken feelings that I have always felt but never was able to articulate. I am so happy that Felice had found her calling and actualized her dreams of addressing classicism ( I had a brief thought that maybe this was her calling in life-which is why she is leaving us now..) The articles and discussions help make the topic of classicism easier to confront and challenge whenever we face it (and it feels like its so pervasive and elusive sometimes-difficult to catch on the spot.) I hope people can continue to have the courage to confront classicism so that one day it will be unacceptable as racism or any other form of oppression. I have never met Felice but I am inspired by her life that she has lived and will remember her. Have a wonderful time in Heaven Felice and thanks for your courage 🙂

  11. Adj Marshall

    I first heard of Felice’s work through Class Matters: cross class alliance building for middle class activists, a book I assigned my students to read for a community organizing class I co-taught at a Private Liberal Arts College. This was the first piece of writing I encountered that was grappling with the difficult task of class dialogue on a grassroots level. Felice’s short two page piece in the Class Action book chronicled the issues that that arise on college campuses when class is not included in diversity training. The piece gave voice to my own struggles as poor white undergraduate who’s culture shock experience was all but ignored, and became the impetus for my submersion in the classism struggle. My work has taken me from the most elite prep school in the country to work within a city with on of the highest child poverty rates in the country. I have been blessed to follow Felice’s work from afar and introduced many others to her work. I know my life has been changed by her work and I only hope that her passion for this matter is carried on by all who have been impacted by her. A blog post reflecting on Felice’s impact on my life can be found at http://learnedcuriosity.wordpress.com/

  12. Friday, Jan. 14, 2011 is the day i learned for certain that Felice Yeskel had, in fact, died on Tuesday. Jan. 11, though I had been forwarded and read an email message that clearly stated Felice had died. Denial. I learned from Betsy Leondar-Wright and Nicole Renee Brown, two Class Action Trainers who came to New Brunswick to Rutgers to do a “Bridging the Class Divide” workshop for about 20 Student Affairs staff on Jan. 14. they did an excellent job given what they were dealing with.

    I learned Felice was terminally ill very recently. Yet, no matter how long ago one might learn–two years or two weeks–the eventuality of the death would always be too soon, too early, too quick. What a loss for our various communities, but more so, as Betsy said, “What a loss for the world.” Yes.

    I guess I might stroll down memory lane, hoping not to time out here, about my encounters with Felice.

    circa 1989-’90: Felice was working on her dissertation, I believe, and had started the Stonewall Center at U-Mass Amherst. She was directed to speak with me (as a lesbian) by members of the Rutgers President’s Select Committee for Lesbian/Gay Concerns. We spoke about my experiences on that Committee evaluating Rutgers’ climate for lesbian and gay people (everyone was lumped under the L and G umbrellas then) on all three campuses. I do not have clear memories of what we spoke about or what questions Felice asked me, but I remember vividly her short, mixed blond and gray hair and her piercing blue eyes, and light (even for a white person) skin. In response to some comment I had made about the generosity of the institution, she reminded me tersely that generosity had little to do with anything Rutgers or any white, male dominated institution might render unto those of us who were struggling for access within it. Yes.

    circa 2002, I saw her at an Astraea Foundation retreat/conference in and around Santa Cruz. I attended the Conference as a long-time supporter of Astraea. The purpose of the conference was to attract women of diverse wealth to the organization. Felice was on a panel with two or three other women, whom I cannot remember, to address class diversity. No indeference to the two or three women, but it just goes to show you what a figure Felice was. Anyway, she talked about her coming to class as a life-long commitment, beginning with her childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as the daughter of working class Jewish immigrant baker/delivery man who supported her attending Hunter College High School, wherein she began to live viscerally cross class experiences on a daily basis as she traveled from her neighborhood to the East 70’s. Later at that conference, Felice and I were in a small group where I felt awkward remembering the 1989 experience. Then, in the course of that small group, I said something else stupid and classist–“the poor you have always with you.” Whatevah, she seemed happy to see me again.

    circa 2006 or ’07: After she had established Class Action, I invited Felice to Rutgers-New Brunswick to do a workshop on class. About twelve people attended. I don’t remember in which season we held it–Fall or Spring–but it was intense, especially that exercise where the 1 (.100000000000000000000000% of the) rich person gets to take up the whole room (world) with his one leg, restricting the 11 (11 billion +) other bodies in the room (world) to sitting on top of each other–if you get my drift. All I could think about was, “Jeez, I wish I had a little more room.” Just as intense was her introductory anecdote about her daughter, Shira, and her persistence about practicing her dancing lessons as a lesson on how we get to practice our social justice work over and over until we get it right–or at least more correct. We parted, because she was on her way to New York to hook up with mutual friend and colleague, Karen Zellermeyer, promising to get together for a more extended time together at a later date. Don’t put off until tomorrow . . . . Everyone who attended that workshop, fell under the tutelage of Felice. On the basis of that workshop, we invited Class Action to bring us together this year, 2011.

    Good-bye, Felice.

    –Cheryl Clarke

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