A dear friend to and warrior for the social justice movement, Felice Yeskel, left this world on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 after a hard-fought battle with cancer. She will be sorely missed.
My first substantial encounter with Felice was as a participant in a 3-day training of trainer (TOT) event being run by Share the Wealth, the organization that Felice and Chuck Collins co-founded, and which they ran as co-directors. (Shortly after that, Share the Wealth changed its name to United for a Fair Economy to better represent our “big tent” strategy of addressing the growing economic divide.)
Felice (with Chuck) led the TOT, and I, newly hired to bolster UFE’s popular economics education program, was daunted by her fantastic training skills, sharp intellect, and above all, the warmth and respect shown toward all the TOT participants. I was not a newbie to this kind of work, with 30 years of organizing experience and five more leading popular education TOTs. Yet I was wowed again and again by her amazing ability to teach, engage, encourage, and challenge in ways that lifted us all.
Although Felice moved to Amherst and worked mostly from a distance, gradually reducing her role at UFE, I continued to observe, support, or co-lead UFE workshops and TOTs alongside Felice over the next couple of years. Much of the success of my educational work to date is the direct result of her wisdom and mentorship.
One example of the many things I learned from Felice was a strategy of responding to discordant anger from a workshop participant. Felice referred to the strategy as a "jiu-jitsu" approach – using the momentum of an attack to unexpectedly draw a person in, rather than strike back, welcoming their energy and passion without necessarily condoning their behavior or the content of their comments. She advised that trainers be curious, allow space for challenges, yet always respect the expectations and integrity of the group by purposefully keeping the dialogue moving forward. Felice was the master at this, and set a high bar for aspiring popular educators.
Of course, Felice was much more than an incredibly skillful educator. She was a loving mom and life-partner, a mentor and a friend to innumerable people, an active community member and good neighbor, a wit and enthusiast of fine (and not-so-fine) literature, and much more.
Felice and I also shared an appreciation for our New York City working class Jewish roots. She, however, brilliantly incorporated this life experience and a scholarly study of class into an analysis and a set of strategies for action. That ability helped Felice to give birth to UFE and, later, to Class Action (which she co-founded with Jenny Ladd and directed until her battle with cancer forced her step back).
There is so much more one can say in tribute to Felice. I look forward to learning more about this remarkable woman and to reading and hearing the tributes and recollections that are beginning to pour into various websites.
I don’t think I would be at UFE – now going on 13 years – if not for Felice. I’m not sure whether UFE would be here if not for her vision and persistent effort. We are immensely grateful for her gifts to us and our deepest sympathies go out to her partner Felicia, her daughter Shira, and all the many members of her family, communities, colleagues, and friends.
Felice Yeskel, presenté.
A beautiful video by Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents magazine, in memory of Felice and others recently lost: