Merging Political Activism and Public Service

Rosa A. Ehrenreich '91

At first glance, it might seem that for much of her life Rosa A. Ehrenreich has fallen into success by accident.

After all, she didn't exactly choose her famous mother, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, author of seven books including Fear of Falling and The Worst Years of Our Lives.

Nor did she really plan to get involved with Philips Brooks House (PBH) at Harvard. Or to become the organization's president.

But with a family heavily involved in public service and political activism, including a union-organizing stepfather, radical-writer mom and a professor-of- nontraditional-students dad, a union between Ehrenreich and PBH was almost fated to happen.

The way Ehrenreich describes it, she had little choice.

Before Ehrenreich even got to her dorm on her first day at Harvard, she had already become involved with the University's then-forming union of clerical and technical workers (HUCTW).

As Ehrenreich, her mother and her stepfather were walking in Harvard Square on the way to her dorm room, a woman came running up to them. Very excited, the woman asked, "Are you in AFSCME?" to Barbara Ehrenreich, who was wearing one of her husband's old union coats because of the cool weather.

Ehrenreich's mother told the woman "no," but explained that her husband had been involved with organizing the DESCRIBE union years before. The three introduced themselves and, "before I knew it, we were heading down to the HUCTW office," says Ehrenreich.

"We went to the office and my mom introduced herself and my stepdad to everyone and then says, 'And here's my daughter Ehrenreich. She's a freshman here." And there she was.

Ehrenreich's stepfather and mother, as well as HUCTW organizers, asked if she would help out in the union office. At first, Ehrenreich wasn't sure she wanted to do it.

"I didn't want to be told what to do. Part of me says, 'Okay, I want to leave the country now.'" But instead, Ehrenreich started working for HUCTW.

THE SAME KIND of luck steered Ehrenreich into PBH.

"When I first got to college I didn't think about PBH at all," says Ehrenreich. Instead, she got involved with the South African Solidarity Committee (SASC), a group that "did not think much about public service."

But Ehrenreich found the group "frustrating," because very little was accomplished. She knew that PBH was involved with helping Harvard's union. "Since I was already doing support work for HUCTW, I went to join...and discovered that I was already a member." To increase the numbers of students involved, the PBH union committee had included on its roster the names of all students working with HUCTW, regardless of whether they were working through PBH or not.

To hear her tell it, much of Ehrenreich's success comes from being the right person at the right time. She says she got a position at PBH mostly "by accident." When a PBH committee member suggested that the group elect a woman to the position of fundraiser as well as a man, Ehrenreich happened to be the only woman in the room. Although she had only recently gotten involved with the public service group, Ehrenreich ran for the position unopposed and, not surprisingly, was elected.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," explains Ehrenreich. But although she might try to write off her achievements as accidental, her practiced articulateness is evidence of an experienced leader. Asked about the structure of PBH and her role as president, she launched into an intense litany for several minutes before breaking off. "Sorry. I could go on for hours. It's from working as a fundraiser for so long," Ehrenreich says.

Her friends are more clear about Ehrenreich's talents. Ehrenreich's roommate, Heather J. Friedman '91, says "Rosa doesn't need to work as hard" as most people at Harvard. Although Ehrenreich says she "wrote off her classes pretty early on," she still managed to win a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford University next fall.

Former PBH Vice President Aaron S. Richmond '91 says that Ehrenreich unified the PBH executive staff after a particularly tough election. "She did a really good job of pulling the group together and establishing a good tone for the year. The key to the president's position is not to motivate, but to set a direction. And that is definitely one of Rosa's fortes."

ONE DIRECTION that Ehrenreich set was a broader interpretation of community service. At Harvard, she found a division between activist students in the SASC, for example, and PBH students doing public service. She says there is a misunderstanding between the two groups.

"The politically-educated radical subculture of political activism did not think much about public service. They were asking questions about why things are the way they are. And I found that people in public service were the opposite. They were somewhat contemptuous of people who did activist stuff, that they were overly intellectual and doing things just because they were fashionable," Ehrenreich says.

"I thought, this was weird. It seemed obvious that both were working towards the same things. It was sad, the distrust between the two groups. They were both right. You can't just teach 10 kids to read, you have to start asking why can't they read. But you've got to teach them to read. You've got to do both."

This approach to public service has not always been popular at PBH. "When I was running for president, some people saw me as overly political. But I think you can't do public service in a vacuum," says Ehrenreich.

For Ehrenreich, public service is inherently political. Activism goes "part and parcel" with community work, she says. "If the deaf committee held a really to support a bill in Congress, no one would think twice about it. But if the homeless committee did the same thing, there would be an uproar. Why is one more political than the other?" Ehrenreich says.

Ehrenreich explains that different approaches are used for the various committees at PBH. Not all choose to work in more activist roles, but they need to consider the options. "We can't do everything, but we need to think about everything," Ehrenreich says.

SOME OF THE CRITICISM Ehrenreich encountered while running for president of PBH, she feels, is because some people assume she has the same radical views as her mother. This is one of the few problems Ehrenreich says she has ever had because of her well-known mother.

"She's not a movie star. It's a different kind of famous. But people typecast you. They assume I have my views simply because she has hers. In section, people will say, 'You're mom says this in the article we read,' and assume that I think the same way," Ehrenreich says.

Despite their influence on her involvement with HUCTW, Ehrenreich says she has never felt much pressure from her family. "My family is not particularly dogmatic. My mom taught my brother and me that there is room for all. We were just given broad goals."

For the next two years, Ehrenreich will be earning a masters in political philosophy at Oxford. After that, she is "thinking vaguely about medical school," maybe because she just finished her History and Literature thesis on the image of women doctors in novels.

"The only thing a member of my family could do wrong is utter selfishness. I'm not going to be an investment banker and go on cruises and not pay attention to anyone else," Ehrenreich says.

And that's no accident.