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.