Page One

Congress to Honor Shirek By Post Office Designation

Friday June 20, 2003

When people hear Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek deliver a public address in the City Council Chambers, they take a second look to make sure the prodigious voice is actually emanating from the elderly woman with the short gray afro and cherubic face. 

Then they straighten a bit in their seats, compelled by her timbre, modulation and eloquence to pay close attention. Shirek, who celebrated her 92nd birthday on Wednesday, has lent her stirring voice to the struggles of the voiceless for the last 60 years. With a tenacious resolve, she has demonstrated, organized and advocated for the rights of workers, seniors, minorities, single parents, the homeless and the disabled. 

The vice mayor’s commitment to her ideals has resulted in what longtime aide Michael Berkowitz characterized as “countless” arrests while championing for human rights. Long after the age when most people retire, Shirek was still chaining herself to the gates of tear gas manufacturing plants and to doorways of hospitals threatening to close AIDS wards. 

Just last year, Shirek was arrested after leading hundreds of hotel workers into an intersection near the exclusive Claremont Resort and Spa for a sit-down protest against the hotel management’s union negotiations. 

During a birthday celebration at her New Light Senior Center on Wednesday, Shirek, the granddaughter of slaves, spoke about her political activism, which began shortly after she arrived in Oakland from rural Arkansas during the Second World War. 

“When I stepped off the train at Seventh and Wood streets in 1943, I thought I was coming to the Promised Land,” said Shirek. Just back from a family reunion, she wore a T-shirt that bore a diagram of her family tree. “I soon found out that you had to struggle here, like you did back there. There’s no running away from it.” 

A Tribute Etched in Stone 

To honor Shirek’s record of public service and political activism, Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday (Shirek’s birthday) that will designate Berkeley’s downtown Post Office the “Maudelle Shirek Post Office Building.” 

“Maudelle Shirek is one of my political heroes,” said Lee. “Fighting for social justice is no rarity in Berkeley, but Maudelle’s name always stands above the rest because of the uncompromising fidelity to her ideals and compassion for people.” 

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the designation in the coming weeks.  

Shirek, who has received a host of honors, including proclamations from The Alameda County Supervisors, Congresswoman Lee and President George Bush, said the gesture was unnecessary. 

“I haven’t done anything alone, it was with the help of many good people,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’ve done all that much.” 

But she has.  

Shirek’s voice was at the forefront of integrating Berkeley’s schools, breaking discriminatory employment barriers in downtown businesses and dismantling the city’s restrictive real estate covenants that prevented blacks from buying property east of Sacramento Street.  

Her voice has encouraged untold numbers of seniors to eat healthy meals at the two senior centers she founded. 

And her voice has inspired thousands of people to serve their communities and pressed dozens more into political service, including Congresswoman Lee, former U.S. Congressman Ronald Dellums and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. 

While Shirek has slowed a bit, her schedule still impresses people who are half her age. In addition to her council duties, she has spent every Tuesday morning for nearly 30 years shopping and preparing fresh food for the afternoon meals at the Light Senior Center. Each year the center serves more than 5,000 healthy, inexpensive meals to seniors in the center’s dining room and another 11,000 to those too frail to leave their homes. 

Critics of Shirek’s style as a city councilmember say she could be more responsive to her constituents. However, the majority of voters in south Berkeley’s District 3 don’t doubt her commitment to them. They have re-elected her seven times. In her last victory in 2000, she walked away with 74 percent of the vote.  

In recent years, Shirek has put affordable housing, job creation and job training at the top of her agenda. Two years ago, Shirek persuaded City Council to help fund the Cypress Mandela/Women in Skilled Trades Training Center that has a successful record of introducing people into construction-related jobs. 

“We were so glad that Maudelle worked to get Berkeley to contract with the program,” said Gay Plair Cobb, director of Oakland Private Industry, Inc., a nonprofit career center. “The program has helped many people overcome barriers to good paying jobs.” 


The source of her resolve 

Shirek credits her upbringing for her unflagging commitment to community activism. She was raised on a 160-acre farm in rural Arkansas, which was homesteaded by her grandparents, freed Mississippi slaves. Her instinct for political activism and powerful speaking voice was encouraged by her father who was a farmer, school teacher and activist in their rural community.  

“My father was very interested in us speaking clearly at school presentations and family meals,” said Shirek, who is the oldest of 10 children. “Both my dad and mother were very active in the community.” 

Shirek said her early years on the farm were characterized by a cooperative life style in which everybody relied on one another for support. “There was one plow we all shared and everybody exchanged services like tool sharpening, shoe cobbling and so on,” she said.  

It was also on the family farm that Shirek developed a life-long relationship with fresh food. The modest farm produced wild berries, fruit trees, potatoes, peanuts, peas and sugar cane. 

Since she founded the New Light Senior Center in 1976, Shirek has insisted on fresh, healthy ingredients for the mid-day meals. She doesn’t allow any salt, sugar or fried foods. Dessert is always a piece of fruit appropriate for the meal. 

Three days a week, about 50 nicely dressed seniors file into the center, pay $2 and sit down at long tables for a sociable, farm-styled lunch. 

“It is such a great thing, I come here three days a week,” said Gloria Trahan, 77. “I’ve stopped eating salt. You’re just more inclined to pay attention to what you eat because everybody else is eating healthy.” 

According to New Light Senior Center Director Jackie Dubose, the center will lose about 10 percent of its funding over the next two years. “With our limited budget that’s a huge cutback,” she said. “We will continue to serve meals but its going to be much harder.” 

Asked about the cutbacks Shirek said with her venerated voice and a faint smile: “The struggle continues.” 

Those interested in contributing to the New Light Senior Center can call Director Jackie Dubose at 510-549-2666.