A packed crowd of well wishers gathered Monday, March 14 to honor seven Berkeley women chosen as “Outstanding Women of Berkeley” for 2011.
Among those women receiving the honor were a pioneering physician / activist, a second generation Berkeley songwriter and singer, the creator of the Berkeley Parents Network, a founder of the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, and a journalist who is the leading fundraiser for the Berkeley Public Library.
The honorees were Hope McDonnell, Ginger Ogle, Dr. Vicki Alexander, Nancy Schimmel, Linda Schacht Gage, Jennifer Burke, and Suzoni Camp.
More than one hundred people crowded into the community room at the Central Berkeley Public Library for the short ceremony that featured brief award presentations, remarks by the recipients, and two songs.
Sponsored by Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women (COSW), the award program is in its 22nd year. Historical context was provided by keynoter Carole Kennerly who was, as Carole Davis, a member of Berkeley’s City Council and Vice Mayor in the 1970s.
“What a wonderful occasion and a tremendous gathering”, Kennerly told the group.
She described the circumstances that led to the establishment of Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women, the body that initiates the annual awards.
“Everything in Berkeley comes with great vigor and energy, and it was not an easy thing to create this commission.” In 1978, Kennerly said, Berkeley was shocked by a string of assaults by a rapist termed “Stinky” because of the distinctive body odor his victims reported.
“That galvanized this city”, she said. The City Council established a Committee on Violence Against Women. Often such bodies produce recommendations then dissolve, she said. But “the women were so enraged and angry and wanted to do something, so we used that committee as a focus for this energy.”
Out of that came a citywide policy on domestic violence and the permanent Commission on the Status of Women. “It’s up to us that this Commission stays alive and vital”, Kennerly said. “It didn’t come easy.”
“Whenever we hear slurs, call it for what it is. Apathy is just as dangerous as some of the bigotry.” “Become acquainted with the inequalities in our society”, she urged the audience. “All together we can make a way out of no way.”
Yelda Bartlett, the chair of the COSOW, emceed the event, introducing each speaker and handing out both the Commission awards and proclamations from Assembly member Nancy Skinner to each honoree.
Hope McDonnell was the first woman presented with this year’s award. During nearly 40 years in Berkeley she has co-founded non-profit organizations, businesses (including Uprisings Bakery), and clinics. She was a founder of the Berkeley Farmers Market and works with the homeless, HIV+ clients, and at risk use.
“Such an appropriate name for her”, said her introducer. “Hope has chosen to dedicate her career to helping people with very little hope in their lives.” McDonnell is currently working to reduce substance abuse at Berkeley High School.
After receiving the award, she had a quiet, one sentence response. “I’m sure that every woman here is outstanding in her own right.”
The second recipient, Ginger Ogle moved to Berkeley in 1980. In the mid-1980s she enrolled in computer classes that led to graduate work at UC Berkeley. There she earned a masters in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, met her second husband, and founded the Berkeley Parents Network.
The BPN, now with more than 28,000 members, allows participants to post and answer questions on a broad range of topics related to parenting—everything from how to get a baby to sleep, to advice on where to find a repair person, or a particular type of school.
“This is a great honor,” Ogle said, also calling it “an honor to the Berkeley Parents Network.” “I want to thank my husband for thinking I can do anything” she added, to laughter.
“I thank the University of California—the University has let us run our website and our mailing list there.”
“I’m not the one who made the website what it is, it’s all those parents”, she maintained. “I’m really like a switchboard operator.”
But, her nominator said, “she was the person who was doing it. She was writing the code, writing the software.”
“It took a woman to look at a bunch of cold data and to see community in it. Thank you”, said Bartlett, as she presented Ogle with the award.
Vicki Alexander received the second award. Alexander, a medical doctor, founded the Black Infant Health (BIH) Program in Berkeley and has been involved in numerous health and social activism causes.
“She’s the kind of physician we dream of”, said Carole Kennerly, who introduced her. “She’s concerned about the inequalities in our society.” “This lady is no conformist.”
“She works tirelessly to serve children and families”, Kennerly added. “Her life was no crystal stair. She had some splinters and tacks along the way.”
“She’s dedicated her life to cultural competency and expresses that in all aspects of her personal and professional life.”
The daughter of a shoemaker and union organizer, Alexander earned her MD degree and worked at UCSF, SF General Hospital, and Harlem Hospital, as well as serving in various health related positions with the City of Berkeley.
The Black Infant Health Program (BIH) she founded has helped more then 500 African American mothers in Berkeley in more than a decade.
“South and West Berkeley (where the BIH program is located) has a history of being the part of our city that has suffered so much in terms of allocations of resources”, Kennerly said, and one of the manifestations has been low birth weight among many African-American infants.
“She’s committed to all babies, all families, and in particular black babies,” Kennerly said.
Alexander came forward accompanied by her daughter, to receive her reward, to cheers from the crowd. “I want to thank my family”, she said. But “my family is also from the Civil Rights Movement, my family is also from the Communist Party”, she added.
“I want to thank the various movements I’ve been involved in.” “They’re all a part of us as a social change phenomena.”
“Berkeley does not have a history of doing right by black people,” she said. “We did right creating BIH.” “It’s the youth that are most important, and our babies, and young people.”
Bonnie Lockhart introduced the next recipient, Nancy Shimmel, calling her “my long term friend and co-conspirator in cultural transformation.”
Schimmel, the daughter of 1950s / 60s activist songwriter and singer Malvina Reynolds, grew up in Berkeley and built her own career around political and social activism and work as a storyteller, songwriter, and singer. She reads and sings at local schools, helped found the Threshold Choir that sings at the bedsides of people who are dying or face life threatening illnesses, and has been involved in many causes.
“She brings to her work some really important qualities”, said Lockhart. “Qualities that are endangered now and need proponents like Nancy.” “Voracious curiosity”, a “delightful, playful spirit”, and a “deep concern for all life from microbes to whales.”
After accepting her award, Schimmel told the audience “one of our most recent activities was singing at Valero oil stations, because Proposition 23 was backed by Texas oil interests.”
“I want to thank everyone who makes Berkeley such a great place to be”, she added. “No where but in Berkeley would I find myself sitting next to another red diaper baby who is also being honored” she said, to laughter, indicating Alexander.
“Now is the time to come out as the daughter of Malvina Reynolds”, she continued, as the crowd laughed.
Schimmel practiced her activist spirit at the meeting, getting up at the beginning while the microphone was still being adjusted, to make a spontaneous announcement about the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage in California.
“California was not ahead of Wyoming and some other states, but certainly ahead of the East” in adopting votes for women, she said.
After receiving her award, she told the audience a brief story about a man who was renowned for answering questions accurately. Two others decided to fool him by holding a bird concealed in their hands and asking if what they held was alive or dead. If he answered “dead”, they would release the live bird; if “alive”, they would crush it, before showing him the dead body.
“Is it alive or is it dead?” they asked. The man looked at them and answered, “It’s in your hands.”
Schimmel’s remarks were followed by a contingent from the Organic Women’s Chorus which sang two a capella songs, one inspired by the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, and the other linking gravity, life, and love.
“Thank you, Nancy, for your gifts to the community”, Bartlett said. “You should join! (the Chorus). “Be one of us”, Schimmel encouraged the audience.
“Public speaking is terrifying, but if I thought I’d have to sing I’d run in the other direction”, the next introducer, Elizabeth Watson said as she followed the Chorus at the front of the room. She was there to introduce Linda Schacht Gage, the fifth award recipient.
Gage, a local Emmy award wining television reporter who grew up in Berkeley, has worked in recent years to lead fundraising efforts for the furnishing and support of Berkeley’s public libraries.
Watson gestured around the library meeting room. “If you like the fact that you’re sitting on a chair, please thank Linda”, she said. “She’s a community activist par excellence.”
Schacht Gage is also the founding chair of the author’s dinner, a Berkeley Public Library Foundation fundraiser that is, Watson said, “The hottest ticket in town.” But her work is often in the background, Watson said. “She opens her home, her guest book, and most importantly her heart.”
“You work hard for the library, but you get back so much for what you give”, said Schacht Gage after accepting the award from Bartlett. She emphasized the fact that Berkeley has “the most well used library in the State”, per capita, and provides numerous service programs including Berkeley Reads and community legal advice.
“We’re working really hard to get rebuilt libraries in the South and West of Berkeley. That’s my principal goal”, she said. “I feel so enriched, and so grateful.” “What a cool place we live in, right?!” she concluded.
The sixth and seventh recipients were Jennifer Burke and Suzoni Camp. The presentations ran over the scheduled time and they were introduced after I had to leave the meeting for another commitment.
Materials handed out at the gathering noted that Burke is the founder of Berkeley’s Young Artist Workspace, which provides low-cost visual arts classes to Berkeley children. She teaches in El Cerrito and has worked with children’s theater groups and taught art classes for adults.
Camp became involved with Options Recovery Services in Berkeley while living at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s Dwight Way Women’s Shelter, after 20 years of drug and alcohol addiction.
She began volunteering at the program and is now a member of the staff. “She can be counted on to advocate for those willing to meet their own challenges and do the work to turn their own life around. Suzoni should be proud of who she is and what she does. In turn, Berkeley should be honored that she calls this city home”, the award citation read.
A representative of Mayor Bates brought greetings to the gathering at the beginning of the ceremony. Bartlett said that Bates and City Councilmembers couldn’t be present because they were in an emergency closed session, but hoped to join the gathering later. (The session, I was later told, involved discussion of litigation over several matters including the public library and the controversial Mitchell Kapor house proposal on Rose Street).
Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Max Anderson and Jesse Arreguin did arrive at the COSW ceremony after it was underway, and were acknowledged.