THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Unless we figure out how to change policy, we’re not going to achieve the impact that we want to have.”
Interviewed by Karen Fishman, VFA Board, December 2021
JP: I’m Judy Patrick, born Judith, and I was born in Holdrege, Nebraska in 1949.
KF: What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement and became a feminist? Tell us about your family background and your important influences.
JP: I had parents who were very influential and who I have become. I feel very blessed to have grown up with them as parents. They were, for their time in history, pretty unusual. Although my mother was a homemaker, she had taught school and supported my dad while he went to Optometry school, and then became a homemaker and hated it, and frequently complained about having to be a homemaker. Often, if something didn’t work right, some mechanical thing or some product, she would say, “this must have been designed by a man.”
She came into my life as someone who was already an advocate for me. My dad was also unusual for his time. Both my parents were athletes, particularly my dad. I was the oldest in a family of three girls and he really wanted to be sure, pre-Title IX, that his daughters were athletes. For example, in this small town in Nebraska, where the most important thing you could do in the summer was play baseball, my dad made sure that every one of his daughters, not only did not “throw like a girl,” but could play burnout with any boy on the block and win. It became a great equalizer. He played basketball with me every night on the driveway after work.
I went to undergraduate school as a freshman and started on the girls’ basketball team at the time, not that anybody came with much basketball experience, but still he played. We had every possible ball in our garage. I think the combination of who they were and who they were with us, and the fact that he frequently told us his grandmother quit speaking to him when he had three girls because nobody would carry on the Patrick name – although two of us have. But she was so angry with him that he did not produce a male heir. He always said, “I am so glad I have three girls.”
KF: Tell me how you got involved in the women’s movement. What were your earliest feminist experiences?
JP: The thing that opened my eyes the most was as an undergraduate, I was very politically active, president of the student body, active in Vietnam War protests. That was really my activism as a college student. For some reason, because I spoke publicly all the time, I felt like I really did not need to take the speech class that was offered in college. But I learned in my last semester there, that you had to take speech to graduate or you could give a speech and test out of it. I decided, “Okay, I’ll give a speech.”
I chose as my topic, Access for Women, Access for Girls to Higher Education. It was such an eye opener for me as I did this research for this speech. I put it together. I delivered the speech. I did not consider my audience. It was all male professors, which was the norm at that time and also a close male friend of mine who was the student they had representing this committee. I gave my speech. I walked out to await their decision. He walked out and he said, “Judy, why did you talk about that? You wanted to pass.” Ultimately, they did give me a pass, and I did graduate. But it was collecting those data that was really an eye opener for me.
KF: Where were you in school?
JP: At Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.
KF: Did you go to work right after college? Or what did you think you are going to do with your life when you were in college? What was your idea?
JP: I didn’t have a very clear idea. I knew I needed a job. The first job I got, which I did for two years, was in a community-based organization that was helping adults transition out of institutions, primarily adults who were mentally disabled, who never should have been institutionalized. But I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school. I just felt like I needed a period to work, to save some money. I was going to go to graduate school and did go to graduate school in psychology.
KF: While you were an undergraduate and a graduate student, was there a feminist activism on campus that you were involved in?
JP: There really wasn’t at Wesleyan. The issues while I was there that I was active around were the larger issues of the Vietnam War. Then within the university itself, there was a lot of advocacy around giving more power to students. I was very active in creating a student judiciary and getting that written into whatever the code was at the university so that students sat and handled issues with other students. But it was that kind of activism, just creating more, or advocating so that I did not have to wear dresses to class. That took a year. That was my freshman year. I could not believe it when I got there. By the time I became a sophomore, we could wear pants.
KF: Tell me how you did get active in women’s things per sé. What were the beginnings there?
JP: By the time I got to graduate school, which was 1974, I went into a Psych Department that had all male faculty. Probably a third of the students were women. I watched when I first got there, and that probably happened earlier than that. But I was aware that there were these things called consciousness raising groups. I just decided that what I needed to do was start a CR group for fellow students. That was very personal for all of us, and particularly enlightening for members of that group. I think I had done enough prior to that, that I had some consciousness. In graduate school, and I was there two years, [it] was really my primary activism at that point.
KF: And after that?
JP: Then I came to Colorado. What I focused on in terms of activism initially was nuclear issues. I came here to live in a community of mostly women, two men, eight women, to really learn how to live together intentionally and how to process as a group, which is where I learned the majority of my group skills. It was a very wonderful educational experience. We lived quite close to a plant that was manufacturing nuclear triggers and all this nuclear product was going close by us. I think that was the next place that I really got active was in trying to stop that work, and we did ultimately get it stopped.
KF: What kinds of action? What were the strategies at that time?
JP: Those were a lot of nonviolent strategies. We laid ourselves down on the tracks where these trains came by. We organized big protests on certain days out at this plant. Everybody went with their wet washcloths in fear of being gassed. But that was a lot of really nonviolent action.
KF: Then you had a variety of jobs. You worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. You worked for Mountain Bell. Tell us about your early work experiences and how they informed your life.
JP: I was just assigned to a federal prison as my fellowship in graduate school. Never in my life did I think as a social psychology major, this was where I would end up working. What I was assigned to do in this prison is that it was the first co-ed federal prison in any place, but particularly in the federal system. And it was created because when the riots happened at Attica, the women in the only prison for women in the federal system rioted in response to Attica.
The policy in the Bureau of Prisons is whenever there’s a group of inmates that riot, they get shipped out. So here they had 40 women that they needed to ship out, and they had no place to ship them. There was a warden at a pretty low-security prison that was on the grounds of an old hospital that said, “I’ll take them. Send them here.” I was sent into that environment to evaluate the impact of creating what they at the time called a more heterogeneous prison population. Mixing up inmates both in terms of male and female, but also in terms of types of crime, age.
I became the evaluator for that with the task of developing an alternative model for making parole decisions. It was very enlightening for me to work there, to make friends with people who were locked up, and I have retained contact with two of them to this day. One of them was a man who was protesting violations and explosive laws in creating a highway through a tunnel. And they were violating all kinds of safety regulations. And I can’t even remember what his protest was. But he got locked up, because it was federal highway dollars. He got locked up for that activity.
And the other is a Latina who needed money. Somebody wanted to make a drug run across the border, convinced her with her younger brother. She was the sole support of her family to make this drug run, and they got busted. She was just the cover for it. I learned a lot at that point about poverty and how people ended up in prison.
KF: Tell us a little more about your employment trajectory and both community activism during that time and anything related to the women’s movement in your employment.
JP: I was still pretty unclear about my career direction at that point. I didn’t ever really intend to become a researcher, but my degree ended up being a heavy research degree. When I left graduate school, I said, my primary goal is to live with people that I know and love and do good work together. And whatever any of us did or whatever I did to make money was secondary. I did have a lot of graduate school debts though.
Eventually, Mountain Bell was under a court injunction to hire women into management. And I got approached about whether I’d be interested in coming to Mountain Bell as a researcher again. I thought, sure, let me get these debts paid off. I never had the goal of working in a corporation. I did that for four years and was quite active in an organization there called Women of Management that was really about creating space for women to come together, talk about their situations, work with senior leadership around creating additional opportunities for women.
We brought in speakers. It was quite an active group and a group that grew quite rapidly because of the emphasis in the corporation at that point of trying to integrate women, but not doing it very well. I guess at that time, it was my activism in the workplace. At the same time, I was beginning to get involved in less formal lesbian organizations in Denver. And the most significant thing I did there was become an organizer for the first lesbian conference in Colorado.
KF: When was that?
JP: In 1977 or 1978. It went on for two years, and then the original organizers quit doing it, and nobody quite picked up the ball. The other part of my activism is at that point I was part of a group called the Socialist Feminists, Feminist Socialist Anarchist, because we could not decide on or agree on a name, but you get the idea. But the purpose of the group was to pick a topic, do pretty deep reading about it. Everybody did different reading.
We came together. We talked about what we’re reading, and then we did an action around it. Sometimes, illegal action. I can’t remember exactly what the issue was. But the action we decided to do around it was defacing billboards that were demeaning to women. This was a late night, middle of the night activity. You do not have a tail light out when you’re doing this activity. That’s one thing we learned. So that was part of what I was also doing at that point in my life.
KF: Do you think those kinds of actions had impact?
JP: Those actions did not have impact. I do think the work we did at Rocky Flats and blocking the trains and being so persistent about that, did have impact.
KF: When did you go to Mi Casa? Please tell us about Mi Casa.
JP: I left Mountain Bell at a time when the Bell system was forced to divest itself of all of the baby bells. I left with the possibility of going back there, although I didn’t want to go back there. But I left saying to myself, you know, this is work without heart. And it became my goal to find work that for me had heart. Between leaving there and figuring out what might have heart for me, I intentionally took a year off, and that’s when I got connected to the New England Women’s Musical Retreat and did various organizing there.
This is kind of more personal. It’s also when I had enough time and space and security to figure out that certain males, not my father, but certain males in my life had incested me. That was a big barrier at the time, really, for me to figure out and overcome. But during that time, I was able finally to start focusing on this idea of finding work that had heart and work that could pay me enough to live on.
For a long time, I just assumed I couldn’t work in the nonprofit sector and support myself. It turns out, I found this wonderful job at Mi Casa Resource Center for Women at less than half of what I was making in the Bell system. But I wanted to go to work every single day. And that’s really where I made a commitment that these are the issues, the issues of access to education, access to making a living, good jobs. That was going to be my life’s work.
KF: Tell us a little bit about Mi Casa.
JP: Mi Casa was primarily, but not solely, for Latinas in Denver. We run a youth program and an adult program. The youth program is focused on helping young women in two high schools in Denver to think about having a career. And it provided a lot of support for them. It provided summer employment for them, but had as a goal of getting them into college. And we also then eventually started a pregnancy prevention program, because that’s the main thing that was derailing these young women. We talked to kids about not getting pregnant, which was a really fun program.
Part of what I loved most about this work, besides it feeling deeply meaningful for me, is I really love program design, trying to figure out what would be effective and what could work. And that was a big part of my work at Mi Casa. For adults, we did career counseling, job placement, GED completion, and then eventually started a small business development center for women interested in starting their own businesses. I was there for seven years.
One of the issues there, which I’ll speak to is like who leads in these organizations designed primarily to serve women of color. I was hired as the associate director and was very happy in that role. I thought, this is the appropriate role for me. I came with a set of business skills at that point and could bring things to Mi Casa that it needed. The director who hired me was fired almost immediately after I came, unbeknownst to me. That’s part of the reason they wanted me to come, and then they hired another Latina. I was very supportive of that.
Ultimately, that didn’t work out. But I then recommended a woman that I had hired that was running this teen pregnancy prevention project to become the ED and she was Latina. And she was wonderful at it. She and I just worked together seamlessly. We had so much fun raising money. We were just golden. We had two years where we never were denied a grant that we applied for, and that was just tons of fun.
She didn’t have a college degree, and she decided that she needed to go back to college. That created for the board a real dilemma, because here I am. I’ve been there quite a while at this point with a lot of experience and trust and what should happen. They decided that they should hire a co-executive, so make us co-leaders. This was fraught. I mean, there were all kinds of racial dynamics in that decision, and I then chose to leave. I just thought, this is not really where I should be. We are close friends to this day, and that was the person I had worked with most of those years there.
That created a lot of awareness for me and a lot of soul searching about what really should my role in this movement be. I went from there to run an organization called Girls Count, which was a statewide organization focused on educational achievement, particularly in math, science and technology for girls, focused on teachers and focused on parents, and on policy, on educational standards.
That was wonderful in many ways, and we developed a lot of curricula including for parents. And here is where I really could draw on my dad, so just the importance of fathers or male role models in girls’ lives. It was fun to develop that curriculum. We developed the curriculum for teachers to help them understand what happens to girls in the classroom, what is learned helplessness. That it’s a learned behavior; it’s not an innate behavior. If you can learn helplessness, you can learn mastery – that whole education process about what happens to girls and women, because of what we learn.
KF: I know that you spent some time in the classical music business before you went to the California Women’s Foundation. Tell us a little of that.
JP: I left Girls Count because I thought I wanted to be a consultant. Really bad idea. I’m not meant to be a consultant. But as part of that journey to becoming a consultant, I was approached by the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, the only orchestra for women in the world, an orchestra created to create opportunity for women conductors and composers and particularly women brass players, percussionists.
I was asked to come help them do a turnaround. They were in trouble. I was supposed to be there for 6-12 months. And I was hired because I knew enough about classical music. I played the piano, played the flute, and so knew a little bit of that world, but mainly because I knew how to run an organization. They then, some place in the middle of that, approached me about becoming their executive director. I was there for four years.
KF: Our careers intersected at that point in time.
JP: That’s right. Well, they intersected a little bit before that because Anne and I were both on the WOW advisory board or regional or whatever that was called, but very tangentially, really just barely.
KF: I know you went to the California Women’s Foundation in various roles and stayed there a long time and had a lot of impact. Please tell me about a couple of memorable important achievements there.
JP: I wrote about this a little bit in my bio, but I the thing I felt best about in my time there was I came with this awareness that unless we figure out how to change policy, we’re not going to achieve the impact that we want to have. And in conversations with Cindy at that time trying to figure out how do we, as a foundation, impact policy ultimately landed on this idea of creating an institute in Sacramento that would recruit nonprofit leaders from across the state to participate in a yearlong program learning how to do the policy process themselves.
It is just amazing to have witnessed that and how these women figured out how much power they had. They were mostly executive directors and associate directors of organizations working on everything from prison reform to environmental justice to employment and training. We ran issue-based teams every year. We had quite a few people working in childcare. They would work as a team of four or five fellows in creating a piece of policy that they would then shepherd through the process, and they were phenomenal.
First of all, we had really good trainers and particularly legislative staffers who are really interested in having well-trained advocates approaching their member and knowing how to handle a meeting and what to talk about. These women, the fellows would never believe, at the beginning of a year, that first of all, that they could even get a meeting and get elected, and secondly, that they could be listened to. It was just remarkable to watch what they learned and how empowered they became and what legislation they were able to create and pass.
Everything from making it illegal to shackle a woman in prison while she was giving birth to the strongest equal pay bill in the country to the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which we ran for three or four years. This is probably one of my most memorable moments was we finally got a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights bill to the governor’s desk twice. The first time he vetoed it.
This is a Democratic governor. This was a bill that would pay domestic workers overtime, would offer vacation pay. Nothing really dramatic in this, but it provided some benefits to domestic workers that they had never had. We finally got it to the governor’s desk, and he was to sign it. And it was really important to these workers that they have a public signing of this bill, which he was really reluctant to do. I was very close with his number two, she had a secretary title, but she really was his principal advisor.
I knew every year, I could pull in one chit from her, and this was what I wanted to pull in that year. I said, “Nancy, you just have to convince him to do a public signing.” And he was so reluctant. And he walked into this room where public signings happened, and it was full of domestic workers and people they cared for. And he sat down to sign this bill. I’m going to get teary telling this story. And then he signed it. These workers rushed towards the desk, so appreciative, and he cried. It was just like, “aha”, that is why we do this work.
KF: That’s such a moving story. I’m not sure where to go from here. Are there other important things, important experiences, important achievements, ways in which you have been organizationally involved that we haven’t talked about yet?
JP: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned working in the nonprofit sector is the importance of the board. And you may not like your board, but you have to make them your friends. I have passed that along to so many people who come to me for advice who are working in the nonprofit sector. I just said you’ve got to prioritize your board. Even though that schmoozing with them feels far less important than helping a family find a house or whatever it is you’re doing, the more immediate needs, that if you are the leader of an organization, having the backing of your board is critical.
The other thing for me is I learned to love fundraising. A lot of people don’t, but I really enjoyed it, and figuring out who wanted the opportunity to give to what. I’m shameless in this way. I’ll ask anybody for money if I think it’s something that could be important to them. That was a good learning for me.
KF: You’re retired now, right?
KF: What are you volunteering in these days?
JP: My main volunteer activity is through Community Change, a national organization that works on issues of immigration, economic justice, racial justice, voting rights. In some ways, it’s kind of a job. I’m doing a lot as a board member for that organization. I was brought onto that board. It was an organization founded by Martin Luther King and JFK to try to end poverty. It had been an organization for many years, focused primarily in African-American communities, primarily focused on men.
I was brought on to the board to really help them bring a gender lens to our work. I chair a board working group that’s about racial and gender justice and trying to figure out how we know we are doing that in the work that we do. So that’s a piece of my work. The biggest service I bring in some ways is I know the nuts and bolts of how to run an organization. It’s a pretty high-profile board, lots of academics, media types, et cetera. But there aren’t a lot of us that have run an organization. And in some ways, that’s the biggest skill I bring to them.
KF: Can you talk about the way that the women’s movement and your awareness of it really shaped your later life? What stands out for you?
JP: Oh, completely.
KF: Tell us something about that. In that early ’70s period, when we were figuring out who we were and creating the ideas of the women’s movement, how did that shape you as a person?
JP: One of the early ways that shaped me is I knew I didn’t want to and didn’t have to get married. I had numerous proposals. Every time it happened, it was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I felt completely empowered very early in my life to not get married.
KF: But you are married now.
JP: I am married now. I felt completely empowered not to get married to a man. Wasn’t so much about marriage as it was about at that point in my life marrying a man. I think my biggest regret, in some ways, is not having children, although I’ve gotten very lucky in that I had a partner who had a daughter, and we’re very close. Now, I have a partner who has a son and I have two grandkids, something I never thought I’d have. But I think it shaped me in that way in that I never really considered it an option. By the time women were creating their own families, I was too old for it really to be an option for me. That was a shaper in that way.
KF: Self-confidence, feeling you needed to do things, could do things that people might not have expected of you, that came from your parents, I suppose, to start.
JP: That, and my father was the least practical person you could ever imagine, so at a very early age, I learned that I could fix things. I’m still fixing things. I’m not intimidated by it. We have a neighbor here who has a husband who can just fix everything. She was over here recently and I was fixing something and she said, “Oh, God I want to be able to do that but Scott always does it.” That kind of independence, self-confidence, traveling alone, I’ve done lots of independent travel internationally and here. Just having the confidence to do that. That’s been important.