THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I’m here to make good trouble. Just like John Lewis.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, February 2023
JW: Would you start by giving us your full name and where and when you were born?
RL: Sure. It’s Robin Leeds and I was born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 17, 1954. Same day as Brown vs the Board of Education. It’s a very special day.
JW: Absolutely. So, tell us a little about your childhood and maybe what influences led you to think about being involved in women’s issues.
RL: Well, let’s see. As I said, I was born on a very important day, which in reality did not really set me on my path, but I always say it did set me on my path because, in fact, it sort of did. I was a young activist in high school when I was 15. I got my start, actually, in the women’s health movement, through the Our Bodies Ourselves Collective, and through the, I believe it was the New York Women’s Health Center, in Greenwich Village. Because I lived in northern New Jersey, I was close to New York, and there was kind of a ragtag team of young women leaders at my high school. We basically decided, we’ve got to do something.
And literally every weekend, we got on the Erie Lackawanna train, and we did one of two things. One, was going to the health center and learning about female anatomy and female sexuality and learning how to do speculum exams, if you can believe that. And then carrying back cartons of plastic speculums to our high school in New Jersey and distributing them. Kind of a radical act during that time. There was an article that was floating around, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but it was by this woman, Anne Coat. I’ll never forget it. It was called the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.
JW: Oh, I have a copy.
RL: So, let me just say, early on, I went on a major campaign on this subject. Between the speculums and handing out Black Panther Party newspapers in Port Authority Terminal and bringing those back to my high school with the speculums, let me just say, it put me on the short list for many things. Some very challenging things, some really great things, because I ended up being rescued at high school by two teachers.
My social studies teacher, who was a progressive and her husband was an activist in the Committee for Free South Africa; and my history teacher, Mr. Spear, who was a socialist and the leader of the teacher’s union in, I don’t know if it was all of New Jersey or whatever part of New Jersey. They both kind of rescued me and understood what I had to bring to the table, and set me on my path, with two very substantial independent studies, including working for the Committee for Free South Africa for most of my senior year.
So, I really give them a lot of credit for seeing what I was doing and where I was coming from, and where my passions were, and embracing that and setting me on a path. Because the rest of the high school administration was trying to figure out how they were going to get rid of me.
JW: How about your parents?
RL: My parents were pretty freaked out. They really didn’t understand where I was coming from. My best friend and fellow traveler’s parents were progressive activists, very active in the early civil rights movement in Newark, New Jersey, and her older sister was active in SDS and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. So, she was sort of our base in New York.
And really, they embraced me as part of the family, because I did not get this from growing up in my parent’s home. I mean, maybe I did in the sense that I was rebelling against certain things, but the fact is, that it was through that family that I was really embraced, encouraged, empowered, et cetera, et cetera. That really set me on my path. So, I identified as a feminist, a civil rights activist, a progressive, a lefty, starting at a very young age. That has been my path. That really has been my path. It’s guided a lot of my decisions. My personal and my professional decisions throughout the years. And that’s really where it all started.
JW: When did you get more interested in women’s concerns specifically?
RL: Well, obviously the women’s health stuff was very much a focus for me. And then after college, I moved to Boston immediately, to join the women’s movement in Boston, and I became very involved in The Boston Women’s Union. You probably know who Leslie Kagan is.
JW: I don’t know her.
RL: Oh, my goodness. Okay, she might be a good one. Anyway, so it was kind of a socialist feminist construct, and we started the Boston Women’s Union. I started, with a group of women, the first rape crisis center in Massachusetts, through the Cambridge Women’s Center. Was very involved in all the work around early domestic violence awareness and early rape crisis intervention.
Honestly, I was in Boston for 26 years, in and out of different jobs, mainly in the union movement. I organized hospital workers in the private sector with SCIU and 1199 for many, many years, with a huge focus on women. Women workers, and women as patients. And then I went and I worked for the AFL-CIO and the mass building trades, running their ballot initiatives. Most of those ballot initiatives, particularly with the building trades, as you know, had a terrible reputation embracing and engaging women and people of color, et cetera.
The bottom line is they needed those alliances to win those ballot fights. So, I would come in to build those alliances, find common ground, use the opportunity to cut some deals with the Legislative Women’s Caucus and the Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus, and the building trades, around access to training and jobs in the building trades.
And so, I was able to help them because they needed to win very short term. I was able to use that opportunity to leverage some serious concessions, which kind of set me on this path of my crisis communications work. Since that time with the building trades, and the AFL, et cetera, dealing with organizations and leaders, the old school Italian, Irish, white guys who just did not know how to interact with any other constituencies, that became kind of a niche for me.
And particularly when there was a crisis at hand, I would get to the table and leverage that crisis, to extract concessions for the good guys. It was kind of an interesting strategy to learn at a pretty young age, which kind of set me up for other work. But everything I’ve done, whether it was in the labor movement or it was in the private sector or in the public sector, my various positions in the Massachusetts state legislature, which I’ll tell you about, has always been through a gender and race lens, always. And again, I think this started at a very young age. So, it’s kind of in my DNA, and I bring it everywhere I go.
JW: Do you have one example you remember of some concessions you got in one of your negotiations?
RL: Yes. This is early to the fight to protect the Massachusetts prevailing wage law, which was under assault by the Association of Building Contractors, writ large, all over the country. This campaign that I focused on was in Massachusetts, but they were happening all over the country. It was at that time that I was in a position to negotiate something called the Boston Residence Job Policy.
It became a city ordinance, which the building trades had to sign off on, which provided for 50% training and jobs on any new construction in Boston. And at the time, it was the Third Harbor Tunnel, which was major [project]. On a 20-year program, 50% to Boston residents, because they were bringing in low wage workers from other states, so they didn’t have to pay them the prevailing rate. And, I believe it was 20% women and 10% people of color, or the reverse, I can’t remember.
So, that actually was not just a fleeting concession, of which there were many, but this actually became institutionalized in a city ordinance. After that happened, I went to work for the Boston Jobs Coalition, which was there to force the implementation. This was like a nonprofit advocacy group. So, for years I worked on the implementation and did a lot of work with the early women in the building trades effort, who was one of the major stakeholders in negotiating this policy and also delivering the women’s vote to the building trades around prevailing wage.
JW: Around what year was this?
RL: I have to look it up, but I believe it was 1986. I moved to Boston around ’77. I became very involved in the labor movement, and spent many of my years in Boston, either being a grassroots union organizer in private sector and public sector hospitals, or working actually for the unions, and that kind of led me into my going inside efforts.
I went to work for the chair of the Committee on Election Laws in Massachusetts. Many states that you think are progressive on voting rights, they are not so progressive. And so, we had a whole reform package that we were trying to move through the legislature and actually ended up running the voter registration by mail campaign, which was also on the ballot, which we lost. And once again, did not get the endorsement of many incumbent Democrats, which is thematic even up until today. That led me into all of my work with trying to reform the entire voting system, and working with two of my mentors, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.
JW: Why don’t you say who they are for the audience?
RL: Frances and Richard were a team. Richard is no longer with us, sadly. Both of them were leaders in the welfare rights movement, poor people’s movement, et cetera. And they really, I believe, were the people who came up with the original concept for public agency-based voter participation efforts, which was the original concept for the National Voter Registration Act, Motor Voter.
So, I ran their operation in Massachusetts out of AFSCME and SCIU, and we mobilized both nonprofit and public agency engagement to provide voter registration, voter education, voter mobilization services, at WIC, at Food Stamps, at SNAP, at AFDC, at Department of Labor, Unemployment. Because it was in that intersection between recipients of public benefits and agency employees or providers, that they argued, was a really effective strategy.
And that was the kernel for the NVRA, and put me on this path with winning the passage of the NVRA. NVRA is the National Voter Registration Act, otherwise known as Motor Voter. That was very pivotal for me in terms of moving to Washington. Typically, starting with the Jackson campaign, up through the Biden campaign, everyone in between, my role has always been, “How do we engage the women’s vote? Where are the women? How do we engage them?”
The focus of that, although I have been thwarted, and we have all been thwarted in terms of manifesting and implementing these programs, if you want to engage women, women of color, poor women, working women. “This is a perfect solution, guys. So, what’s the problem?”
Anyway, long story short, I was bound and determined to move to DC after Clinton got elected and be part of the implementation team. This was like my thing, and I wanted to be part of it. Obviously, many, many people we know have been working on this for so many years. It was the second bill that was signed into law right after FMLA and I was on a mission.
I actually achieved my mission of creating a pilot project. Of course, it was supposed to be a government wide interagency effort, and the powers that be, let’s just say, were not fully embracing this. Such a radical concept. Women voting, poor people voting. And here we have this law, first time government has been mandated to enfranchise voters in a “nonpartisan” way. I mean, nonpartisan completely. And, stop sign, stop sign.
I persisted; she persists. And I convinced my friend who ran cabinet affairs at the time, that we had to do a pilot project. I don’t know how I did it. I do not know. They “allowed” me to do a pilot project as long as I behaved, which is really tough because you can’t get anything done if you’re too well behaved. So, I convinced them to do a pilot project in WIC, Food Stamps and AFDC. It was based out of Food and Nutrition Services at USDA, which no one could even understand how a New York Jewish feminist like me was going to survive at the USDA.
But despite all of the opposition, oh, and by the way, it was an unfunded mandate. We did launch the pilot project and we did engage enough of the regional administrators that oversee those programs, to launch an implementation effort.
However, fast forward to our current administration, who of course, love and know everybody, getting Obama, getting Biden to embrace the NVRA, has been an ongoing passion of mine, and this sort of ragtag team of people who have been really invested in it for a long time. But it’s a heavy, heavy lift and it is the biggest missed opportunity of our time.
JW: So why do you think they resist?
RL: I think it gets back to, sad to say, even though we have all of the progressive rhetoric, that is the power of the incumbency, and the fear of an expanded base, and not being able to keep your finger on it and control it. I mean, yes, there’s been some changes because so many good people have been chipping away.
But when you have a federal law, with a mandate, that if implemented 24/7, 365 days a year, not rising and falling around election cycles, in a nonpartisan way, truly nonpartisan way, I mean, for God’s sake, it was called Motor Voter, because that is not like a “poor people’s agency”. To not implement this, is the biggest missed opportunity of our time.
And I do think, I am not sure, but I do think it is around not being able to determine and control the electorate. I mean not for bad reasons, but it’s kind of a gross, what’s the word, not oversight, but block. It’s like a block. We’re still here, we’re still in this conundrum.
JW: I get where you’re doing it in a bipartisan way, but it would seem that the agencies that you’re going to, would lean lean Democratic.
RL: That’s right. There’s no question. Boatloads of data. This is honestly why Piven and Cloward launched this concept back in the early ’80s. That was their drive, was to enfranchise the disenfranchised. And so, we know, just anecdotally, who those people are.
There’s always the general counsel’s office who’s saying, “Oh this is too partisan, this is too this, this is too that. Too close to this election, too close to that.” Yes, exactly. That’s why we have a law, and that is why we have to have a 365-day, round-the-clock initiative, that is firmly integrated into the work of these agencies. Why is that so complicated? Anyway, I could go on.
JW: It’s fascinating to me because obviously I see state agencies resisting, but there’s a lot of federal agencies that could do something.
RL: Well, yes. I do think the other thing, just to be clear, is the fact that it was an unfunded mandate, a lot of the, let’s say, the regional administrators for some, like the HHS folks, and lots of good people that I’m sure you know some of them from many years of work in this space, they’re like, “Where’s the budget?” And there have been many opportunities to amend the legislation to include an appropriation.
However, that’s all to say that voting rights as it relates to disenfranchised communities, particularly women, particularly low-income women, has always been what I have brought to the table. Regardless of the issue, wherever I am, I bring that in. I approach everything through that lens. So, all my work in the voting rights space has really been about that. Has been about empowering women. So, at the end of the day, not to be simplistic, but that’s the passion right there.
JW: Yes, I get it. So, you did continue on to do a lot of other things, your agency and so forth. Can you talk about that?
RL: Sure. So, I was in the administration to the very last day. I was hoping Gore would not concede, and of course he did. When my tenure ended there, I started up my own small firm called Winning Strategies. I have done numerous things through Winning Strategies. I’ve partnered with larger organizations as a strategic partner and for about ten years, I was affiliated with a large global crisis communications firm called Burson-Marsteller, which is now called Burson, Cohn & Wolf.
Essentially, without knowing exactly the facts on this, I was part of, again, the small ragtag team, that would be called in when there were corporate crises related to litigation around sexual harassment, or sex discrimination, or LGBTQ or whatever, because this global firm was not too savvy on those issues.
So, I was one of the few in-house subject matter experts on equity issues, on DEI, on corporate social responsibility, all of that stuff. And interestingly, this was back when it wasn’t so popular to be framing things in those terms, but the powers that be at least understood, and most of the corporations that were being represented were having issues in these constituencies, and labor was a big one, too.
So, anyway, long story short, I ended up at those tables, and I think because of all of my prior work, honestly, with the building trades, I learned the art of leveraging a crisis to the advantage of the people that I care about.
I don’t know. I learned that skill, and I find that to be really one of the best things I learned. And so, I brought it into all of that work. You may have read about it in my bio, but my favorite crisis that I worked on, and I don’t know if you remember the Barilla pasta crisis? I know you know Barilla pasta, our generations pasta.
JW: Oh, I have some, yes.
RL: The blue box. So, anyway, I don’t know if you followed any of that, but the company Barilla, and Barilla himself, made some serious homophobic remarks on Italian radio, around his view of the traditional family. And it went viral and globally viral. The LGBTQIA community got super mobilized around it, and started essentially, an economic boycott against Barilla and really affected their market share. So somehow, some way, we got this business, and people are like, what is LGBT blah, blah? Nobody got it. So, they’re like, “Call Robin.”
Anyway, literally, for two years, I worked with Guido Barilla from Parma, Italy, and his senior team of straight, white, Catholic, Italian, well dressed men, which is always a plus. I took them on a listening tour, really, around the world, meeting with LGBTQIA leaders and organizations, and learning how to listen and learning how to build relationships. I mean, really, like, basic stuff.
I don’t know what it was, but they really did listen. They really learned how to listen. I brought them into the Human Rights Campaign, Corporate Equality Index campaign from the very beginning, because I said, “I cannot. There’s no way I can handle this on my own.” We worked with HRC and the CEI to evaluate their standing. Full evaluation, excellent tool. And they took it really seriously.
And literally, three years later, I mean, a lot of stuff in between, great stories. Three years later, they got a number one rating from the Human Rights Campaign turning into their kind of model corporation turnaround. It was unbelievable. I was in heaven. I was in complete heaven. I always say to my friends, “If I could have one more Barilla in my career, I would be so excited.”
JW: That’s amazing.
RL: It was shocking. I couldn’t believe it. I just anticipated roadblocks and lots of “No.” It wasn’t easy in the beginning, just to build that trust. I remember having a conversation with Guido, and he said, “I will never support gay marriage,” with a straight face and everything. And I’m like, “Okay, well, we’re going to have to work on that. We are going to have to work on that.” And so, after all of these meetings and winning over allies and of course, the whole time, I knew exactly what the boycott was about because I knew who was running it.
JW: And was it about marriage?
RL: It was about marriage. Well, it was about the notion of the traditional family. And there were a couple of holdouts, real hardliners, who were badmouthing them in the press, and one of them was a very well-known chef in Chicago. I arranged a meeting with him and with Guido, and I’ll never forget it. I was there, and we were riding up in the elevator in the Trump Tower, can you believe that? And he said to me, “I have a surprise.” I said, “No surprises. I want no surprises. We’ve been briefing, and here are your talking points, and here’s what you’re going to do, and no, no, no.” And he looked at me and he said, “I have a surprise for you.” And he called me “Robino,” which was sweet. And so, I was like, oh my God, this whole thing is going to just going to blow up and it’s going to be terrible.
We ride up in the elevator and we go in and we sit down for this tête à tête, and the person we sat down with had just gotten married, which I also told him, and I said, “First, you’re going to congratulate them on their marriage. That’s number one, okay?” He said, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.” So, we get in there. He did that, and then he said, “And I have a surprise for everyone, especially Robino.” I was like, oh, no, here we go. He’s going to blow this whole thing out of the water. And he said, “After two years of working on some very old traditional attitudes, I have changed my mind, and I am going to support gay marriage.”
I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I was like, yes, okay! It was remarkable. It really was. I was shocked. And so that experience, just having that level of turnaround. One more time. I would love one more time. And I’m still at it because it’s the only thing that makes me happy, is fighting the fight, like a lot of us. Anyway, now I’m part of this group, you probably know about it, the Democracy Partners Group.
JW: Well, explain it, please.
RL: The Democracy Partners is a consortium of progressive consultants from around the country. It was started by Bob Creamer and Heather Booth and lots of old-time activists who have been friends with a lot of us for a long time. They put together this fabulous consortium of democracy activists, and progressive organizers and consultants. And so now, that is sort of my major affiliation. It’s a great opportunity to collaborate with other small firms that are doing really good work, and it gives us room to do some joint pitches and also some joint work, et cetera. So that’s kind of where I’m hanging my hat these days.
JW: You’ve told us how your concern about women’s issues, et cetera, has affected your career. How would you sum up how it’s affected your personal life?
RL: Well, do you remember the phrase the personal is political?
JW: I do, yes.
RL: And it really is, because to the extent that we can do what we love, and what we’re passionate about, that has affected my personal life in a huge way. Not exclusively, but a huge piece of my personal life, my networks, my friendships, my connections to different parts of the country. It’s all through fellow travelers and comrades and sisters and the struggle. That is really the basis for my community, my family of friends, really.
And so, it’s just heartwarming to know that you share those spaces with people who get you, and embrace what you’ve done and where you’re going, and can put a framework on your life, which is not always an easy thing to do. It really isn’t, especially as we age and we’re not as well as we could be and all of that stuff.
JW: Is there anything you’d like to add before we close?
RL: Well, probably just one thing. I was just appointed by President Biden to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on the Arts, which was a tough climb to get there from day one of transition. I had submitted all my paperwork, and it was the thing that I had selected from the Plum book that I was interested in, which is all stuff we’ve been talking about. Let’s just say, that Pipeline is very clogged, as I’m sure you know, and really hard to work your way through it.
I guess one thing I learned is I just have to persist, and I still have enough bandwidth to persist even though I have been discouraged many times by the process. This appointment finally happened, and I’m unpacking the appointment and trying to figure out what I can leverage and how I can have some social impact in the arts as it relates to communities who don’t have access to the arts.
I’m now working with what’s called the Reach program, which you may or may not know about, is the Kennedy Center attempt at community engagement and social impact. It’s very new and it needs a lot of umph and development, but there’s some really good people in the organization that I’ve found my allies. So yes, that’s kind of an interesting new piece of my world.
JW: Wonderful. Well, I know you’re going to do good things. I’m sure of that.
RL: I’m gonna kick some butt, I’ll tell you. I’m here to make good trouble. Just like John Lewis.