Jessie Lorenz, Executive Director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco interviewed her friend and former Executive Director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco, Herb Levine at StoryCorps San Francisco on October 9, 2014.
Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
Herb: I was running an employment program for United Cerebral Palsy at the time, and somebody said to me, “you know, Judy Heumann and a bunch of people are down there at the Federal Building at HEW; we hear something’s going on down there.” This was the Civil Rights act. It wasn’t 1964, it was 1977!
Herb: So me and a lifelong friend of mine, we went down to the building and saw what was going on, saw how time was passing and said, “you know, I think something’s gonna happen here.” Somebody said, “yeah, I think we may not leave.” For a law to become effective, you have to write regulations. The law says, “yeah do this and do that,” but it’s the regulations that say how. And, in 1977, 4 years after the law had passed, there were no regulations finalized. And the disability community said one of the loudest “fuck you”s in the history of the country… and, occupied buildings in Washington, I believe New York, in San Francisco… The others broke apart fairly quickly. San Francisco was the one that lasted 28 days.
Jessie: It’s interesting that that sit-in that lasted for 28 days here in San Francisco is credited with starting a real movement towards the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Herb: You know, the ADA really said, “don’t discriminate.” So it was important! Starting to fill in some gaps. But, yeah, not as important as 504. And you know, isn’t it amazing that a bunch of crips in the federal building for almost a month, and they, they won over the federal government! And I… I remember being there just so, happy to be there. You know? When I’ve told this story, people say, “what.. is there one message in that story?” I say, “yeah.” The message was: “you don’t need to be some extraordinary person.” We had a few extraordinary people there, but you know, most of the people there, we were all just plain shmucks like everybody else, and did it anyway! You know, it’s terrible to revise history and look back and say, “what an extraordinary group of people! Too bad we don’t have them around anymore!” You know, you got ‘em around. They’re people just like everybody who was there.
Jessie: Do you remember when we met?
Herb: Vaguely. You know. What I remember was… I was overjoyed to see you comin’. I said, “oh boy, here comes trouble!”
Herb: You know, I always saw my role with staff at ILRC as a kind of doorkeeper. And some people were smart enough and independent enough to go outside that door and find things I never would have dreamed of. And some people weren’t. They were too scared. You were not scared!
[Jess and Herb laugh]
Jessie: And I just remember so vividly, like, coming in, and, I needed a job, and, I didn’t know anything about any kind of movement. And, I was so broken at the time. I even went back and looked at my journals, and, just a few weeks before we met, I had written, “oh… wouldn’t it be nice if I wasn’t blind? If I had one wish I would not want to be blind.” You know, so many things in my life I had been told like, “you know, you’re disabled, you’re blind,” and on some levels, like my intellect, it was sort of, I was very much encouraged. But, in terms of my wholeness as a person and my ability to contribute in a meaningful way, and to view that way as just as meaningful as someone else who is able bodied can contribute… I got that from the movement. And, I started to feel that value the first time I met you. And it’s you, and the personality that you have, and me, and the validation of my personal experience as something that isn’t just a classification that can put me into a minority group, but it’s a really powerful thing about me that’s affected every part of my life and it actually adds value.
Jessie: You’re a good man and I care a lot of about you, and I love you, and thank you for helping to change my life into what it is today.
Herb: … I just have nothin’ to say, Jess.
Herb: Thank you.
Jessie: Thank you.
Jessie Lorenz, Executive Director
From ILRCSF’s website:
I spend most of my time engaged in fund-raising, as well as exploring possible collaborations that enhance the mission of the agency. I am also actively involved with finance, programming, and facility management. I am a gubernatorial appointee of the State Independent Living Counsel by both Former Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Brown, and I am a member of the San Francisco Long Term Care Coordinating
For a look at the future of independent living centers, check out their new downtown location at 825 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA, 94103
From their website:
Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco (ILRCSF) is a disability rights advocacy and support organization. Our mission is to ensure that people with disabilities are full social and economic partners, within their families and within a fully accessible community. ILRCSF’s mission is achieved by systems change, community education, partnerships with business, community organizations and government, and consumer directed services. We work to empower individuals and community, so that all people with disabilities have as full, productive and independent lives as they so choose.
ILRCSF provides three services to the disability community: information, support, and advocacy. Specifically ILRCSF programs and services include Information & Referrals services, Assistive Technology education and support, Peer Counseling, System Change Advocacy, Housing Counseling, Benefits & Employment Planning, Individual Advocacy, Benefits Eligibility, Transitioning from Institutional Living, and Self Advocacy Training.
Herb Levine, Board Member, Senior and Disability Action
Herb Levine believes that what we do is not as important as who we are. His maternal grandmother was an undocumented immigrant who had to pretend to be part of someone else’s family to get into the U.S. His maternal grandfather came here on the run after a failed assassination attempt on a Czarist official. His father worked partly as an organizer for a CIO union. He was told as a child to do work that built the world, that working to become wealthy was a waste of everybody’s time. Herb says some of his heroes are: Saul Alinsky, a great community organizer; Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest person who has lived in his lifetime; Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi who marched with MLK and prayed with his feet; Judy Heumann, leader of the independent living movement; Patricia Pascoe, a self-described crazy lady who taught Herb how to live with his disability and never stop believing in a better world. Herb’s work over 45 years was almost all as a teacher and advocate in the disability rights arena. He worked for over 30 years at the Independent Living Resource Center of SF, which he calls a gift he always tried to be worthy of. Mantras Herb tries to live by: Nothing about us without us. When faced with an impossible dilemma, don’t try something else; just get past it, anyway. Answers are easy. Good questions are hard, but more valuable.