Grandiose courage & passion: Lydia Gans

The 5th Annual Slingshot Award for Lifetime Achievement was awarded to Lydia Gans in March at Slingshot’s 22nd birthday party. The Award, also known as the Golden Wingnut Award is to honor people in the radical community who have spent their lives working for alternatives to the current system and deserve proper recognition. Their stories are worth telling. Lydia Gans has been active in the East Bay since 1988 but was an activist for virtually her whole adult life. Thank you, Lydia, for your inspiration and dedication.


Lydia Gans is a woman of small stature but of grandiose courage and passion. She has become a role model in the radical activist community here in the East Bay. Throughout her life Lydia has found herself affected by the larger context of political turbulence and was thus repeatedly at the heart of major social movements, such as the woman’s movement, racial integration, and the struggle for rights for disabled people. Her involvement in progressive movements has been heartfelt and sincere, as she herself and people close to her have experienced oppression. She continues to work tirelessly, despite the inevitable ageing process, for social justice and humanity. Currently, Lydia volunteers with the Disaster Relief Project of the Red Cross in Oakland, which is a program that offers immediate food, shelter, and clothing to people affected by disaster. She also holds down the Tuesday kitchen for the People’s Park meal serving with East Bay Food Not Bombs, directly feeding hungry people, a job she has kept for about 20 years. Lydia maintains her photojournalism career through writing and photographing for Street Spirit, the East Bay monthly publication featuring poetry, artwork, and legislative news regarding houseless and poverty issues. To feed her heart and soul, Lydia participates at the Berkeley Community Chorus, volunteers at the Telescope in the Chabot science center, does math problems, and reads plays with a local theater group.

Born in pre-Hitler Germany in 1931, Lydia immigrated to New York with her family upon their first chance of escaping the immanent persecution of Jews. They arrived in 1938 when Lydia was seven years old. She did not know a word of English when she arrived to this new country, but it took her only three weeks to feel comfortable with the language. Lydia attributes her learning of English to the encouragement and positive enthusiasm of her teacher and school peers. “Everyday,” she says, “my peers wanted to have play dates and to teach me English.” In 1948, Lydia passed the entrance exam to get into Hunter High School, at the time an all women’s high school. Throughout high school she walked the city streets for fun and focused on her studies. She graduated at the age of 17 and immediately moved westward to Berkeley, California. Lydia was the only woman from her high school class to move so far from New York. Other woman stayed close to home and – despite their intelligence and potential – became victims to the cultural normality of woman’s roles. One of her friends from high school had an uncle who was a leftist in California; it was through him that she was able to get her foot in the door working with Marxist youth. As Lydia said, “and then I got mixed up with the radicals.”

Lydia started college in the wake of the McCarthy era. She began a physics major, but changed to mathematics. There was a real fear due to McCarthyism that spying and government infiltration played in the physics field attributed to fresh discoveries in atomic science. She didn’t finish school until later in her life because she moved from Berkeley, fell in love, and had kids. Lydia married a black man as the civil rights struggle occurred; it was illegal in some states to have a biracial marriage. Lydia did eventually go on to receive a doctorate in mathematics, where she pioneered women in the field.

As a professor at Cal Poly Pamona, Lydia became insecure and believed she was not as smart as other professors in her mathematics department because she was always being put down, not being promoted, and not permitted to teach higher level classes. In fact, there were only a handful of women in the sciences who finally, one day at lunch, got to stare each other in the face and validate for one another that in fact they were intelligent, strong, and doing fabulous work. For these women, finding supporters helped to alleviate the hatred, anger and frustration caused by their oppression. “…That’s what the woman’s movement was about.” Lydia was a professor from 1963 to 1988, and continued to fight sexism throughout that time. During her time as a professor, Lydia became President of the teacher’s union and served on the statewide academic senate. The union activities enabled Lydia to exercise political action in the school system.

When she lived in East LA, Lydia participated in radicalizing the Democratic Party and fighting racism. She and her husband worked with the Chicano community to gain more representation in government. The community of organizers were successful in electing the first Chicano city councilman along with a democratic governor to end a republican stint. Until they started organizing, Mexican-Americans were sorely underrepresented in democratic government.

In 1967, when restrictive housing laws were overturned, which had restricted people of color from living in particular areas, Lydia was living in Southern California in a town called Altadena. Lydia moved to Altadena so that her children could find a community with which to identify being that they were biracial. She and her family joined with neighbors to support racial integration. The neighborhood came together during meetings and through their children playing. “This house is not for sale” was a common slogan posted at people’s homes, because realtors would bother people to leave their homes to escape minorities – a practice deemed ‘white flight’. Lydia remembers her life in Altadena fondly. There was a lot of open space as the town borders National Forestland and the area itself has roots of revolutionary activity. It was a hot bed of abolitionists after the civil war when Owen Brown, son of John Brown (leader of the Harper’s Ferry revolt) moved to Altadena where he is buried with the tombstone saying “here lies Owen Brown, son of the liberator; 1895”.

Lydia moved back to Berkeley in 1988 and started taking classes in photojournalism. She became interested and involved in disability activism — mostly because she had had disabled friends in Southern California. Until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, disabled persons could hardly get around and were not treated as equal people in society. If someone was in a wheelchair one would have to go blocks out of their way to a driveway as an access point onto the curb. In the late sixties, disabled students at UC Berkeley became the forefront of the disabled persons’ struggle, named the Independent Living Movement. The movement was still happening when Lydia returned to the Bay and a man by the name of Ed Roberts became Lydia’s peer and role model. Lydia met Robert’s through a friend of her’s in southern California. Roberts lived with polio since the age of fourteen. He created the Disabled Students Union and fought for ramps on campus and in Berkeley. Lydia worked closely with Roberts on various projects to gain more rights for disabled people on campus. Through working with disabled people and learning about photojournalism, Lydia was inspired to take pictures and write books about the subject. Roberts helped her to publish two books called: To Live With Grace and Dignity and Sisters, Brothers, and Disabilities. Her books document disabled peoples and their caretakers, and how families function with disabled children, respectively. To create the books she was welcomed into people’s lives with her camera, developed relationships with the people she photographed, and captured emotion and passion to
make her books come alive.

Before Lydia started working with East Bay Food Not Bombs (EBFNB), it had never occurred to her to work with food. Philosophically, she is not an anarchist, but EBFNB functions well in that context when people are so committed to actualization of the group’s goals. The group of people who were EBFNB impressed her because, “everyone was dedicated to the community, and dedication is what we all believe in, which is pretty unusual, most people do things because they’re supposed to, but at Food Not Bombs no one tells another what they have to do.” As she has lived her life in the East Bay participating in Food Not Bombs and Street Spirit, Lydia has proved her own dedication to the causes that directly affect the quality of life for so many people including herself and her nearest community. With the risk of sounding hokey, Lydia explains that each relationship is a treasure, especially compared to the academic world.

Looking back on her life, Lydia says that at one point politics seemed simple, black and white, it was bad versus good; but now she sees more gray areas and complexities. She says that people in general need to find common ground, more humanity. And when asked what kept her going through lull periods and tough times, she responded by saying, “well activism always keeps you going…”