Saturday, June 25, 2011

No Justice, No Peace: Penny Bethke 1950-2011

Penny Bethke was, in the words of former CCRI president Emmett Ferguson, "a grand old dame of co-op." She was feisty, and would go to the mattresses on all kinds of issues. She was smart as a whip, and was never afraid to talk someone's ear off until their own personal little light bulb went on. She considered herself a teacher, was proud to be a pain in the ass, and was an expert on community-driven initiatives like credit unions and co-operative housing, having immersed herself in that world for decades.

Penny passed away a few weeks ago, and I miss her. I find myself looking at people who look like she did on the street, and I wonder for a second how she's doing.

My first experience with Penny was through my co-op's board of directors. Primarily made of students, the board offers two of their twelve seats to alumni members - people who had lived in the co-op and then moved on. Penny had been a resident in the 1970s, and had worked for the co-op as the summer rentals girl. The co-op's always been a little bit rough around the edges, and in the summers, that loosey-goosey attitude goes through the roof. I can imagine that the co-op, with its proximity to the hippies in Yorkville and the bikers in Rochdale, was a crash-pad for the young, disenfranchised and drug-addled. In other words, not a job for the faint of heart.

When she returned as an alumni director, she was in her 50s and was able to bring scads of financial and social expertise to our often-inexperienced group. When I first met her, I was coming in to talk to the board about my dissatisfaction with the food services the co-op was providing. It had been an eleventh-hour agenda item, one that I was asking for a decision on, and Penny was irritated. "Something like this should be on the table well before a meeting," she pointed out acidly, "so we can have time to review its merits...or lack thereof."

I pushed on - I needed an answer now, dammit, because my housemates were filing their teeth into points and looking murderously at one another, and I couldn't wait another month for the board to reconvene with all the details and fooferaw at hand. Inside, I died. I had been roundly chastised by a woman I barely knew, in front the directors, some of whom were my friends, and I deserved it. I got the motion passed, I went back and told my housemates we would have more freedom to decide on how we spent our food money, and I mentally noted the importance of planning ahead.

Now, seven years later, I sit on that board, and Penny had become our General Manager. Folks will regularly show up, making all kinds of demands with minimal notice, and we sigh and send them away to write something up, check on our policies, and work with staff members. It's annoying when people just appear out of the blue and make demands, a phenomenon that occurs with tiring regularity in cooperatives. I learned from Penny that when you push people to work for what they believe is a birthright - a free pass, an exception to a rule, a change in the system - the lazy and faint of heart will often disappear to gnash their teeth and complain. The people worth working for, and with, will come back with a better proposal, a more complete outline, and a good attitude about the changes that you ask them to make.

I learned that volunteering is a great way to spend my time and get experience. I was never a student-government person, and the kind of activism that really raises my hackles often involves an entitled white person, identity politics, and a trip to some underfunded area filled with poor brown people. But I think it's important to be involved in one's own community, and the easiest place for me to start was with my housing co-op. Getting to know Penny over the last few years was rewarding, because she thought along the same lines. She also stressed the importance of a learning curve - new things are hard! - and once told me that it was okay to be intense. She was well aware of her own intensity, and used to to cow the people she disdained and elevate the people she admired.

It's a trite thing to say, but sometimes when we lose a friend, triteness has a fresh gravity: her spirit will live on. She was respected and admired by her community, and she influenced and taught the next generation of co-op leaders what they were doing, and moreover, why they should do it. While I'll miss her, I know that her voice will carry through the years because she has influenced hundreds of people. She will continue to inspire.

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