The Roosevelt University Alumni Blog is thrilled to unveil a new feature: our interview series. Periodically, we’ll shine our spotlight on alums who have made a difference in their community our around the world. If you have a story that you want to share and would like to be part of our alumni blog, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org – who knows, maybe you’ll be our next subject!
For our first interview, we’re talking with Roosevelt alumna, Nancy Cooperman Leventhal (BA, ’56), a College of Education graduate who truly exemplifies Roosevelt University’s mission of social justice. She’s used her professional and personal life for social betterment: whether it’s civil rights, labor rights or gay rights, Nancy Levental makes sure she’s always joining in or leading the call for social justice. A proud straight ally for the gay community, she’s very proud of her membership in the Ladera GLBT Club.
In an emailed interview, Leventhal tells us what Roosevelt meant to her and why social activism is so important to her.
Roosevelt University: You mentioned allegiance to different civic and social justice organizations. What was your inspiration to join these groups? What inspired your efforts?
Nancy Leventhal: I realized early on that there was a power behind an organization and working with others of like mind. I do, however, choose my “battles” carefully, balancing strong emotion with the reality of being effective. I have strong opinions on most subjects relating to civic matters and social justice – before, during, and since Roosevelt. I am currently involved with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
RU: You talked about a case you won with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, regarding the Brown Act [an act of the California State Legislature that guarantees the public right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies] and open school board meetings. Why did you feel it important to champion the cause?
NL: After working hard and successfully recalling a religious right school board, the newly elected members used the gavel to silence me when I criticized the new superintendent. According to the Ralph M. Brown Act, it was not clear whether I could speak about him [the superintendent] in public, but the school board had to do it in closed session. We prevailed “overwhelmingly” in Federal Court, the judge also stating that ‘The Brown Act can’t trump the Constitution’.”
RU: You said that Roosevelt University was your first true exposure to racial diversity. What was your initial response to the racial diversity of Roosevelt? How important was the racial diversity in your life after Roosevelt?
NL: Having been a Jewish child during WWII, I experienced a great deal of prejudice. My only experience with people of color was limited to family employees. Even at previous schools I did not have that exposure. I feel that while I was at Roosevelt, I moved into a comfort zone which has been an important part of my life and social activism since then.
RU: Tell us more about what you meant when you said Roosevelt University gave you a sense of freedom.
NL: I think I was referring to a sense of freedom in my teaching style. A project in class in the teaching of social studies gave me a whole new outlook. We each had to show how we would teach all subjects through one of the activities of daily life – eating, sleeping, walking, etc. I used that approach in second grade through sixth grade classes. I have since taught adult school classes in art, classes for senior citizens in crafts and through Pepperdine, extension-taught weekend workshops for teachers to qualify for certificate renewal – everything from indoor gardening and the use of ethnic arts in the classroom.
RU: You talk about your happy experience with Tapestry, the Unitarian Congregation that you are working with; how did you find Tapestry and what drew you to the organization?
NL: I found Tapestry when the minister at the time was criticized on my community bulletin board for riding the bus for equality in marriage. Three ministers later, we have officially become a “welcoming congregation” – open to people of all sexual orientations, beliefs and colors. We have a very active social action group. Simply stated, those of us who are straight are “straight, but not narrow.” We focus on “earthly deeds, not heavenly aspirations.”
RU: You wrote about your academic experience – you were a very successful student – what was the reason you worked so hard?
NL: Honestly, I wanted to get out on my own and move to the West Coast as quickly as possible! Because of my good grades, I was allowed to carry a heavy academic load and graduate from a summer session and began teaching about a week later in California – before I turned 21!
RU: Do you see the same inspiration and committment to social justice in your children and grandchildren?
NL: My daughter has a desire to “give back.” In her 40′s she became a cosmetologist. She is currently organizing volunteers and funding to reopen a beauty salon – Evolution - on the grounds of Serenity House, a unique recovery facility for women which allows them to bring their children with them. She is an animal activist and has a business selling cruelty-free feathers, giving part of her earnings to various charities. My granddaughter as a young child wanted to comfort sick children – I responded to my son’s plea for help and reminded him that as a quilter we could make comforters and accomplish that goal. We made and tied many of them for children in our community going through chemotherapy.
My whole family stood on street corners with signs promoting equality in marriage, protesting Proposition 8 (a ballot proposition and constitutional amendment to the California Constitution that bans same-sex marriage), which passed, but has just been ruled unconstitutional.
RU: Your involvement in social activism is extensive and committed. How much of that was inspired by Roosevelt University? How has Roosevelt nurtured your enthusiasm for social betterment?
NL: I really can’t pin down any specifics and I was only at Roosevelt a relatively short time. I would love to know if any of the students in my class are still alive – I will be seventy-seven this year.
I hope to be remembered as always attempting to be a “catalyst for positive change.”