Nancy restored my advocacy trajectory for my life in Marin
Upon immigrating to the United states I spent my first ten years in Los Angeles. In 1995, my ex-partner and I moved to West Marin County. When I came to America I was under the misapprehension that because America had passed the Civil Rights Act in the sixties, racism was over. Marin County, unlike Los Angeles, brought me face to face with racism in America. I was shocked. The Bay Area looked like Johannesburg versus Soweto. The modeling of that which helmed South Africa’s Apartheid legislation, The Group Areas Act, was at play and right here in Marin!
I needed to do something and started to research. Why is it like this? Still? It was through my digging that I met Nancy Kenyon.
With so much to unpack especially during this time as America reels from the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of 4 white police officers, last week I kept thinking of Nancy Kenyon, my mentor and friend, who taught me so much about the history of race in America and how to own my privilege and how to be as that white person in racist Marin.
Nancy was “woke” long before any other white person who I knew here. She was ‘woke’ in the true sense of the word, imbued with a sense of justice and fairness like no one I had yet met on my American journey. Nanci was a giant in the tenant landlord arena, championing the rights of tenants who were discriminated against because of race, sexual orientation, gender, disability and marital status.
I now know that my thinking about her the very week George Floyd died was more significant than I could have imagined and reminds me of the very special connection we had. That I would be thinking about her during my time of deep reflection and pain about race in America.
Nancy had invited me to join the board of Fair Housing of Marin (Now Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California (FHANC)) and that experience changed my trajectory in this space. It brought me home to who I had been when in South Africa and my advocacy for equality and justice reconvened itself with her guidance and might I add, insistence.
I stayed on the Board, eventually as VP, for about 8 years. I got to know Nancy really well and after she retired, she would drive from San Francisco and we would meet in San Rafael for lunch, always at the Panama Hotel. She loved to sit on that Patio to enjoy their Fatoush salad. We would catch-up and she would encourage me whenever I felt uncertain about my work. She always read my work and also donated to African Human Rights Coalition.
Nancy died last week in San Francisco, peacefully, surrounded by her beloved family and friends. I will always remember her with much love and gratitude for all she brought to me and also to world of Fair Housing, a treasured matriarch in the milieu.
I cannot do better than to quote the statement by Caroline Peattie, long time friend and colleague of Nancy who took over her position as Executive Director of FHANC:
“Nancy managed, in a small organization, to retain many highly competent and committed staff members for years, and in many cases, well over a decade — probably because of the outstanding qualities that she exuded as a person, as well as the easy, yet caring and committed work environment she created to inspire others.
As one long-time staffer said, “What I most appreciate about Nancy is her deep belief in justice and civil rights and her willingness to defend these beliefs, her ability to look at obstacles as challenges,” — and I would add, “opportunities”— “the connections she easily makes with diverse groups of people of all ages, her gracious and relaxed leadership style, her adventurousness and love of life.”
Nancy saw the humanity in people and really listened to people’s stories about themselves, and this manifested in the workplace in a variety of ways — including allowing for flexibility in schedules and work styles. It’s no wonder that she had a number of working mothers on her staff over time, because she allowed them to reach their working potential and be mothers, too. When, shortly after beginning my tenure at the agency, my 18-month-old baby was diagnosed with diabetes and hospitalized, Nancy couldn’t have been more supportive. That support continued through the years as I raised a child with special needs. Her love of her own family — and she was so proud of her kids! — expanded to include her extended work family; we responded with loyalty and respect.
Nancy remained an unabashed hippie over the decades, and she represented some of the best things about the 1960s – a certain kind of openness, optimism, and passion for activism. Her experience working on civil rights issues before there were the laws to back up those rights gave her a rare perspective.
Intrepid traveler that she was, her adventurous spirit took her wandering all over the world. She returned refreshed, regaling us with tales of her adventures. She was an avid birder and loved nature.
Nancy also had colorful stories to tell of her earlier years – being arrested for blocking a train carrying munitions (and even in prison, of course, they all took care of one another); working in New Jersey at a housing rights agency, where she and other staff told members of the mafia what they were doing wrong as landlords, then quaking with fear that their cars would explode when they turned the key in the ignition that night.
Perhaps it was some of these early experiences that helped shape some of her toughness. It took some doing to begin her fair housing work as a small program in 1982 that was part of a much larger umbrella organization, and then build it into the thriving and multi-faceted organization it became. Although we often heard Nancy’s peals of laughter ringing through the agency, there were times when she was tough as nails. She was not only the founder of our fair housing agency, but she was also a founding member and board member of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the sole national organization dedicated to ending discrimination in housing.
It has been an honor to follow in her footsteps. Nancy Kenyon will be sorely missed. I am only one of many she touched deeply.”
I too feel most blessed to have experienced and loved Nancy. I will keep her stories and wisdom close to me. It is with sadness and joy that I send my deepest condolences to her family and all who loved her. Sad because she will be so sorely missed and joy because I can celebrate who she has been, and that I had the great honor to have experienced her as my friend and mentor. May Nancy’s memory be a blessing as she rests in peace.
Because of Covid-19 the family will not hold a celebration of life until a future date; if anyone has photos or stories please send them to her children at email@example.com or mail to 1375 Masonic Ave, San Francisco, CA 94117. If anyone is interested in making a donation in her name, please give to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.