By Julie Laut
It is easier than ever today to “virtually” act on behalf of social justice issues. Emails come to your inbox and with just a click of a button you can send a robo-letter to your senator or an organization. Social media bombards us with pleas to sign petitions and send donations. New technological tools have played a crucial role in modern social action across the globe, but for some those same tools can too easily offer a certain level of self-satisfaction when in fact the action is safely distanced from the hands-on work of most community activism. Not so for the activists I am meeting for these articles.
Esther Patt embodies in the most fundamental sense the term “activist.” She stands up, she speaks up, she acts. She recalls in detail her first foray into community activism as a UIUC student in 1976 when she led a drive to register approximately 7,000 new student voters. This was no easy task at a time when who could register a voter and under what circumstances was more strictly controlled. She continues to be involved in voter registration today.
Patt started her now 40-year commitment to work on behalf of tenants’ rights just after the 1976 voter registration drive ended. She initially volunteered at the UIUC Tenant Union before working as a paid employee from 1979-2012. Since her retirement four years ago, she continues to work as Director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union. The vast majority of Patt’s hours are spent in direct service to student and community member tenants, helping them understand their rights and responsibilities according to state and local law. Her knowledge of those rights runs deep, due to her work to bring about changes in both the Champaign and Urbana human rights ordinances to include protections against discrimination in housing in the late 1970s, and the comprehensive Urbana Landlord-Tenant Ordinance that passed in early 1994.
Patt’s work to end discrimination in housing continues today in her work to change the Housing Authority of Champaign County (HACC) Board of Commissioners’ policy toward people with conviction records. Unlike the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which only bans persons from public housing who are registered sex offenders or convicted of the manufacture of methamphetamine, HACC policy also excludes public housing applicants who have less than five years since their last drug-related or forcible felony conviction. Patt believes that this discriminatory HACC policy undermines efforts to reduce recidivism by preventing those recently released from jail or prison from finding stable housing or living with family in public housing.
Patt is also a fiercely committed feminist whose most important life-long political issue has been the defense of women’s access to safe and affordable abortions. She believes that any attempt to undermine women’s freedom of choice results in women losing their adult standing, and she criticizes many on the Left for shying away from the abortion issue over the years. She helped establish the now-defunct Abortion Rights Coalition (ARC) in the mid-1970s to fight the cut-off of Medicaid coverage for abortions under the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for low-income women except in cases of rape or incest, or to save a mother’s life. Patt, who argues that abortion should not be treated differently than any other medical issue, is proud that Illinois is one of the few states where the ACLU successfully sued on behalf of Planned Parenthood and won court-ordered non-discriminatory public funding of abortion. She also tirelessly has lobbied individual state legislators to commit to pro-abortion stances, including lobbying Dick Durbin, who was anti-choice at the start of his political career but is now a leader of the pro-choice movement in the U.S. Senate, and says she will not vote for any candidate who does not fully support abortion rights.
Writing about Claire Szoke in these pages a few months ago, I learned that to be an activist requires compassion. Her belief that all individuals deserve respect and the opportunity to live in a fair and safe society has led her to protest against war, work toward fair wages, and support sanctuary for refugees and asylum-seekers.
Meeting Esther Patt has taught me that to be an activist requires finding your voice. Near the end of our conversation, Patt spoke passionately about the need to put aside one’s fears in order to stand up and speak out for what you believe in. Too often people are afraid to rock the boat or make others uncomfortable, when in reality most of us are putting little at risk by taking action on political issues. So what if you make a few enemies along the way, she asks. We all learn on the elementary school playground that no matter how hard you try, not everyone is going to like you anyway. You might as well make your voice and your actions count.
Julie Laut lives in Urbana. This is the second in a series of articles highlighting women who have been long-time community activists on behalf of social, economic, racial, and gender justice issues in Urbana-Champaign.