The Common Good
January-February 1997

Labors of Love

by Marth F. Andujar, Nadine R. Gargrell, Deborah K. King | January-February 1997

The courage and compassion of Jean Sindab.

Organizers are the ones who make things happen, who keep us on the road to justice and peace. They aren't always or often the upfront spokespeople, but they're the ones who do the work and get the job done. Jean Sindab was an organizer in the midst of some of the most important movements of our time.

Though her name may not be as well known to our readers as some others, the movements she helped organize are well known to us all: to end apartheid in South Africa, to link racial justice with environmental concerns, to bring about a gang truce, to name just a few. Her influence crossed many boundaries. For example, after she died in January 1996 at the age of 51, the young people of Break and Build in Kansas City—who were coming out of violent street life and building new possibilities with the assistance of Jean—decided to name their new school after her.

Her legacy will be with us for a very long time, not only in the exemplary work that she did, but more importantly in the hearts of the countless people whose lives she touched. —The Editors

Nellie Jean Sindab, known to many as Jean, was born in Cleveland on October 23, 1944, to Joneil Pitts. Shortly after Nellie's birth, she and her mother moved to Brooklyn, New York, where they resided with Nellie's maternal grandmother, Anna Pitts. Later a sister, Debra Pitts Ross, was born. Her mother and grandmother were employed as domestics.

Although raised by her mother and grandmother, Nellie attributed her intellectual development to "Aunt Bee," a close friend of her mother. Nellie had a close bond with Aunt Bee, who sensed that she was very bright. Aunt Bee arranged for Nellie to attend Catholic school for three years, until she was no longer able to finance her education. Nellie then enrolled in public school. In both settings, she emerged as an exceptional student, though a guidance counselor once informed Nellie that she could not attend college because she was "Negro" and "female."

Nellie's positive sense of self surfaced early, and she felt that one day she would make a significant contribution to society. But she did not yet know how to negotiate the world of which she wished to be a part. So she majored in stenography to acquire a skill that would enable her

to support herself. Throughout high school and following her graduation in 1962, she worked part time as a legal stenographer. In 1966, Nellie married but the marriage did not last.

Nellie never gave up her dream to attend college, and upon learning of the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge program (SEEK) at Hunter College, she applied. In September 1970, Nellie entered Hunter College, where she thrived intellectually. She briefly entertained the idea of becoming a psychologist; however, after taking a course with Dr. John Henrik Clark, an eminent African history scholar, Nellie decided to major in history.

Nellie won a scholarship to study at the University of Ghana during the summer of 1971, based on an essay she had written about why she wanted to go to Africa. She graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College in 1974, and then applied and was accepted at Yale University, with a Ford Foundation Fellowship.

THE YALE YEARS WERE filled with turmoil, growth, and accomplishment. Although Nellie was initially concerned about the physical distance between New York and New Haven, she soon discovered that the distance would not be measured in miles alone. There were also the intangible distances of race, class, gender, and age. But Yale also represented a welcome respite from the double duty of work and school in New York.

In 1974, Nellie entered the master's program in international relations, concentrating on United States foreign policy toward Africa. She attended guest lectures, joined a working group on African development, and helped form a reading-study group on issues of racial change in America. She enjoyed vigorous debates as well as quiet conversations, and engaged in both with the same mixture of keen analysis, compassion, and a touch of humor. Jean also spent time alone, reading novels and poetry; attending rehearsals of classical, jazz, and sacred music ensembles, and concerts when she could afford them; or simply browsing in the Beinecke Rare Book Library.

Her passion for learning led to her earning a doctorate in political science in 1984. Her dissertation investigated the role of white expatriates in Zambian economic and political development. It was while conducting her field work in Zambia that Jean personally experienced the social disruption and terrorism that accompanied South Africa's efforts to maintain apartheid through its persecution of freedom fighters and refugees. These experiences were critical later in shaping Dr. Sindab's anti-apartheid activism.

The web of Jean's friendships wove together a disparate group of individuals, crossing boundaries of status, sex, nationality, race-ethnicity, class, religion, and age. Jean was blessed with the gift of creating a bond of caring and wise counsel that made each person consider Jean her or his best friend. Among these friendships, Jean found relaxation, affirmation of her identity as a black woman, and support for accomplishing her myriad responsibilities.

A gospel music enthusiast, Jean regularly attended the black church at Yale. She was not simply a church-goer, she conscientiously pursued a personal relationship with God.

IN 1980, DR. JEAN SINDAB became the executive director of the Washington Office on Africa (WOA) and its Educational Fund. A church-sponsored organization, WOA played a pivotal role in achieving United States sanctions on South Africa.

As director, Jean developed policy proposals on Africa, led congressional lobbying efforts, advised congressional representatives and senators, and organized national political mobilization efforts. She left WOA in 1986, but eight years later Jean celebrated the product of this labor of love and struggle in witnessing the dismantling of apartheid and attending the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela.

In 1986, Jean became the co-director of the Program to Combat Racism at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. There, she engaged in the strategic planning and execution of consultations on racism and developed campaigns to mobilize its 300 member denominations.

From 1988 to 1991, she served as the program's executive secretary and established two new initiatives, dealing with women under racism and with indigenous people. This work took Jean to every continent to document the nature and extent of racial oppression and to assist in anti-racism efforts. Most significant for Jean was working with various racially oppressed groups, such as the Dalits of India, the aborigines of Australia, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and persons of color in Europe and North America. During this time she also served as a member of the U.N. Non-Governmental Sub- committee on the Elimination of Discrimination.

As Jean continued the campaign for social justice on the international front, she increasingly felt the call to return home to the United States—and to wage the battle against racial and economic injustice here. The decision to return was made only after months of conversation and debate with her friends and advisers, and after many prayers and much meditation.

IN 1991, JEAN RETURNED HOME to New York with the intention of taking a long sabbatical to consider her options. However, life and the struggle for social justice had other plans.

Almost immediately, she assumed the directorship of the Program for Economic and Environmental Justice/ Hunger Concerns Desk of the National Council of Churches' (NCC) Prophetic Justice Unit. Her major task was to educate and mobilize its 32 major Protestant denominations with 42 million members in linking environmental and economic justice issues. She also served as the NCC liaison to the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a dynamic coalition of Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, and Protestants concerned with mobilizing their 53,000 congregations for environmental justice. In 1992, Jean co-organized the forum on environmental racism and served as a delegate of the people-of-color group at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Recently, she had been appointed to the Sustainable Communities Task Force of the President's Council on Sustainable Development and served on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. These appointments afforded her the opportunities to meet with Vice President Al Gore, EPA Director Carol Browner, and other administration officials to promote corporate, governmental, and church support in urban community development.

In her duties at NCC, Jean continued her practice of working closely with grassroots activists through her membership on the executive committee of the Citizens Network for Sustainable Development and West Harlem Environmental Action Committee. These involvements sensitized her to the critical links between urban environmental deterioration and the economic and social crisis of the inner city.

Always the courageous maverick, Jean seized the opportunity to reach out to one of the most alienated groups in this setting—youth gangs. Forging partnerships between church members and pastors, local public officials and gang members, she sought to build coalitions that would aggressively tackle the interdependent problems of poor health, violence, and unemployment, as well as economic and environmental degradation. Jean also initiated a scholarship fund for deserving youth, exclusively from her personal funds.

JEAN SINDAB'S commitment to social justice and the policy positions she held always derived from a theologically grounded and spiritually enriched perspective. For her, there was no separation of politics, human relationships, and faith.

Jean profoundly believed that we are called as believers humbly to assume stewardship of the planet and guardianship of one another. Jean believed that we should care for the earth, but, most important, that we should respect and care for all God's people. Whatever injustices threatened their lives, limited their life chances, or denigrated their humanity, those evils should be eradicated. Similarly, her strategies for social justice mobilization modeled her approach to friendships—to build bridges across the divides and work in cooperative, not hierarchical, arrangements.

Jean's achievements earned her numerous honors and appointments. More cherished, however, for Jean was the appreciation of those whom she helped empower—and our commitment to continue in love and faith the struggle for social justice.

MARTHA F. ANDUJAR, Ph.D., is a social worker for the New York City Board of Education. NADINE P. GARTRELL, Ph.D., is director of programs at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity in New York City. DEBORAH K. KING, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

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