by Bill Lazarus
[Editor’s Note: We will, from time to time, be publishing interviews with Kehilla members, so we all can get to know each other better. If you know of a member who you think would be a good interview subject, please let us know! Contact Sasha at firstname.lastname@example.org or (510) 547-2424 x100.]
Kehilla member Anna Couey’s life traverses the world of art, social justice activism and cyberspace. Having studied art and literature at Scripps College, Anna started out as a fiber artist, but yarn seemed “too soft” for the 1980s, so she moved on to wire mesh and abstract sculpture. Through the artists’ space, Art.com, she hooked into early online communications systems, and came to see cyberspace as enabling a form of weaving that dissolves the division between the artist and the audience. “It was tremendously exciting to me that the viewer could make the work,” Anna says.
She organized the telecommunications art project, “Cultures in Cyberspace,” and created a “channel” of connected bulletin board systems that facilitated conversation among Native American activists, artists in the United States and Australia, and techno-visionaries internationally. Anna saw computer communications as a way to create a participatory society, a way to break away from the centralized voices of “mass media” to democratic engagement. “We were going to break down that master voice,” says Anna. Anna eventually found that cyberspace wasn’t Mecca. “It felt like a gold rush. Suddenly a whole bunch of people were in this arena. They were interested in becoming billionaires. I left. I said this is not my space.” She decided that despite the engagement fostered by Facebook and other internet discussion vehicles, “people aren’t necessarily more empowered. There’s not more social equality.”
Anna worked for years with the San Francisco Public Library, and with the DataCenter: Research for Justice (DataCenter.org), an organization started by librarians in the 1970s, which developed a substantial reputation as a library and research center of the Left. With the advent of the Web, the organization reinvented itself, creating a research model that would support grassroots campaigns and restructure power dynamics by engaging participants in designing the inquiries. Anna developed a research partnership with the domestic worker rights movement. By involving domestic workers in research, the project avoided some pitfalls of warped data. For instance, coupled with low pay and few benefits, domestic workers often reported getting paid vacations. The workers doing analysis knew what that meant: taking “vacations” with employers’ families to tend to the kids.
Anna encouraged Kehilla to support the domestic workers bill of rights campaign in California, which in 2013 obtained the right to overtime pay for domestic workers. Anna is volunteering on the next phase of the bill of rights campaign with Hand in Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers seeking to “support you and your family in building caring homes, fair workplaces, and stronger communities.” (http://domesticemployers.org.)
For the past several years, Anna has worked with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, headed by formerly incarcerated people. Discrimination is a key problem faced by people with a conviction history, making it extremely difficult for them to obtain jobs and housing after their release. In addition to policy change, Anna sees communication and relationship-building, premised on recognition that but for circumstance and luck, we could be in the same position, as essential to dismantle fear and strengthen community.
She feels privileged to have been able to build friendships with co-workers who had convictions for violent offenses. “We worked together but there was also a deep understanding and a very deep trust that transcended our differences.”
Anna recalls that in 1995, she and her soon-to-be husband Michael Robin were demonstrating for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal from death row for the alleged 1981 murder of a police officer. Anna, Michael and another 300 protesters were arrested, herded into school buses and hauled off to jail on felony charges of destroying property — trash in a dumpster. Jail was short lived, just three days before charges were dropped. Anna remembers the “warm pink” walls of the jail coupled with bright lights around the clock and a toilet only partly shielded from viewers. The experience provided “a visceral way of understanding dehumanization, and that it can happen to you.”
That understanding was deepened when she and Michael lost their home to foreclosure in 2010. They had purchased at the height of the market, just before the financial meltdown, and jobs that had seemed stable turned out to not be. “Kehilla, our family and friends offered extraordinary support to help us keep our home – including trying to buy it back for us. We experienced such a powerful example of community… It became clear, the connection to people is the most important thing.”
Anna thinks of her work with art and data, prisoners and nannies, as “creating ways for people to hear each other.” She finds soul, and hope, in relationship as well as in community.