By Ravi Ragbir, Executive Director, New Sanctuary Coalition
I first met Kitty when she came to the New Sanctuary Coalition to volunteer right after the 2016 election. Like many people, she was horrified by the results. But Kitty is not a person to sit around and complain; she is an activist, and she came to NSC to put her anger to work. She has been in the struggle for many years and fights for the changes that will bring about equality, justice, and dignity for all.
Kitty discovered her passion and purpose in the labor movement. She has lived her truth for decades, organizing and educating everyone around her, including workers in publishing, the garment industry, and at universities. As an NYU graduate student, she helped to establish the Graduate Students Organizing Committee. Kitty never misses an organizing opportunity.
When Kitty came to NSC she wanted to be part of a movement community because the world was not right. We had elected a racist xenophobe who was targeting Black and Brown people and immigrants in particular. NSC was fighting an immigration policy steeped in racism and economic injustice, and Kitty eased right into our work and our community.
I immediately recognized Kitty’s talents as a leader and organizer. I asked her to do more than just be a volunteer. I asked her to help coordinate the weekly immigration clinic. We were experimenting with a new model of providing legal resources for those who were newcomers, poor, illiterate, spoke a foreign language, and could not afford legal counsel. Kitty stepped in and helped us pull that model together, and it now runs smoothly, reaching thousands of people a year. For Kitty good is not good enough—she always works harder and has better results than anyone I know. The NSC is honored and privileged that Kitty has chosen to bring her spirit, her sense of humor, her endless energy, and her brilliance to support our work.
I am thrilled that Kitty’s lifelong commitment to making the world a better place is being recognized with the Clara Lemlich Award. I can’t think of a better person to receive this honor.
The Clara Lemlich award means everything to me. Thank you LaborArts. I never dreamt I would receive such an honor. On this occasion, I planned to tell a personal story that might inspire someone else. But that was before Corona.
These long days of isolation have been painful, yet they are a time for reflection. As I ponder the future, I am driven to the past. I was born into the Depression and grew up with the New Deal. Our government provided leadership and showed compassion for the poor. There was a space for leftists and progressives to participate in the rebuilding of our country. When I grew up, I could turn on the radio and hear the voices of labor leaders like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther; I could read novels and see plays about working-class struggle. My family talked politics at the dinner table, and I started to think. In this milieu—or culture—I and many others developed the consciousness that prepared us for a lifetime of work in social movements. Whether we organized workers, fought for civil rights, or joined the peace movement, we tried to understand the political environment in which our movements had developed.
Now, in a very different era, struck by a global pandemic, we have come face to face with the catastrophic results of economic inequality. If you are like me, you want to stay in the fight—even take on new challenges. And here’s the story: After a lifetime in the labor movement, I retired four years ago, promising myself a life of leisure. Then Trump took office, and persecution of immigrants turned into all-out war. So, I did what I did during the Vietnam War, I found an organization—the Vietnam Peace Parade Committee then and New Sanctuary Coalition now. I walked through the door with no experience to offer. I would have swept the floor or taken out the garbage. Instead, I found myself learning and growing in a community bound together by common cause. I wish the same history for every young activist rising to the occasion today.
Kitty Krupat has been a trade unionist and social justice activist throughout her life. After college, in 1961, she went to work at Esquire Magazine as a proofreader, earning $55.00 a week. After 13 years in the publishing industry—leapfrogging from job to job—she finally made it to $125.00 a week. At that point, she joined the staff of District 65 (later District 65-UAW) and spent the next 15 years organizing publishing workers as well as workers in universities. During this period, Kitty was also active in the Vietnam Peace Parade Committee.
In her years at District 65, Kitty served as Editor of the union newspaper and as the union’s Education Director. In 1983, she represented the union on a labor delegation to investigate the disappearance of union leaders in El Salvador, during that country’s civil war. The plight of impoverished Salvadorans and the suffering of families who had lost loved ones was not only eye-opening; it was life changing.
In 1989, Kitty became Education Director of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In 1995, she left the ILGWU for graduate school at NYU—but she never left the labor movement. Within six months, she helped to found GSOC-UAW, the NYU Graduate Student Organizing Committee, which eventually won the first union of graduate student employees at a private university.
After graduate school, Kitty joined the Queens College Worker Education program, first as an adjunct professor and then as an Associate Director. She remained Associate Director for 14 years, as the program evolved into the Murphy Institute and ultimately the CUNY School for Labor and Urban Studies. She retired in 2014 but continues as a Consultant to the School and a Contributing Editor to its journal, New Labor Forum.
Retirement without activism wasn’t a good fit. So, Kitty began to consider new ways of contributing to movements for social change. How could she work directly with individuals and communities in need? The answer became obvious in November 2016, when the Trump administration declared war on immigrants. New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC), a faith-based immigrants’ rights organization, was opening its doors to immigrants seeking asylum and was building a movement to dismantle an inhumane system of detentions and deportations. Kitty joined the NSC, where she continues to serve as a volunteer leader of NSC’s Immigration Clinic.
With Patrick McCreery, Kitty Krupat is co-editor of Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance. Her essays have appeared in numerous publications, including No Sweat: Fashion Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers (ed. Andrew Ross), The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America (eds. Van Goss and Richard Moser), and Taking Back the Academy: The History of Activism/Activism as History (eds. Jim Downs and Jennifer Manion).