Making Public Affairs Personal
Gretchen Lipow was a leader in the California Teachers Association throughout her teaching career, beginning in the early 1970s when she joined the fight for collective bargaining for California’s teachers.
Lipow retired from her 40-year teaching career in 2004, but her role as a community activist and advocate for educators was far from over. She and her husband started the Alameda Public Affairs Forum, a group that hosts monthly discussions on issues important to the community. In 2010, Lipow and other like-minded citizens formed the Alameda Citizens’ Task Force (ACT) to promote community involvement in local politics.
When I moved to California in the early 1970s, I took on a leadership role in the California Teachers’ Association and was quickly up to my eyeballs in the fight for collective bargaining. In my small town, the teachers and administrators had a good relationship, but there were still some contentious times. We were committed to giving teachers a voice in their contracts, and we won collective bargaining rights for California teachers in 1975. We negotiated for critical benefits like teacher prep periods and health care, and these victories have made a difference in the life of every California teacher since. I had a personal stake in the collective bargaining fight, of course—I worked as an educator in California for almost 40 years.
I continued my work with the California Teachers Association throughout my career and into retirement, serving on the CTA state council for 10 years and as president, vice president, treasurer, and state and national delegate of my local chapter. In 1998, I was the national delegate who introduced a policy statement establishing the NEA’s opposition to social security privatization.
Since I retired, I’ve had the time to follow my passion and become more active in politics. In 2004, my husband and I formed the Alameda Public Affairs Forum, an independent forum where citizens can discuss current events and political, social, and economic issues. The forum has grown, and each month, we draw a crowd of 50 to 75 active community members. In 2010, I joined with local citizens to organize the Alameda Citizens’ Task Force (ACT), a local government watchdog group that advocates for open government, fiscal responsibility, and community involvement in city politics.
ACT got its start when we spread the word about a major developer who wanted to use public bonds to build high-end condos at Alameda Point, a unique piece of publicly-owned land. The developer had a history of bankruptcy and lawsuits, and it was a shaky deal for the community. At first, we didn’t think we had a chance to beat the project, but we walked around town, held meetings, and used the internet to get the facts out. It was a dramatic fight, but little by little, people began to realize that this wasn’t in the best interest of the community, and we won the fight at the ballot box with an 85 percent victory over the developer’s plan.
The Alameda Point fight really catapulted us onto the community’s radar, and today, I’m so proud of the citizens who have joined to make this a better community for everyone. Like many other cities around the nation, ours faces a budget crisis and many tough political decisions, and it’s more important than ever that we are educated and engaged.
In all of my political endeavors, there are other dedicated retired teachers alongside me. Working in the union, we learned how to give voice to members’ concerns and make it a real community effort, not just a group of people telling others what to do. Our work with the union gave us the confidence and skills to lead. We thought, ‘we organized the union, we can organize the town’—and today, we’ve developed into an active, passionate network of citizens.