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Jan Neffke- an activist’s life

1961 Moved to Pittsburgh with her best friend— an African-American woman—both to attend Pitt’s Graduate School of Social Work. They were turned away several times by racist apartment owners. Luckily, Jesse Vann, wife of the Pittsburgh Courier publisher, intervened and found them a 3rd floor room to rent in the home of a friend in the Lower Hill.

1963 Jan graduates with a Master’s Degree in Community Organizing. She is IMMEDIATELY hired by the Pittsburgh YWCA to work with veteran activist Molly Yard to organize massive participation in the Aug. 28th March on Washington. Fourteen busloads and a seven-car train full of SW PA demonstrators were mobilized. She was quoted in the paper telling a reporter at Union Station, “I think this is the oldest train in the country, but it’s worth the trip to be here.” In addition to MLK, Jan says she had another inspiring mentor, Mary Wood, the head of the Buffalo YWCA when Jan lived there, and then the Pittsburgh branch. Mary was the first Black woman to head a major Y.

1968 Helped organize a major housing conference sponsored by the YWCA and the Urban League to address racial discrimination throughout Allegheny County.

Instrumental in getting the YWCA to be one of the first organizations in Pittsburgh to speak out against the Vietnam War.

At some point Jan was on the Board of the Thomas Merton Center and worked closely with Molly Rush.

1972 Got the YWCA to endorse and work for passage of the State and Federal Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

1979 Initiated the Ad Hoc Committee to Counter KKK Activity when graffiti and other Klan activity raised its ugly head in the area. This later was renamed the Coalition to Counter Hate Groups.

1984 Worked with Peace Links to establish the first Peace Site in Pennsylvania. A Peace Site is a visible symbol of a commitment to the prevention of nuclear war and to seeking world peace.

1985 Received the National YWCA Racial Justice Award on behalf of the Pittsburgh Y.

1986 Honored by the South Hills chapter of NOW 1987 Listed in the Directory of 498 Hardworking Women in Pennsylvania 1988 Received the National Conference of Christians and Jews Peoplehood Award for untiring efforts as a “Connector of People.”

1990 Left the YWCA after 30 years. Obituary briefly explains that Jan was pushed into retirement by the local Y’s CEO, in retaliation for Jan’s successful campaign to get the Board to change its enormous portfolio by divesting from holdings with companies doing business with Apartheid South Africa. Jan had been a regular Saturday morning picketer in front of the Gold and Silver Exchange downtown to demand that it stop selling the Krugerrand. She also was involved in the efforts to close the South African Consulate and to get Pitt to divest from South Africa. Jan had taken to heart the National YWCA’s 1970 resolution to work to end racism “by any means necessary.” As Jan developed the divestment campaign at the YWCA, she realized she would be forced to pay a price. But she persisted until victory.

1991 City Council declared January 22 of that year, “Jan Neffke Day.”

NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) also honored Jan that year for her consistent work for women’s reproductive rights. She worked closely with and became good friends with local NARAL leader, Janet Catov.

1990s After leaving the YWCA Jan helped to initiate and was the part-time staff person for the Alliance for Progressive Action, a labor/community activist collaboration headed by veteran civil rights activist Rick Adams. In this endeavor, she also worked closely with Barney Oursler, a founder and leader of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.

Among Jan’s activities in the 1990s were supporting demonstrations in support of Rodney King, against the police murder of Johnny Gammage, in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and against the death penalty. On many projects she worked in collaboration with Tim Stevens, whom she deeply respected.

1997 In her role as a leader of the Coalition to Counter Hate Groups, Jan helped to organize the 3,000-plusstrong rally in Market Square to counter a parade at the City County Building by Klansmen and Nazis.

2013 On August 28, 2013, Jan was thrilled to attend the 50th Anniversary March of the March on Washington.

During the 2,000s Jan continued to march and demonstrate for Occupy Pittsburgh, Black Lives Matter, Environmental Justice, to preserve Roe v Wade, opposition to the US invasions and attacks on Iraq, Gay Rights and more, until her arthritis started inhibiting her mobility.

In recent years she and partner Ginny Hildebrand have thrown themselves into organizing many successful fundraisers for Planned Parenthood, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Humane Animal Rescue League, the Afghan Women’s Fund and the Thomas Merton Center.

Jan ALWAYS voted Democratic and sometimes campaigned for politicians. But she was the best kind of Democratic Party person. She never did nor did she ever urge others to vote, then sit back and rely on politicians, even the most liberal of them. She always sought to work with grass-roots organizations and activist individuals to educate, inspire and mobilize grass-roots people power to uncompromisingly set their demands before the powers that be and pressure them from the OUTSIDE.

On a different note, in 2000 Jan came up with the idea for Ginny (after being a coal miner, Steelworker, machinist and dog groomer) to set up her own shop next door to their Point Breeze home. Jan transformed herself into the first line book-keeper, greeter and scullery maid at Poochini’s. She was an essential member of the eccentric team that has kept this notorious, comical, loving and very successful little dog grooming enterprise romping along for 19 years.

On the occasion of the Thomas Merton Center’s 25th Anniversary, Jan wrote in its monthly publication the New People, “We must unite and fight to sustain the gains that have been made by the hard work of so many activist individuals and organizations who will settle for nothing less than freedom, justice and dignity for every human being.”

Yep, well that’s the love of my life, and it does not include “the rest of the story.”

(Whoever may read this, thank you for your interest, and “don’t mourn, organize.” Ginny hildebrew@aol.com)

This chronology was submitted by Ginny Hildebrand, Jan’s devoted partner.

Categories: News

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