Democracy and labor advocate Genie Kemble, R.I.P.


Democracy and labor activists are mourning the loss of Eugenia (Genie) Kemble, who passed away last evening.

It is with great sorrow that we report the death of Eugenia Kemble, the founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, after a long battle with fallopian tube cancer, Leo Casey writes:

“Genie” Kemble helped to conceive of and launch the institute in 1998, with the support of the late Sandy Feldman, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)…A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Manila, Genie entered the teacher union movement as part of a cohort of young Socialist Party activists who were close to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and deeply involved in the civil rights struggle.

As head of the Free Trade Union Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy’s core labor partner (now known as the Solidarity Center), at the NED’s inception, she became a leading “missionary” for global pluralism as the field of democracy assistance emerged.

“Genie played a critical role in the founding of NED and in leading our labor institute during its first years,” said NED President Carl Gershman. “She believed fervently in democracy and understood that it had to be fought for and defended against its enemies. We mourn her passing and will never forget her seminal contribution.”

Empowered workers

“NED staff certainly felt Genie’s impact in the early years,” said Barbara Haig, NED’s Deputy to the President for Policy and Strategy. “Her principles, tenacity and total commitment to the idea of free and empowered workers around the world made her an important voice within the NED team.”

Beginning as a reporter for the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s New York City local, Kemble became special assistant to Albert Shanker when he was first elected as AFT president in 1974. She managed the union’s Education Research and Dissemination Program (ER&D) and  the AFT’s professional magazine, The American Educator, for a number of years, the Shanker Institute adds:

In 1983, Kemble was named as the AFL-CIO’s representative to the Democracy Program, a coalition effort including the Republican Party, Democratic Party, U.S. Chambers of Commerce, and AFL-CIO, that recommended the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit, Congressionally-funded organization that supports the development of unions, chambers of commerce, political parties and civil society organizations around the world, especially in countries where there are significant efforts to create or preserve struggling political democracies. In 1984 Ms. Kemble was named the Executive Director of the AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute, which supported union efforts involved in democracy building, most notably Solidarity in Poland.

Starting in 1984, under Genie’s leadership, the institute served as a conduit for NED assistance to Solidarity, working in tandem with AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland and his assistant Tom Kahn, the director of the Polish Workers Aid Fund. The initiative was a significant assertion of union autonomy, refuting suggestions that labor’s democracy assistance was government-directed. According to one observer, labor “brushed off all external attempts to impose organizational restrictions on such funding, determining whom they would help and how.”

Genie embraced the AFT’s commitment to promoting public education, representative unionism, and political democracy, lauding the union’s “open organizational culture” and “high ethical principles.”

“I was lucky enough to have grown up in an organizational culture guided by these values and practices, at a time when the AFT was small and everyone in it embraced or absorbed them early on,” she said on her retirement.

Like her mentor Shanker, Genie was a committed Social Democrat, identifying with the anti-communist Left, represented by such luminaries as Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and George Orwell.

“Al’s big contribution was in constantly keeping a very highly tuned beam of what Communism was all about,” she told Freedom House analyst Arch Puddington: repression of human rights, of free speech, of intellectual freedom, and of trade unionism.

Genie was also a staunch advocate of “muscular liberalism” in domestic as well as foreign policy.

“I believe there is still a place in American union and political life for ‘tough liberalism’ but enlarging its impact will involve us trying much harder,” she wrote for Dissent, in a review of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy by Richard Kahlenberg.

Throughout her career, she was dedicated to promoting issues at the intersection of education, labor, and democracy, most recently through her engagement with Friends of China Labour Bulletin – a Hong Kong-based NGO founded in 1994 by labor activist Han Dongfang to promote labor rights in China – and the Foundation for Democratic Education (FDE).

Through the FDE, Genie helped establish the NED’s Penn Kemble Forum on Democracy in honor of her late brother, a similarly committed democracy advocate, who passed away in 2005. The forum, which identifies and orients emerging leaders in addition to promoting bipartisan conversation about democracy, has just entered its fifth year of operation.

“For the Social Democrat, democracy is not merely a political concept but a moral one,” said Sidney Hook. “It is democracy as a way of life” – as personified by Genie Kemble.

Expressions of sympathy and condolences can be sent to Genie’s family at:

The Family of Eugenia Kemble

c/o Shenny Kemble Loiselle

307 Elise Court

Woodstock, VA  22664

Tax-deductible contributions in Eugenia Kemble’s name can be made to:

The Albert Shanker Institute

555 New Jersey Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20001

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