As we reach the midway point in the rollout of our Spring I AM Project, profiling inspiring women in the Goldyn community, we find ourselves speaking with community organizer and activist Janet Heimer. Truth be told, I may be just a teensy bit partial to this woman. She is in fact my mother, after all. But regardless, she is certainly no less deserving of the spotlight, as evidenced perhaps by the fact that next month she’ll be receiving her third achievement award for the work she’s done over her life, and that even after her recent retirement she continues to spend hours volunteering with Boulder nonprofits, visiting elderly friends in the nursing home, and doing what she does best – speaking out for those who can’t always advocate for themselves. She leaves some pretty big shoes to fill, to say the least. Read on below as she and I delve into what makes her tick, including some pretty heart wrenching family history, as well as more on her life’s work, her own taste and style, and of course some obligatory photos of her tiny dog gang.
Goldyn: Tell me a little bit about your career and the work you’ve been doing for the last 25 years or so
Janet: My life’s work has been advocating for the needs of people who are low-income and working with people of color on equity issues. Social justice is my passion. I have been blessed to do the work I love and get paid for it. My job with Boulder County Community Action Programs (CAP) allowed me to focus on advocating for the needs of people who are disenfranchised. Working with staff and community leaders, we were able to address community needs through developing programs at CAP. For instance, In the early 1990’s when migrant farm workers were in Boulder County and living in old chicken coops or broken down trailers, CAP was able to advocate for decent housing. Casa Vista and Casa Esperanza were built in Longmont as a result. We worked on immigration issues and helping people feel comfortable in speaking up and being respected. I have had the honor of working with a wonderful group of community leaders who are people of color. They taught me a lot and together we did make a difference in the community. The last project I worked on before I retired in July was called the Circles Campaign. Circles works with single parents who are wanting to get out of poverty. Their dedication to making their lives and their children’s lives better is impressive. The program crosses social classes by matching two community volunteers with single parents who are low-income. A weekly support group and training are provided to participants. What I like about the program is the participant determines what they want to do and the volunteers support them in the process.
Goldyn: As we can see, social justice, community organizing and advocating for disenfranchised people has been the focus of your career. Where do you think the spark for that came from?
Janet: My Mother was a huge influence in my life. She was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. She brought me with her to demonstrations. We lived in Phoenix, so it wasn’t like I was going through all of what was happening in the South, but we watched it every night on TV and it was horrific! We discussed these things at home and talked about how unjust it was. In the 1970’s I became involved in anti-war protests over the Vietnam War. I have always felt it was important to speak out and let the government know how you feel about things that are happening around you. I am someone who writes letters to the editorial page of newspapers and to our State and Congressional representatives.
The other thing that greatly influenced me was my grandparents having died in a concentration camp. My Father came to this country as an immigrant. My Father and his brother were sent to New York in 1938 to escape the Nazis. My Father was 17 years old at the time. He had grown up in an upper middle class family in Vienna, Austria. He was planning on becoming an attorney like his Father. World War II changed everything. He and his younger brother were sent to live with an Uncle and Aunt in New York City. They didn’t speak English at the time. While their Uncle supported them for a short period of time, they were soon expected to make a living and rent their own apartment. Meanwhile my Father, being the elder son, thought he was responsible for getting his parents to this country. However, the U.S. government in the beginning of World War II was not as interested in helping people escape the Nazis. They didn’t start taking the threat of Germany seriously until a couple of years later. My Father didn’t have the kind of money that was needed to bring his parents here as the Germans took all the money and belongings of Jewish families. His parents only had enough to send the “children” over. When my father got settled in the U.S. and had a job, he started the paper work to bring my Grandparents here. Tragically, the U.S kept losing the paperwork and my Father would have to start over again. My Grandparents moved from city to city and hid from the Germans. They buried their valuables that hadn’t been taken by the Germans and hoped to retrieve them someday. Unfortunately, this never happened. They were captured and sent to a concentration camp. They didn’t survive the camp.
Goldyn: Thank you for sharing that personal history. As a side note, while it’s hard for me to even read these statements without getting emotional, I can see clearly now why you were driven to do what you’ve done. Also, for those of you who may be visiting the Washington D.C. area, the letters between our family members during WWII are on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Hopefully they can help illuminate this tragedy for future generations.
Switching topics though, you definitely have a distinct sense of style. Have you always been that way, or is that something that you grew into over time?
Janet: My sense of style has evolved over the years. The more comfortable I felt with who I was, the bolder I became in what I wore. When I was young, I wanted to blend in. Now, I like things that are a little different. What I really like today in fashion is the asymmetrical look. That look along with bold colors makes me happy.
Goldyn: How would you define your style in a nutshell?
Janet: I don’t really know how I would define my style. My daughter would say my style is “funky.” I am not exactly sure what that means. LOL. She, of course, has great taste!
Goldyn: Ha, thanks mom. How would you say that your work has influenced your style?
Janet: At work I downplayed what I wore. Since I worked with mostly people who were low-income, I dressed more casually. I wouldn’t have felt right wearing some fancy outfit when the people I worked with couldn’t afford it. While I dressed toward the casual side, I was known in the building for my sense of style. Like I said, I like things that are unique in some way.
Goldyn: If you could be anyone at any time, who would your fantasy self be (famous or just made up!) and what would she be doing?
Janet: Annie Oakley. She was a real cowgirl and made a name for herself. When I was growing up in 1950’s, there was a TV show based on her character. She rode a horse and used a rifle and fought for justice. In real life, Annie began trapping at an early age, and shooting and hunting by age eight to support her siblings and her widowed mother. She sold the hunted game to local shopkeepers, who shipped it to hotels in Cincinnati and other cities. Her skill eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm when Annie was 15. She was part of the Buffalo Bill Show in the late 1800’s and became very famous. Her TV character fought outlaws and she always won. I always wanted to be her because she was a strong woman and fought for what was right.
The other thing I would love to be is an artist. I love art and my house is filled with art from local artists. I think it is important to support local talent. Art makes me happy.
Goldyn: What’s your favorite decade and why?
Janet: The 60’s were my favorite decade because things were dramatically changing. We as women felt our power for the first time, as women’s liberation emerged. I loved being part of it. Women stood up for what they believed in and fought to take their power back. We spoke up to the male dominated world and let our voices be heard on many issues. First it was about having the right to choose whether we wanted a child or to keep a pregnancy. The “pill” was manufactured and we had a choice to use birth control that was actually reliable. That was a huge fight on the national level with legislation to protect us. A woman’s place was no longer in the home, we could be whatever we wanted to be. We no longer had to choose between being a nurse or teacher, we could now be a professor or doctor. We were politically involved and our votes really did count.
Goldyn: Any words for girls growing up today about style and being who they are?
Janet: Be true to yourself. Wear what makes you happy and feels good. Don’t be afraid to go against the masses. In fact, I encourage you to go against the masses. Trust your inner knowing. Try not to judge others and if you do, be willing to change your mind. Treat others with the respect that you want to be treated with. Make a difference in the world.