Honoring Marge Tabankin: A Lifetime Fueling the Progressive Movement

Isaiah J. Poole

Pull back the curtain of many of the key moments of progressive history over the better part of the last five decades and you will find Marge Tabankin, encouraging, supporting and agitating.

It’s something that comes naturally to her. In an interview she did last year for the Activist Video Archive, she said, “I do not remember a moment of my being where I didn’t think about so-and-so not being equal, and not having as much as I did.”

It was that spirit that drove her interest in the issues of poverty and race in Newark N.J.; her participation in protests against the Vietnam War (and her later visit to North Vietnam); her leadership of VISTA, the federal volunteer and social service agency that was created in the Johnson administration; and her extensive work in support of progressive political candidates and activist organizations – all in the name of social and economic justice.

Next week, her accomplishments and the spirit that drove those accomplishments will be recognized when Tabankin receives the Campaign for America’s Future 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award. She will receive that award November 6 at the Campaign for America’s Future Awards Gala in Washington D.C. (A limited number of tickets are still available for the event, which is being held at the Arena State in the city’s Southwest waterfront area.)

Tabankin says the spark that got her into progressive politics was a speech she heard by Tom Hayden, who at the time was president of Students for a Democratic Society, when she was just 15. When she heard Hayden talk about forging what came to be known later as the “new left,” she said she was captivated by the possibility that this is something that she could dedicate herself to. “I can’t believe that you can grow up and be this, that you can do this with your life,” she said in her Activist Video Archive interview. “You don’t have to be a nurse or a secretary or a teacher. You can actually do this. … He had an absolutely profound effect on me.”

That encounter started a journey that included a trip to North Vietnam, where she saw the effects of the war firsthand on both the Vietnamese and on American soldiers. The trip grew out of her leading role in protests against the Vietnam War while she was a student at the University of Wisconsin.

Though she at one point phoned in a story to The New York Times about a campus antiwar protest and though she worked with a documentary crew during her North Vietnam trip, it was clear to her that, as she said in a National Journal interview, “I cannot be an observer. I want to be a part of things.”

That is why she ended up being one of the first women to graduate from Saul Alinsky’s institute for community organizers in Chicago, after a stint being the first woman to head the National Student Association, and then threw herself into social justice work.

She got an excellent opportunity to advance her passions from inside the federal government when she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the head of VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America. Under Tabankin, the agency helped support a network of grassroots organizations around the country that fought on behalf of the most vulnerable, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Midwest Academy, a training ground for progressive grassroots activists.

After she left VISTA, she joined the Arca Foundation, where she continued her work to support the progressive infrastructure for the social justice fights she dedicated her life to winning. In 1988, she went to California and became the director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, a critical source of funding for such progressive candidates as California Sen. Barbara Boxer. After the political committee folded, Tabankin continued her philanthropic work through the Barbara Streisand foundation and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Tabankin continues to be a source of strategic thinking and energy as well as material support. She is the kind of unsung hero that the Campaign for America’s Future has developed a tradition of singling out for special recognition at its annual galas. This time, it’s Marge Tabankin’s turn to hear the progressive community give her an overdue “thank you” for a lifetime of activism for a more just and equitable society.


Hear an audio segment on Marge Tabankin produced for the Progressive Voices channel on TuneIn.

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