HOTSEAT- Ehren-rights: Activist's work is never done

Barbara Ehrenreich had to cancel an interview because she's dashing off to a rally of striking grad students at NYU who want union recognition. "That battle has been going on for decades," she says.

Before that protest, she jetted down to Florida on April 30 for the janitors' strike at the University of Miami. And closer to home, of course, she supported the UVA sit-in by the Living Wage "17," speaking at a rally in Newcomb Hall on April 17.

"It's exciting to go where there's some action," says the author of Nickel and Dimed, the best-selling book she researched by earning an un-living wage working at Wal-Mart, as a maid, and as a hotel housekeeper.

To this day, she avoids shopping at Wal-Mart.

Ehrenreich studied physics as an undergraduate at Reed College. The Vietnam War was going on, and along the way to earning a PhD in cell biology, she became involved in the anti-war movement.

"Rather than be a research scientist, I wanted to be socially relevant," she says. In grad school, she worked on a newsletter for a group fighting healthcare inequality and discovered she was good at investigative journalism.

Now, in 13 books and countless contributions to the most influential periodicals in the country– Time, Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, the Hook [Essay, "Times a-changin': UVA students see poverty's reach, April 27, 2006]– Ehrenreich has made a career of fighting for social justice– and writing about it.

"I think a lot of it had to do with my family," she says. "We had come from lowly origins."
Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, a city she describes as a "rough, brawling place," where her father was a copper miner.

"My father's is a remarkable story of upward mobility," she says. "He became a metallurgist and then a corporate executive. I'd seen all the social classes passing by."

Her own activist/writer genes apparently passed to her offspring. Her son is a freelance writer in Los Angeles who just published a novel. Daughter Rosa Brooks, a law professor at UVA and columnist for the L.A. Times, is moving this summer to work at George Soros' Open Society Institute in Manhattan.

"I think they probably could see I enjoyed what I was doing," she says. "It was a bumpy road for them financially growing up, with me being a freelancer and single mom."
Ehrenreich has a new book in the works that has nothing to do with exploitation of the worker a` la Nickel and Dimed or Bait and Switch, her 2005 book on the near impossibility of a middle-aged, white collar worker finding a job.

It's related to her 1991 Blood Rites: Origins in History in the Passions of War. She's calling it Dancing in the Streets, about the brighter side of the collective excitement found in festivals and ecstatic rituals rather than that in wars and lynchings. Exploring history and neuroscience, the book draws on "my other life as an amateur scholar," she says.
Ehrenreich is leaving Charlottesville and moving to New Rochelle, New York, not so much to be closer to the NYU grad students as to follow her daughter's household. "I'm just part of a caravan," she says.

She leaves an indelible memory: Ehrenreich was the keynote speaker for a Junior League $85-a-head fundraiser at Farmington Country Club earlier this year. The largely immigrant wait staff got to hear her speak about low wages as they cleared tables and served dessert– and they didn't have to pay $85.

Age: 64

Why here? To be near my radiant little granddaughters

What's worst about living here? People are so damn nice. Is that a southern thing?

Favorite hangout? ACAC

Most overrated virtue?
Im not aware of any virtues.

People would be surprised to know:
How strong I am (see above reference to ACAC)

What would you change about yourself?
Id be multilingual, instead of English-only.

Proudest accomplishment?
My family, especially my brilliant children!

People find most annoying about you:
I dont know; they havent mentioned it.

Whom do you admire?
Joe Szakos with the Virginia Organizing Project

Favorite book?
How can anyone have one favorite book? The best novels Ive read in the last few months are my sons (The Suitors by Ben Ehrenreich) and Atomik Aztex by Seshu Foster anarchist-inflected fiction that will knock your socks off.

Subject that causes you to rant?
Poverty, low wages, sexism, racism, homophobia, war, environmental destruction, religious intolerance, stupidity, greed

What do you drive?
A '97 Subaru containing two child seats

In your car CD player right now:
A CD my son put together for me, containing Moby, Springsteen, and the amazing Ethiopian jazz singer, Mahmoud Ahmed, among many others

Next journey?
To Connecticut to pick up an honorary degree from UConn Storrs

Most trouble youve ever gotten in?
Breast cancer

Not learning Spanish

Favorite comfort food:
I don't know if I derive comfort from food. [As she says this, she's drinking her own concoction of cucumbers, buttermilk, garlic, and ginger tossed in a blender.]

Always in your refrigerator:
Especially in summer, Hop Devil IPA- the only beer that bites back

Must-see TV:
Little bytes of CNN throughout the day

Favorite cartoon:
Anything by Tom Tomorrow, my political guru

Describe a perfect day.
Last summer kayaking in Colorado. We didn't realize it was white-water kayaking until they gave us helmets. It was a near-death experience.

Walter Mitty fantasy:
Scuba diving in the Caribbean or on the coast of Australia where there are surviving reefs

Whod play you in the movie?
There have been three different Barbara actors in Nickel and Dimed, the play written by Joan Holden.

Best advice you ever got?
I don't remember any.

Favorite bumper sticker?
I go for the anti-Bush stickers– "Cancel W." [Circle/slash/W]

Barbara Ehrenreich